If there's one vital service which the GameCube is providing to gamers all over the world, it's the highly commendable job it's doing of bringing the Dreamcast back catalogue to a wider audience. From the likes of Sonic Adventures to the ultra-hardcore Ikaruga, the system is gradually removing all the reasons you might have had for calling your Dreamcast back into active service under the TV - and with the arrival of Skies of Arcadia Legends, one of the best RPGs the DC saw in its short lifespan, the catalogue of top-notch DC software on your Cube has grown yet again.
Like most of the excellent Dreamcast games that owners of the system wax lyrical about, Skies of Arcadia was tragically overlooked when it arrived on Sega's console, so we're very glad that development studio Overworks has been tasked with tidying it up and brushing off some of the cobwebs for a fresh appearance on the GameCube. The question really is, can Skies of Arcadia Legends - essentially a three-year-old game - compete with modern RPGs, and is the lick of paint Overworks have given it really sufficient on a next generation machine?
Yo ho ho, bottles of rum, and all that
The world of Skies of Arcadia is a rather unusual one, consisting entirely of islands floating in mid-air - without a nice solid planet surface in sight. Between these islands, various types of flying boats ply their trade, and where there are boats, there are pirates - which is exactly what you play in the game, with our lead character being a pirate named Vyse. Young Vyse is the son of a ship's captain in the Blue Rogues, a group of pirates who effectively follow the Robin Hood philosophy of robbing from the rich to help the needy, and only attack armed transports belonging to the rather unpleasant Valuan Empire.
The game gets off to a running start, with a nod of the head to Star Wars as a massive Valuan cruiser runs down a small ship carrying a beautiful princess. But within a few minutes of play, the Valuan cruiser itself is attacked and boarded by the Blue Rogues, the slimy Valuan commander escapes by the skin of his teeth, the princess is rescued and we've acquired a big stack of treasure. The tone for the rest of the game is set; this isn't an RPG where horrific things happen as plot catalysts, and Vyse is far from the angsty stereotypical RPG lead character. Everyone is resolutely cheerful and brash, the villains are straight out of pantomime (albeit suitably threatening), the world is bright and airy, and even when bad things happen, our heroes are utterly confident in their own ability to set them right.
That's a significant part of the charm of Skies of Arcadia in a nutshell - it's impossible not to like the characters (especially after seeing Vyse and Aika perform their unintentionally hilarious and over the top victory dance), and if you don't crack a smile at Vyse's arrogance and exuberance, you need to stop taking so much Valium. This feels less like Final Fantasy and more like Legend of Zelda - a comparison which will quite probably keep coming back to you as you play.
Walk the plank!
The gameplay of Skies of Arcadia will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played a Japanese RPG before, and it's very traditional indeed in some ways - turn based battles, dungeons full of chaining puzzles... And what traditional RPG is complete without random encounters? Yes, Skies has random encounters, which certainly feels like a step backwards these days, but thankfully the rate of encounters has been toned down very significantly since the Dreamcast version - which many people criticised for making dungeons impossible by forcing you to play through random battles every four or five steps.
The battle system itself is enjoyable enough in places, and it allows your characters to run around the combat area freely rather than just lining up allies and enemies against each other, which makes for a more interesting game than most. The game also gives your characters a shared pool of Spirit Points to draw from in battle (these allow you to perform magic and special moves), which adds an interesting tactical element to the encounters, as it can often be worthwhile using one character exclusively to "Focus" in boss battles and thus recharge the SP gauge so more powerful characters can use special attacks more often.
Sadly, there are some problems with the battle system as well, which can make the game frustrating at times, particularly when it comes to random battles as opposed to boss battles. Firstly, the game has a bad habit of throwing a lot of weaker enemies at you instead of small numbers of more powerful enemies, which makes for boring and predictable battles in which your characters are in no real danger, but the battle takes several minutes regardless. Secondly, battles are unnecessarily drawn out affairs due to the length of some of the animations used, and the inexplicable pause between character moves. These are relatively minor niggles, however, and although the battle system isn't as outright enjoyable as something like Final Fantasy X, it's still perfectly competent and well-balanced.
Outside of the standard battle system and dungeons full of relatively simple puzzles, the game does have a couple of extra ways to keep you entertained - most notably the ship to ship battles which pop up occasionally throughout the game. These are a welcome change from normal battles, and involve you taking your ship up against an enemy ship - often with vastly superior hit points and weaponry. These battles are tactical affairs which force you to plan several moves ahead, and although most of them boil down to wars of attrition, it can be very satisfying to pull off a sequence of moves that decimates an enemy warship while leaving your ship unscathed.
As well as these battles, it becomes possible later in the game to establish your own pirate base and recruit crew members for your ship, which is an entertaining diversion, while the GameCube edition of the game also includes a couple of extra side quests, such as the mysterious pirate bounty hunter called the Angel of Death who chases you around the game, the strange little girl who wants you to find Moonfish to feed her odd pet, and the Black Pirates with bounties on their heads whom you can hunt down for the sailors guild. It's certainly not enough extra content to warrant playing through again if you've already got the Dreamcast version, but it's welcome nonetheless and fleshes out the GameCube edition nicely.
Sadly, this extra content isn't matched by any attention to the graphics of the game at all, and this is where the title really shows its age. Skies of Arcadia looked excellent on the Dreamcast in 2000 - on the GameCube in 2003, it simply looks old, with angular, low-polygon characters, poor draw distance in the world map (arguably a deliberate feature, but it looks bad nonetheless) and special effects for spells and attacks which simply look awful. It's a bit of a shame that more effort wasn't put into tarting up the graphics of the game, since the actual artwork and style of the title are fantastic, but many people may be put off by the distinctly retro feel of the graphics engine itself.
In terms of audio, the music is superb - a collection of original themes which found us once again thinking of Legend of Zelda for some reason, and which capture the exuberance of the game and the exploration motif perfectly. We'd like to be able to say the same for the voice acting, but sadly we can't - the voices in the game are thankfully relegated to occasional utterances (a bit like Zelda again) rather than actual speeches, and it's just as well since most of the acting is truly dire. It would be harsh to claim that this detracts from the game, though - it doesn't really, it just grates occasionally when Vyse opens his mouth and you wish he hadn't bothered.
Port Out, Starboard Home!
If you're looking for an enjoyable but fairly traditional RPG with a cracking storyline and likeable characters, Skies of Arcadia Legends comes about as highly recommended as any game can. Fans of the Final Fantasy games might find it a little primitive, and if you don't like Japanese style RPGs, this is quite distinctly not for you. It's great to see wonderful but under-rated games like this given a new lease of life on the Cube - but it's a bit sad that it's such a wasted opportunity, in ways. Given a fresh coat of digital paint on the graphics and a little tweaking of the battle system, this would stand up right alongside the best RPGs ever released over here. As it is, it's a pleasant diversion (and should last you about 60 hours of playtime!) but it falls just short of true greatness.