Nearly ten years ago, Skies of Arcadia completely changed the way I viewed video games. What I once saw as a passive medium, where I followed a trail of bread crumbs from point to point to see what the developers had in store for me, I now saw something greater.
Arcadia drew me into its world in a way no game has before or since with colorful characters, beautiful locales, and a sense of adventure that the game not only emphasizes, but cherishes. Even today, when I come back to the game after having experienced the likes of Oblivion, Mass Effect, and Skyrim, I still get a feeling of adventure that no other game seems able to provide in quite the same way. Naturally, there are some spoilers ahead, so if you’d prefer to go into this game ignorant, don’t read any further!
It’s pretty weird to think about how far Japanese RPGs have fallen. Ten years ago, the JRPG was considered one of the essential genres any console needed if it wanted to grow a large userbase. They were the PS2’s bread and butter, one of the essential ingredients that helped make it the most successful home console of all time. These days, the genre seems to do nothing but struggle outside of the handheld market, while western RPGs like Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Borderlands, and The Witcher sell millions.
Many blame the JRPG’s lack of freedom and adherence to outdated game play traditions as reasons for the genre’s collapse. Advancements in technology have allowed western RPGs to become fully realized role playing experiences the likes of which were never really possible before. In many of these games you can literally be whatever you want. Do you want to be an elderly giant lizard woman who rises through the ranks of a thieves guild? Skyrim has you covered. A psychopathic, freakish-looking dude with an extremely wide face who enjoys punching reporters? Go play some Mass Effect. Oblivion has an entire gladiator subquest that’s as long as many games.
You can go where you want, do what you want, and be what you want. So how can Skies of Arcadia continue to hold such a unique feeling of adventure to me, in a way no other game from its era has been able to, in the face of games that offer so much more freedom? Well, it’s simple really: Arcadia made the act of exploring a plot point and a game mechanic. These western RPGs throw you into these massive, boundless worlds, but for all their size and scope there is often very little to them. They are large, but filled out mostly with the same mountains, trees, rocks, and ruins over and over again. Adventures are often directed with simple arrows that tell you exactly what cave you need to go into and exactly what item you need to interact with.
Skyrim is a world that has already been explored, its various regions are already connected, and only its deepest, darkest dungeons hold any mystery for anyone. I am rarely left with a sense that I am embarking on an epic adventure into the great unknown, simply because there is no great unknown in these games.
In Arcadia, exploring the unknown is a huge part of the adventure. At the start of the game you begin with a mostly-empty map zoomed in to make the world seem fairly small. By keeping the size of the map small and the number of known continents and regions down to a handful, Arcadia cleverly hid its scope so that when the game did begin to open up new regions players wouldn’t know what to expect. As the game continues, the map not only becomes filled in, but it grows significantly.
When I first played Skies, the game seemed endless because of this. No matter how much I played, the world just continued to expand. Even knowing the number of in-game macguffins I needed, the game’s ever-increasing scope never ceased to amaze me.
Arcadia also features numerous “discoveries” for the player to find. Dozens of landmarks, places and animals are shrouded in mystery, with only rumors and cryptic clues telling the player where they might be found. Some land marks can be found easily or by accident. Others are incredibly difficult to find, due to their habit of moving around the world or looking like something mundane from a distance.
Coming across these discoveries was always one of the more rewarding aspects of Arcadia for me. Hunting down a discovery without resorting to an online guide provided a nice distraction in the middle of a trip or between adventures. The biggest surprises came from finding weird, hard to find discoveries such as Arcadia Legend’s elusive Sky Train. Each and every discovery added to the feeling that Arcadia’s world was alive, with a mysterious history just begging to be uncovered.
Arcadia does feature a typical “save the world from an evil empire” plotline, but for Vyse and his crew this quest is almost just a good excuse to fly headlong into dangerous skies and discover new lands. All of the characters are excited about seeing and accomplishing new things. Vyse is proud about accomplishments like circumnavigating the world, and spends the entire game constantly looking for the next amazing thing he can do. Aika fantasizes about what these exotic continents will be like, imagining absurd situations and people. Fina just enjoys seeing the world at large for the first time, after spending much of her life isolated from the world. The protagonists of Arcadia embrace the adventure their world provides in a way few others have in other games I’ve played.
RPGs have come a long way since 2000, but Arcadia’s take on exploration has helped make it a timeless gaming experience. Flying around the world of Arcadia remains far more interesting than Mass Effect’s star map or Skyrim’s endless trees, fields and mountains. Though it features the linear, plot-centric role playing that JRPGs are known for, it tackles it in a way that never makes you feel like you’re being rail-roaded.
Most JRPGs tend to sacrifice freedom for a good, focused plot. Most WRPGs tend to sacrifice the quality of their plots and characters for freedom and choice. There are some great exceptions in both genres. I don’t mean to tear down the great work done by developers like BioWare, Monolith Soft, Bethesda, and Atlus just to prop up Skies of Arcadia. I’ve loved games made by all of these developers, but I’ve never played a game that manages to balance exploration, plot, and freedom in quite the way Arcadia has. This is why I think Skies of Arcadia not only remains a great game, but remains one of the best RPGs ever made. It is certainly the best one I’ve ever played.