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Revelation of Arcadia

posted on December 19th, 2007 by chris

It’s not often that a single game has changed my outlook on games so much – especially in the RPG genre, which seems to see only occasional innovation. Usually it’s in the form of a plot twist here or a stylistic change there that is incorporated into a group of cliches. While some carry an idea out a bit better, and a cliche-filled game can still be a lot of fun, many games feel like a string of cliches in a different order with a new battle system.

For a long time, I really thought I didn’t care much. Oh, the first Persona was neat and all, and the Suikoden series’ focus on larger events was cool, but it was the nifty, well-done battle systems that I convinced myself I really enjoyed the most. As a strategy lover, I wanted a game to challenge me, rather than tell me some silly little story when most novels are far better anyway. To summarize, a good battle system will make a solid game regardless of the story, but a good story can’t stand on its own.

Recently I played through Persona 3, which made me think a bit more about how important stories for games can be. Near the end, I was getting sort of tired of the battle system – 60 hours is a long time to be beating enemies the same old way. But the story kept me going.

Then I played through Wild Arms 5. Despite an enjoyable enough battle system with good difficulty, I really lost motivation a little more than halfway through – suddenly the tatters of a story that are in the game didn’t matter to me anymore. The story is, to put it simply, just about everything that is wrong with the JRPG genre – in the end none of the villains were truly evil except Kartikeya. And Kartikeya killed himself to conveniently prevent Greg from having to do so. And why did our heroes win? Because they never gave up. You know, unlike all the hundreds of other losers who tried doing the same thing. Or maybe they won because they were kids who had vaguely mystical powers and an annoying catchphrase.

After WA5, I knew I needed a good game to get me back into the genre. I received a few recommendations for Skies of Arcadia Legends and set to work, and I loved it. There were a few times I played it over Super Mario Galaxy, which is saying something. And yet… something was wrong. I didn’t like the battle system, but I kept playing anyway. The voice acting was mostly pretty bad (when it was coherent), you got only the vaguest directions on places to go, and the music (while good) was not particularly memorable. The game’s sky-based setting really made it amazing. The exploration and a few of the characters made things especially fun, putting this game among the best I’ve ever played. Without a good battle system.

I think a lot of games can learn a lesson from Skies. It creates an entire world and populates it with all kinds of interesting people to talk to and places to explore – and that alone can make a game enjoyable. Wild Arms 3 is at least somewhat inspired by Skies, and some other games have bits and pieces of it, but I have seen no games take this idea and run with it quite as well.

A novel can give you a good idea of what a world is like, but it can’t show it to you while you gaze on in amazement. This is, I think, one of the new frontiers that video games can cross – give us a fully-crafted world to explore and we’ll be at it for days. Dwarves, elves and hobbits are all well and good, but they aren’t necessary. Give us interesting cultures, different civilizations, long-abandoned temples and make us feel like we’re a part of it all. Skies shows it’s possible to breathe a good semblance of life into a world – now I’m just waiting for a game that follows up on it.

4 Comments

  1. christian said on December 19, 2007:

    My good man, you have tripped upon the key of Skies of Arcadia. It is a long string of RPG cliches, and yet somehow it manages to be very, very good. No one has found a good explanation as for why, other than that the game has soul and charm where others feel designed by numbers. If more people could channel this feeling, we could have some very amazing games.

    Yeah, simply my favorite jRPG of all time.

  2. jay said on December 19, 2007:

    I think some of it’s ability to rise above cliche via cliche comes from its absolute acceptance that it is a simple, good versus bad guys story. In a world of Final Fantasy pretension Skies never tries to hard.

    You guys should play Panzer Dragoon Saga. The world is nowhere near as large and it’s more linear when you travel, but it evokes many of the same feelings as Skies. Open air acts as your highways from the very beginning of the game and it oozes atmosphere. The battle system being possibly the most fun RPG system I’ve encountered is, oddly enough, only icing on the cake.

  3. Stefan said on December 20, 2007:

    I think you really hit on what makes Skies enjoyable. It’s a world I want to live in and adventure in, and skies lets me do that with a minimum of fuss and muss. What’s more, it lets me do it in style. While the person-to-person combat downright sucks, I really loved the airship combat. It really captures an epic feel as the ships swoop at each other, maneuver for position, and unleash broadsides and torpedoes. And you have your own airship from the start of the game, which provides instant gratification. Later on, when you get to set up your own pirate base on a floating island, it’s offering you the chance to live out what I’d imagine most of us did as children – design elaborate bases and teams of heroes. The whole game is a series of childhood fantasies being fulfilled in an epic and thoroughly satisfying way, from exploring uncharted lands in a flying pirate ship to breaking into an evil city and rescuing the princess.

  4. shota said on December 20, 2007:

    RE: “A novel can give you a good idea of what a world is like, but it can’t show it to you while you gaze on in amazement.”

    I hate to nitpick, especially since Skies is indeed a fantastic game; and I enjoyed watching Jay play every second of it. But I must disagree with the idea of the superiority of the image over the word that the above quoted sentence alludes to.

    “A picture is worth a thousand words” is the biggest crock of shit…like most sayings, actually.

    You could actually argue the reverse. And you could easily argue for their equality.

    Personally, I almost always find a good book more atmospheric than a good movie or a good video game.

    But in the end it’s all about the narrative. And the reason that we can’t claim the image as superior to the word is because narrative is the over arching element of both. Narrative transcends form is what I’m saying.

    I always get weary when someone claims that a particular genre or medium, be it film or videogames is unique. No medium is unique and narrative is the reason why.

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