The swashbuckling adventure story was a popular genre back in the day of pulp serial novels and early film. Noble adventurers facing down the nefarious wiles of a dastardly villain. Treasure filled voyages on the high seas while contending with devilish pirates and fiendish rogues.
Video games haven’t really been able to capture that kind of optimistic and chivalrous adventure, but there was at least one game that stood out from its gloomier, darker contemporaries.
Back in 2000, Sega released Skies of Arcadia for the then slowly declining Dreamcast console. Developed by Overworks, it launched to critical praise, but had poor sales. A directors’s cut version, called Skies of Arcadia Legends, was released for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2002.
It was a game with some familiar elements like a turn-based battle system and traditional level mechanics popular at the time. Though it had some genuinely unique features. And airships, lots and lots of airships.
The gameplay wasn’t anything exceptional, though it worked well for what it set out to do. The main mode of transportation in the game were airships. Using these to navigate the world, players sought out towns and dungeons while following a vast story.
Combat was a turn-based affair, with the order of attack being based around stats and special skills. There were some flashy super-moves, but it was a bog standard affair as far as on the ground battles were concerned.
The real fun wrinkle to the combat came in the form of Airship Battles. While still turn-based, these skirmishes had the player choose actions on a grid to evade, defend, or launch attacks on their enemy. This system allowed for some incredibly damaging combos and super moves. One super move involved a massive drill-harpoon cannon boring into an enemy ship, nearly always destroying the target.
While the gameplay was fun, the true success of the game was the story and the setting.
Skies aims to take the player on a grand adventure around the world of Arcadia. A world of floating continents and a sea of clouds to sail, with ancient legends and lost cities, swarthy sky pirates and evil empires.
It’s the kind of daring adventure story that isn’t really told anymore. A Robin Hood tale about a band of rogues setting out to right wrongs and steal from the rich, an adventure that eventually brings them into a struggle for the fate of their world.
The story begins with two dashing young sky pirates raiding a flying battleship belonging to the evil Valuan empire. Vyse, the eager and adventurous young man (and player character) with his best friend Aika, a plucky and strong-willed young woman, succeed in their raid and recover a mysterious piece of cargo: a captive and mysterious young woman named Fina.
Through her rescue, the two rogues learn about the empire’s machinations to recover the 6 moon crystals. Ancient objects of immense power that can control massive eldritch bio-mechanical creatures that ravaged the world in eons past.
This all leads to a globe-hopping race against time to recover the crystals that stretches across scorching desert lands, lost jungle civilizations, frozen hanging cities, and even a long forgotten sunken continent deep below the clouds. Each continent under the light of one of the six moons.
The plot isn’t anything new as far as adventure plots go. The “get this many things to prevent the other thing” plot has been around for a long time. What Skies does differently, at least compared to it’s contemporaries like Square’s Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, is inject the whole game with a sense of genuine heart and optimism.
There’s definitely moments of darkness throughout the story. The evil empire enslaves a nation of natives to work in a mine, a capital city is burned to the ground under the guise of peace talks, and one of the characters introduced later in the story is quietly motivated by the tragic loss of a child.
The game acknowledges these dark moments by constantly reminding the player that they can overcome any obstacle with determination and by always relying on allies to pick you up.
Throughout the story the principal cast is introduced to a variety of characters. From the stoic and seemingly cold Drachma, to the womanizing and wealth-chasing Gilder, to the estranged Valuan prince and heir the evil empire, Enrique, that only wants to change his nation to a better and more peaceful place.
Like most good stories, the characters all grow and learn from their experiences. Drachma opens up about his past, and confronts his demons head on. Gilder calms down his lifestyle and opens up to the woman that has been pursuing him for years, and Enrique learns what it means to be a true leader.
Even Fina, while selfless and kind, goes through a radical change throughout the story. She starts off not unlike a lost kitten. Timid and unsure, but through the actions of her new friends she finds a kind of courage that is admirable. It’s through her past that the story was even able to start, as she realizes that she must face the darkness of a selfish past to save the world.
Both Vyse and Aika change as well. As the game goes on, the two friends eventually learn that they can achieve anything with each other’s help and guidance. They literally see the world and the grow up, becoming admirable people worthy of the titles they earn.
Vyse is an eternal optimist. He might initially seem like a gallivanting dork with his “Pirate’s code” and unflinching loyalty to his friends and his cause, but that’s what makes him so special. The game even tasks the player with making dialogue choices that raise Vyse’s “Swashbuckler Rating.” Starting from the lowly “Vyse the Unimpressive” all the way to “Vyse the Legend,” the player’s actions as the young pirate dictate the way some characters perceive him. Answer a call to action in a cowardly way and the game calls the player out. Rise to the call of adventure and the results are self-evident.
Aika is headstrong and eager to prove herself. While she doesn’t get the narrative depth of Fina, she still is an important factor in the story. She often hides her feelings, but will always love and care for her friends. But it’s when she is separated from Vyse that her character is actually allowed to grow.
There’s a section about halfway through the story that sees the principal cast split up. Vyse finds himself marooned on a small island among the clouds with no idea of where he is, or where his friends are. Meanwhile, Aika and Fina have an adventure of their own. Both sides never give up hope and both press on to eventually meet up in a surprising way.
Through adversity and danger, the cast fight through to the end, their legend growing in a frantic crescendo that has an thrilling finale to cap off the entire adventure. Some serious world changing events transpire, but they charge along nonetheless, never backing down from the next challenge. It’s admirable and inspiring in a way media just isn’t anymore.
The tone isn’t too dissimilar to another pirate themed property that got popular around the same time: Eiichiro Oda and Shonen Jump’s manga/anime One Piece. The current of optimism is felt in both tales and it’s more than a little likely that Overworks was influenced to some degree by Oda’s work on the series. They both feature pirates, interesting characters and wild adventure. That is just conjecture and speculation however.
Skies isn’t interested in telling a story about the darkness of humanity, or the evils of religion. It tells an older and more positive story. One of optimism and adventure that holds up well today. It’s a welcome reprieve from the dark tales that are told now.
Header image credit, Sega, Overworks