Nothing puts me off returning to Eternal Arcadia – a title I’m sure I last played from start to finish when it was the sort of thing us ever-thinning ranks of Sega hardware enthusiasts could casually purchase new in any old local game shop – quite like being told it’s the best RPG on the Dreamcast. That sort of praise sounds a lot like calling me the most fashionable person currently sitting on a chair in my house: It’s all technically true, but it doesn’t really mean anything if there’s nobody else in here, does it? And what sort of competition did Arcadia have to fend off anyway? A Grandia that’s not half as charming as the first one? A game that on any other system would be a forgotten C-tier RPG? Elemental Gimmick Gear? Time Stalkers? Even if we limber up for some Olympic-grade mental gymnastics and declare all releases on the system with the slightest whiff of a stat system or dialogue box to be just as much of an RPG as anything filled with dungeons and dragons, or that tracking down and then playing through all seven of El Dorado Gate‘s GD-ROMs is an effortless task (I’ve managed to track down the first four and now I can’t decide if I should wait and tackle them all in one go, or play what I’ve got and risk turning what should be an enthusiasm-boosting exercise into a desperate search), we still end up looking at a very small selection of games – and fewer still that are in any danger of making Overworks’ sky-pirate adventure feel as though it’s truly earned its top spot.
And there’s another problem: After all this time what I could remember of Eternal Arcadia amounted to nothing more than vast quantities of time-sapping random battles and thinly-disguised bootleg mockeries of various real-world places and cultures portrayed with all the nuance and respect of a tat-filled gift shop stationed in a prime tourist trap. “It’s ridiculous!” I’d say, burning with the faultless confidence of someone who had no real interest in actually thinking about the words spewing from their fingertips and out into the digital void, “Overworks made a game all about exploration and then totally destroyed the mood with waaaay too many pointless battles, completely ruining what was supposed to be Arcadia’s defining feature! We can even prove they knew they’d mess this up – that’s why the GameCube port changed the encounter rate!”. Ooh, hark at me! Wasn’t I a smart one?
I was not a smart one.
The reality is you’re not whisked away to battle half as often as I thought you were and the frequency of these encounters as well as the whirly “Hang on a minute while we load everything up” camera angles that go with them aren’t anywhere near as intrusive as I believed them to be. Less would definitely be better, and there are times when you’ll blink and find yourself back in another fight you can brainlessly Alpha STOOOOOOOOOOOORM (and later, Lambda Burst) your way out of, but the fact is walking (and flying) around isn’t the 8-bit nightmare I’ve spent years telling myself it was. Sadly I wasn’t as far off the mark on the cultural stereotyping point as I’d have liked to be, but at least we can tenuously cling on to the fact that Arcadia’s brand of warmongering European-equivalent nobility are by and large portrayed as an opulent evil empire more than happy to crush any “lesser” people that get in their way.
And that’s all I could remember: It was the best RPG on a console with next to no RPGs, battles happened too often, and it treated foreign lands like theme parks. Oof, as cooler people than I might say. It took all of five minutes for me to realise I’d forgotten all the things Eternal Arcadia does so well, and how those elements work together to perfectly capture the sheer joy of sailing off into the sunset on your very own pirate-y adventure.
It all begins in the enormous seventy page manual, a detailed full-colour tome that goes to great lengths to cover not only the usual bits and pieces – basic controls, general battle mechanics, and a few sentences of background information on the main cast – but also their allies, enemies, and even the skyswept world they inhabit, multiple moons and all. It actually brought another game to mind – Panzer Dragoon Saga (and this is true even if you ignore the vague parallels between their fantastical battle-transportation and destructive ancient civilisations); both of them feel like places where the world is as much of a character as anyone living in it.
The game seamlessly carries on this tantalising train of thought, presenting a world eager to encourage you live and breathe the spirit of exploration in every moment – flying ships with their sails fluttering in the breeze crewed by a colourful band of friends set against a backdrop of fluffy clouds and floating islands in a sky that stretches into forever, cheerfully loyal allies off to find ancient ruins, lost treasures, and stuck-up people to forcibly liberate of their material goods. The young main cast exude a special kind of energy, keen to see (and where possible, steal) all the world’s valuables for themselves, to eagerly set sail for places only mentioned in legends and stage daring rescues within a Sega-blue sky filled with waterfalls that endlessly cascade into the clouds below, literal flying fish (and whales), and twisting columns of wind reaching from sky to sky. Vyse and Aika’s passion for people is no less intense: They think nothing of immediately becoming close friends and spilling all their secrets to mysterious new girl Fina, a person they risked their lives for just because you’re supposed to rescue people who’ve been captured by imperial generals, and she – even after living such a heavily sheltered life up to that point – implicitly trusts them in turn and is keen on nurturing this new relationship. There’s a tangible generosity of spirit amongst these sky-bound Robin Hoods and the people they meet along the way – laughter, friendship, and courage shown so beautifully through the strong body language and unique animations used in Eternal Arcadia’s numerous cutscenes.
There’s an extraordinary level of detail given to these pleasantly chunky character models from twenty years ago, a stylised sort of animation that aims to display the exaggerated sort of motion you think looks real, a communicative rather than realistic sense of movement. There are so many different facial expressions in this game it puts even the likes of Vagrant Story to shame, with characters not only able to display being happy, sad, or angry but various grimaces under strain, annoyances, and even maintaining eye contact with somebody too (a feat that’s harder than you might think when you’re dealing with painted-on faces). Seeing Aika practically burn a hole through Vyse’s head with an angry stare or Fina half-close her eyes and blush as she giggles is impressive all by itself, but they become something even more emotive when coupled with the phenomenal amount of unique hand models (sometimes with animated fingers, sometimes locked in a single pose, sometimes merely crude Lego-like mittens) and finely-tuned motions that show the cast lazily leaning on nearby objects, clinging to the side of ships as high winds buffet their hair, and teetering as they lift heavy objects. Just look at Alfonso resting his chin on the back of his hand, wearing the cocky look of a nobleman who knows he will always be wealthy and powerful no matter what happens (that’s what he thinks, anyway), the cigar-chomping weapons dealer resting his smoke between his fingers as he offers you his wares, or the special “We’re going to make trouble and we’re going to enjoy every minute of it” glance Vyse and Aika give each other before finalising their latest madcap plan. Even climbing ladders becomes a personality-led act under the careful hand of Arcadia’s skilled team of animators: Vyse’s cheeky little double-footed hop off the top is exactly how you’d imagine this fresh-faced pirate would really move, even though it’s exactly the sort of detail few would bother making and even less would notice. You always believe they’re occupying this 3D space together and because of this you can trust the actions you witness truly represent the events playing out, making Eternal Arcadia a rare breed of RPG that allows you to look to what a character’s doing and read the expression visible on their face to understand what they’re up to and how they’re feeling, no explanatory text box required.
Of course there’s not much point in looking like a hero if you don’t get to play as one, and the battles here – whether you’re on deck commanding a small team to quickly drive off an assortment of monsters or taking the helm and tactically blasting imperial warships out of the sky – consistently play out as supremely cinematic encounters crackling with dramatic sweeping shots and background clashes of steel. Even when you’re doing nothing at all you’ll still see your party move in to attack or an ancient weapon kick up desert sands, and while these motions are largely meaningless (although land-based positioning does effect multi-hit skills and spells) this visual showboating coupled with a soundtrack that dynamically alters to suit your current situation goes a long way to making you feel like you’re as much a part of the action as any of Vyse’s band of Blue Rogues.
What about when you’re out of battle walking around those towns and dungeons RPGs insist on having – the places where we all know nothing exciting’s ever going to happen unless it’s shown in a cutscene? Well, what parts of Eternal Arcadia are they? There’s not a single moment where you’re not expected to do something pirate-y yourself, whether that’s striking out for floating islands off in the distance, dashing across the roof of a moving train as the most powerful man in the world Terminator-walks towards you, running away from boulders in tight corridors decorated with flickering torches that give way to rooms lit only by the glow of flowing lava, carefully navigating floors that have crumbled away revealing a vast expanse of angry clouds flashing with lightning below, breaking out of prison, or finding a crescent-shaped island to call your own. This game is the living embodiment of fairy tale exploration, a world that only gets bigger as you write your own legend across the sky-oceans and beautifully concludes with our heroes once again setting their sights beyond the horizon, heading off on further adventures we may never get to see.
I’d forgotten Eternal Arcadia. Or more accurately – I only remembered the things that weren’t really worth remembering. Yes the flaws I took to heart are real and Arcadia would be even better if it properly addressed them, but in practise they pale into insignificance next to the exhilarating wanderlust that defines every last inch of the game. It’s a heartwarming and thrilling experience all at once – and still hugely impressive too, one of those games that plays to all of its host hardware’s technical strengths and special features without turning anything into a shallow box-ticking gimmick, and somehow makes it all look effortless as it goes. This game would easily stand tall in any crowd and – oh! – yes, this is definitely the best RPG on the Dreamcast.