First off, a warning: I’m likely to run out of superlatives before this review is over. I try not to dole out too many “brilliant” or “stupendous” monikers during a typical review, but I’m thinking I just won’t be able to help myself this time. Dark Cloud 2
is one of the best games I’ve played. Period. Now, I’m quite biased toward RPGs, games with puzzle elements, and anything with even a slightly unique twist that breathes new life into a genre. So take this review with a grain of salt… I’m sitting squarely in the middle of the target audience on this one. And I’m enjoying every minute of it.
I actually enjoyed the original Dark Cloud
. It was the very first title I picked up for my brand-spanking-new PS2, and it was one of the first times I was exposed to console RPGs. I found it to be a very innovative, if somewhat flawed, dungeon romp. It certainly had its shares of problems, though, from overly repetitive dungeon levels to annoying music to the absolute frustrastion caused when a cherished weapon broke and vanished for good. Still, it had enough going for it to carry me along until the end. Then something truly amazing happened. The folks at Level 5 listened to their audience while making their sequel. They kept all the innovative and fun aspects of the first title, and fixed or completely threw out the not-so-fun parts. Then they added a slew of other goodies, mini-games, and side quests, all of which come together to make a very good game.
The story behind Dark Cloud 2 is fairly standard RPG stuff. It’s not a bad story by any means, but not something that would necessarily make for good plot in a novel. We are first introduced to one of our heroes, Maximilian, a young inventor and son of the richest man in the town of Palm Brinks. In just a little while, Max finds himself thrown into a quest to save the world from a history-destroying villain. Joining him is Monica, a time-traveling warrior from the future. Together these two set out to pull the world back from the brink of destruction. There’s really nothing here that we haven’t seen before in a RPG, but that’s not to say that it isn’t an entertaining ride.
Quick kid! Which way to the bathroom?!?!
Most of Dark Cloud 2’s action takes place in a third-person viewpoint, similar (at least at first glance) to last year’s excellent Kingdom Hearts
or some of the later Zelda
games. Only one character is “active” at any given time, although switching between the main characters is as easy as the press of a button. Players will primarily control Max or Monica throughout the game, but both of our heroes have alternate fighting forms at their disposal. The game is divided into three different types of areas to explore. First is the in-town location of Palm Brinks, where Max and Monica can shop and run various small errands without the danger of being eaten by the local flora or fauna. The second type area type is where most of the action takes place—the dungeon floors. Each of the dungeons is made up of multiple randomly-generated “floors”. The adventuring pattern is similar for each floor: Max and Monica wander through, beating up the local monsters until they find the key to the next level. Scattered throughout the dungeon levels are the usual assortment of goodies, such as healing items, weapon-improving gems, and raw materials for the Georama system (which I’ll explain later). Each floor can be repeated as often as desired, with a complete restock of monsters and goodies (along with a re-randomization of the floor layout).
Combat takes place in the same third-person view, much as in the first Dark Cloud. Each character has a melee and a ranged weapon at their disposal, and both are easily brought to bear thanks to the wonderful interface. Fighting itself isn’t all that complicated. Most battles consist of walking up to a monster, “locking on” the camera, and attacking. To spice things up a bit, there are a few other attack options, including a “power attack” for each character, a string of combo attacks for the melee weapons, and the ability to throw rocks (or even other monsters) at the enemies for stunning effects. As I said before, each character also has an alternate fighting form, which can add some further variety to the battles.
The third type of adventuring area is perhaps the most interesting: the Georama system. Given an overhaul from the original Dark Cloud, Georama is back and it’s a whole lot more fun. It seems that someone’s been playing with the Space/Time Continuum, and has ravaged Max’s present time to stop certain things from coming into being in the future. These “origin points” need to be rebuilt, and it’s here that the Georama comes into play. Through the dungeon forays the Heroes will collect parts and blueprints used to rebuild the world ravaged by the Big Baddie. Using a fairly slick interface, anything from houses to trees to laundry can be rebuilt and placed in the origin points. A series of goals is uncovered for each of these points, directing Max and Monica how to construct the world to make the correct future happen. Unlike in the first Dark Cloud, the populations of these origin points are not created through the Georama system, rather, they have to be recruited from Palm Brinks. This adds a bit more complexity and makes for some fun little quests to convince these people to leave their home and venture into the cold, scary world. Hours can be spent with the Georama system itself, getting everything just to taste. Not everything has to be perfect in order to advance the plot, but getting a particular origin point to 100% results in a very nice reward.
Character advancement is fairly unique in the Dark Cloud world—the characters themselves don’t really level up or gain experience, their weapons do. If you use a sword to kill a monster, that sword gains the experience from the kill. As swords increase in level, they gain attack and durability capabilities, and they gain “slots” for weapon improvements. Almost any inventory item can be “spectrumized”, broken down into a particular elemental effect, and added to a weapon. For instance, lightning crystals will increase a weapon’s “lightning” attribute. It’s not only the specialized weapon-enhancing items that can be broken down and added to weapons, however. Anything from bread to shoes to fish can be added to make the weapon stronger. After weapons get to a certain point, they can be “built up”, and evolve into new, more powerful weapons. Care must be taken with the weapons, however, as using them to bash on monsters tends to add a little wear and tear. Each weapon has hit-points, and can wear out and eventually break. Breakage isn’t as horrible as it was in the first Dark Cloud, thankfully. A broken weapon loses a little of its experience and stops functioning until repaired. Repair is simple, as an application of “repair powder” gets everything back to good-as-new. This weapon building aspect of the game is a great deal of fun, and can certainly eat up a huge share of time to find and make the ultimate weapon.
I see dead people...
Now, all I’ve just described would be enough to make a fairly entertaining game. Thankfully, Dark Cloud 2 goes a lot farther, giving oodles of side-quests and mini-games to keep the completist going for a very, very long time. Max, being an inventor, is able to put this talent to good use. Early on Max acquires a camera, and with pictures of the world around him, he is able to brainstorm up new and useful goodies. Many items in the game can be used as seeds of invention, from mundane items like a window or a barrel, to much more exotic things like the attack posture of a particular monster. Max takes combinations of three picture ideas and tries to invent something. There are lots of idea seeds in the world, and lots of invention possibilities. It’s not always intuitive which three things will combine to make something useful, so there’s a lot of trial and error. Once Max invents something, he can construct it using the raw materials purchased in town or found in the dungeons. Of course, if you don’t really like the inventing aspect of the game, most of the items able to be invented are also available for purchase somewhere.
If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a fishing mini-game. If you catch a whopper, you can enter it into a contest for valuable prizes. Or, you can breed and train the little guppies for the fish races, again for valuable prizes. Or, if none of that sounds good, you can just grill the little guys for a tasty (and health-restoring) treat. Fishing not your thing? Well, you can always try your hand at a fun little golf-like game for, you guessed it, valuable prizes. Or why not try to beat the time trials for clearing each dungeon floor of all monsters? Also, there’s someone out there willing to reward you for getting “scoops”, pictures of some of the more unique happenings in the world. Thankfully, the designers realized that some players will want to do everything, while others will just want the basics. And Dark Cloud 2 caters to both types of gamer—most of the mini-games can be all but avoided, without damaging the enjoyment of the main quest in any way.
The game looks and sounds incredible. I wasn’t crazy for the cell-shading look before this, but now I’m sold. The graphics are the best I’ve seen on the PS2, hands-down. Everything seems to run very smoothly as well, as I don’t remember a single time where things got chuggy. Voice acting is quite good, even when the dialogue gets a little questionable. The music, one of my big complaints from the first game, is vastly improved. It’s very good at setting the appropriate mood, and while it may get a little repetitive after 50 hours of play, I have absolutely no desire to mute the entire game as I did in the first Dark Cloud. Game controls are also quite good, and after a little while everything from battle to taking a picture of that latest scoop will feel quite natural. I have a minor complaint about the inventory screen—after a while, the inventory gets quite cluttered and I couldn’t find a way to auto-sort everything there. When playing at 1am and being quite blurry-eyed, it would be nice for all of the items to be grouped together. I can spend almost a minute sometimes trying to find a particular weapon amidst bales of hay and weapon crystals.
Dark Cloud 2 is one of the best games, certainly one of the best RPGs, available on the PS2. I will heartily recommend this game to anyone even slightly interested in RPGs, which is something I don’t usually do. Outstanding gameplay, gorgeous graphics and tons of mini-games and side quests add up to be one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in quite some time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I heard about this great fishing spot on dungeon level 7…