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Platform: PlayStation 2 Publisher: SCEI
Genre: Action RPG Developer: LEVEL-5
Format: DVD-ROM Expected Release: 02/18/03

Hands-on Impressions
1/29/03
Christopher Holzworth
Christopher Holzworth

With every game comes a certain degree of hype. Some, of course, warrant it more than others, but nevertheless a player can't escape reading about how “great?every game is. Such was the case with Level 5's Dark Cloud for the Playstation 2. Prior to its release, Dark Cloud was rumored to be the "Zelda-killer", and was predicted to revolutionize gaming as we knew it. Of course, when the game was released, it was gobbled up due to the fact that it was practically the only game reminiscent of an RPG on the PS2. However, many quickly found the game to fall short of even scratching Zelda. With those failures in mind, LEVEL-5 sought out to improve on an idea they knew to have great potential. Maybe one night the entire staff had some great epiphany, or perhaps a mysterious stranger deposited an envelope of fantastic ideas. Whatever the case, LEVEL-5's brainstorming was not in vain. Forgoing the namesake of their first project, Dark Chronicle, the sequel to the maligned Dark Cloud, soon went underway. The finished product would illicit such praise that SCEI decided to localize the game for North America, restoring it to a more familiar name: Dark Cloud 2.

Undeniably, Dark Cloud 2's biggest change was made to the graphics; the original Dark Cloud's high-quality polygonal graphics were updated using a variation of the ever-popular cel-shaded techniques seen in many of today's games. Every character exhibits a fantastic amount of detail, from belt buckles, pendants, folds in clothing and shoelaces, no minute detail was overlooked. The characters seem as if they've been torn right from the artist's sketchbook. Animation is smooth and fluid with such attention to detail that even the characters' pendants bounce against their chests.

Level-5 has exhibited a stronger emphasis on plot with Dark Cloud 2 in comparison to its predecessor, which seemed mainly centered on the Georama System. Although the premise is anything but new or innovative ?a rapacious villain with the intention to destroy the world thrusting two unlikely heroes into an epic adventure to stop the menace in his tracks - typical plots such as this have still brought many games success. Monica, a sword wielding, magic casting fifteen-year-old girl hailing from one-hundred years in the future has come to the present day in order to combat the forces of evil that have ravaged her own time. As fate would have it she meets Max, a thirteen-year-old boy-genius who is the son of a wealthy family. Max has a knack for inventing, and even fashioned himself a homemade gun to use as a weapon in addition to his wrench. Although Dark Cloud 2 has only two heroes, each has their own array of unique and useful abilities to make up for the lack of supplementary characters. Monica, beyond being able to wield various swords and use magic in battle, also has the ability to morph into monsters with the use of Monster Badges and pass amongst them undetected. These badges are earned by feeding monsters food (each food item giving varied results) and then defeating them. Max, on the other hand, uses a construction of his called Steve: the Ridepod. An armed vehicle, Steve can be expanded upon with new types of weapons and support devices that both alter his design and performance. “Inspiration?for ideas is gained by taking pictures with Max's camera; as photos are combined, they give way to an idea for new and better expansions to Steve's functions.

A small number of changes have been made to the battle system from the original Dark Cloud. The weapons still have a limited number of uses before they are damaged or broken and combat is still performed in real time. However, the simple battling tactics of slashing, running, then slashing some more have been replaced by a nice combo system enabling characters to perform interesting moves. Max can bash a monster with his wrench three or four times, then flip backwards and unload a few rounds of ammunition on the beast until it dies. Monica can deliver practiced slashes with her sword, then handspring back and unleash a volley of magic blasts. This new system is indisputably quicker and more effective more than Dark Cloud's and a major improvement. Defeated enemies cough up the usual spoils, including money, items, and experience points. Unlike most games, however, the experience points are not allocated to the characters, but in stead to the weapon used to defeat the enemy. As a weapon reaches a new level, it can be combined with an item in a process called spectrumizing that improves one of ten statistics (such as elemental damage and other special attacks). Once enough of those stats are raised, the weapon is transformed into a stronger and better-looking version. This allows for vast customization and a slew of options for how to battle foes.

Dark Cloud 2 also has several mini-games to be enjoyed when the player feels like taking a break from the game's storyline. These include fishing, fish-raising and racing, golfing, and most importantly: the Georama. The highly talked about terraforming puzzle from the first Dark Cloud makes its return in Dark Cloud 2. Thankfully, the Georama Mode is much more user-friendly this time around. Setting the parts to the town is comparable to building a park in Tony Hawk Pro Skater: select the desired piece (tree, fence, house, etc.), carry the chosen piece to the desired location with Carpentarion (a sort of landscaping robot), press the button, and it's done.

The control scheme in Dark Cloud 2 is tight, utilizing every button the PS2 controller. The camera rotation, first-person perspective, attack, select and auxiliary abilities are all integrated seamlessly so that the game can be played without distraction. The characters are responsive and easy to guide. In battle, three quick keys make using items or other special abilities fast and easy. The only glitch seen so far in the demo is that when holding the attack button to charge up a powerful whirling attack. The character takes a pose as they charge up their weapon, but can still be moved around with the analog stick.

Nishiura Tomohito, the composer of Dark Cloud 2's musical score, has done a noteworthy job with the game's OST. It's by no means as epic as Xenosaga, or as catchy as Final Fantasy tunes, but remains very solid and enjoyable. Dark Cloud 2's J-Pop opening theme by Yano Chidai, “Time is Changing? is a particular example of the soundtrack's upbeat nature. The song's lyrics are fitting given the game's premise and are an unquestionably helpful addition to selling the game. From what has been able to be heard (from videos and demos), the game's sound effects are very pronounced and appropriate considering the feel to the game. Also commendable is the game's voice acting. It might not sport any super-star actors like Kingdom Hearts, but Sony's budget must've found some nice hidden talent, as the game boasts excellently performed dialogue.

Having improved nearly every aspect of the original, Dark Cloud 2 balances the deep customization that RPG fans love with action gameplay that no gamer can resist. Even with only two characters to choose from, there's enough variety to guarantee a good time. From Ride-podding to sword slashing, inventing to monster stealth, Dark Cloud 2 has all the makings of a solid, top-notch game. Surely it can be considered one of the most promising titles on the horizon and a potential triumph in the Action-RPG genre.


Preview First-Look
8/20/02
Justin Hoeger
Justin Hoeger

Dark Cloud was among the few quality role-playing games available for the PlayStation 2 when released in May 2001. The game mixed standard random-dungeon crawling action with a unique premise ?find magical items containing pieces of the landscape and use them to recreate the towns and villages of the game world. While touted as Sony's “Zelda Killer? Dark Cloud failed to live up to media expectations, but managed to sell enough copies to gain a spot in the PS2 “Greatest Hits?lineup. Sony has decided to capitalize on the first game's popularity with an inevitable sequel due late this year. Dark Cloud 2 will take place 100 years after the first and will attempt to up the ante in a few areas.

Dark Cloud 2's graphics have been given a major facelift, incorporating the cartoonish visuals that so many developers are wild about these days. The game has its own style in this manner, with softer, almost airbrushed, cel-shaded characters as opposed to the plain solid-colored style of other cel-shaded games. The environments are also much larger and more detailed, with several different cultures and time-periods rendered in real-time polygons. Stylistically, Dark Cloud 2 is big improvement from the first's somewhat drab, if serviceable, visuals.

In Dark Cloud 2, there are now two main characters, the mechanical whiz Max and the time-traveling swordswoman Monica. At the beginning of the game, Max is the archetypical boy genius working out of his father's shop, dreaming of high adventure. Sometimes wishes have a way of coming true, and when Monica comes crashing into his life, Max is in for the adventure of a lifetime. A time-traveling madman is responsible for reducing Monica's world down to a single village and has already set his sights on Max's time. Together, this odd couple must travel between the present and future, restoring what has been unmade. Max's skill lies in his ability to create new items, weapons and robotic inventions, while Monica adds significant firepower to battle with her spell casting as well as giving the party the ability to time travel.

Dark Cloud 2 promises to be much bigger than the first, as well as having much more variety. Players have many more world pieces to find, and more options in how they are restored. For example, if a certain building or feature is needed during a specific time period, traveling back in time and restoring it in the past will solve the problem in the future. There is more variety in the restoration particulars, as well. Are you unhappy with the door or window style of that old house? When you restore it, just change them. Some of Max's mechanical constructs will even assist in recreating the ruined landscape. Bob Vila would be proud!

While the inventive Georama mode returns with even more features, the fundamental gameplay remains unchanged. Dark Cloud 2 will bring back the original's randomly-generated dungeons, Zelda-style lock-on battle system, breakable weapons and world re-creation gimmick. Players can swap between Max and Monica on-the-fly, utilizing their strengths appropriately, but the innovation doesn't go much further. In fact, early indications show that the game will play very similarly to the first ?if you didn't like it, this one probably won't float your boat, but if you did, then it will probably be your cup of tea (or other clich?of choice).

Dark Cloud was a sleeper hit for the early, RPG-starved PlayStation 2, and the sequel looks to build on that success, while retaining the caveats of the original. Dark Cloud 2 promises to be a solid gameplay experience when released later this year.



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© 2002 LEVEL-5, All Rights Reserved.
© 2002 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc., All Rights Reserved.
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Chased by a killer robot clown.

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Monica is a master of the blade.

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Eek! The march of the Treants.

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Max enjoys a chateau at nightfall.

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Max: inventor by day,
trendy designer by night!

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Lovely Monica poses for a pic.

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Captivating scenery... YUM!

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"How the hell did I end up in Amsterdam!?"

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