If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then Nintendo must be absolutely beaming after seeing Sony and Level Five's action RPG, Dark Cloud, on the Playstation 2. Not only is the game clearly inspired by one of Nintendo's flagship franchises-the Legend of Zelda games, most notably the N64 titles-but it also demonstrates that Zelda is still the proverbial king of the hill in this gaming genre.
When it first blipped onto the gaming community's radar last year, Dark Cloud was one of the titles that PS2 fans were quick to cite as a game that would help Sony continue their console dominance in the next round of system wars. The hype machine eventually kicked into high gear, and Dark Cloud was even christened the 'Zelda killer' at one point. Unfortunately, reviews from the Japanese release were less than flattering and the 'Zelda killer' nickname was revealed as the absurd hyperbole that it truly was.
Sony pressed on, undaunted, and after several delays (and the addition of some new areas for the American release) Dark Cloud finally washed up on US shores at the end of May. The end result was a game with a great deal of potential, but a lot of flawed execution.
If you build it, they will come
As the game begins, players are treated to a fairly elaborate cut scene that shows a Hitler-esque soldier named Flag resurrecting the evil Dark Genie. Said genie then flies across the world destroying every village he encounters-or so he thinks.
What really happens is that an ancient mystic named the Fairy King seals parts of each village (including the houses, the citizens, etc.) in a mysterious rock called Atla. The Atla withstands the power of the Dark Genie's assault, but they're also scattered throughout the world.
You take the role of Toan, a young adventurer (who resembles Zelda's Link in ways too numerous to count) from the village of Norune. The Fairy King tells you of the Atla, then gives you a magical stone called that Atlamillia, which will allow you to open the Atla and restore the destroyed villages. Along the way, you'll encounter new allies with different abilities, fight hordes of monsters, rebuild a world, and take on the treacherous Dark Genie in order to restore peace to the land.
As you can see, Dark Cloud doesn't bring much to the table on the story front. There's nothing we all haven't seen a hundred times before here, including the virtuous (but strangely mute) young hero and his motley band of adventurers. What is different (and disheartening) is just how little of a role the story plays in the game.
After the opening cinema and start of the game, the main plot of the story (your quest to stop the Dark Genie) is relegated to a very minor role. Instead, you'll spend the next thirty or so hours running through dungeons, rebuilding towns, and engaging in various side quests (which rarely have anything to do with the main plot).
Characters will join your cause for almost no reason (Ruby in particular), none of them will grow or develop much during the story, and by the time you finally get back to the main plot, it'll pull the old switcheroo on you and you'll find yourself unraveling a mystery that was hardly even foreshadowed in the earlier portions of the game. To say that the writing vacillates from lazy to non-existent would be an understatement. Clearly, the story was an afterthought in this title.
Much has been made of Dark Cloud's resemblance to other (and often better) games, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point that out here as well. The game borrows elements from several different titles-the battle system (albeit a stripped down one) that is very reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, the world building elements of the old SNES game Actraiser, and the weapons management of Square's Vagrant Story.
At its core, Dark Cloud is a dungeon crawl. You'll spend the majority of the 45+ hours it takes to complete the game (including the 100 level Demon Shaft area that opens after you've beaten the final boss) running through randomly generated dungeons. While here, you'll collect Atla to rebuild the world, fight monsters, find treasures, and search for the key to get to the next floor. Since the dungeons are randomly generated, puzzles are never even remotely difficult (in fact, each one simply involves using one of your other characters to open a locked door or blocked path), which makes the game a lot less challenging than it could have been.
While in these dungeons, you'll invariably encounter monsters that you'll need to face in battle. Each fight takes place in real-time, with you controlling your lone character as he/she faces off against generally one to three bad guys. Battle itself involves little more than button mashing-one button locks you on to the enemy, another launches the attack. You can perform various combos that deal out extra damage, but there's no real skill involved in doing it (Vagrant Story and Summoner both required far more skill to link attacks than this game).
For variety, you can also equip up to three items in an easy access location. You can store attack items in these slots, or healing potions, weapon repair powder, water, etc. Destroying enemies with items other than your weapons will occasionally yield weapon attachments and other items that you'd not get by simply hacking away at them.
At certain points (mostly in the early going, leading me to wonder if they just didn't decide to drop this particular element entirely, but were too lazy to go back and remove the early appearances of it), you'll engage in battles that play out like the quick time events in Shenmue. Basically, you'll be required to hit certain buttons or directions on the D-pad in a short amount of time to defeat an enemy. These were fun, although, you never manage to see what your character is doing on the screen since you're concentrating on the scrolling icons at the bottom.
As you progress through each floor of the dungeon, several things will happen. First off, you'll become thirsty. Dark Cloud features a thirst meter that gradually empties as you explore the underworld. If it reaches the completely empty stage, you need to drink more water to refill it. If you're out of water, you need to find a spring (which refills the gauge and your hit points completely) or you'll start to lose hit points.
The other thing that will happen is that your weapons will weaken with use. Each weapon has a number of hit points, and use decreases them. Allow them to hit zero and the weapon breaks and is lost forever. This is easily one of the most annoying elements of the game because characters don't level up-weapons do. Lose your best weapon late in the game, and you're looking at spending hours leveling up a new one just to survive a floor of the dungeon. Of course, paying attention to your weapon's hit point meter will help prevent this, but occasionally, you'll launch into a combo and the last hit will break your weapon-and you're powerless to break off the combo to repair it. Save often-you'll break a weapon at some point.
Like Vagrant Story, weapons can be built up and upgraded. This is a very important aspect of the game since it's your weapons that level up and make you stronger-not your characters.
Each weapon has a number of statistics-hit points (or endurance points) magic power, affinity magic ratings, and ratings against different classes of beasts. Every stat can be upgraded by attaching gems, elemental stones, or attachment plates. As stats increase, you can eventually upgrade the weapon to a stronger one-or, after reaching level 5, you can break the item into a synthsphere, which keeps a percentage of the original weapon's properties and can be attached to a new weapon.
After crawling through a floor of the dungeon, you'll have the opportunity to return to town. Doing this will allow you to enter the Georama mode.
The Georama mode is one of the most interesting elements of Dark Cloud. It's here that you rebuild the world from the Atla you've discovered in the caves and dungeons. As you find houses, stores, etc. you can place them on the village map. Once placed, you can switch to normal mode and walk around your newly created village, talking to people about how they'd like their home rebuilt, buying items, and finding things.
Generally, when you find all the components of someone's home or shop, an event will be triggered. Events are often short cut scenes where the person thanks your for your effort and gives you an item for your troubles. The items range from rare to mundane, but they're all generally useful.
If you manage to rebuild a village to the people's complete satisfaction (meaning you get a 100% in the request column on the Georama analysis menu), you'll be given another item as thanks. These items are generally rare, and it's well worth doing a little extra work to acquire them.
After that, it's on to the next village, the next dungeon, and the next set of requests-all of which highlights the main problem with Dark Cloud: the tedious gameplay.
For the first few hours, the game is mildly engaging. The options seem a lot more limitless than they really are (because while you can generally place the Georama pieces wherever you want, you have to place them specifically to get a 100% request rate.
However, it soon becomes readily apparent that there's nothing more to the game than the incessant dungeon exploration and rebuilding. It gets even worse in the Demon Shaft bonus area since there is no more Atla to be discovered. Because of this, the Demon Shaft is nothing more than 100 floors of pure battle-there's not even any story.
To combat this, the developers included a fishing mini-game. In most of the towns, you can fish in the nearby lake, pond, or ocean. Catching fish earns you fish points (based on the size and rarity of the fish you've caught), which can be traded in for items. Sadly, the fishing mini-game isn't very exciting. You'll spend lots of time watching the fish steal your bait and you'll get nothing in return.
Things get worse as they progress, since the acquisition of new characters can make the game incredibly unbalanced. While you'll find five compatriots during the course of your travels, you'll probably wind up concentrating on only two characters (Toan and Ruby) and forgetting about the rest. Ruby makes the game incredibly easy since her ranged attacks are as powerful as Toan's, yet she takes far less damage because she doesn't have to fight melee-style.
However, to bring variety to the gameplay, the designers have made certain floors in dungeons where you can only use a specific character. Since characters don't level up, and you're not using them regularly to level up the weapons, these floors can be incredibly difficult (particularly late in the game where you're essentially trying to cut through mountains with a butter knife). These floors make the game unbalanced in the opposite direction, by adding an artificially created amount of difficulty to the game.
At any rate, the gameplay in Dark Cloud could be best described as tedious. Perhaps if the game were only twenty hours in length, this wouldn't be such a problem. Unfortunately, it's going to take the average gamer around forty or more hours to finish this one-and the gameplay and minimalist story just can't support that amount of time.
Had Dark Cloud come out at the PS2's launch, people would have probably been more impressed with the game's graphics. This isn't to say that the graphics of Dark Cloud are bad-they're just not jaw-dropping.
The character graphics are probably the most impressive thing in the entire game. Each character is well-animated and moves in a realistic fashion. Each also features a nice amount of detail and some facial expressions. It's nice to see that the characters came out as well as they did, if only because the graphics give them some personality-something that the story never manages to do.
Another nice touch is that when you equip a new weapon, the new weapon becomes visible in the game (except for Ruby's rings, which you can't see for some reason). Since there's no armor to be found, your physical appearance never changes.
Enemy graphics are nice looking as well, although they're rather unimaginative. Many monsters are just variations of other monsters found in the game, and there are several that seem to be little more than simple palette swaps later in the adventure. The bosses, on the other hand, are generally impressive. These guys are huge, well-animated, and quite nice to look at (particularly the Dark Genie at the end of the game).
The game also features numerous cut scenes, which aren't animated in FMV (full motion video), but instead play out using the game's graphical engine. These scenes are nice, if a little under whelming overall.
The world graphics are the game's real weakness, visually speaking. There are a relatively small number of dungeons to explore, and each one runs fifteen or so floors, yet looks the same throughout. While each new area can be arresting for the first few floors, it soon becomes old seeing the same textures and graphics over and over again. Perhaps more dungeons (and fewer floors in each one) would have helped.
There are other, more bothersome problems littered throughout the game. Flickering rears its ugly head from time to time. There are also several instances where you can see the seams in the textures. I also encountered several different graphical glitches (an ever-present black line that wouldn't go away until I'd reset the game and a few screwed up enemy health bars) while playing through.
Overall, the graphics are mixed. While there are definitely problems that come up on occasion, there are also several instances where the visuals are quite nice. It's not the prettiest game I've seen, but it does have a visual style that makes it at least somewhat unique.
Since Dark Cloud is an action RPG, control is certainly an issue. Truthfully, this is one of the areas where the game really shines. Your character is controlled with the left analog stick and is quite responsive. Locking on to enemies and launching attacks is also relatively simple, and the characters react well to your input. There does occasionally seem to be a bit of hesitation when launching an attack, but I didn't notice it regularly.
Opening chests and cracking the Atla is also simple. When you're able to open a chest or rock, an exclamation point will appear-press the X button and you'll go to a small cut scene of you performing the action.
The right analog stick controls the camera, and this is the one area where the control suffers. The camera works flawlessly about 90% of the time. The other 10% has it getting caught on things, setting itself up behind a pole, or landing in some other weird position that makes seeing the action all but impossible. It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, it's certainly an annoyance.
Aurally speaking, Dark Cloud is a pleasant, if forgettable, affair.
The game's music is pleasant enough. The world has its music, which is nice and mellow for the most part. You might even find yourself whistling along with it at points, but once you shut the game off, you'll have a hard time remembering what it even sounded like. It's forgettable fluff, but it's not bad.
What is bad is that the game recycles the same few pieces of music over and over. You'll hear the exact same piece of music every time you enter a house or store-no matter what village you're in. Dungeons have distinctive music, but again, you'll hear the same track on each floor (and the same monotonous battle tune through the entire game). A little variety would have definitely spiced things up.
Ambient noise is handled well, as are the different sound effects. Weapons sound different depending on what they're made of; footsteps sound different on different surfaces, etc.
The characters themselves never speak (all dialogue is handled through text), but they do make the occasional grunt or groan when attacking or getting hit. These too become a bit monotonous as the game progresses because there's no variety-it's just the same sound samples used time and again.
Glitches and Errors
Speaking of the text, let's talk about the writing and translation for a second, shall we?
Without a doubt, Dark Cloud is one of the most poorly written games I've ever played. Typos, grammatical errors, and misspellings abound. I lost count of the errors only five hours in.
Here's just one example of the text in this game: 'Osmond is now joined the ally'
What's that? Did anyone proofread this game before shipping it out?
There are numerous other errors, such as the town Muska Lacka being listed as Muska Racka on the title screen every time you enter it. It's a major game location, so it's hard to imagine how no one managed to catch that one. In another instance, you're told to see someone named Xena-but in the town, her name's Gina. If you're looking for Xena, you'll be looking forever, 'cause she's not there. Paige's father's name is Pike, but occasionally someone refers to him as 'Dike' and so on.
Maybe I'm anal, but these things bother me. When a game ships for purchase by the general public, it should be complete and bug free. Dark Cloud is not bug free by any stretch of the imagination-there are graphical problems, text problems, and probably even more problems that I just didn't notice. Shame on you, Sony.
I really wanted to like Dark Cloud, I truly did. What starts out as an engaging dungeon crawl with some interesting world building elements eventually becomes tedious and stale through repetition. Simply put, there's no variety to this game-which is ironic, since I'm sure Level 5 thought that by including randomly generated dungeons they'd make a game that was constantly different.
Unfortunately, no one's yet figured out how to tell a compelling story using randomly generated dungeons (check out the first Evolution game for another example of the banality of these things). In the best RPGs, a dungeon can become something of a character in its own right-we all remember the ones that vexed us to no end with their difficulty, their intriguing designs, their clever puzzles, etc. That's never an option in a game with a randomly generated dungeon-the need to constantly change the layout makes placing puzzles nearly impossible. Keeping them random often equates with making them as generic as possible-which keeps them from truly being part of the story, or becoming an integral part of the gaming experience.
Couple that with the complete lack of a story, the atrocious translation and writing, and more than a few bugs and you come away with a game that's mediocre at best. As a PS2 owner, I know how badly everyone wants a classic next generation RPG-but that doesn't mean we have to jump on every retread game they toss in our direction and champion it as great. Dark Cloud is not great-it's barely decent. That anyone ever called this game a 'Zelda killer' is absurd. In the immortal words of Public Enemy's Flavor Flav: Don't believe the hype.