Early in the days of the PlayStation 2, starved for a quality RPG, I bought Sony and Level 5's Dark Cloud within a few days of its release. Excitedly, I played several hours of it and then got bored. I did not pick it up again until a few months later when I played all the way through and finished it.
This was a first for me. I have never been able to stop playing a game for a period of months, and then just start playing again from mid-way through. Usually after a period like that, I am so out of a game that I either have to start over, or just leave it permanently unfinished. This got me thinking: “Which properties of Dark Cloud allowed me to do this?” I came to the conclusion that Dark Cloud's lack of deep storytelling allowed me to drop it and pick it up again easily.
In Dark Cloud, the player is put in control of an elfish village boy named Toan, who bears a strong resemblance to The Legend of Zelda's Link. An evil military man named Flag has freed a powerful genie that had been sealed for the past four hundred years. As the Dark Genie's master, Flag commands it to attack the villages of the west. But just before the attack, a man known as the Fairy King seals the structures and people of the towns in magical spheres called Atla that Toan must aquire to rebuild, and possibly improve, the towns.
To collect Atla, Toan must explore several randomly-generated multi-level dungeons. This type of gameplay can get a bit repetitive, but the developers of this title did a lot to keep the experience fun.
The dungeons are very nice looking and designed well, especially if one considers that they are randomly generated. There is a quality mapping system so it is difficult to get lost. From a thick forest to an ancient temple, the dungeons are varied and look nice. Unfortunately, going deeper and deeper into a dungeon that has a similar feel on each level can get a bit boring.
Over the course of the game, Toan picks up several allies. The player can switch between them in the dungeons, however I only found a few of them to be useful in battle. The others are only needed to get past particular types of obstacles (i.e. the player must use the character who can jump far when a chasm is encountered). I found this forced character switching to be rather tedious and unnecessary, though it doesn't happen too often.
Overall though, the idea of switching characters is done well. It adds a bit more strategy to the game. For example, if you find a slow monster with strong physical attacks, you can choose to switch to a character that has ranged attacks so you don't have to get too close, or you can try to duke it out with him with a powerful up-close fighter. This brings us to enemy designs.
For the most part, the enemy designs are pretty good in Dark Cloud. Enemies have strengths and weaknesses so the player can develop strategies for fighting each type. However, enemy classes are often reused. If you encounter an enemy called "Great Beast," it is very possible that later you might run into a slightly more powerful version, called "Red Great Beast" or something similar. The same fighting strategy will probably apply.
Combat in Dark Cloud is still is fun, though. It plays similarly to the Nintendo 64 Zelda titles. Without going too deep into comparisons, the combat gameplay similarities are impossible to miss. I do not see this as a negative thing -- if it works, then do it. I am not the greatest player of action games; in fact, I am quite poor at most titles that require good hand-eye coordination and response time, but I did not have too much trouble with Dark Cloud. It certainly challenged me, but I made it through okay. This might mean that this game would be a cakewalk for those who are more experienced in this type of gameplay. I found no problems with the controls either, but as I said, I am not an action game connoisseur.
A couple of dungeon aspects that I found particularly enjoyable were the fact that weapons can break, and the characters get thirsty and can suffer from dehydration if they don't get enough water. Though these touches of realism sound like they could make the game worse, they are implemented well. There is a meter that displays how thirsty your character is, so it is easy to know when to have a drink from water in your inventory or a spring. A meter also displays how much wear a weapon has taken, so it is not difficult to keep your weapons in good repair.
Outside of the dungeons, there is a lot to do in Dark Cloud as well. An enjoyable weapons building system and a satisfying fishing game serve as great breaks from the dungeon action. Building towns with the Georama system can be fun as well. To get approval from all the townspeople, the player can try to follow their instructions to improve the town.
Dark Cloud's story is pretty light compared to many RPGs’ and the player does not learn much of it until late in the game. However, what the player does get of the story is at least interesting.
The soundtrack to this title is superb. The music really makes the player feel like they are in the environments. The sound effects are also nice, though nothing spectacular.
Dark Cloud's own dark cloud is its localization. Small mistakes that should have been caught before the release exist throughout the game. One of the largest is a town's name that is misspelled when you enter. There are also other times when the game calls an item or person one name and then another later on. I have no idea how such errors were not caught by the quality assurance staff, but the shoddy localization makes this product look a bit less professional. I may be nitpicking here, but I think gamers deserve a bit better from the localization crew after paying fifty dollars for a game.
At first this game left me bored, so I left this game on my shelf. I came back, however, and somehow the gameplay hooked me like a good storyline normally would. I really got into the weapon building system, town building system, fishing, and the overall Dark Cloud experience. There is a lot to dislike in this game, so I can see why a person might feel different than I do. If you can get past the poor localization and lack of a story, you may find that this cloud has a silver lining, if I may be so cliché.