When 'Dark Cloud' was released in late May of 2001, it had an enormous task to fulfill. Sony needed it to slake the thirst of software starved PS2 owners who waited patiently for an RPG. Not unlike 'The Legend of Dragoon', this was SCEJ and newcomer, Level-5's first foray into the hallowed halls of adventure games. Touted as Sony's "Zelda-killer" the expectations for 'Dark Cloud' were extremely high, almost unrealistically so. SCEJ and Level-5 were not ignorant, they drew inspiration from some of the most successful franchises known to gamers: 'The Legend of Zelda:TOOT', 'Actraiser' and 'Vagrant Story'. Taking this pedigree of influences, Sony had attempted to integrate many of their elements into a cohesive masterpiece.
With the sheer amount of anticipation from US and Japanese gamers alike, 'Dark Cloud' had an uphill battle, and may have already lost the war against the hype machine soon after release. SCEA even took the extra months to include an entirely new dungeon and over a dozen new enemies to enhance the US release. How well did Sony's virgin action-RPG attempt do against the insurmountable odds of gamers expectations? Let's take a look...
'Dark Cloud' is a game about creation, and as such, needed to display lands of varying atmosphere. With the PS2's polygonal power, Dark Cloud should have been breathtaking. The entire game is rendered in polygons, and the graphics range from acceptable to very pretty. The textures are clean, and the polygons have minimal tearing with motion.
The overworld graphics are passable, but the true splendor of the game is shown in the individual homes and structures that are placed in the 'Georama' world creation mode. The artists managed to recreate the cozy comfort of native housing and the granduer of local monuments with impressive detail. For example, the mayor's home in Norune village is built in what appears to be a crashed spacecraft of a design reminiscent of Jules Vern. The interior is also lavish with local finery. The wooden decor is simply breathtaking.
The Beast God's Windmill is another example of the amazing talent of Level-5's art team. I can't explain to you how magically beautiful that monument is, towering majestically over Toan's hometown. The consistency in the quality of the architecture saves 'Dark Cloud' from true obscurity.
The dungeon graphics range from initially "ho-hum" to competent. The first dungeon is visually dull, but the variety and artwork does improve as the game progresses, though nothing ever seems to surpass a first generation PS2 game. Even though the bonus dungeon, Demon Shaft is breathtaking, it is not a 'true' part of the game and cannot be a crutch for some of the more lack-luster areas.
The character animation is very well done, from Toan's sword-swinging to Goro's billowing bearskin cape, the reproduction of cloth and human movement is exceptional, though there is a rigidity present in certain characters that makes me scratch my head. The cat girl Xiao's tail is usually ramrod straight and totally lacks the independence of the true feline appendage.
Special effects, such as lighting are very well done, but the spell and special effects are dull, and there is no significant use of the PS2's vaunted particle system.
The variety of enemies leaves much to be desired, but the variance in their graphical quality is large. Some are quite basic, like the animated skeleton, and then there are the flying tiki-mask hunters, which are displayed in 128-bit splendor quite well. The bosses are amazingly rendered and animated with ferocity suiting their scale.
The cinematics in the game are all rendered in real-time using the in-game engine and though not breathtaking FMV, it's utilitarian and works fairly well. The entire game also suffers from aliasing issues that were once thought to have vanished with Ridge Racer V. Though not as obtrusive as RRV, the aliasing does bring the overall graphical rating down a notch. Overall, 'Dark Cloud' is a mixed bag of graphical gems and rhinestones, caveat emptor.
While 'Dark Cloud' attempts to create a variety of scores indicative of the region Toan and co. visit, there is always a prevalent eastern flair to the music. Though the music is obviously processor-generated, the quality is excellent, if a bit dulcimer-heavy at times. Upon walking into a new village, the music is surprisingly mellow and unobtrusive. Each town has it's own distinct musical representation, further accentuating the differences between lands.
While walking amongst the buildings, the peacful ambience of the environment is uninhibited by the calm melodies. The creaking boards of a wooden bridge and the babbling brook below, to the birds chirping overhead, the ambient sound sampling is very well done. As the game shifts from day to night, you can even hear the crickets chirping after sunset. Though the game does not support Dolby 5.1, if you have an effective surround sound set-up, all sounds are appropriately placed.
Walking into any structure in the Georama mode begins the horror. The EXACT same score is played in every house, in every village. This severely detracts from the overall score, as you spend so much time interacting with NPC's in their houses, that this becomes grating. The music in the dungeons is far less grating, but due to the tremendous time spent trolling the underworld, the music does get tiresome after several hours. The combat music is effective in raising your pulse, but you will hear it so frequently, that it becomes completely forgettable. The boss music is little more than a slight remix of the combat music and is equally amnesiac.
The sound effects are very well done. You can actually hear the difference between striking metal and striking wood when an enemy blocks. The small sound samples for character attacks and responses are equally well-done and crystal clear. The only issue with the sound is the lack of voice acting. The game is on DVD, and while it's a fairly lengthy quest, there is minimalist text, so there is no reason why they could not have voice-cast the dialogue. In an age of photo-realistic graphics and immersive sound, having to trudge through emotionless text displayed in speeds suitable for hooked-on-phonics users, is tiresome.
The music played during the in-game cinematics are not only suitable to the mood, but are beautifully arranged. The mecha battle cinematic in the later portion of the game had an impressive tune that swelled with the robust energy of the characters. Cinematics aside, the overall quality of the music and sound effects in 'Dark Cloud' was high, but the constant repetition and lack of diversity in many of the tracks, brings the score down considerably.
'Dark Cloud's music and sound was an efficient and effective vehicle for enriching the story, lending unique flavor to each locale and enhancing the surrounding environment. SCEJ and Level 5 did an audibly admirable job, but the overall effect was not exemplary.
Toan's struggle to free the surrounding lands from the evil touch of the Dark Genie is place-holder at best. This game was obviously constructed from the play mechanics upward. Though there over 100 characters to interact with, all of their dialogue is little more than a laundry list of instructions as to how they'd like their homes and villages rebuilt.
The back-stories of each of the playable characters are hardly interesting, and some don't even have much of a personal agenda to resolve over the course of the game. For example, the genie "Ruby", has hardly any story involvement in the game, though she's nice to look at.
What little semblance of plot there is, it isn't apparent until the very end, in which the game forces almost an hour of erratic cinematics down your throat. Characters that made vague appearances in the beginning suddenly take preeminence after 30+ hours of gameplay with no prior foreshadowing. Suddenly the secrets of the universe are dropped into the player's lap and all you can be forced to think is " What the....?". Sloppy, very sloppy.
There are numerous tasks for you to fulfill in your fight to save the land, but most are little more than finding a lollipop for an angry child. A few of the quests you undergo to help the villagers are enjoyable, like reuniting the immortal souls of two ill-fated lovers, but overall they are very short.
The game suffers in storytelling terribly because of poor planning and piecemeal execution. Had the developers had time to develop the story and implement the 'big picture' earlier into the game, the game would have scored much higher.
The game is divided into 2 distinct sections, the dungeon and "Georama" mode, and a unique weapon creation system. The purpose of the game is to reconstruct the shattered land in the 'Georama' mode by finding fragments encased in "Atla" throughout the game's 6 dungeons. Each locale has it's own designated dungeon, and each dungeon contains all the "Atla" necessary for constructing that particular town. Items contained within the "Atla" can be anything from a person to a bucket.
The dungeon mode is fairly basic. Each floor is randomly generated, with keys to be found in order to progress to the next level. These are usually being held by one of the inhabitants of that level. On each floor there are secret venues to the "other" side of the floor. These hidden areas are additional random floors, but host more powerful monsters and very rare items.
The problem is, trying to find the item that allows you access to each special area is different for every dungeon. For example, in the first dungeon, the bonus area for each floor can only be reached via the mine-cart. The mine cart can only be used if its wheels have been oiled with lubricant. How do you find this magical lubricant, I wish I knew. They appear to be randomly dropped, but the game states that there are specific ways to obtain these special keys, but that those ways are also random. Maybe I'm just slow, but the logic escapes me.
As you obtain more characters in the game, some dungeon levels will restrict you in many ways. Sometimes you cannot use certain abilities, your thirst meter depletes faster, your weapon experience will decrease as you use it, etc. These insidious restrictions are irritating, but nothing is as infuriating as when the restriction limits you to a specific character for that floor. This is beyond annoying. With the characters being very unbalanced, most players will choose to play with primarily one character, upgrading his/her weapon appropriately.
The other characters are for the most part unnecessary, except for opening certain doors or bypassing obstructions. So, when you end up being forced to play a slow, worthless character like Goro (who is only useful for opening ground activated switches) it really detracts from the enjoyment of the game. This is even more aggravating in later levels when you're forced to play a character with a weapon that has not been upgraded. You will die constantly, as you try to chip away at a high level beast with an entry level toothpick. Instead of enjoying those levels, the player is forced to run like mad, desperately searching for the key to a more hospitable level. This facet of the gameplay leaves me feeling cheated and is an unscrupulous way for the developers to force variety.
The "Georama" mode is the main creative aspect of the game, but reconstructing the towns with villagers, their homes and personal effects isn't as open as you might believe. In fact, though this portion of the game is its most interesting facet, it's also the most restrictive. When placing a new building you've freed from the "Atla", a graphical menu comes up. This menu shows you the slots that need to be filled for that specific structure to be considered completed. All of the structure's slots are specifically shaped to accommodate the required items and persons, which in turn are specifically shaped as well. You then play a game (not unlike a 2-year-old's fisher-price toy), in which you put the shaped objects into the corresponding slots. Mixing and matching is NOT an option.
You then have to worry about placement. Some villagers like to be placed near water, others on higher ground. Though you can alter the terrain, this is a poor-man's Populous. You can lay down road, river, and shrubbery. Elevation of landscape is merely placing a mound, handled like depositing any building. But there is even less variety in placement, as everyone's requests lead to a pre-fabricated layout of what the village MUST be. You can choose to ignore the villagers' requests, but not only will this inhibit you from progressing, it will exclude you from special items and abilities gained at 100% villager satisfaction.
Amazingly enough, it is the weapon creation system that amazed me the most about this game. As you play the game, you find new weapons for each character. Each weapon has statistics against certain creatures, as well as elemental ability. Each weapon has a certain number of slots that can be filled with items, usually gemstones, which will increase certain statistics. The rarer the gemstone, the more stats are raised, but some gemstones are great for specific enemy and elemental stats.
As you fight and defeat enemies, your weapon gains experience. When the weapon gains enough experience to 'level-up' the inserted gems are permanently absorbed by the weapon, and the cycle begins anew. Once the weapon reaches level 5, it can be 'broken' or recreated. When the weapon is 'broken', it is transformed into a gemstone, preserving 80% of all of its old statistics for use in a new weapon. The new weapon must have a blue slot to be able to use a broken-weapon gem. This gem can in-turn be permanently absorbed into the new weapon upon level-up.
For a weapon to be 'recreated' into a newer, hopefully more powerful armament, the weapon must have met specific elemental, statistical and enemy ratings. Once these requirements are met, you can see what the new weapon will be and transform accordingly. But, you must be careful, since the weapon changes completely, it may be weaker than the initial weapon, or it may have fewer slots for use.
All weapons are graphically represented when the player uses them. And some weapons have specific animation and effects based upon elemental power. This gameplay aspect of 'Dark Cloud' is, in my opinion, the most redeeming factor in the entire game. It pushes you further into the tedium of the dungeons, slaying as many enemies as you can, hoping to find that rare gem, or gathering enough experience to transform your blade. It encourages you to fight onward, hoping that someday your pitiful Broadsword may become the legendary '7th Heaven'.
Overall, gameplay in 'Dark Cloud' is above average; many issues prevent it from being exceptional. The dungeon mode is merely a vehicle for world building, though one that is overly repetitive and vexing at times. The 'Georama' mode offers simple freedom hidden inside a finely gilded cage. It is only the brilliant weapon system, with its diversity and depth, that saves this rating from plunging into the toilet. Oh, and did I mention the fishing game? Irritating, dull, and totally unnecessary.
It is impossible not to compare 'Dark Cloud' with 'Legend of Zelda: TOOT', but I will attempt to keep parallels at a minimum. In 'Dark Cloud', combat is handled in real time, within a 3D environment with a free-floating camera. The player can use a button to lock onto a specified target and attack without fear of being misdirected, or missing because of misplacement. Attacking and defending are delegated to their own buttons, though there is no jump button available (grrrrr...). The camera also follows the "lock-on" action in a usually intelligent manner.
Unfortunately, when not locked in mortal combat, the camera is not only slow, it's sloppy. You'll find yourself spending a great deal of time adjusting it manually, and occasionally in combat. The button placement for combat is acceptable, and combat is a breeze to get into. There is a slight lag in character reaction from your input, but nothing severe.
What is irritating is that you cannot break a combo that you've started, and all combos end in a character pause of a second or two. Some sword combos are rather lengthy and if you miss your mark, you are extremely vulnerable to attack. Another serious problem with the combat is that changing target lock-on after vanquishing a foe never worked, you needed to spin around, face the new assailant and then lock on. The initial lock doesn't transfer to the next target upon defeat of the old target, the lock just drops. This can make combat in a large group of enemies tedious and deadly.
The game supports analog control well and is responsive, but the use of the dual-shock ability is questionable. The only jolt you receive is when your character is getting a throttling and even then, a blast with a spell or a sword in the side all feels the same. Sony should have spent a little more time incorporating the force feedback to include other facets of the game, as well as varying combat responses.
Combat is extremely unbalanced as new characters with long-range ability become available. Once Osmond becomes selectable, melee play becomes completely unnecessary. Some characters, like Goro are slow, weak and totally useless. Overall, control is responsive and easily playable, but the lock-on errors, the combat timing problems, control limitations, and severely unbalanced characters make 'Dark Cloud's playability only slightly above average.
Why did I rate 'Dark Cloud' so highly overall? The game, though not exceptional, manages to bring together so many gameplay elements in such a cohesive fashion, that it deserves recognition. It melds the gameplay of 'The Legend of Zelda:TOoT', with the world building aspects of 'ActRaiser', and snuggles a weapon system reminiscent of 'Vagrant Story' into a tight little package. 'Dark Cloud' is not the celestial "Zelda-killer" the media spoke so often about, only a fairly well designed adventure, integrating some of the most amazing and successful concepts of modern gaming.
Though the game is rough around the edges at first, it grows on the player as more options become available. The dungeons are repetitive, but the rewards that are reaped for use in 'Georama' and weapon-building, is worth the tedium. The story is poorly integrated, but by no means terrible. The game is visually attractive, even impressive at times, despite aliasing issues. The musical score and sound effects are very well done, though repetitive. The gameplay is easy to get into, and though there are a few niggling issues, it doesn't make the game painful.
I applaud SCEI (SCEJ & SCEA) and Level 5 for a great first effort in making such a diverse game. They have laid a solid foundation, let's hope they build on it. In closing, I initially hated 'Dark Cloud' for trying to poorly emulate so many great games. Though, played on it's own merits, without predisposed expectations, it was enjoyable to the end.... just leave the ocarina at home.