Ah, the classics: the good old games from our youth that still manage to impress us even today. Despite the heightened standards of today’s RPGs, many new releases ultimately fail and go unnoticed. This recent trend has caused many gamers to lose interest in the current state of the genre, instead returning to the safety and security of the classic sagas of Shining Force, Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star. But even among this darkness there is still hope, a shining star amidst an ocean of cold constellations. Diligently working out the problems that plagued their first title, LEVEL-5 has crafted an adventure that returns the soul of a true “classic” to the genre, carried in a vessel that meets today’s standards in graphics, sound, and gameplay. This masterpiece is Dark Cloud 2.
Dark Cloud 2 focuses on the adventures of two young heroes, Max and Monica. Max is a young genius inventor who spends much of his time fixing the broken down machines of his neighbors. Max dreams of one day discovering the whereabouts of his long lost mother. He possesses a very special heirloom of his father’s, a red jewel pendant that he was told to never lose. Monica, however, hails from millennia into the future, where the diabolical Emperor Griffon has murdered her father and laid waste to her homeland. His insurmountable evil had caused a great rebellion to take arms against his tyrannical reign. To insure his power in the future, Emperor Griffon has sent his forces 1,000 years prior to the creation of this rebellion, laying waste to the world in search of one particularly special red jewel. The gem just so happens to be in the hands of a very bright, very adventurous young boy – Max. After a narrow escape from a troupe of Griffon’s soldiers, Max crosses paths with Monica, who holds a blue jewel similar to his own that allows her to shift from the present to the future. Together the duo set out to repair the time distortions and free the world of Griffon’s oppression forever. Though their quest may sound simple, the plot takes several twists and turns, managing to dig deeper than one might have ever imagined. In essence, Dark Cloud 2 resembles Chrono Trigger as an endearing adventure chock full of time travel with all the action and thrills of a high-caliber RPG.
As the duo crosses the ravaged lands of Max’s time, they rebuild the fallen cities and towns in order to restore and ensure the prosperity of Monica’s future. Traveling between the future and past with the help of their Atlamillia (the jeweled pendants), Max and Monica single-handedly restore both worlds before their final confrontation with the Emperor. In the process of their rebuilding, they will come across truths and revelations that unexpectedly deepen the plot, sending the original Dark Cloud deeper into the recesses of shame. Eventually, as the game draws to a close, gamers who have not been wowed by the lovable and endearing characters and their astonishing adventure will have little respite to satiate their demanding hunger. It doesn’t get any better than this. When all said is done, Dark Cloud 2 is unarguably an “old school” RPG.
In comparison to most other cel-shaded games on the market, Dark Cloud 2 is visually astounding. The game manages to utilize the pros and cons of cel-shading and cartoon rendering in order to create a rather unique hybrid. This technique is called “tonal rendering”, a non-photo realistic rendering method along the lines of cel-shading, that was used to fill in the game’s 3D graphics. The results are a finely detailed and brightly colored set of character models and environments that give the game a unique look all its own. Playing Dark Cloud 2 is like staring at the finest paintings in an art museum. The lush, varied locales and the wide range of highly detailed and fabulously colored character models are rich with a visionary’s touch. Effects are dazzling and certainly worthy of praise, as is the attention to detail. Cracks in stone, mosaic patterns, overgrown flora, real-time lighting techniques and even the rise and fall of the sun and moon are testament to LEVEL-5’s commitment to the game’s ambience. The animation is smooth and natural; sometimes as intricate as having Max’s pendant bouncing off his chest as he runs.
How’s the gameplay? Dark Cloud 2 may very well have redefined the phrase “diverse gameplay”. Combat consists of utilizing one of the two main characters. Both are adept in short and long range combat; Max wields a wrench and handgun and Monica totes a sword and the ability to launch magic blasts from her armband. Although this would seem to suggest there’s no real point in toggling between the characters, often times certain types of monsters are only susceptible to a specific weapon. For example, against beast-class creatures, Monica deals inordinate amounts of damage to while Max is much less effective. Conversely, Max can easily handle mechanical foes toe-to-toe, whereas Monica deals considerably less damage. This keeps gameplay level between the two characters, almost forcing players to balance Max and Monica so that when cases such as when a dungeon forces certain battle conditions, neither character is crippled to the extent that game progression is prohibited.
Although Dark Cloud 2 is much more story-driven than its predecessor, the game cannot escape the fact that series revolves around dungeon exploration. There are only a handful of locales within the world of Dark Cloud 2, but each has its own unique dungeon that is subsequently divided into floors. The first few dungeons have only ten to twenty floors, but later the number of floors increases drastically. This may seem tedious, but considering how thoroughly enjoyable combat is, as well as how much there is to do during each floor, that the “chore” is actually enjoyable. Sometimes, however, requirements forced upon the player arise that can lead to minor irritation. “Red Seals” and “Blue Seals” are examples of these annoyances, conditions that inhibit the player from using Max or Monica until all the monsters in a dungeon are cleared. There are other conditions as well, but none of them are nearly as restricting as those. Despite this would-be hindrance, the game manages to keep players’ attention thanks to a gripping battle system.
Even though the player is limited to only two characters, both Monica and Max have secondary states that, in reality, are individual characters of their own. For Max, the wondrous invention called the “Ridepod” is at his disposal. Dubbed “STEVE”, the Ridepod is a fully armed, mecha creation piloted by Max. Beyond that, the Ridepod is customizable as well. Players can customize STEVE with a wide assortment of propulsion systems, weapon types, body chassis and fuel tanks. For instance, a player can arm STEVE with two arms wielding katanas, or if they have a preference for long-range attacks, two rather intimidating gattling guns. The list goes on and on. As with Max and Monica’s ability to change costumes, as STEVE’s parts change its physical appearance will as well, adding a great deal of aesthetic bonus points to the game. The components for STEVE are obtained by two methods: waiting for them to be available for purchase or by inventing the parts using Max’s genius. Once parts are made, they can be equipped to give the Ridepod greater strength, and in some cases, a much more appealing design. With this, gameplay is spiced up so that there is virtually no way to become bored with battling with Max.
Monica’s ability is very different but nonetheless as intriguing. This princess from the future can change into various types of monsters and can either fight with their abilities, befriend other monsters, or even communicate with other creatures. The different monster transformations are earned by obtaining monster badges, which are gained initially by purchasing them at one of the shops in the future or by appeasing a monster of a certain family by giving them the item(s) they desire. Once a monster badge is obtained, the basic monster form can evolve into more ferocious ones belonging to the same family. There are twelve badges in total with forty-five different kinds of monsters to evolve into. Although gamers may not find prancing about as a flower-creature nearly as enjoyable as ravaging levels in Max’s Ridepod, many of the monster forms are enjoyable. Particularly, those that can take flight and attack from a distance, such as the dragon-like Gemron family of transformations.
Dark Cloud 2 takes full advantage over the Dual Shock 2, utilizing nearly every button on the controller. Attacking is limited to the X button and is pressed repeatedly in order to initiate combination attacks against enemies. To unleash blasts from the character’s secondary attack (firearm or magic), L1 is held in conjunction with X. Movement is controlled via the analog stick while the D-pad is used to switch between three on-hand items that can be used at any time. Circle activates and toggles targets, R1 blocks, R2 engages a 1st person perspective, L2 returns the camera to its default position and Triangle engages the menu system. Even the R3 and L3 buttons get some action, acting as a quick button for switching between Max and Monica as well as their alternate abilities (Ridepod and Monster Transformation). For the most part, this scheme is typical, but generally suits the game well and makes combat and navigation more or less second nature.
When combat grows tiresome, Dark Cloud 2 offers a handful of alternative activities for players to enjoy. First there is fishing, which is introduced relatively early in the game. Grab a rod, catch some bait, and sit by the waters and wait. Just like real fishing. Veteran fans of the Breath of Fire series may find this mini-game enjoyable, although for most, the slow pace with low rewards may not be quite what they’re looking for. However, there is yet another mini-game DC2 has to offer – Spheda, more commonly known as golf. The goal of Spheda is to eradicating time distortions – by hitting a fragment of time into the distortion. Conveniently, Spheda (golf) clubs are always on hand to be used. The game is simple, to the point, and available after completing certain floors in a dungeon. Limitations are placed on the number of times the player can hit the time fragment (ball) into the time distortion. The catch is that in order to succeed, the color of the time fragment – red or blue – must be the opposite of the distortions. So, if the distortion is red, players will have to seal the distortion with a blue time fragment. It sounds complicated, but once the player gains sufficient control, Spheda can be easily played and enjoyed. Later in the game more fishing events such as size contests and races become available. These may not be as exciting as Spheda but can still be enjoyed casually.
Of course, the most well known gameplay element pioneered with Dark Cloud has returned once again in the sequel – Georama. Georama is the term given to the creation aspect of the gameplay, meaning the rebuilding of towns and areas throughout the game’s world. In accordance to the plot, a device known as Carpenterion, a massive multi-armed machine that could rip a tree from the ground and ram it back into that very spot performs the actual construction of these locations. Before a building can be constructed, parts of the structure have to be created: this is performed by simply obtaining the materials needed to create the object and putting them all together, then placing the finished product on the Georama field. Town parts can be found in Geostones scattered throughout dungeon floors and are uploaded when the player enters the Carpenterion’s menu. All that’s left is to picking a spot for your newfound structure. Once the town is built and finalized, the next task is occupying the houses and workplaces. By returning to Max’s hometown of Palm Brinks, players can perform deeds to recruit key figures within the town such as the bakery owner or the blacksmith/weapons dealer. This aspect of the game is similar to recruiting all 108 Stars of Destiny in Suikoden, only with a considerably smaller roster of recruits. Then, once the happy new townsperson has their little house, voila, a booming city has begun.
Perhaps one of the greatest attributes Dark Cloud 2 is the extensive weapons customization. While both characters have two weapons at their disposal, each set gain levels depending on the character’s use and which weapon delivers the finishing blow. To further equipment progression, players can spectrumize items in order to create material for fusing with weapons. There are many items made specifically for spectrumizing, but practically everything and anything in the inventory can be broken down to that ethereal state. Each item belongs to a single element out of ten possible types, and when the right combination and number of elements is infused into a weapon, an evolution becomes available. Weapons can sometimes evolve into two or three different forms depending on the path the player chooses, ultimately deciding the physical appearance of the weapon. For example, Max’s melee weapon can become a Spheda club, hammer, or wrench. His handgun may change from single-shots to semi-automatic to laser-based attacks. The same applies to Monica, although her weapons tend to stay within the realm of sword-based appearances, only becoming more intricate in design and strength. There are numerous levels of evolution, each with a unique look.
Inventing is another major facet of Dark Cloud 2’s gameplay. This can be used as an alternative to upgrading weapons through spectrumizing, and is the primary means of creating new Ridepod components as well as various items, equipment, and other useful gadgets. The concept is simple: Max can go about the town and various locations of the world and snap photos of various objects with his camera. If something useful is photographed, it will be marked appropriately. The next step is to find invention clues scattered all throughout the world. By combining the three photos listed in a single set of clues, an invention can be created. There’s really no telling what will pop out, as the oddest assortment of photographs can lead to equally bizarre creations – combining milk jugs, a belt and some pipes creates a fuel pack for the Ridepod. This just goes to show how deranged a boy genius’ mind works.
Sadly, Dark Cloud 2 fails to impress with its soundtrack. The game’s score isn’t anything dreadful, but at the same time it deserves no real praise. It is bland, clichéd and boring. Nevertheless it is suitable for the game and each song fits properly with the scene it is intended for. Unfortunately, most players won’t walk away with any of the tunes stuck in their head. The only exception perhaps, would be the theme song sung after a brief introduction to the game. While the music may be unmemorable, the voice acting in this game is utterly amazing. Many of the voices are recognizable talents, especially Max, whose voice has graced a handful of other well-known characters in American animation. Even some of the less important characters are voiced by first class talent. The bunny-like character named Pau who earns the spotlight for perhaps half an hour of Dark Cloud 2’s length sports the same voice actor as Carl from Nickelodeon’s “As Told By Ginger.”
So what does Dark Cloud 2 hold in store for players? A tightly sealed package consisting of wondrously diverse gameplay, gobs of eye candy, superb voice acting, respectable music and a plot good enough to compete with today’s high-budget videogame dramas. While the memory of the original Dark Cloud may have left a bitter taste in many an RPG fan’s mouth, Dark Cloud 2 is 100% pure gaming chocolate. This sequel far exceeds the original in every aspect and if given the proper chance will prove to be a worthy addition to any RPG fan’s collection of classics.