Dark Cloud
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In 1990, Quintet developed and Enix published ActRaiser on the Super Famicom, a title renowned for its mixture of simulation and action elements, which would see its North American release the following year; it would receive a sequel, albeit without the simulation aspect. Fast-forward to the turn of the millennium, when developer Level-5 produced what many consider a spiritual successor to ActRaiser, Dark Cloud, which features a similar combination of action and simulation elements, albeit with greater action role-playing game features, a combo that serves the game well.

The main gimmick of the first Dark Cloud is that most of the people of the world and their dwellings have been sealed in spheres called Atla that protagonist Toan can unseal when he explores the randomly-generated dungeons that accompany barren fields that once held towns, so they could receive protection from the resurrected Dark Genie. The simulation is perhaps the strongest part of Dark Cloud’s game mechanics, with unsealed NPCs having specific requests on where to place their houses that the player can obey for a bonus item should they fulfill all requests in a town.

As the player rebuilds the world, small orange chests appear near houses that contain various items, among them being special items that increase one of six characters’ maximum HP, raises specific characters’ defense, and increases their thirst meters, which, when depleted, will gradually drain HP unless that character drinks water and brings their gauge back up. One shortcoming is that the game interface doesn’t keep track of which houses have said small chests in and around them, thus necessitating the player to search thoroughly so that they can keep their defense up to a point where they can deal with enemies, with most able to slay a character in a few hits.

Another strong suit of Dark Cloud’s game mechanics is the weapon system, with each of six playable characters accessing various weapons that have attack power, endurance (which, when depleted, eliminates the weapon from the inventory, so the player must be cautious, speed, and magic power, along with the affinity of five different elements and effectiveness against specific enemy types. The player can increase these by placing gems into the weapons’ sockets, although if the player wants these increases to be permanent, they will need to kill enough enemies to increase its Ability Points by a certain level to where the game will allow them to upgrade the weapon, thus expending the attached gems and necessitating the game to build up the weapon’s Ability Points again for another upgrade.

If the player has built specific stats of a weapon up to certain levels, the game will allow them to upgrade the weapon to a more powerful form, in which instance the process of killing enemies for Ability Points and upgrading with gems continues. The battle system works well for the most part, with a general small scale of battles, although players might want to stick with using the three characters with ranged attacks since melee combat can often get ugly, given the ability of enemies to kill characters in only a few hits. Most bosses require some semblance of strategy, some of which, especially in one case, can be difficult to figure out, although the battle system still works well overall.

Controls are mostly decent, with an easy menu system, easy shopping, and what not, alongside a linear structure that always keeps the player moving in the right direction. The main issue is inventory management, given the limit upon Toan’s space, although rarely-found Pockets can somewhat increase this limit. Towards the end of the game, however, the player will need to keep a full inventory to deal with the final boss’s various forms, and unfortunately, even storage space where the player can drop excess items has a limit, as well. In the end, okay control.

The plot is one of the weaker aspects of the game, given the relative lack of focus on the six playable characters the player ultimately has available to them throughout the game, although the mini-stories that are occasionally present within each world are decent. The translation could have been better as well, given some major errors such as a discrepancy between “Muska Lacka” and “Muska Racka.” In the end, while the narrative isn’t a definite turn-off, it could have certainly been better.

The music is one of the stronger aspects of Dark Cloud, with a nice variety of enjoyable dungeon tracks such as the Wise Owl Forest theme, along with occasional voice clips for characters that mostly consist of grunts, although the weak point of the aurals is the somewhat bland and repetitive them that plays, except in the final dungeon, when the active character is close to enemies. Otherwise, a decent-sounding game.

The graphics are fairly nice for a PlayStation 2 launch title, even if the game doesn’t use the cel-shading that future Level-5 games would use, with well-designed character and enemy models, not to mention environments, although there is the occasional palette-swapped foe.

Finally, the first game isn’t terribly lengthy, taking from twenty to thirty hours for a straightforward playthrough, although post-game content such as an extra dungeon can easily push playing time beyond this range, and given the randomization of dungeons not to mention variety of weapons, replay value is naturally high.

Ultimately, Dark Cloud was a solid start to the series, given its enjoyable combination of simulation and role-playing game elements, along with nice graphics, a decent soundtrack, and enough variety to keep players coming back for more. It does have some hiccups with regards to the limited inventory space, some faults in the narrative, and the localization, but is otherwise an enjoyable experience and was one of the better launch titles when it saw its release on the PlayStation 2.

The Good:
+Solid gameplay with plenty variety.
+Great graphics soundtrack.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Limited inventory.
-Some narrative hiccups.
-Weak localization.

The Bottom Line:
Good spiritual successor to ActRaiser.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 6/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 9/10
Localization: 5/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Easy to Medium
Playing Time: 20-30 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

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