Dark Cloud 2

At the beginning of the 16-bit era of RPGs, Quintet developed, and Enix published ActRaiser, which was unique for its combination of simulation and action elements. About two console generations later would come something of a spiritual successor, Dark Cloud, which had a similar combination of RPG and simulation aspects, and was one of the PlayStation 2’s launch titles, its development by Level-5. A few years later came a sequel in the PS2 entitled Dark Chronicle in Japan and Europe and Dark Cloud 2 in North America, in some instances both a step forward and backward.

The sequel has a similar setup of randomly-generated levels like the first game, although unlike the first game, simulation isn’t available from the beginning, so the player then is free to blaze through dungeons if they find a key to the next area. Special medals are available for fulfilling certain conditions in each stage such as not healing, attacking only with either one of Max or Monica’s weapons (with each having a melee and range weapon), or completing a round of Spheda, a golf-like mini-game, within a limited number of strokes.

Max is also eventually able to mount a machine known as the Ridepod, useful for fighting large enemies, and Monica can transform into various monsters, though odds are that players won’t be using the latter ability that much, given the tedium of leveling forms and the constant increase of difficulty against enemies. However, there is a little trick to leveling desired weapons and the Ridepod by killing an enemy with one form and quickly changing to another, whereas both weapons if the player switches characters will gain experience spheres and the Ridepod if the player switches to it gets the experience.

One aspect that’s a step down from the first Dark Cloud title is the targeting system, where the player locks onto enemies with the circle button, and whereas the player could use one button in the first place to switch targets in the case of more than one enemy, in the sequel the player must use the analog stick and the circle button to rotate the camera and change targets, which can someone screw up the player’s positioning of the camera at times, and consequentially make combat with multiple foes somewhat difficult without using the Ridepod, which tends to take less damage when the main characters aren’t guarding (and mastering defense is actually necessary towards getting past most enemies without taking much damage), and recklessly attacking foes in fact is a terrible way to play.

Another aspect of the game mechanics is Max’s ability to take photographs, although this requires the player to place his camera in one of the three available item slots, and the game could have easily made photography available without needing to equip the camera since the shortcuts could otherwise serve a better purpose for things such as amulets that protect Max and Monica from status ailments. The sequel also needlessly forces players to equip Max with his fishing rod or Spheda club in place of his normal right-hand weapon if the player wants to fish or golf, when the game, too, could have easily made both mini-games available without necessitating a change in weapons.

As mentioned, defeating enemies releases balls that level up the weapon used to kill a particular enemy (with the mentioned leveling trick for weaker weapons and forms being available), with the weapon gaining a number of Skill Points. To use these points, the player spectrumizes one of their many items to increase a certain stat, with the player able to spectrumize more than one of a particular item to receive a special item that uses a number of points depending upon the number of the item spectrumized, after which the player uses the spectrumized item on the weapon to increase its stats. Depending upon leveled stats, the player can upgrade weapons into more powerful forms if their stats allow.

The other side of the coin of the game mechanics is simulation, with dungeons after the initial Palm Brinks sewers typically having Geostones in each stage that the player needs to take in order to make objectives in each simulation field clear and get things that the player can synthesize with raw materials they can place on the field in order to affect the future, and participating actively in the simulation makes little brown chests appear in the future versions of each area that contain powerups to Max and Monica’s HP as well as their defense. Searching every corner for these chests can be a definite pain, and the game could have easily had maps and indicators showing where said boxes were.

In the end, the game mechanics work fairly decently in spite of the aforementioned flaws such as the difficulties with the targeting system when fighting multiple enemies, the tedium of searching every corner of every future for the small chests, and the general lack of reward for killing bosses, which are mostly obstacles the player must overcome in order to advance the game. The endgame is fairly tedious, as well, with the player needing to fight several forms of the final boss and other baddies with no opportunities to save in between, accounting for a hell of a lot of lost progress should the player die against one of them (and revival items are fairly hard to come across). Otherwise, the chief game mechanics, in spite of their flaws, help more than hurt.

Control is a little better, with a linear structure that keeps players moving in the right direction and the removal of the first game’s limited inventory, not to mention a pause button that’s available most of the time, alongside skippable cutscenes. Granted, it can be a pain to search every corner of every future version of each stage for chests necessary to power up Max and Monica’s HP and defense power, as mentioned above, but otherwise, interaction helps the game more than hurts.

The weakest link of Dark Cloud 2 is undoubtedly its storyline. First, one of the first few villains is put on a bus, never to return until the post-game content, and in most instances the plot is maddening in its refusal to paint most adversaries are truly villainous, since most with whom the protagonists come into contact end up canonized somehow. Time travel has also been done to death in RPGs, as have mysterious MacGuffins that the villains desperately desire, and while the story has some depth and backstory at times, it’s pretty much a sequel in name only to the original Dark Cloud. Ultimately, the narrative comes across as infantile, ironic considering the game’s T rating. The translation, however, is actually pretty good for Sony in spite of some occasional awkward phrases like “The Geostone fell.”

The soundtrack is pretty good, however, and the main battle theme is actually fairly decent, a step above the first game’s weak combat theme, and the music even changes in the final dungeon of the main game. The sound effects are fitting, as well, and the voicework is actually pretty decent despite Sony’s dubs typically being poor, with the only real weak link in the acting being Max, whose voice makes him sound a little older than he actually looks. In the end, a decent-sounding game.

One of the best aspects of the game is its graphics, with Level-5 using the cel-shaded style they originally intended to use in the first game before rushing it to release as a PlayStation 2 launch title, which look absolutely gorgeous in spite of some bland texturing when seen close-up.

Finally, the main game clocks in at about thirty hours, with the post-game content and things such as collecting every medal from every level of a dungeon padding this time to around sixty-plus hours, adding significant lasting appeal.

In summation, Dark Cloud 2 is for the most part a good sequel that hits many of the right notes, particularly with regards to its decent game mechanics, good music and voicework, gorgeous graphics, and replayability, although it does leave room for improvements in areas such as searching for powerups for both Max and Monica, the endgame boss battles, and a clichéd narrative. The Dark Cloud franchise would become inert after its first and thus far only sequel, and those who en joyed titles such as ActRaiser and the original game will likely enjoy the sequel.

The Good:
+Decent game mechanics and control.
+Good music and voicework.
+Beautiful graphics.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Searching for powerups can be irritating.
-The endgame.
-Hackneyed narrative.

The Bottom Line:
A decent, though flawed, sequel.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 8/10
Story: 6/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 9/10
Localization: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 30-60 Hours

Overall: 8/10

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