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Chronological Game Challenge – Dark Cloud

October 18, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

Hello! The Chronological Challenge catchup continues, and today we reach the end of the year 2000, and coincidentally enter a new console generation at the same time. That’s if you don’t count the Dreamcast, but then again I don’t. Enjoy!

Dark Cloud
Publisher: SCE | Developer: Level-5 | Year: 2000
Original System: PlayStation 2
Played on: PS2

Goal: See how far I get in a single setting

Actual Outcome: Built the first village

And so we finally reach our first true PS2 title, and not just one that was a port from another system. Released a few months after the system’s launch in Japan, Dark Cloud was the first major title developed by Level-5, the beloved developers who would later go onto create the Professor Layton series, but their early years were dominated with cult RPGs made for Sony, including this one.

Dark Cloud is an action JRPG released at a time when the JRPG market was becoming a little crowded, so to set itself apart, Level-5 decided to pull in some elements from another genre entirely – the city-building and management aspects of the likes of SimCity. It was a bizarre idea, but it was one that fascinated me from the moment I played the original demo back in the day.

Dark Cloud is primarily a dungeon crawler. You play Toan, a young boy in a poncho and leggings, and wander through dungeons in different parts of the world. Each floor is procedurally-generated with a few key exceptions, and you have to fight enemies to progress, and you gather up items as you do so.

But where things get interesting is in some of those collectible items. You see, Toan’s home and a few other places have suffered a terrible disaster. Due to the actions of an evil genie, entire cities have been wiped clean off the map. A wizard managed to salvage the damage by locking everyone and everything in small magical balls called Atlamillia, but these have scattered across the land, and have to be retrieved from the dungeons.

And this is where the SimCity aspects come into play. Using the gathered Atlamillia, you must then rebuild the cities and towns of the world manually, while townspeople you save and bring back will give you hints to optimal placement of their homes and businesses. And honestly, this is the main draw of Dark Cloud. It’s horrendously addictive to gather up the pieces of a town and gradually see it come together. A tree here, a shop there, until you start seeing a vibrant homestead where there was once a big empty space.

But while that is the case, Dark Cloud manages to be average in most areas. The dungeon-crawling that makes up a big chunk of the game is incredibly repetitive, and the random nature of it all means that you often end up in situations you’re ill-prepared for, or you end up encountering situations where you have to trawl around previously-cleared areas of the map to seek out the last enemy you need to take out to get the key to the next floor.

The dungeons are also bland in their presentation. The first dungeon in particular stands out in its inability to stand out. Set in a cave, every single floor is a maze of brown shades with no discernible features, while it’s not uncommon to imagine that your gameplay experience is similar to a Hanna-Barbera cartoon where they run past the same backdrop over and over again.

The combat that leads much of the gameplay is also fairly dull. It tries to do interesting things with elemental weaknesses and such, but switching between weapons swiftly becomes a chore, and the actual mechanics are fighting are repetitive. It can also be annoying when a floor locks you to a specific character who is fairly weak and hasn’t been levelled up much because the random nature of the dungeons means you haven’t been given the right tools to level them up.

The story and presentation are also painfully average. The story meanders from place to place with no amount of coherence, while the graphics and character designs are fairly nondescript. It has all the hallmarks of being a game that might have been slightly rushed to meet the PS2’s launch window.

But while Dark Cloud could be much better, that addictiveness in building town and cities holds it all together. It’s a game that tries to do something new and interesting, but just struggles a little to make it consistently entertaining.

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