RPGamer Preview: Dark Cloud

Dark Cloud

Combat the forces of darkness and rebuild the entire world from scratch in Sony's first PlayStation2 RPG.

Japanese title screen

Our hero

Amazing draw distance

Get ready to run

What's he gonna do with that tongue?

Is that... Sephiroth??

Gorgeous texturing work

The Georama land-creating system in action

Bow down before the one you serve

You're going to get what you deserve

Glowing energy orb

Flying high

The faces of evil

Build your own towns

Gorgeous sunset

Dungeon exploration

This is just the beginning

Shady characters

A piece of the town

It's party time!

"I don't know what you're saying! It's all funny symbols!"

Platform-jumping action

Motion blurred demonic entities

How will they get out of this one?

Platform: PlayStation2
Developer: SCEI
Publisher: Sony
This game has not yet been rated.

When the first batch of screenshots from Sony's Dark Cloud hit the net back in 1999, fans believed that they were looking at the first PlayStation2 RPG. While this turned out not to be the case, the game has undergone some fairly drastic changes during its years in development, and consistently impressed fans with its progress at each successive gaming show. As more screenshots and game details began to appear, fans quickly discovered that this forthcoming title was much more than a conventional addition to the genre.

Dark Cloud is the kind of game Sony likely wishes they could have included with their North American PlayStation2 launch title lineup last October. It has everything fans were hoping for in a next-generation experience: an intricate, involving storyline, vivid characters, and plenty of amazing graphics and special effects to show off what the new console's hardware can do. At first glance, the game somewhat resembles one of Nintendo's recent The Legend of Zelda titles; it bears a similar game theme, visual style, and borrows the lock-on feature for combat. The main character even looks a bit like Link. However, upon taking a closer look, players will find an intricate and involved gameplay experience that sets Dark Cloud into a unique category all its own.

Dark Cloud tells the tale of a young boy named Toan, who lives in the village of Norn on the western continent of the world (which closely resembles earth). A local festival is interrupted by the arrival of the Lagoon Republic, an invading military force from the east. Colonel Flag, head of the army, unleashes a gigantic floating demon called Djinn, who quickly obliterates the entire village. How Toan survives the destruction is not yet known, but he finds himself alone on a desolate plain following the attack.

Sony describes the game as "an epic journey of rebirth, revival and renewed hope." Indeed, Toan will need to be the bearer of such things, as he goes up against the evil demon spirit, who has been reducing towns all across the world to smoking piles of rubble, and imprisoning the populace in deep, dark caverns. With the aid of the King of Spirits and some magical stones, it will be Toan's duty to restore these places, and to put an end to the Lagoon Republic's destruction. Along the way, he will come across many friends who will fight alongside him and aid him in his quest, as well as many powerful foes who will stop at nothing to interfere.

Graphically, Dark Cloud is somewhat of a testament to what many developers have said about the PlayStation2 and other next-generation systems: that special effects will come to have just as much, if not more significance than polygon counts and texture management. While the characters within Dark Cloud really don't come close to the realism attained in other PlayStation2 RPGs like Final Fantasy X, the ambient qualities of the natural world are absolutely breathtaking. The game's landscape is filled with stunning imagery, such as light filtering dramatically through tree branches, running water that reflects light in real-time, and glorious sunsets that cast long shadows across the ground.

Much of the game's uniqueness and intrigue arrive through the introduction of the "Georama land-creating system." This distinguishing gameplay element allows players to construct their own worlds from an overhead perspective, and then move freely about them in full 3D. The player can construct simple houses, churches and temples, as well as many other special buildings like windmills. There are many different buildings in the game, all of which are quite detailed and distinguished from one another. As well, the terrain can be modified by adding hills, streams, paths, bridges and volcanoes. Even the weather and climate of the land can be controlled. Anyone who remembers Actraiser from the days of the Super Nintendo will have a notion of how this system works, although Dark Cloud takes the entire concept much further. As players reconstruct the town, they will be able to lay it out in whatever design they desire. What's more, the entire process occurs in real-time, meaning that the moment an object or building is created, it can be interacted with. The press of a single button zooms the camera down from the overhead view into a third-person view of Toan in the 3D world, allowing for a quick and simple transition between the two perspectives.

However, this is no Sim-City game: Toan's going to have to work for these building elements. All the houses, shops, and even villagers are magically locked within treasure chests in depths of caverns and dungeons. Once a chest is opened, the energy of the item within will be absorbed into Toan's bracelet, and he will then be able to place the building or object into the map. This, too involves a lot of strategy; for instance, if you allow a farmer's plot of land to be built near a water source, his crops will do better, he will be happier, and he will most likely give you some manner of special item or weapon. Once a building is restored, Toan will then have to rescue it's denizens, who are also locked away in magical chests. Each town is vast, and players can expect to do a lot of investigating if they are determined to seek out every last item and citizen.

Some village elements, such as paths, streams and trees are unlimited, and can be added without having to be discovered in dungeons. This will allow the player to uniquely customize the appearance and layout of the land, and opens up an infinitum of options as to how to play through the game. It will be up to Toan to not only seek out and rescue the people of the town, but also to help them rebuild their destroyed village, and to bring life to the land once more.

Combat and dungeon exploration in Dark Cloud is probably the part of the game most reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda. The dungeons will be laid out in a labyrinthine fashion, including traps and puzzles, as well as a bit of platform jumping to keep players on their toes. While fighting, players can use a lock-on system to stay centered on a particular foe, allowing Toan to strafe and circle around his enemy. The controls are quite simple: one button is used to block and another to attack. However, Sony has made sure to utilize the PlayStation2's analog controller. Lightly pressing the attack button will produce a quick, weaker attack, while fully pressing it will result in a stronger one. The effectiveness of these attacks will vary depending on the current weapon, and players will have to master all the attacks in order to overcome the game's monsters. What's more, companions will join up with Toan's quest along the way, making a total of five playable characters, all of which have different strengths and weaknesses, as well as different weapons. Learning which characters to use in a given situation will be a key factor in succeeding through the game.

Players will have to care for their weapons as they battle through the caverns and dungeons. Taking a cue from Koudelka, weapons must be treated with an alchemistic concoction periodically or they will eventually break and be useless. As well, players must care for themselves. While the game employs a traditional Hit Points system, Toan will also require water, or risk becoming dehydrated. While water is abundant on the overhead map, players will have to search for underground springs and wells while exploring the depths of caverns.

Adding to the replayability factor, and separating the game from The Legend of Zelda, Dark Cloud's dungeons are randomly generated. The locations of monsters and items, as well as the aforementioned springs, will be different every time the game is played. To aid this, the game automatically creates a map based on where the player travels, depicting more and more of the level as it is explored. There are also two key items hidden somewhere in each dungeon that will further assist players. The first is a map, which will completely fill in the automap with the entire level layout. The second is a magical stone, which will mark the locations of items and enemies on the map. Exploring these dark caverns looks to be a very large side of the game, so hopefully Sony will have found a way to balance them out with the Georama system and storyline, to avoid repetitive gameplay.

While Dark Cloud certainly presents its share of dungeon-crawling, most of the plot development and character interaction takes place in the overworld. As the villages are restored, Toan will find many people to talk with and places to explore. Time passes in the game world, and as day turns to night, the towns can drastically change. Some characters might not come out until late in the evening, and many shops and houses will likely close up for the night. Although details on the game's overall story arc are scarce, it is known that Toan will encounter a very large cast of characters, who present him with side quests, provide him with information, and advance the plot.

It should also be noted that, following the Japanese release, the development team behind Dark Cloud put some extra work into the project to make sure that North America received a "perfect edition" of the game. Additions will include an optional higher difficulty level, as well as a drastically enhanced monster AI that will upgrade the mindless drones of the Japanese version to cunning foes, capable of forming intricate strategies against you. As well, new monsters and boss creatures will be added, more areas of the game world will be open to explore, new combo attacks will be available to characters, and weapons will now be upgradeable. This is no minor enhancement; these additions not only add more depth to the gameplay, but also create a far superior gaming experience. This may be evidenced by the fact that there will be about 30% more data contained on the North American DVD than the original Japanese release.

Whether or not Sony's first PlayStation2 RPG title is destined to be a hit in North America will be determined next month when the game is released. Watch for RPGamer's continuing coverage as that time draws near, and watch for Dark Cloud to hit store shelves on May 30th.

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