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Of Hacking and Slashing
By: Red Raven
There was really only one game I bought my Playstation 2 for originally and that was for Final Fantasy X. In the weeks leading up to the console's release however, I heard tales of this game, Dark Cloud which promised to revolutionize dungeon crawling with its fantastic visuals and innovative designs. While the former was summarily dwarfed by FFX, the latter claim remained in the back of my mind as something to look into at some point down the road. "Down the road" has become two years later but what I have discovered is that Dark Cloud still remains a somewhat pleasant adventure game despite the years and other, admittedly, better releases. I say adventure game because Dark Cloud is in no way an RPG. There are hit points, sure, but there are no experience points, no levels, no character development, and no over-arching plot to speak about. Dark Cloud is simply an innovative dungeon crawler with several hooks unique enough to compel someone not normally interested in dungeon crawlers to give it a try. One of these innovations comes from the battle system itself.
Initially though, it appears that the battle system could not get any more academic. Press X repeatedly until the monster is dead, run around Zelda-style until you find another monster, then repeat; the pattern only ceases when one is forced to leave a dungeon because of dehydration (yes, there is a water meter), perhaps because of an annoying status ailment which one does not have the cure handy for, or in the infrequent mini-boss duels in which combat is turned into a Dance Dance Revolution-esque rhythm battle. Although this holds true for the majority of the game, what is quite innovative are the weapons themselves. Each weapon has a large number of differing statistics that range from the normal Attack Power and Speed, to elemental affinities, to creature/race weaknesses. If this reminds you of Vagrant Story, it should. However, the important difference between Vagrant Story and this game is that managing weapon statistics is actually fun in this one rather than being overly elaborate and complex as in the other.
Each weapon has between 2-4 slots in which you can insert gems and accessories which end up raising the various stats a bit. Using the weapon causes the Weapon Hit Points (WHP) of the weapon to go down, which it then breaks and disappears entirely upon reaching 0 (Repair Powders heal weapon damage). Defeating enemies causes the ABS of the weapon to increase, until finally becoming full at increasingly higher intervals. Once a weapon's ABS is full it can be "leveled-up," becoming stronger not only by a marginal increase in primary statistics, but also by absorbing its attachments permanently. As the weapon statistics increase, it can also be evolved into more powerful weapons as long as it meets all the other requirements for the new weapon. If you upgrade a weapon but later find another you would rather use, then you can "Status Break" the older weapon--turning it into an attachment that has 60% of the former weapon's stats--and simply equip it on the new one (which it then can later be permanently absorbed). Keeping track of WHP, ABS, elemental affinities, evolving weapons, and so on help break up the monotony of the dungeon crawling quite a bit; I even caught myself having fun a few times in there.
The game itself is divided up into several large regions which each have a 15-18 level dungeon and a village of some sort. Each randomly-generated level of the dungeon really takes only 5-10 minutes to complete, with the rest of your time spent either upgrading your weapons or using the highly innovative Georama feature to piece the world back together. See, you find these spheres (Atla) in each dungeon and each sphere holds a piece of a village that was otherwise destroyed. Coming to the site of a village for the first time you'll just see an expanse of flat grass or sand; once you acquire enough pieces of the various buildings, trees, rivers, roads, and so on, you can start rebuilding the village as you see fit. Completing a house the way the resident wants it to be rebuilt usually nets you some rewards, but really, you can arrange the village itself any way you see fit, in real-time. Once you've made a good (or sadistic as the case may be) arrangement, a simple button press causes the camera to go down to ground level so you can explore your masterpiece in person. If you'd prefer for a house to be on the other side of a road you just laid, fixing it takes all of ten seconds and then you're back to exploring your handiwork. Really, it is difficult to describe the fun it is to simply walk around a village you have created yourself and to hear the townspeople praise you on a job well done.
The actual plot behind Dark Cloud is not all that interesting, and for the most part, is badly executed. It becomes immediately apparent that the plot does not take itself that seriously, but this is a Good Move overall as the style of the game does not lend itself to credibility. However, later in the game the plot makes various stabs at presenting an endearing message but it does not mesh well at all with the thirty hours of light-hearted gameplay which precedes it. It is one thing for a game to be as a Grandia or Lost Kingdoms, it is quite another when it pretends to be something it is not. This lapse of judgment on the part of Sony's writers causes what charm the plot had seem plastic and artificial, and ruins an otherwise easy-going experience by trying to say a message where none needed to be said.
While, again, Dark Cloud cannot hold even a small candle to the graphical juggernauts of our day--or even of its day for that matter--it nevertheless looks generally good. The character and monster designs are not entirely interesting but they move somewhat fluidly and being able to see entire cities rendered on the fly was a nice effect. In the grand scheme of things, Dark Cloud looks marginally better than, say, Ocarina of Time (which it appears much was inspired from). This may not be impressive seeing as this means it is emulating graphics from a game that was three years old at the time of its release (and on the N64), but it works out well enough. What also works out well and is worth mentioning is the music in Dark Cloud: aside from one or two village themes, the entire soundtrack is rather pleasing to the ear. This is a rather large feat considering the majority of one's time will be spent either rebuilding the villages or exploring the dungeons and otherwise listening to the same song being repeated once every few minutes. Each area has its own unique theme which fits very well with its environment (openness in the grasslands, mysteriousness in the desert, and so on). Indeed, if it were not for the fact that you can generally only spend a finite amount of time in the various dungeons, I would have liked to taken a few minutes doing nothing other than simply listening. The music is by no means brilliant or moving, but for this type of game, it fits perfectly.
If there was one word in which I would have to describe Dark Cloud with, it would be "underwhelming." The gameplay is unique and deep enough to spend some longer hours with if one so desires, and there is even a 100-floor bonus dungeon offered after completing the game; if one was sufficiently bored or infatuated with the gameplay then it very well might be worth the trouble. But taken in context with the state of gaming today Dark Cloud simply cannot measure up. There are better-looking games, deeper games, and more innovative games out there now, with even more being released today. Against the current competition, Dark Cloud simply cannot keep up. It was a noble effort however and it appears that it was good enough to warrant what looks to be quite an interesting sequel. And for a simple game such as Dark Cloud, that is accomplishment enough.
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