Dark Cloud (PlayStation 2) review
"But the very worst thing about Dark Cloud is that by the time youíve played enough of the game to realise what a dull experience it is, youíve invested so many hours into your adventure, that giving up means damning all your work into oblivion. Odds are youíll just grit your teeth, and carry on."
The popular theory circulating around is that if you were to sit a thousand monkeys in front of a thousand typewriters, then in a thousand years, one of them will eventually pen the complete works of Shakespeare. If a similar experiment were to be conducted with the game script from Dark Cloud, the parameters would be severally lessened.
Three Monkeys. Five minutes.
Sonyís subtle attempt at giving their console a Zelda-clone is backed by as laughable a plot as you can imagine. It revolves around Toan, a beret-wearing mute that spends the majority of his time wasting away in the humble Norune village, before his quiet life is suddenly shattered when the diabolical Dark Genie makes an unwarranted attack. With his sleepy backwater town razed, Toan awakens some time later to find the villageís former site a blank canvas of open fields instead of the blistered remnants that he expected. Thankfully, he is paid a visit by the studious King of the Fairies, who explains the situation.
I swear Iím not making this up.
His Royal Highness informs you that he has saved your village from the oblivion that it wouldíve faced by sealing them in magical globes called Atla. He gives you the Atlamillia, a magical gem that has the ability to absorb said Atla, and sends you off to collect the scattered fragments of your village. Unsurprisingly, these fragments (and the fragments of every other village you must resurrect in such a manner) are liberally littered throughout a multi-tiered dungeon full of claw-laden nasties.
Three monkeys. Five minutes.
People familiar with the Actraiser series will feel somewhat at home here; your task is to defeat the hordes of beasts that fill the conveniently placed labyrinth-like dungeons, a chore broken up with the sim-like aspect of rebuilding a working town. Dotted throughout the randomly-generated corridors that the third-person camera perspective guides you through are the very balls of Atla you've been sent to regain. When Toan comes into contact with such a globe, it will be absorbed into the Atlamillia. Every last aspect of your village can be regained so; items ranging from a small plot of river or road, to the villageís occupants and the homes they dwelled in.
And rebuilding theses villages is both fun and rewarding. Upon completely re-renovating someoneís house for them, you will be presented with a token of their gratitude, which is nice; everybody loves free stuff. Go one step further, and actually ask the occupants where theyíd want their houses to be situated, and you have the chance to rebuild the village better then it ever was! Fishing enthusiasts might want to be situated near a convenient pond, while shops would desire a location surrounded by potential customers. Grant these wishes, and a grateful town is sure to reward your efforts.
Yet collecting the Atla necessary to play village constructer is a chore. The dungeons are little more then a collection of sporadically scattered rooms inter-joined with seemingly never-ending corridors. When youíre not running around collecting the Atla, you need to instead worry about the collection of monsters that bar your progress.
Battles play out in a typical 3D Action-Adventure mould. Toan can lock-on to any monstrous villain that challenges him, and a simple button pummelling will launch him into a multi-hit combo designed to shred and slice. Dark Cloud makes the odd effort to break this predictable pattern up, but the majority of its hostiles forces work counter-productively. Letís take a random nasty from the gloomy cave-like confines from the first level; your basic skeleton. A few well-aimed swings of your blade will result in it darting backwards out of range, and swiftly counter-attacking. The first few times this tactic is executed will probably catch you off-guard, so itís a shame that in the third level -- a sunken barge -- the same enemy and tactic are once again present -- but disguised cunningly as a skeleton wearing a pirate hat. Yarr! By the time the skeleton warrior reappears in the forth Egyptian tomb-esque level shoddily disguised as a mummy, you know its tactics like the back of you hand.
Boring perhaps, but helpful in a dull, fun-leeching way. Killing sprees are a vital part of progressing onwards in the game for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the key for delving a level deeper into the 15-20 floor dungeons are always held by a random rapscallion, so you find yourself slaughtering the majority of hostiles in a quest to find the means to progress. The other justification for mass-homicide -- aside from self-defence -- is the experience points you will gain. Or rather, that your weapon will.
Toan can boost his own stats with consumable items youíll acquire from thankful villagers, but the experience gained through fighting goes directly to your trusty weapon. Aside from the statistical boost that a simple level-up will provide, you are offered the option to allocate add-ons that further augment your weapons abilities. This can boost handy attributes such as elemental add-ons, strengthen it against certain groups or races of enemies, or even increase statistics such as attack and endurance. If the correct criteria is met throughout this levelling, you can even evolve the weapon to an entirely new instrument of destruction, allowing you to kill on such a level that youíll put the laughter back into slaughter.
A carefully constructed weapon can see you through the game, and is vital for the end-of-dungeon battles that break the mould of boring, repetitive hostilities and offer up an intense slice of battle. As Toan canít really out-grow his preset boundaries by much, itís imperative that you take great care of your weapon. This is why itís an almost game-breaking flaw how easily the bloody things can break. You need to keep an eye on your endurance bar at all times, because when it hits zero, your weapon shatters into unfixable fragments. The only way to stop this is to either equip an expensive auto-fix item into one of your three active slots, or access your inventory menu every time the meter runs low, and use an item that will refill the gauge.
Just imagine, if you will, carefully cultivating a weapon to be proud of. Youíve been slowly sniping away at the requirements to evolve it for what feels like forever, exterminating countless waves of the dull, repetitive monsters to keep topping the levels up. Upon fighting another poorly disguised dragon, you unleash a blistering combo, and, too busy to notice the beepings that warn you of low endurance, your last hit brings the counter down to zero. Your weapon is no more. All that levelling gone. Wasted. Kaput. Youíre automatically re-armed with the low-grade weapon you started your adventure with, and find yourself stuck in a dungeon filled with beasties on a much higher tier then you could possibly now manage. Thatís what Dark Cloud promises the unwary.
And now that biggest flaw is explained, how about some of the other negative quirks? Not content with having a protagonist whose deepest bit of plot is that heís chummy with a Fairy King, Dark Cloud gives Toan a handful of allies to aid him on his quest -- each and every one with a more laughable reasons for his or her inclusion than the last. In an attempt to include these allies, the dungeons will throw one of two circumstances at you. Either you enter a Limited Zone, an area that forces you to use an ally other than Toan, or you stumble upon an obstacle that can only be cleared by a specific character. An example of this would be the impassable pits you commonly stumble across. Being the eternal coward that he is, Toan will quickly inform the world that there is no way he can pass it, so enter Xiao; a neko who has taken quite a shine to our young lead. Why, with her feline agility, sheíll leap that crevice in no time! Of course, nothing is stopping you from switching straight back to Toan as soon as the obstacle is bypassed, and after the umpteenth time youíve done this, youíll start to question the validity of these obstacle's existence.
Other little quirks turn sour too. Toan has a thirst gauge that, if it should run dry, will sap away at his health. This can be fixed with a swig of water from his inventory, or by jumping in a conveniently positioned pool. These pools, common a sight, will also replenish all lost HP. Not that it matters, as death is hardly a set-back in this game. If you somehow fall foul of your foes, despite the fact you can stock out your rapidly-expanding inventory with such items as resurrection vials and healing items, plus the numerous aforementioned pools, youíll just end up back at the nearest town. You are penalized with half your funds deleted, but this is no huge consequence.
But the very worst thing about Dark Cloud is that by the time youíve played enough of the game to realise what a dull experience it is, youíve invested so many hours into your adventure, that giving up means damning all your work into oblivion. Odds are youíll just grit your teeth, and carry on.
And as you plough through the game, youíll realise that the potential this game has is sadly squandered for the most part. Dark Cloud doesnít flow; itís a jarring stop/start ride from the get-go that does little to endear itself to the player. Itís a stop-gap of a game in reality; something thrown into the market to try and find a niche that doesnít really exist, or isnít explored properly here. Because things executed within are sloppy and ill-rendered when, with a little more care, they could have been tight and enjoyable.
Three monkeys. Five minutes.
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