Sony's upcoming PlayStation 2 RPG was finally shown in playable form at the recent fall TGS (it's coming out here next year), and we walked away with mixed feelings. While Dark Cloud certainly looks beautiful at times--a few of the locations are visually incredible--others looked very barren. The combat system also seemed strange: Although the battles we got into seemed very basic (the lock-on system was lacking), those shown on video were full of spectacular-looking leaps and special moves. The world creation feature also looks great but remains somewhat of a mystery exactly how it works in the game. When you're building a town, setting down trees, houses and such, the view is from high in the sky--but you can instantly zoom down to your firsthand character at any time to get a look at your work.
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Although not shown in any kind of "hands-on" playable form at the PlayStation Festival, Dark Cloud was demonstrated by representatives from SCEI on the main stage in front of a large audience. Details are still sketchy as the game isn't due for release until later this year, but what we saw was incredibly impressive. Looking like a cross between The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Actraiser, the game boasts a very action-oriented RPG segment that is complemented by a fairly comprehensive-looking resource management game in the style of Bullfrog's Populous or Powermonger. Graphically it's certainly one of the most impressive-looking PS2 demos to date with some jaw-dropping realtime lighting effects that give the game a "CG cartoon" look and feel.
In a flash, your life has taken a dramatic turn. General Flag has unleashed the awesome power of the Dark Genie and with it he has eradicated half the world in one fell swoop. Drunk on power and plotting world dominance, Flag and the Genie head back to their side of the world, happy with the death and destruction they have caused. Fortunately, a split second before all was destroyed, the Spirit King cast a magical spell across the land encasing people and places in magical spheres called Atla. That is, everyone but you, Toan (or pick your own name), a noble hearted native who is given the dubious task of rebuilding the world by freeing the trapped population using your Atlamillia, a magical stone.
Dungeon crawl, find allies, battle bosses and rebuild the world (improving it in some cases) in order to find the clues you'll need to defeat Flag and his Dark Genie. Strap in for the long haul because rebuilding towns and adventuring in this world will take you a long, long time.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Before I start, I'd like to mention a few things: SimCity, Shenmue, , Vagrant Story, Tomb Raider, Bass Fishing. There, with that out of the way it is safe to say that Dark Cloud borrows elements from each one of these games. Alone, these elements are weak and boring. Combined they make for the best RPG the PS2 has so far (I know, that's not saying a lot), but I must applaud Sony for trying some new and different ideas in the RPG genre.
Starting up, Dark Cloud is the first RPG I can recall having not one, but two dance sequences in the opening 12 minute intro, after which the game begins. As you start the game you are an elfish looking fella (who looks a lot like Link from Zelda) who runs around his empty village. Controlling Toan (the elfish fella) is easy enough; he is given brief tutorials from the Spirit King as he runs around the 3D area, which instruct him how to fight, lock on to enemies and navigate the dungeons that contain the Atla. And with that, you are given your first challenge: recreate your village and you start with the dungeon located to the South. Once you enter the dungeons, you use the power of the Atlamillia to free the imprisoned townsfolk and buildings all while battling monsters, bats, etc. Upon completing a level of a dungeon, you are asked whether or not you would like to continue on, or go back to the surface. If you go back to the surface, you can heal up and get more equipment. Upon returning to the dungeon, you can pick up right where you left off, on the new level you had previously just discovered. I found this to be a useful tool, because the screen shows you how many levels you have completed and whether or not you collected all of the Atla for that level. Getting all the Atla in the dungeons is a definite plus, as you will undoubtedly need it all in order to return the towns to their rightful places.
Speaking of towns, here is where Dark Cloud truly gets original for an RPG. Once you are out of a dungeon and have some Atla, you can switch to walking mode, which allows you to see the town from a birds eye view. You can select various landmarks like the town windmill or tree and place them where you want. After discovering more Atla, you can put the respective person(s) in their homes and replace all of their items. Example: You find the Atla containing Bill and the Atla containing Bill's house. Once Bill and his house are in place in the town, you go and visit Bill. Bill tells you that his house used to be by the river and that he can't see anything without his lamp. So, you switch back to walking mode and move Bill's house near the river (or place a river by him) and start searching for the Atla containing Bill's lamp. Once found, Bill rewards you by giving you a fishing lure. You then use the Atla containing the river and make a nice long river to fish in (that's right, fish). After catching a fish you can then go to the merchants around town and sell/trade your fish for other goods. It all works surprisingly well and is the highlight to this game. Trying to completely reconstruct the various towns AND keep the population happy is a refreshing challenge.
As far as weapons go, Dark Cloud allows for some real tweaking. As you battle onward, not only do you gain experience, but your weapon does as well. After gaining so much, you can upgrade your weapon to become more powerful. Weapons actually morph on the weapon screen. Not only that, but you can add elemental upgrades to the selected weapon, like thunder, Holy, ice etc. Eventually you will run out of new options and the weapon cannot be upgraded anymore. However, you can transfer that weapon into its final form (an attachment) and place it, and 60% of its final power, onto another weapon. If you do the math and attach the right elemental attachment you can have some pretty powerful weapons. Unfortunately, the downside is that you must monitor your weapon's strength constantly and repair it before it breaks, otherwise you lose that weapon forever. This was a particularly frustrating part of the game for me as I accidentally destroyed some potentially powerful weapons during battle.
As the game progresses it becomes apparent that you aren't really traveling the land as much as you are completing one scenario and going on to the next. No free 3D world to explore like I had hoped, but rather a predetermined path on which to complete the game. This told me that the developers were attempting to make the game appeal to the broadest of audiences. A fairly easy adventure that young kids could enjoy while tempting the older game players by promoting its long epic adventure. Yeah, SCEA did a good job making the game appealing to a broad gamer base. But in doing so, die-hard RPG fans will be left hungering for a meatier RPG experience. Not to mention a little more edgy RPG like Fallout or Final Fantasy VIII.
Since Dark Cloud continues to throw curve balls at the player: how about duel sequences? Every once in a while, a duel will occur during gameplay. What this means is that a fight sequence plays out, with you and a bad guy, while a bar with different button symbols scroll across the screen. When the symbols slide into the marker bar, you must press the corresponding button in order for the duel to continue and for you to effectively strike your enemy. I found this strange as it's kind of like a movie fight scene with rolling, diving slashing and all sorts of moves you can't normally do in the game, but you can't really watch it either since you're too busy trying to press the right buttons. I was also reminded of certain action scenes in Shenmue and Parappa the Rapper. Still, these sequences do break up the monotony of otherwise mundane dungeon crawling.
Of course, you run into the usual cast of characters who fight alongside you. The half-cat girl, the strange lone warrior, and the goofy robot-looking guy with guns. I have to say I was a bit disappointed in the teammates Toan meets up with; they look and and act like any number of other RPG characters. It's like the programmers have some sort of guideline they can't deviate from. Sure there was a good female genie, but she sure acted a lot like the other women in recent console RPGs. Wouldn't it be cool if you had to reanimate some poor dead warrior to complete the game and as the game progresses he continually rots and falls apart? I had hoped to see some more originality in Dark Cloud characters.
Why does a next gen system have disappearing/reappearing items in the distance? Granted, it's people and monsters and maybe they wanted the monsters to surprise you, but I doubt it since they are all visible on the map. Either way, the graphics looked good for the most part, albeit a little too simple (like a Disney cartoon). SCEA still had the presence of mind to have different lighting effect for the different times of day and if you have a high resolution TV you can pick out little things like Toan's feathers swaying in his cap and the cool lighting effect from the female genie's magic rings.
To me, an RPG has to really push the limit in the graphics dept. What other genre allows programmers to come up with so many varying environments and monsters? Yes, the graphics look good, I had just hoped for better.
Strangely, not one character speaks throughout the entire game. You must read everything. Not that I blame Sony -- most games have really bad voice acting. Still, I was expecting a bit more noise coming out of my TV. The environments provided some nice noises as did battle. But nothing really stood out in the audio dept. I wonder if the additional audio was left out because the game is so large and contained on only one disc.
This is currently the best RPG available to PS2 owners. I can't say it would be a good rental since it's so long you probably couldn't finish it over the weekend. So, if you're hungry for an RPG and can't wait for Final Fantasy X, then this is your game. It has a refreshing new take on RPGs with its 'build a town'? feature and seems to be stepping in the right direction to make RPGs a bit more varying. However, it does tend to bog down at times and you'll feel like you've done the same thing more than twice, making it a little mundane at points.