“Despite all of its flaws, the positives of Dark Cloud outweigh any negatives” – J.C. Barnes
Platform: PS2 (2000), PS4 (2015)
Producer: Sony Computer Entertainment
Someone once told me that it’s not by the look you should judge a game, but by it’s components that make the game. This holds true for me to this day as I review games, movies or series. So colour me surprised when I find out that it was on a sale on the Playstation Store, that an older JRPG called Dark Cloud catches my eyes in an instant and before I knew it, had been bought to then be played on my PS4.
However, the company behind the game Level-5 is a favorite game developer of mine, that it was fascinating to find out this game in particular was their very first in the last 20 years they have been around. I had never heard of this game back when I was only 7 years old, not even when it got rereleased on the PS4 in 2015, but in 2017 I stumbled upon it and finally got to play this forgotten gem from another time.
Dark Cloud is a classic fantasy tale of how one boy from a small village, with a team of rag tag string alongs becomes the savior of their world. You know of them, I know them, our parents and friends know them, it’s the good vs. evil trope that we know by heart and every beat they bring along in their story. Very much like The Legend of Zelda and even how this game reminded me of both this, as well as Jade Cocoon 2 (PS2, 2001) in terms of how the story was presented to you.
Now, granted that the fighting mechanic was more Legend of Zelda-esque with its targeting battle system.
To cut the game short, the plot revolves around a cult lead by Colonel Flag Gilgister of the Lagoon Empire Army of the East who awakens an old genie that will bring the end of the world with him. Toan, the main character (whom you can give a name if that is want you want instead), must then save the world with a team of unlikely friends and with the power of a magical stone called “Atlamillia” to restore what Atla the Dark Genie has scattered across the world.
One of the things I found appreciated and even thought was ahead of its time, was the dungeon system that this game evolves around. The dungeons that you can run through for each world is randomly generated everytime you make a run through it. Not only that, but there’s a good chance for some epic loot that can make you stronger, this too is a system completely on its own that I will go into deeper further down the review.
Though, I must point out that while every dungeon is procedurally generated in its interior layout, the way you go about each dungeon is on the same note – you’ll need to locate a key, to which you can then descend to the next stage, which is then guarded by a random enemy on the floor. Rinse and repeat until you get to the boss in the end.
The dungeons themselves are thankfully, very well crafted in their design, each time you venture into the deep depths, there a engaging hazards to be fought, creatures that can inflict conditions on you, a health and “thirst meter” that needs to be kept in check or you will fail the dungeon you are running. One mechanic is every time you happen upon a random chest, you can “guess” the trap instead of using a key, this can then trigger an effect if you are wrong but it’s a nice rock-paper-scissors mechanic that fun to do from time to time.
Now the “thirst meter” as I talked about is probably the biggest gripe I have with the game. It might have been a glitch, as for every new area I unlocked the thirst meter kept decreasing faster and faster, making me waste more resources with water to keep it going as sometimes, there wouldn’t be a pond to cure myself out of hunger and thirst, since when the meter went low, your health would begin to decrease steadily.
Combat by modern standards is rough around the edges but easily something you begin to learn as the progresses and you level up. Since there’s no dodge button, you have to outmaneuver your opponents by baiting them into doing attacks before lunging a barrage into them. That is to say if you aren’t playing as another character with ranged attacks. Sure, there is the option to block and it is something you have to do from time to time, it’s just better to circle around them, trying to let them do an attack before you attack them as an attack cannot be interrupted.
Another mechanic that is essential in the game for both your character and your items, is that you don’t level up normally as in other RPGs, all stats belongs to the weapons that you equip. However, there is a catch to take notice of. If you have played Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild recently, then you know that the weapons you used easily broke after certain uses, this was either praised or loved by critics and players.
Well, in this game all the way back when it came out, it was there as well, implemented as an essential part of the game itself. Personally, it wasn’t that big of a deal to me, actually it made me more invested in how I would use and upgrade each weapon to make them stronger against certain enemies, while giving certain effects to others. Dark Cloud clearly states in the game that the more you use a weapon, the more it wears to which it finally breaks and disappears. This is where you can get something called “repair powder” that can repair your weapons to full, though you must be careful of how many times you use it. Just the fact that the weapons can evolve further than their base stat and accept socketed elemental gems, make it so you want to run multiple times to get them towards the best they can be before reaching the boss of the area you are running in.
The other big part of Dark Cloud that I didn’t like so much is the creation element, by using special items you find in dungeons, you can craft the towns you reside in back to their original state. Since the Dark Genie has destroyed most villages across the world, it is up to you and Toan to restore them back together. In a way it’s like a light City simulator, where you can place houses, trees, rivers, roads and even people at will. Plot out how you want the town to look like and then go into either third or first person mode to view your creations, is a nice touch that many will enjoy. I however, was pissed off and didn’t enjoy this mode that much, once I found out that building the town must be done in a specific way to 100% them.
By listening to the way that the people speak, you have to guess where precisely everything must be placed, even down to the correct way of it pointing North, South, East or West with the correct layout of the roads, rivers, precise tile placement of the trees and the correct neighbour(s). All in the end made me enjoy it less and it didn’t help that even if you get a reward for 100% the towns, it just feels tedious and not worth it.
However, that is not to say some of you might enjoy this aspect of the game, it’s just for me…I could have done without it needed to be so limited.
There is a fishing minigame in this and unfortunately it isn’t something to raise one’s hands in the air for a giant huzzah. Since the design of the minigame feels more like an afterthought than something worth doing. Unless you want to go for the achievement of catching certain fish. This can be because I’ve played other newer games where it is much more refined and a lot more fun in its presentation as well as execution. I still applaud Level-5 for including one of my all time favorite minigames, but I still wish more could have been done.
As for the characters, every NPC and side character to the story is likable and each have a certain quirk that is a clear “anime trope”, but it makes them more memorable. For one I was quite terrified of the little girl in the main character’s home village, whom after completing a request for, suddenly decided we were meant to be together…forever and ever.
Or how about the two brothers that go way too much up in fighting and what it means to be a real man, yet when you get to know them, they are like night and day with one being the more relaxed and alpha of the family, while the other is more aggressive and don’t like to share but follows his brother’s word.
There’s also a kid who believe his father left him for good and therefore resent him, yet still wants to prove that he is worthy of being a real warrior. To me it felt like real characters that had real stories to tell and it sort of reminisced me of the Final Fantasy games I played when I was younger, or even just the recent Akiba game that I played. What I’m trying to say here, is that characters mean something and are worth remembering, even the villains are something that sits with you and it might be because most of their designs reminds me a lot of Dragon Quest’s villain design.
The final score for Dark Cloud is a well deserved:
Dark Cloud is one of those games that needs to be played to understand the development of certain mechanics and how they have evolved with newer games. While I will also go as far as to say this is a game that have the relics of old school design, but is an RPG enrich with a story that will sit with you for years to come. Truly worty of being called a gem from another time.
Have you tried this game before? If so let me know of your experience with it down in the comments.
Stay Cozy and have a nice day!