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RELEASE DATE (NA): February 17, 2003 GENRE: Action-RPG
// review by SoyBomb

Look through the dark clouds and find a decent game.

I played through the original Dark Cloud game a few years ago, and it was pretty good. I wouldn't declare it the greatest game of all time, but it had some charm. But the sequel sat on my shelf for quite some time, collecting a thin layer of dust and fur particles, awaiting our eventual meeting. Developed by Level-5, the same chaps behind the absolutely spectacular "Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King", it combined a traditional dungeon-crawling adventure with the unique thrills of town development accomplished previously by such games as SimCity and Act Raiser. A few years later, Dark Cloud 2 (known only as this in North America, and as Dark Chronicle abroad) was released, and this took the formula laid down by its predecessor and expanded upon it... then expanded some more... then a little bit more, until there was an entirely new set of concepts plopped on top of the originals.

It takes a bit of an astrophysicist or a horlogist to fully wrap their brain around the intricate time-travel related details of the storyline, but here's the basic rundown for us normal folk. We follow the quest of Maximilian (or Max for short, just to save some time), who first ends up being chased down for his mysterious pendant by a less-than-sane clown fellow. That's how his quest begins, but he soon discovers by escaping to the world outside his hometown that there is a broad universe out there beyond his wildest imagination. He comes to discover that his pendant contains an Atlamillia, which has many powers, including that of time travel, but it is being sought by Emperor Griffon for his own reasons... but Griffon is from another time, and is slowly annihilating the future from another era! D'oh! With the aid of futuristic girl warrior Monica, he will seek out Emperor Griffon and help restore the future she loves so dear. Oh yeah, and he's trying to find his lost mother. Small potatoes compared to a time-bending adventure.

The game follows a distinct flow in terms of gameplay. While a small portion of your time is spent progressing through the storyline and learning new information about what you are supposed to be doing and where your goals lie, the majority of your gaming time -- by far -- will be spent down in the dungeons, and that's where the real action takes place. Set up across a grid-like map, each area in the game has its own dungeon area divided into a certain number of areas you are expected to conquer. Naturally, as you progress, the enemies you must face become more difficult to defeat. It would be pretty strange if the opposite were true. You'd have to be a great player at the beginning and then become lazier over time. In certain dungeon levels, special story events will unfold, or a boss fight will take place. Ah, I remember the boss battles... They started out as laughably easy, but eventually transformed into hellishly wild forays. Granted, I'm not the roughest toughest player, but I always like to hope that I have a chance.

Once you gain Monica into your party (which doesn't take very long), you'll be able to switch between the two willy-nilly during battle and abroad, which is nice because you can use the right character for the right enemy. That's the key to survival -- unless you are really good at dodging attacks, which is easier said than done, especially later on. Have an airborne enemy or one that's far away? Use a long range gun or magical armband to shoot them down. And Max and Monica both have their own special transformations, if just the standard "travel by foot and slice" isn't enough to satisfy your cravings. Max can hop into Steve, his personal Ridepod, who can equip a few weapons, including long range ones. Just make sure you have backup fuel for the fellow. Meanwhile, Monica can transform into monsters, provided she has the right Monster Badge. You'll have to do it at least one time in the game. Now, switching characters is great... or it would be, except that every time I switched characters in the heat of battle, I would often take a beating before I could make a move -- or worse, I'd get killed immediately. Not to mention the fact that many of the enemies' attacks are just a serious pain in the butt to avoid. Damn Moles. Damn Elephants. Damn Flying...Elemental Things.

You can replay any level you have already completed whenever you like, which makes the next aspect of the game all the more relevant. As with the original Dark Cloud, one of the big focuses of the game is weapon building. As opposed to leveling up your characters (which isn't quite the same as typical RPGs here), you are expected to level up your weapons in order to strengthen your offensive power. Not exactly a quick feat, though. You'll need to work on it by using it to defeat enemies and collect the ABS they drop (in blue orb form, usefully). Every time you collect a certain amount of that "ABS", your weapon levels up and gains synthesis points. Then you can meld crystals (or better yet, other improved weaponry) to your main weapon to improve its stats. If you improve it in certain statistics, such as Flame, Exorcism, or Beast (all characteristics that make it more effective against certain types of enemies), you can build it up and transform it to an even better weapon! Don't ask me exactly how that works. It just does. Work hard to get the best weapon to suit your needs!

Now that's all well and good for your offensive power, but what about defense? You're not going to pick up wonderful armor down the road, that's for sure, and experience points are non-existent. Looks like you'll have to simply knab some extra stat-improving items along your way, such as Potato Pies for Max and Witch Parfaits for Monica for improving defense, and Fruits of Eden for upping maximum hit points. That's about all you can do -- and you'd better work hard to find them all; they're typically in very small treasure boxes... and in the future...

Dark Cloud demonstrated how it could imitate SimCity with his Georama system, requiring you to build towns to suit certain objectives by collecting parts of each town from spheres in the dungeons. The Georama mode survived, but the way you build the towns is different. In the dungeons (eventually) are Geostones, and within these special stones (which look very igneous, by the way) is information on how each town should be built to ensure the future of the area stays the way it ought to, and also blueprints for how to build parts of the town, be they houses, trees, lanterns, etc. The more Geostones you attain, the more information you get about towns and parts. So how do you build parts? With elements and materials you either find in the dungeons or buy from vendors. In order to advance the story, you need to fulfill objectives for each town. As well, as you complete more objectives, funky little treasure boxes will appear in the futuristic version of the area. What's inside? Usually things you DEFINITELY want. Did you catch all that?

Another aspect that they threw into the mix takes advantage of Max's mechanical inclinations. Using a camera, you can take pictures of various items, large or small, in your world. Then you can combine your findings into interesting inventions. Now I have to level with you: I think that this is a pretty useless feature. I rarely used it, except in the two instances where the game required me to invent something. Maybe if there's a Dark Cloud 3, they could either make it a more prominent feature or remove it entirely. The latter would be preferred.

But they didn't stop there with implementing extra features that were better off tacked to the drawing board. They plunked a couple more things in the game that are generally minor additions, but did not really appeal to me. Stealing a page from the Book of Zelda, there are many, many opportunities to go fishing and catch yourself something tasty. Just equip a rod, attach bait you find around, and cast off...into adventure! Well, fishing adventure, which isn't exciting in real life or in the video game world. Lastly, there's also a mysterious game called Spheda. Think golf, but with a time-travel twist. Using a club of choice, you have to get your sphere into a time distortion portal somewhere in the area within a set number of strokes. Your sphere must be the opposite colour to the portal, and it changes colour with every bounce, whether it be on the ground or off a wall. Listen, Level-5: if I wanted to play a golf game, I'd flip on some Tiger Woods PGA Golf '09 or whatever it's called. But I don't own a golf game, and that's for a reason. I don't care for golf games; mini-putt drives me batty enough without being told by a golf simulator that I stink. More often than not, I fail the game of Spheda. But for the times that I did succeed, I was provided with a nice gift. Wonderful.

Level-5 took a different approach with the sequel, visually speaking. Instead of developing its characters using polygons, they opted for a more cel-shaded approach (which seemed to be quite popular in the early-to-mid-2000s). Granted, the environments are more polygon-based; however, the cel-shaded characters and items fit in quite nicely, and even the lighting effects keep them looking consistent. Plus you can change their outfits, although one of Monica's skirts is a bit short. I think I saw a bum cheek! The towns (and heck, even the characters) has a certain Victorian charm to them, but it's pleasantly combined with elements of futurism, which to me is equally charming. As for the music, although I admit to using my iPod during the more tedious of tasks (leveling up weapons, fighting through areas which I knew would have the same music as the previous...), the soundtrack was quite relaxing and varied. The tune of your hometown, Palm Brinks, for example, bears a strong Parisian flavour, while the Rainbow Butterfly Wood had a nice rainforest vibe to it. I am impressed that the music matches the scenery so well. There's also plenty of voice acting as well.

Dark Cloud 2 was an interesting ride. If you decide to give it a try, make sure you have plenty of hours available. The case boasts over 100 hours of gameplay, and I think there is some validity to that. Combining the amount on my in-game clock with the amount of time I spent playing before dying without saving, that could be about 80 hours worth. And if I kept upgrading my weapons further, I could have logged a few extra hours. And inventing and Spheda, though superfluous, could add a few hours of fun. Overall, it's not a horrible game, but eventually the dungeon crawling gets repetitive, so it probably won't make my Top 5, but it's definitely a worthy successor to the foundation the original Dark Cloud laid down.

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