Dark Cloud


   There are lots of games that share features with Dark Cloud, and if one was feeling hostile it could be called derivative. At the same time, its mix of disparate elements goes just far enough to create something a little different. It may not be exactly innovative, but it's enjoyable, and thus meets at least the basic criteria of things we should expect from our games.

 Wacky hijinx
In the hall of the Spirit King

   For the most part, Dark Cloud is simply the prettiest dungeon hack ever made. The world is divided into base camps and their adjoining dungeons, each of which has many randomly generated floors to conquer. Toan, the hero, has two goals on each floor. First, find the Atla spheres strewn around each floor; second, unlock the door to the next level. Unlocking the door is only one of three ways Toan can leave the dungeon; the other two are to request an exit from the Spirit King once all the floor's monsters are defeated or to use Escape Powder, which costs money. Both methods have the added disadvantage of forcing Toan to repeat the floor when he returns to the dungeon, so it's usually best to persevere until you find the key.

Truly the least fearsome weapon ever
The wrath of Steve!

   The combat system within the dungeons is surprisingly complex for a game of this sort. You'll find many weapons within the dungeons, all of which have a number of slots for attachments. There are a variety of things to put into these attachments, which fall into three basic categories: enemy-type enhancements, which make the weapon stronger against groups like Metal or Plant foes; statistical enhancements, which increase the weapon's attack power or durability; and magic enhancements, which give the weapon more power in a certain elemental field such as fire or thunder. Attaching any of these gives the weapon a boost in that area while it's equipped, but once the sword has been used to kill enough enemies, you gain the option to increase the weapon's level. In addition to generally boosting the weapon's statistics, leveling up also absorbs any attachments into permanent upgrades, leaving you free to attach new gems.

   After a certain number of upgrades, you'll gain the ability to convert the weapon into a "Synth Sphere," which is an attachment usable on other weapons. Synth Spheres only contain 60% of the weapon's power, but they're a good way to transfer the hard-earned attributes you've built up on a weapon over to a new one. If you'd rather not go that route, it's also possible to transform some weapons by meeting certain requirements. For instance, increasing the Beast, Fire, and Speed attributes of your weapon by enough points may result in the weapon changing into a more powerful form. However, weapons also wear out with use, so be careful to keep them in good shape with Repair Powder or you'll lose everything you had on it.

 Come, feel the water upon your face!
Down to the well

   You'll also need to keep track of your thirst gauge, which will start to impact your health if it goes too low. Both your water and your health can be restored with items, and if you find a pool of water in the dungeon, it will restore both of those gauges to maximum. However, pools won't cure any status ailments, so be sure to carry sufficient recovery items.

   Toan will meet five allies along the way to help him out, all of whom have abilities required to progress through the dungeons. The catgirl Xiao carries a slingshot; the hunter Goro wields hammers and axes; the genie Ruby casts magic; the warrior Ungaga uses spears and staffs; while the moon man Osmond is packing heat. Every now and then a floor of a dungeon will be a "Limited Zone" where you can only use a specific character, so be sure to keep your allies powered up. Other Limited Zone handicaps include your water running out more quickly and weapons losing experience points rather than gaining it, upon killing enemies.

   All of the above keeps Dark Cloud's dungeons from becoming too tedious, but the difficulty level is usually either too easy or too hard. Not many of the enemies will pose too much of a threat, but every so often you'll find two or three quick-moving enemies with deadly, long-range attacks ganging up on you, and you're dead before you know it. The fact that the dungeons are random rather than designed has something to do with this, since no sane developer would deliberately cram several powerful foes into one room, but it can be frustrating nonetheless. This is especially true in some Limited Zones which require you to use only one character, who frequently isn't strong enough to handle the enemies inside.

Urban planning committee
Engines of creation

   The town-building Geomode aspect of the game is much more enjoyable. As previously stated, Toan can find Atla within dungeons and unlock them with his Atlamillia. Contained within the Atla are pieces of the ruined towns, such as houses, characters, or everyday objects. Upon returning to the town, Toan has the opportunity to place the pieces where they belong. Put enough pieces together and they become buildings, which allows you to restore the town bit by bit. Although there's not much challenge to it, the unpretentiousness of the system has its charms when compared to other world-building sims which offer dizzyingly complex, ultimately irrelevant options and factors to consider. Furthermore, the Geomode sections have very tangible rewards. As you progress through the dungeon and build up more of the city, treasure chests appear around town containing very helpful items such as HP and water gauge upgrades. And even after all the buildings in town are technically complete, every citizen has his or her own ideas about how the buildings should be placed, meaning it's possible to rebuild each town even better than it was before.

 Toan sees hell
Get your Yaya here

   As for the "RPG" part of "Action RPG," it's fairly thin. There are very few sequences that advance the overall story, and they're mostly sandwiched in between dungeons. It's not a very complicated story--the Dark Genie has destroyed the world, and you must defeat him--so its small role in the proceedings is fairly appropriate. The many supporting characters are amusing, particularly people like the overly manly Macho brothers, the Godfather-esque Mr. King, and everyone's favorite fortuneteller Yaya. There are a few errors in the translation, but for the most part it works well.

   Dark Cloud can get tiring at points, but the graphics help it go down a little bit smoother. The randomly generated environments are surprisingly good, especially the lush jungle atmospheres of the Wise Owl Forest and Matataki Village. Lighting is especially well-used, with the torches and lamplights of the various dungeon atmospheres casting a soft glow on nearby objects. The passage of the day is also impressive; you can see sun's rise and set as the lights on the town fade in and out.

   The music is also well-done, holding its own with other big-name RPGs. Each piece is appropriate for the area it's in, such as the quiet, ethereal undersea theme or the brassy merchant town theme. Sound effects are also well done, although hearing Xiao's squeak in battle for the hundredth time can be irritating.

   Though it's not the sort of game that would land on many people's favorites list, Dark Cloud is an enjoyable, low-key dungeon hack. The one-floor-at-a-time structure makes it perfect for bite-size gameplay, so if you're looking for a quick diversion here and there rather than an intense 40-hour epic, this is the game for you.

Review by Nich Maragos, GIA.
Dark Cloud
Developer Level-5
Publisher Sony
Genre Action RPG
Medium DVD (1)
Platform PlayStation 2
Release Date  12.00
Dark Cloud released in North America
427 screenshots
9 character renders
Box art