Forecast calls for rain, so move your village.
Once, there was a Genie. But not like that happy blue guy from Aladdin - this Genie doesn't do impersonations or sing sweet songs about friendship. This Genie's first name is Dark, and he's one evil mother. The "Dark" Genie gets his jollies from destroying humanity, plundering the world of happiness, and long, intimate walks on the beach. And unfortunately for mankind, the Dark Genie has been freed, and in one fell swoop, half of the world has been annihilated.
But alas, all is not lost.
The Fairy King (man, what a lousy name) was able to save the villages before they were destroyed by locking them into Atla spheres. Unfortunately, these spheres were whisked away, hidden in the depths of dungeons throughout the land. Being a lazy and weak old man, the Fairy King has given you, Toan the little villager boy, the power of the Atlamillia stone. With this stone, Toan can rebuild and restore his world.
And so can you, should you decide to undertake Sony's epic PS2 RPG, Dark Cloud. Equal parts innovative and derivative, it's a solid addition to the currently paltry PS2 RPG lineup.
Take just one look at Dark Cloud and your immediate conclusion will be Legend of Zelda. Toan looks like a boring version of Link, complete with pointy ears and green hat. You've got dungeons, a lock-on fighting system and a world in peril. But unlike Zelda, the dungeons are randomized, triggering fond memories of that old ASCII-based DOS game, Rogue.
The driving force in Zelda games has always been the puzzles. With each new dungeon, a new weapon or power up is found, crucial to unlocking the mysteries of the level. After solving the dungeon, you are propelled to find the next dungeon with the aid of the new device.
Dark Cloud follows a different sensibility. Without pre-designed dungeons, the random dungeons work towards the idea of stamina - how long can you last against the onslaught of baddies? The treasures and Atla spheres are randomly laid out, but thankfully, there's a map and a magic crystal to point out the item locations. In order to proceed to the next dungeon floor, you must kill the one randomly chosen baddie carrying the floor key.
When you finish one dungeon floor, you have the option of continuing or exiting out of the dungeon. Exiting allows you to work on rebuilding your village, stock up on supplies, and save your game. When you return to the dungeon, you can pick up right on the floor where you left off.
With the emphasis on dungeon progression, weapon development plays a greater role in the game. The weapon development system is welcomingly easy to grasp, yet deep enough to be interesting. It's a smart mix between Vagrant Story weapon creation and Final Fantasy 7 Materia usage. If the right variables are improved within a weapon, the weapon can be built into a new form.
Weapons can be damaged and broken. The Weapon Hit Points (WHP) meter keeps your weapons usage in check, requiring you to use repair items before your weapon is kaput. This little feature is all well and good...until you find your way into a 'Limited Zone', an area of dungeons that limits your abilities, such as quicker thirst deterioration or the inability to change weapons. If you don't plan ahead, just think about how much fun it will be to fight gargantuan behemoths with a dinky broken slingshot, dishing out 1 point of damage. Challenging? Sure. Irritating? You betcha.
Out of nowhere, several battles found throughout the game are Shenmue/Dance Dance Revolution style rhythm exercises. I don't understand why they are in here when the lock-on battle system works well enough. Guess it's to add some flavor, even though the flavor is a little old.
Toan can also find allies on his quest. Switching to these allies is the equivalent of using a new item or ability. Let's say there's a chasm that Toan can't jump across. By switching to your consummate cat-girl buddy, you can make the leap and continue.
The world of Dark Cloud is separated into several areas. Each area is made up of two parts: the empty plain where the village used to be, and a dungeon. Toan can traverse these different areas with the aid of his map - he points to a place on the map, and he's whisked away. Though it cuts down on travel times, the map method perpetuates a cyclical, more repetitive feeling. Work your way through the dungeon, rebuild the village, and then back to the dungeon to get more village parts. It keeps the flow going, but isn't as captivating as actually running through the world ala the amazing Hyrule Field in Zelda.
One of the big selling features of the game is the world-building aspect. As the Fairy King promised, you do have to reconstruct villages. But before you think this is an all-powerful Black & White god trip, let me tell you that the Fairy King is a liar.
Village reconstruction plays out like a logic game. Let's say you find "Johnny's Apartment" and "Johnny." After you place these items together on your plain, you can go visit Johnny and talk to him. Johnny might gripe that he would like a bay view and his laundry back.
Johnny's apartment can be rotated and replaced to meet his request. When you find laundry in the dungeons, you can grab it and place it within Johnny's Apartment. After you've fulfilled all of Johnny's requests, an event takes place - for example, Johnny will reward you with a cookie. By meeting the needs of the different villagers, important items are gained and useful areas like village stores are opened.
The concept is fairly new and interesting, though it isn't really like you're building this big RPG world. It's really just a cool way to facilitate story and game movement.
Graphically, Dark Cloud is colorful if a bit bland. It simply looks like a first generation game. One of the problems with randomized dungeons is the same homogenized look throughout each one. Running your PS2 through component video cables makes the ever-annoying jaggies that much more apparent, so I advise staying with the simple AV cables that come with the system.
The largely instrumental music is very generic. Thankfully, it isn't lousy, but it doesn't add to the game. Plus, the tracks get reused often. There are also generic sound effects and no voices. Argh.
Despite its obviously derivative mechanics and gameplay, Dark Cloud offers a solid, fun experience and at least tries something interesting with its village building system. Though far from the "Zelda-killer" half-wit journalists have dubbed it, it certainly gives the other PS2 RPG games released thus far a good punch on the arm.