You don't know it yet, but Dark Cloud has changed the world.
Title : Dark Cloud
Developer : Level 5 Inc.
Publisher : Sony Computer Entertainment of America
Date Published : 5/30/2001
Platforms : Sony Playstation 2
ESRB Rating : Teen (for comic mischief and violence)
Note: this writeup contains spoilers, but when was the last time you played an action-RPG for plot?
Nearly ten years before there was Dark Cloud from Level 5 there was Soul Blazer from Enix. Soul Blazer was a strong followup to previous Enix classics (16-bit combat/town simulation Actraiser comes to mind) in which your vaguely theistic purpose was to restore pieces of towns sealed away in dungeons by the terrible demon Deathtoll. Your hero would travel from one geographic location to the next and slowly unseal these buildings and townsfolk with which you later interact in order to solve plot points and build your power. As you progress through these locations, more of the sinister story is revealed until you are prepared to face the end demon so that the world can feel safe once again.
Why spend so much time explaining Soul Blazer? Because word for word, I just described Dark Cloud. The gameplay concept is a perfect match, and a gratifying one for Dark Cloud due to its predecessor's status as masterpiece.
But that's not all. Dark Cloud is Soul Blazer with 64-bit Legend of Zelda physics and perspective, Diablo II item economy and random dungeon generation, and Secret of Mana's weapon-building system. Someone looking at just the surface may think this is incredibly unoriginal; however, these games are landmark innovations that only together paved this interstate highway system, upon which Dark Cloud is the first game to successfully make a cross-country roadtrip.
You can tell from these comparisons that Dark Cloud is of the new generation of Action-RPG (a genre sometimes called "Adventure"). What you can't tell from these comparisons though, is how Dark Cloud (and more accurately, its sequel) has become the sleeper standard for the new order of this genre. This is not to say that Dark Cloud is flawless; it is, in fact, a hit or miss operation from beginning to end. But all the missed boats and failures of judgment cannot prevent Dark Cloud from standing up to generations of classic action-RPGs and, with a wink and a smile, saying "I know, brothers and sisters. I know."
The Last One Alive.
You play the role of Toan, your standard silent protagonist with a funny green hat and anime-enlarged eyes. Toan is a young boy from the backwater village of Norune who wakes up one morning to learn that the entire world has evaded utter annihilation thanks to the Spirit King's quick thinking. You see, General Flag has resurrected a 400-year-old evil known as the Dark Genie, and in no time at all managed to rain destruction onto all known civilization. The Spirit King manages to protect and seal away the buildings and townfolk inside mystic bubbles called "atla" -- now all scattered in the various dungeons of the world.
The Spirit King seems to take a liking to Toan's pure and brave heart and entrusts him with a precious magical stone known as the "atlamillia." Atlamillia are formed once every ten-thousand years or so and grant their possessors immense power over time and space. It is with this stone Toan can resurrect his otherwise bleak and lonely world. And he's going to have to if he wants something to do on Friday nights.
The National Georama Society.
This brings us to the interface Dark Cloud uses to facilitate the recreation of the world's towns: the Georama system. As you approach each area, you discover a field upon which you may place buildings and townsfolk recovered from unsealed atla. Each area consists of this georama field and a dungeon, with the exception of Dark Heaven Castle where georama elements are pieced together rather unconventionally.
The georama field varies in complexity as you progress through the game. Norune Village is a simple grassy rectangular area good for windmills and wooden houses. Matataki Village is a forested U-shaped grove that requires treehouses and watermills. Queens (no relation to Brooklyn) is a seaside concrete marketplace complex separated by thick stone walls that demands wheeled carts and large concrete dwellings. Muska Lacka (the game frequently forgets how to translate the Japanese "R" to English "L") is a rectangular desert wasteland that requires totem poles and straw huts. The Yellow Drops georama field is a small circular robot factory on the moon where you assemble parts of a giant combat mech. In Dark Heaven Castle, the final area, you assemble parts of a forsaken king's memories in order to unlock the way to 400 years in the past.
Georama elements are placed on these fields as you acquire them from each town's accompanying dungeon. If the elements are houses, you rotate them as you wish and place them somewhere on the field. If the elements are residents of these houses, you place them in the appropriate dwelling. If the elements are attachments for houses, you simply place them on the house; however, you will often have to speak to the resident in order to find out what "special request" he/she is missing. In addition to housing there are neutral buildings (windmills, totem poles, rivers, trees) that are useful for fulfilling residents' special requests.
If you happen to please everyone in town, you get a bonus. These are usually rare weapons or special items, and it is usually well worth your time to complete all special requests.
When you restore shops, you may purchase better items or store unused items during daylight hours. Gametime flows constantly through morning, daytime, afternoon, nighttime at an accelerated rate. This is comparable to other "realtime" roleplaying games like 64-bit Legend of Zelda or Drakkhen. Time stops while you are in a dungeon. Sometimes, residents of one town will want an item available in another town. This adds a little dimensionality to otherwise entirely closed systems.
The georama system in Dark Cloud is a grand innovation but at the end feels a whole lot more like piecing together set fragments of a jigsaw puzzle than building your own Lego town. You'll be pleased to know that georama in the sequel feels more like Lego blocks.
But I Don't Want You To Join My Party.
There are six playable characters in Dark Cloud. This is both a blessing and a curse. Well, okay, no. It's just a curse.
Toan, you see, has severe mobility problems given his role as dungeon explorer. When he encounters a river with a stepping stone, rather than jumping it himself he has to go and transform a housecat into a cat-girl in order to cross it. Seriously. Building a bridge would be faster. This cat girl, Xiao, fires a slingshot and serves as your official ranged weapon user and river-jumper. From Norune Village and appears to have a "thing" for Toan, if by "thing" you mean weird multi-species leg-rubbing innuendo.
Also, for some reason, all the dungeons in the world occasionally block passageways accessible only by smashing a post with a hammer. Toan, the sly fox he is, decides to employ a rather portly young fellow who shambles about with a hammer two times his size. Goro, the official heavy-hitter and post-smasher, comes from Matataki Village and apparently has nothing better to do.
In Queens, Toan is forced to take along a genie named Ruby (I named her "Areola" in my game. I think this is a much better name) for absolutely no reason at all. Fortunately, dungeons at this point in the game seem to have element-specific locks on doors that Ruby can unlock using her long-range magic armlet attack so Ruby doesn't seem completely pointless. Even better: Ruby is pretty useful as the game's only competent long-range attacker.
Muska Lacka is a painful portion of the game. This experience is made even more painful later when you must recruit a terminally depressed sand warrior named Ungaga who is the only person in the world who can break black wind. You see, apparently at this point in the game impassable black wind has gathered in various dungeon passageways and one would think this makes Ungaga rather valuable. Unfortunately, this is Ungaga's only talent and his skills with the spear are useless.
Yellow Drops is a town on one of the world's yellow moon (there is also a blue one). It is a scientific community of "moon people" (read: anthropomorphic rabbits) and one of these "moon people" decides to join your party. This guy floats around on a gyrocoptor with conspicuous hoods covering his erect ears shooting a machine gun at the enemy. Oh yeah, and he can use his gyrocoptor to cross large chasms. I hate this character. His name is Osmond, like Donny and Marie.
What becomes painfully apparent by about the third area is that Toan is a really incompetent dungeon explorer and requires five other party members to solve very basic problems. River with a stepping stone? Use the stepping stone! Post to smash? Go find a big rock! Impassable black wind? Buy a boxfan from Walmart. These scenarios are obviously contrived in order to provide you with a diverse cast of characters you wind up caring nothing for. I completed the game using Toan for close combat and Ruby for ranged combat. The only other character I used was Xiao, but only for the novelty of listening to her talking slingshot named Steve.
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dungeon Hack.
There are 207 dungeon floors in Dark Cloud, 100 of which are optional post-game bonus action in the Demon Shaft. That still leaves 107 dungeon floors to hack, each at least once but probably many times as you build up your weapons or, no, wait, that's all there is to do in Dark Cloud. Just keep this number in mind as I describe a typical dungeon floor and multiply this excruciation by 207.
First, I would do great injustice to this game if I did not elaborate on its random dungeon generation engine. You see, I love games like the old AD&D Forgotten Realms game Dungeon Hack or the updated Blizzard Entertainment Diablo series. These games invent layer upon layer of randomly generated dungeon for you to explore and plunder. Quite literally, this is an unlimited adventure. This is a key feature for replayability, and I looked forward to its implementation in an action-RPG like Dark Cloud.
But apparently, someone forgot to explain the mathematics of probability to the designers. If you design an array of, say, 1000 different types of rooms to be spread along winding corridors -- you're going to get 207 levels of intrigue and danger and surprise at every turn! However, the designers chose a smaller number.
They chose three different rooms to repeat for 207 floors.
I still get angry thinking about this.
Three rooms. You'll know it when you come to them. The first is a square room, with or without some obstruction in the middle. The second is a much larger rectangular room with maybe a couple obstructions scattered throughout. The third is what I like to call the "brain room" -- a room shaped like two hemispheres of the brain connected by a narrow corpus collossum. That's it. Each area has a different tileset, different monsters, and a different character-specific door lock. But that is the entire game right there.
So essentially, you are playing the same dungeon floor over and over again -- each with slightly more difficult monsters.
Each dungeon floor contains monsters to kill, treasure chests to open, atla bubbles to collect, fountains to drink from, doors to unlock, and a "gate" to the next floor that requires a "gate key" to open. A randomly selected (but usually powerful) monster holds the gate key; this ensures that you do not just rush for the exit each floor.
Every floor also has a corresponding "back floor" that contains enraged (for you Final Fantasy players, think haste and berserk on everything you encounter) versions of the floor's monsters. These monsters give you double the ABS points (basically, experience points for your weapons) and also drop nice items. The treasure chests in the back floors typically contain rare items useful for building up your weapons quickly. They are almost always beneficial to visit. That being said, most back floor gate keys are very rare (with the exception of the shipwreck in Queens, where you can purchase the back floor gate key from the fish stand).
As you descend into the dungeons, you must keep track of three things: your hit points (any RPG player knows this: think of it as your percentage right to consciousness), your thirst (yes, you have to drink water or else suffer a steady hit point decrease like poison only stupider), and your weapon's endurance (trust me, we'll revisit this topic). You descend to anywhere between 15 and 25 layers before you reach the boss fight. Once the boss is defeated, passage to the next area opens up and so forth.
Occasionally you run into "limited zones" where you are not allowed to recover your thirst or only use a certain character or whatever. These zones are not exciting, especially when you only use two characters and your other four are weaker than a generic brand paper towel.
You also run into what the game calls "duels." Duels are like quick time events in the tradition of Shenmue combined with dance move scrolls from Dance Dance Revolution. You essentially line up the button-presses at the proper time to execute a choreographed battle with an opponent. There's really nothing else to say about duels, except that it is great fun watching uncoordinated people fail these twenty times in a row.
Even Pornography Has Better Plotlines.
How does Dark Cloud justify taking you around the entire continent rebuilding towns left and right? It's such a shallow plot that I can explain it in two paragraphs:
The Dark Genie is released from 400 years of imprisonment and must be sealed again. You rebuild Norune Village so you can talk to the elder dragon Dran who tells you to ask the moon people. The moon people live beyond Wise Owl Forest and you need to rebuild Matataki Village to get there. The moon people tell you they've forgotten how to seal evil forces but the hardcore moon people on the moon should know. You need to pilot a ship to the moon but the control device for it was accidentally sold to a fruit vendor in Queens. You rebuild Queens to locate the control device and get it after solving a ridiculous subplot. Turns out the control device isn't working so you rebuild Muska Lacka to get to the moon ship yourself. Then you go to the moon but they consider the sealing technology obsolete and would much rather destroy the Dark Genie with an oversized combat robot. So you rebuild the combat robot in the Yellow Drops Factory. Then you fly through the Dark Cloud surrounding Dark Heaven Castle and destroy the Dark Genie.
Except the Dark Genie isn't a physical being and actually just possesses things! What you fought was a rodent trapped in the urn with the Dark Genie! You then encounter the king of the Eastern Continent who sold his soul for the power to defeat the Western Continent wizard army 400 years ago. He has used forbidden magic to travel into the future and locate the atlamillia stone so that he may defeat the Dark Genie that possesses his body. Seeing Toan's power, he decides to let the boy do it instead and kills himself -- opening up a path into his memories and the past. Toan and his intrepid gang of dungeon crawlers must then travel into the past bit by bit uncovering the King's memories so as to set things right 400 years ago. They do, but then the Dark Genie interferes from the future and you wind up fighting him anyway. Then, Toan sacrifices the atlamillia stone to eliminate the threat of the Dark Genie's return and returns to Norune Village in the present to hang out and eat fluffy doughnuts with his cat.
I'm not kidding.
So you see three things come out of this synopsis: one, the first five stages are like bad excuses to kill time before the final stage. two, the real storyline really doesn't start until the sixth and final stage and by that time you've suffered through 82 repetitive dungeon floors and five towns full of ungrateful bastards. three, no one plays action-RPGs for the plot anyway.
If You Break, No Problem. If Your Weapon Breaks, Hit Reset.
This brings me to the final point: what could possibly motivate a gameplayer to suffer through 207 repetitive barely-random dungeon floors and a nonexistant plotline? What on earth drives poor souls to play Dark Cloud the same way junkies play with heroin?
It's the weapons.
Something I always tell people when I explain this strange game is that when you die in a dungeon, it's no big deal. You lose half your gold and continue. But if you let your weapon's endurance run out without repairing it in time, it breaks and everything you've ever worked for in this game is ruined and destroyed beyond any sense of conceivable repair. Reset and load up your last savegame. In that regard, you don't save your data for fear of meeting death. You save your data for fear of breaking your weapon.
This is no coincidence. Characters do not receive experience points as they usually do in conventional RPGs. Instead, your weapons receive "absorption points," or ABS. The more enemies you slay with your weapon, the more ABS your weapon receives until it can gain a level. At this point, you attach items to your weapon in slots to synthesize properties into your weapon. Continue this process until certain parameters are met and your weapon can "build up" into the next iteration. There is usually a branching path for weapons, making the build up process the sole riveting factor of Dark Cloud. This is pretty much the only reason to play this game: building your weapons to the highest iteration.
Point-in-case: when I built my sword up to the highest level and could do nothing more with it, I lost all will to play the game. I haven't picked it up since. In fact, I was thinking of getting rid of my weapon and starting over. I was that conditioned to move upward, ever-upward on the ladder of weapon advancement that I had no idea what to do once I could move no further.
If your weapon breaks due to inattention, you lose all the benefits and levels you've achieved with your weapon and it starts back at the proverbial square one. This, quite literally, is a fate worse than death.
The Road Goes Ever On.
Okay, the gig is up. Dark Cloud is a downright pain to play. It sets no sleeper standard for the genre whatsoever. What it did, though, was tap into the realization that the theory is sound while the execution failed. In other words, this game had real potential but fell short in its limitations. Someone had the right idea but didn't develop it enough. A game universe ruled by ever-changing histories and time-travel requires a gameplay dynamic with virtually no limits in scope and action.
Dark Cloud, however, was one big fat limitation.
What they needed to do was to take this concept and evolve it further; what they needed was the world of Dark Cloud remade with a free range of actions and choices along with a storehouse full of additional features and activities to break the monotony. They needed more than three rooms repeated endlessly through nondescript dungeons. They needed a dynamic world populated with distinct townsfolk. They needed to cut two thirds of their cast of playable characters. They needed a real storyline that still plays up to the draws of the georama system. They needed a plethora of side-projects and minigames that remain relevant to the primary gameplay experience.
Well, friends and fellow gamers, they have done this very thing. Dark Cloud 2 has taken the concept of its forefather and perfected it. Like a broken statue repaired; like a stained painting restored; like a phoenix rising from its own ashes -- you will know perfection and its name is Dark Cloud 2.