When the original Dark Cloud shipped in May of 2001, the game received quite a bit of attention due to its unique world-building gameplay feature and its prominence in Sony's early promotion of the PlayStation 2 hardware's power. The game ultimately ended up being a solid but flawed title that had many promising elements. We recently got our hands on a preview build of the game's sequel, Dark Cloud 2, and we have been very pleased by developer Level 5's progress. Improving on just about every aspect of its predecessor, Dark Cloud 2 appears to be a solid step forward for the series.
For those unfamiliar with the original Dark Cloud, the game was an RPG that mixed traditional role-playing elements such as dungeon exploration and character interaction with a unique world-building component, dubbed the Georama, that let you shape towns and explore them. While the game's story focused on a young boy named Toan who was charged with reconstructing his shattered world and defeating the forces of evil, you ended up being able to play as one of six different characters. The variety in playable characters and gameplay added quite a bit to Dark Cloud's appeal, but it left the game unfocused and unbalanced in places.
Dark Cloud 2's story manages to remain focused while still offering a healthy amount of variety. You'll play as a young boy named Max and a young girl named Monica. Max and Monica are entangled in the story when a madman, hoping to stop a rebellion in his present, travels back in time to take out troublemakers in the past.
Dark Cloud 2 has the same basic structure as its predecessor--you'll interact with NPCs, explore randomly created dungeons, and build towns as before--but it also features new and refined gameplay elements. The most notable refinements were made to the dungeon-exploration element, which no longer limits you to a certain amount of time when exploring a dungeon. You also won't have to worry about your character's thirst level, as in the previous game. Additionally, the game's weapon system is more forgiving--it's now much easier to keep your weapon from breaking. Powering up your characters' weapons is a more-involved process than before, though, due to the need to combine items and power up the individual attributes of the weapons. Fortunately, the game is very good at familiarizing you with the ins and outs of the process.
As for major changes, the Georama system has been redone and is now a bit more challenging. The original game simply had you collecting specific town pieces that would fit together like a puzzle, but Dark Cloud 2 will require you to follow the blueprints you'll collect to create a town. The catch is that now you'll also have to collect raw materials and create everything from scratch. The Georama mode is also given a bit more depth by the sequel's time-travel element, since the things you create and place in the present will affect the future. Another change will be the specific abilities you'll have access to when using Max and Monica. Max will be able to invent items by taking pictures of various things and then using those pictures for inspiration, and Monica will be able to change into various monsters by collecting specific items from the creatures you encounter. Finally, Dark Cloud 2 will introduce Steve, a mech-like machine called a ridepod. Steve will likely turn many players off at first due to his lack of effectiveness at just about everything. However, Max can upgrade him over the course of the game, and he eventually becomes a useful little killing machine, which is always a good thing to have around when exploring dungeons.
The series' graphics have undergone a number of welcome changes since the original game. The new look is reminiscent of the stylized mix of cel-shading and traditional graphics found in last year's engaging Wild Arms 3. All the characters in the game are done in a detailed cel-shaded style that's complemented by richly detailed environments that have hand-drawn look to them. You'll also see an impressive amount of special effects such as particle effects, lighting, some very cool weather effects, and, of course, some slick-looking water. The overall art style in the game features much more variety and is generally more interesting than the original Dark Cloud's clean, sparse look. The new level of detail also extends to the game's Georama mode, which is especially appreciated, given the amount of time you'll be spending in the mode tinkering with your creations.
Although our preview build wasn't fully localized, it appears as though the game's audio will shape up nicely. You'll find a healthy dose of voice acting, as well as impressive ambient audio that sets the tone for the various dungeons and towns you'll be going through. The game's soundtrack is a respectable collection of tunes that effectively mirror the action in the game.
Judging from what we've played so far, Dark Cloud 2 appears to be a step in the right direction for the series. An engaging quest complemented by solid gameplay and graphics make Dark Cloud 2 a game RPG fans will want to keep an eye out for. Dark Cloud 2 is currently slated to ship next month for the PlayStation 2.