Every so often a game comes along that's so well crafted, unassuming, and downright enjoyable that you just can't help but like it. Dark Cloud 2, the charming sequel to 2001's PS2 action RPG Dark Cloud, is such a game. The latest in the series improves on its predecessor in nearly every way, as it tightly integrates the combat, world building, and weapons management of the first game into a more cohesive whole. Add together these elements, astounding visuals, superb music and voice acting, and high production values and you have Dark Cloud 2, one of the finest games released for the PlayStation 2 so far.
In Dark Cloud 2, you play as Maximilian (Max, for short), a tech-minded whiz kid with a knack for creating strange inventions. Max fills the requisite role in Dark Cloud 2 of the "plucky good-hearted youth with a mysterious amulet or jewel," and of course it's because of this jewel that he becomes embroiled in a massive quest to restore his dying world to its former splendor. As it turns out, Max's inherited pendant is a time-travel device, and after defending it from the attacks of a very demented clown, he meets Monica. Monica is a princess from the future on a grave mission: She's come to enlist Max's aid in thwarting an evil tyrant from the past who's erasing the future by meddling with the present. In fact, this great villain has already wiped out pretty much the entire world, save Max's village. Max and Monica are determined to stop this madness by visiting key points around the world and restoring the land, buildings, and people at those points to make the future what it should be.
The first Dark Cloud introduced the georama system, a world-building gameplay component that let you build and populate villages from the ground up. Dark Cloud 2 brings back and enhances the georama system, and this time it's a pivotal part of the gameplay, since you'll need it to literally rebuild the world. A huge assortment of buildings, small objects, plants, and landscape features are available so you can construct and mold a town to your liking. Georama gives you get a simple overhead interface for doing this, allowing you to move and rotate a piece before dropping it onto the terrain. You can even paint your buildings and add household effects like chimneys and fences. After you've built up a town, you can recruit the residents of Palm Brinks, the game's one existing town, to move into the houses you've created. Each new town you build has a set of requirements that, once fulfilled, will lead to the restoration of that area in the future. You can zip back and forth at will between the present and the future to see if the changes you've made have affected the timeline in a meaningful way. Generally, once you've fulfilled enough of the requirements, the people you've restored in the future will grant you assistance that will help further your quest. The georama system is pretty easy to get the hang of, especially with the game's comprehensive, elegant tutorial system, and you'll be building busy little burgs in no time.
You can't build a town without knowledge and raw materials, of course, and to obtain these you'll have to plunge into Dark Cloud 2's expansive dungeons. As you forge onward through the dungeon in a given area, you'll obtain geostones, mystical rocks that contain the wisdom and building expertise of the ancients. Each geostone you find adds new items for that area's georama mode and establishes a few more guidelines to point your building efforts in the right direction. You'll also have to collect materials in the dungeons, although these can also be bought from merchants. The dungeon layouts are randomized, so you'll never be able to memorize the right paths, but they're straightforward enough that you won't have much problem getting around.
Of course, the dungeons of any good action RPG are filled with all manner of monsters, and Dark Cloud 2 is no slouch in this area. Thankfully, Max and Monica are both adept at using their weapons of choice--he fights with a heavy wrench and a pistol, while she favors swords and a magical-energy-shooting armband. The combat is highly reminiscent of the action featured in the N64 Zelda games (not to mention most other modern action RPGs) in that it utilizes a lock-on system that lets you rotate around your enemies, backflip away from them, and perform other standard combat maneuvers. The dungeons in Dark Cloud 2, while fun, are probably the game's weakest link. The randomized layout does add some variety, but it also limits your activities to hacking and slashing and opening treasure chests until you find the key for that floor and can progress to the next. The combat is also a little bit clunky and not nearly as gracefully executed as the combat in the Zelda games, but after you pound away at enough enemies, you'll get the hang of it.
Any good RPG lets you obtain new weapons to use against harder monsters, and Dark Cloud 2 is no exception, but the way you do so here is fairly unique. As you kill monsters, the experience you gain doesn't go straight to your characters; you level Max and Monica up with items you find in the future. Rather, the experience goes into your weapons, which have a full range of stats and attributes to manage. Each time a weapon's level increases, its stats go up slightly, and it gains a few more synthesis points. With these you can "spectrumize" any item you're carrying and apply it to the weapon. Spectrumized items increase a particular stat of the weapon you apply it to, and when that weapon reaches the required levels in certain categories, you can rebuild it into an entirely new weapon. You'll also occasionally find better weapons for sale, but generally, building your existing weapons up is the most straightforward and effective way to enhance your attack power. Like the georama system, this upgrade system is easy to get a handle on with the provided tutorials, and it provides you with a wider range of customizing options than most other games of this type.
Max and Monica are the main fighters in Dark Cloud 2, but there are also a wide array of secondary characters to use in battle as well. Max's alternate incarnation comes in the form of Steve the ridepod, a big rattletrap of a robot cobbled together from household items. Steve can be upgraded in all sorts of ways as he gains experience, ranging from replacing his legs with tank treads to swapping out his massive arms for side-mounted cannons. Monica has the ability to transform into certain monsters and use their attacks in combat. To do this, she has to obtain special medallions, each of which provides her with a new monster form. Finally, any one of the many people you meet can be recruited as a support character to follow you into the dungeons. Although you won't see that person running around with you, he or she will provide a variety of passive abilities that will help you out. The game's combat portion would have been pretty good with just its two main characters, but these extra additions add a lot of versatility as you plow through the hordes of enemies.
In addition to the main quest, which involves plumbing the depths of each dungeon for geostones and then building up the surrounding area in the georama, Dark Cloud 2 features a staggering amount of peripheral material for you to plow through. As you build your towns up, you need to move people into them, and these people can be found only in Palm Brinks. Each potential new resident has a task for you to complete, however, before they'll come with you, and these tasks are like little side quests in themselves. Some are more involved than others, but whenever you've had your fill of dungeon combat and world building, you can head back to the main town and try to convince people to come with you. This can be as easy as running a requested errand or as involved as seeking a rare item hidden somewhere in the world. These side quests are a great diversion and add a lot to the gameplay.
Another thing you can do in your off time is take advantage of Max's skill in inventing things. The invention system works like this: All inventions require three component objects to make a full idea, and when Max has the beginnings of an idea, the game will tell you which three things you need to invent the object. You'll have to go out with Max's camera and snap pictures of these three things and then feed the images into his brain so he can mull over the possibilities and finally come up with something new. For instance, the idea involving a window, a wooden box, and a river yields an aquarium. Some inventions are more useful than others, and occasionally the search for components can degenerate into a fetch quest, but the invention process is almost always optional, and it's rewarding to come up with new things to assist your journey. Fully featured fishing and golf-like minigames round out the plentiful list of extra gameplay elements in the game. There's so much to do that it's almost overwhelming, and you'll never be starved for an enjoyable activity.
Dark Cloud 2 is an aesthetic masterpiece. While the first game looked merely decent for its time, the visual improvements made by the new game are staggering. Dark Cloud 2 features some of the best use of cel shading yet, on the PlayStation 2 or anywhere else. All the game's characters and enemies make full use of the effect, but its application is subtle enough that it never blatantly leaps out at you--rather, it produces the intended effect, which is simply to make the game's people and monsters look like characters in a cartoon. The game's environments are also lovingly crafted and quite varied, with the exception of the dungeons, whose random nature tends to make them look a little repetitive. Dark Cloud 2's music ranges from good to excellent, and generally there are enough tunes that you won't get too bored of hearing any particular one. Dark Cloud 2's translation and voice acting deserve special mention because they show how far the localization of Japanese games has come in the last decade or so. The dialogue's phrasing is imaginative and the voices are of the caliber you'll find in any animated television show. The effect of this is a greater involvement on the part of the player with the characters in the game, and this of course is the goal of any story. Sony clearly put some real effort into localizing Dark Cloud 2, and the work pays off big.
Dark Cloud 2 is simply a class act all the way. Every element of the game, from the georama system to the weapon upgrading to the interaction with a large cast of characters, displays a polish and attention to quality that you find only in real classics. Level-5 and Sony should both be commended for turning a fair-to-middling old game into what will now be a series to watch with great interest. Dark Cloud 2 could very well be the PlayStation 2's Zelda, and it will appeal to fans of the action RPG genre for a long time to come.