Dark Cloud 2 Review
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.
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.