Dark Cloud Hands-On

Sony's answer to Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda series is light on the adventure elements and heavy on the dungeon crawling, making it much more straightforward than the franchise it attempts to mimic.

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The Zelda series may finally have some competition on its hands when Dark Cloud for the PlayStation 2 is released early next year. If there were laws in place to prevent the theft of game ideas, Dark Cloud would be one of the first games brought to justice. Taking the PS2's first semi-RPG at face value, it's easy to scowl at Dark Cloud for snatching so much from another game. But once the gameplay commences, it becomes evident that this game has its own perspective on the adventure RPG genre.

As Dark Cloud begins, the sinister Colonel Flag has enlisted the services of a dancing tribe to conjure up a rotund pink genie. In classic bad guy fashion, the genie proceeds to pulverize a small village with bellowing gut blasts. Toan, an elfin boy sporting a green fez, is the sole survivor of the destruction. A strange sage appears amid the rubble and charges Toan with the duty of rebuilding the village. To aid in Toan's quest, the sage embeds a powerful stone into Toan's hand. As Dark Cloud begins, only an open plain remains where the village once stood. It is here that Toan will build the new village from materials earned in the dungeons he must plunder.

Dark Cloud features five other playable characters, so Toan won't have to do it all on his own. Goro, a tubby head knocker; Ungaga, a lanky spearman; Ruby, the mystical sorceress; Shao, a scrappy female; and Shida, a white-haired antihero with his own agenda, all eventually join Toan's party. The extensive use of text helps to establish the personality of each one. Not all of the characters befriend Toan right away, however. Don't be surprised if some initially pop up as boss characters.

Dark Cloud is a hybrid of several different genres. At its heart, it's an RPG with a sprinkling of adventure elements. Successfully finishing each level of a dungeon is contingent upon collecting keys to open the door to the next level. Keys are found in chests located throughout the dungeons or may be given to you after defeating a particularly challenging enemy. The levels consist of an abundance of open space and three or four types of enemies each. The chests containing special items or weapons and the hovering orbs that supply energy to Toan's stone are scattered about each level, and they're usually in plain sight. Each dungeon consists of around eight levels, and upon entering the dungeon, you may zap to any one of them once they have been traversed. While the dungeons aren't exactly crawling with foes, the lack of weaponry balances things out a bit.

Much more reliant upon character building than Zelda ever was, Dark Cloud leans more heavily to the RPG side. Swords may be powered up with special stones to more effectively punish specific creatures, and countless items flood the inventory screen. The sword you initially have equipped can be used only 100 times before it deteriorates into a mangled mess. This results in fights with enemies that span several minutes while you attempt to hack away one hit point at a time. New, more powerful swords can be found that supply you with another 50 hacks, but in the end, it's best just to run from all but the most dangerous enemies.

The real-time battle system is almost identical to Zelda's. Locking onto enemies is accomplished with the X button. Once locked on, attacks are initiated with the circle button. Strafing around enemies and jumping in to attack is a breeze, and if you hold the circle button down for a few seconds and then release it, Toan performs a special jumping slash attack straight out of Ocarina of Time. Boss battles in Dark Cloud are handled similarly to Shenmue's Quick Timer Events. They require that you press particular buttons in a timed fasion.

One of Dark Cloud's more innovative features is its "georama" system, which facilitates the rebuilding of Toan's village. It requires you to collect building pieces located in the dungeons to use in a menu-driven construction system. While a windmill may require just a ladder and a spindle piece, a house will set you back a fence, a lamp, a bench, and a few other assorted pieces. Bridges, roads, canals, and trees are all available for construction and placement once enough pieces are found. Upon completing a structure, you may place it anywhere on the plain, and it can then be explored in full 3D. Other games have included features similar to this before, but none have made it the focus of a game in the manner Dark Cloud does.

Graphically, it's safe to say that Dark Cloud represents the stronger half of PlayStation 2 software. The character models feature rounded edges, and the visual clarity is what you'd expect from a title on a next-gen console. While the lack of FMV may turn fans of Square's RPGs off, the real-time graphics provide enough splendor all on their own. The colors are bright and vivid, and the high-resolution textures are crisp. Real-time lighting is used sparingly, but the reflection and transparency routines used for liquids rank right up there with those from Resident Evil: Code Veronica on the Dreamcast. The opening sequence demonstrates the raw polygon-pushing power of the PlayStation 2, as literally dozens of tribesmen dance around a towering altar. On the downside, the textures become repetitive, the dungeons are barren, and some of the enemies lack imagination - all common complaints with games that are hastily pushed out the door.

Those who have stuck with Sony systems since the early days of the PlayStation will be happy to get a taste of the adventure RPG genre with Dark Cloud. But fans of turn-based RPGs heavy in FMV may find the game a bit too simplified. Either way, the many parallels between Dark Cloud and Nintendo's Zelda series are a good thing, and despite its heavy reliance upon ideas extracted from previous games, Dark Cloud still manages to carve out a niche of its own. The copy we received is the final Japanese copy, but with a mid-January release date in the US, there isn't much time to make improvements. Look for more on Dark Cloud when its release date nears.

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