Dark Cloud Preview

Dark Cloud is as much "Zelda does Arabia" as it is a subtle homage to Populous. It's also one of the first RPGs on the PS2. Here's how it's shaping up.

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Quality RPGs are always a commodity early in a new system's life. Beyond the Beyond, on the original PlayStation, for example, sold well despite the fact that it was generally regarded as tripe, even by the standards of the day. It's not surprising, then, that we see history repeating itself in some of the launch day titles of the PlayStation 2. Games like Summoner and Eternal Ring - which attempt to pacify RPG cravings with gimmicky next-generation graphics and not much else - are selling well despite lukewarm reviews. Will fate be any kinder to Sony's upcoming RPG, Dark Cloud? If its claims of compelling story, next-generation visuals, and many other unique features are delivered with the level of quality Sony Computer Entertainment is promising, then the answer is most likely yes.

Dark Cloud's story opens with a bang. A cruel commander, Colonel Flag, appears with his army in the peaceful village of Norn in the midst of a festival. Flag has decided that the backward village on the western continent will be the ideal proving ground for a powerful demon that he has surreptitiously obtained. Flag uncorks his personal demon to unsurprising results - total devastation of the town and its peaceful inhabitants. The only apparent survivor of the massacre is Dark Cloud's hero, Toan. Soon after Flag's departure, Toan emerges from his destroyed village, only to encounter the mystical protector of the western continent, the King of the Spirits. The King gives Toan a powerful stone that will allow him to re-create his home, if he so desires, exactly as it was before.

The acquisition of a stone with the power to re-create Toan's village doesn't necessarily mean that everyone will live happily ever after. Rather, it is just the beginning of a much larger quest. Before peace is truly restored to his land, Toan must embark on an arduous quest to eliminate the threats presented by Colonel Flag and his powerful demon. Along the way, he'll meet an interesting assortment of characters who are neither fully opposed to or supportive of his epic quest. The vagabond adventurer Shida, for example, is on a mission parallel to Toan's, but he seeks Flag's demon for his own reasons. While Toan and Shida have the same goal, their means often conflict. Other characters, like Ungaga, a spear-wielding nomad; Shao, a wily female warrior; Goro, a burly hero from a nearby village; and Ruby, a sorceress with a penchant for magical rings, will also interact with Toan, for better or worse.

The latest batch of screenshots and movies have confirmed the rumors that Dark Cloud's hero is, at least superficially, Link with an Ali Baba twist. There aren't any clunky turn-based battle systems or detached camera angles here - battles are 3D lock-on bouts mixed with the occasional QTE (Quick Time Event). While normal adventuring feels like Zelda, the QTE's are a page out of Shenmue - they require (for the uninitiated) Simon-like reflexes to mimic actions shown onscreen. Overall, there's a lot of dungeon exploring and plenty of monsters to fight. Interaction with the game's characters is critical to progression in Dark Cloud. To get anywhere, you'll have to poke and prod most of the characters you come across for useful directions or clues on where to head next.

On top of Dark Cloud's adventure game is the highly ambitious "georama" world-creation system. Utilizing Toan's aforementioned magical stone, you can carve your own corner in the Dark Cloud world. Quite possibly a game in and of itself, georama allows you to create a village from the ground up. Sony fully intends to add all the bells and whistles to this important aspect of Dark Cloud. You can switch back and forth from the adventure to village building at your leisure, and you can create anything from rustic homes, gentle hills, and streams to forests, turbulent weather, and towering peaks. Dark Cloud looks excellent. The game's engine seems to allow for a tremendous draw distance and superlative lighting. Like Zelda and Shenmue, Dark Cloud's gameworld changes from day to night and back to day at an accelerated pace. The texturing and architecture are also very impressive. The water textures in particular are silky smooth - some of the best seen on any console to date. The environments have a decidedly Middle Eastern flair and vary from a desert oasis town to fertile mountain valleys. Most of the characters and situations also reinforce this Arabian theme. One notable scene has Toan in his turban, handling a scimitar, spying several dozen Middle Eastern women in veils and heavy makeup performing a carefully choreographed dance to a haunting melody.

Dark Cloud, like so many PlayStation 2 titles, is awash in lofty expectations. The game's success will likely depend on Sony's ability to successfully hybridize two disparate gaming experiences (adventure/RPG and creation simulation) into something that's greater than the sum of its parts. If Sony can pull it off, Dark Cloud should be a unique next-generation gaming experience. Look for it in March 2001.

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