Dark Cloud 2 - Review

Simply Stupendous
By: Phillipe Richer

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 9
   Interface 9
   Music & Sound 9
   Originality 8
   Story & Plot 5
   Localization 8
   Replay Value 9
   Visuals 9
   Difficulty Moderate
   Completion Time 50-65 Hours  

She's actually driving the sword into the ground, not pulling it out.
She's actually driving the sword into the ground, not pulling it out.
Dark Cloud 2

   Back in mid-2001, a company called Level 5 brought a little PS2 game called Dark Cloud to thousands of jubilant RPG gamers. The game somehow slipped under the radar for the most part, but Level 5 went back to work regardless and unleashed the sequel, Dark Cloud 2, back in March of 2003. Having never played the first game in the series, I was not expecting much from my play time with the sequel. However, the experience that DC2 provided my eyes, ears, and heart was an all-around spectacular one, much to my surprise and pleasure.

   In his hometown of Palm Brinks, Max, an inventor extraordinaire, lives his day to day life without a care in the world. During the night where a famous circus visits his hometown, Max finds out that his cherished stone which was given to him by his father possesses an incredible power. Driven by his desire to reunite with his mother, comprehend the power of his stone, and discover the mysteries of the outside world Max sets out on his dangerous journey of mysteries and revelations. Shortly along his way, he will encounter a princess named Monica who allegedly came from 100 years into the future in order to restore her devastated land. While DC2 does not rely on its plot as its main driving force, the execution and presentation of DC2 truly attains the level of quality set by some more ambitious titles.

   The term battle system should be replaced with gameplay in DC2's case. Never have I played a game that offered as much depth, variety, and fun all at once (as far as gameplay is concerned) than DC2. The biggest chunk of gameplay comes from the dungeon crawling and the weapon build-up system. There is a total of seven dungeon areas, each encompassing between eight to 30 floors. The action on each floor occurs in real-time, just as in Zelda or Brave Fencer Musashi. Your two characters, Max and Monica, each possess three different weapons to deal with foes. Max uses a wrench, a gun, and his ridepod "Steve", while Monica wields a sword, a magic bracelet, and the ability to turn into various monsters. With so many ways to vanquish enemies, battling is very fun and diversified, even more so given the great variety of different weapons available. In order to finish a floor and move on to the next, you must first kill the enemy carrying the Gate Key for that area and find the escape point. Since every single floor is randomized, the game's replay value is nearly endless.

   Weapons eventually level-up, at which point they can be "spectrumized" with almost any item in order to improve one of ten attributes. Once you've met the proper requirements for a weapon, you can then use the "build-up" command to transform it into a more powerful variant. Max and Monica can also increase their HP and defense ratings simply by using certain items most often found in future. The core idea behind the game is actually the "Georama" system. Battling your way through dungeons will reward you with many items, ample amounts of money, and also "Geostones". Geostones contain data pertaining to the types of Georama parts you can build and the objectives you must achieve. Rebuilding "origin points" in the present will restore key elements in the future, allowing you to pursue your adventure after obtaining a lending hand from people struggling 100 years from your time. There are several locations to restore, and you can move between present and future at will through the appropriate portals. Sadly, there is only one town in DC2. You will be encouraged to revisit it often since that is where all the necessary characters for restoring the future are located.

Yes! We can fire-up the BBQ now!
Yes! We can fire-up the BBQ now!

   In addition to fighting, spectrumizing, and "Georama-zing" there are many, many more tasks to undertake if you wish to do so. You can fish on certain dungeon floors then raise your fish in an aquarium and enter various fish-related contests. There is also "spheda", a very golf-life element, which can be played on various dungeon floors for great items. Completing certain challenges on dungeon floors which include fishing, spheda, and various battle-related restrictions will provide you with medals which you can exchange for different wearable outfits. And last but not least is the invention process. Early on, Max will acquire a camera which he can use to (obviously) take pictures of just about anything. By combining three relevant pictures together, Max will create a blueprint of a certain object (weapon, item, or other) which can then be constructed, provided you have the necessary items. As you can see, DC2's gameplay is unbelievably diversified. The game does a good job at forcing you to taste a little bit of everything along the way, but ultimately the choice to undertake all those tasks is yours only. And for once, the optional elements are actually a lot of fun to perform and are very rewarding as well. This is action/RPG-gaming at its finest.

   Going from one location to another is extremely easy. Simply open the menu and choose a location on the map to be teleported instantly. Navigating through dungeon floors is very intuitive thanks to the awesome map and the endless possibility of camera angles. The right analog stick allows you to rotate your view as you please, while pressing the L2 or O buttons will redirect the camera to face where your character is facing. The camera rarely gets stuck in tight areas, but it does happen from time to time. The inventory menu is superbly done, each item being represented by a colorful picture and a useful description. Every aspect of the game from taking pictures to using the Georama system can be mastered in a matter of minutes. Furthermore, if you have any questions about any facet of the game, there are dozens of very helpful tutorials (fully voice-acted I might add) for each subject that can be accessed at anytime via the main menu. When it comes to presentation, Level 5 sure didn't skimp on the quality.

   The game offers voice-acting during most every sequence and the quality of it is tremendous. The voice-acting job easily ranks all the way up there along Kingdom Hearts' and Metal Gear Solid 2's. Max and Monica sound great in every instance, while pretty much every NPC proves rather expressive and emotional. A few voice-actors seem misplaced with some characters, but overall this is definitely one of the best works ever. Sound effects are just as good, if not even better, than the voice-acting. In dungeons, every weapon and monster sound perfect, while on the map the game's environments just ooze with lifelike sounds and feel. It's an impressive effort from Level 5's sound department.

   The various musical compositions, performed by Tomohito Nishiura, also breathe of beauty and quality. Songs heard during cut-scenes are perfectly appropriate regardless of the communicated emotion, while some compositions are indescribably amazing. The mix of low flutes, violins, pianos, and acoustic guitars in areas like Balance Valley, Gondorada workshop, or the Palm Brinks train station creates completely vibrant and engaging atmospheres. The profuse use of the acoustic guitar is something I will never complain about. Even some dungeon compositions are much better than you would expect. Of course, the soundtrack contains its share of drab songs (the Palm Brinks background song comes to mind), but the excessive quality of most arrangements overshadows those soft spots. Truly, the Balance Valley song is something to behold.

Don't listen to him: his cooking isn't free.
Don't listen to him: his cooking isn't free.

   Being a heavily gameplay-oriented dungeon crawler, DC2 does not pretend to have an engaging and complex plot at all. The idea of time travel is well executed, but since events pertaining directly to the main story are few in numbers, there are very little plot twists during the game. Your main goal will be divulged very early, but your subsequent actions will often involve other sub-quests in order to progress slowly but surely towards your objective. Nevertheless, I was greatly impressed by the presentation of the game. The presence of an excellent vocal song right after the prologue and the dynamic camera action during cut-scenes coupled with the amazing sounds and visuals will almost make you forget about the story's clichéd core by giving the strong illusion that you're playing a much more cinematically-driven game.

   While the dialogues are not very rich, every piece of text is totally appropriate for the game's atmosphere. And as mentioned time and time again, the impact of the dialogues is greatly heightened by the wonderful voice-acting. Every single item is accompanied by a clear description, while even the town's signs and posts have been rewritten in English. The quantity of text is really not that big, but when there is some you can expect comprehensible voice-acted sequences, though some events do feel a little cheesy at times.

   With so many optional tasks to accomplish, DC2 can either last as short or as long as you want. There is no need to explore every dungeon floor completely, but the game is just so much fun that you probably won't be able to stop yourself from doing so. The game is rather lengthy regardless and should end up taking at the very least 50 hours of your time on a single moderate playthrough. On the other hand, doing absolutely everything there is to do might just push your game time upwards of 100 hours. You could easily complete everything on your first time around, but the infinite variety of dungeon configurations and the wide array of weapons make DC2 a game that deserves to be played at least twice.

   From the very first moment you see the game until the very last; its visual splendor will never dissipate. DC2 employs cel-shaded graphics for just about everything in the game and the results are completely spectacular. The cartoony look is not as pronounced as in Zelda: The Wind Waker, but is rather perfectly dozed in order to present lush and vibrant environments without any artistry excess. Characters and monsters are all superbly animated, while every area appears more real than real. The ability to shift to a first-person view mode also enhances the immersion factor to a level I hadn't experienced since playing Skies of Arcadia.

   In every possible regards, DC2 has amazed me completely. For a game to be this deep, this enjoyable, and this beautiful in every possible way is not easily done, yet has been performed masterfully by Level 5. However, since this is an RPG, a stronger, more involving and perplexing plot would have been needed in order to call the game a complete success. Nevertheless, DC2 is a game that will more than likely deliver the goods regardless of what your expectations may be.

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