Anybody who has picked up a videogame publication this month has no doubt noticed the recent Dark Cloud 2 advertising campaign that declares: (in stretched out letters spanning the length of two pages) "when you can do everything, the hardest part is doing anything." But until you've actually invested a few dozen hours into the game, only to find that you've barely scratched the surface, that statement may not hold much meaning. As it turns out though, it couldn't be more true. There are so many things to do and see in the sequel to the Playstation 2’s first true action role-playing game that it can seem a bit overwhelming at first. But Dark Cloud 2 makes no apologies for its almost overly-intricate gameplay requirements and intimidating potential game-time -- bending and sometimes balancing on the edge of breaking the conventional RPG rules that games of the genre have been so dependent on since the dawn of experience points. Dark Cloud 2 may not be the most conservative or traditional RPG on the market, but when you can boast nearly 60 hours of meaty gameplay while keeping the player thoroughly entertained the entire time, you don't have to be.
Dark Cloud 2, besides being the sequel to a game that allowed gamers to equip a talking stick, is an action/RPG hybrid that has all the trappings of a traditional RPG yet is something completely original and unique in its own right. Harvest Moon, Secret of Mana, and Actraiser. Those are a few of the games that DC2 seems to have drawn inspiration. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes this game so fun, but the more you play it, the more you realize that its incredibly addictive nature is not due to one or two aspects of the game, it's everything. Whether it's fighting your way through monster-infested dungeons or just kicking back in your gaming chair of choice as you kill some time reeling in fish, the game is pure icing all the way through. In other words, be prepared to put life on hold until you've squeezed every ounce of gaming goodness out of this gem because once you pick up the dual shock, you'll do a number two in your pants before you even think about putting it down.
The story in Dark Cloud 2 revolves around a plucky young well-to-do hero named Maximilian. Max is a genius who spends every free moment in the local maintenance shop fixing stuff and inventing things. But aside from stuff and things, he also spends plenty of time wishing he could leave his small town and go on an adventure of his own. Luckily, it isn't long before he learns that a family amulet, passed down from his father, is actually a powerful gem that possesses the ability of time travel. Unfortunately, evil forces are vying to get their hands on Max and retrieve the time-traveling device to use to their own twisted ends. But Max won't have to contend with the forces of evil all on his own, he'll be aided by a princess from the future named Monica, who also has the ability to travel through time. Together, these two kids will set out to destroy a wicked tyrant who is messing with the future by disrupting events in the present, and hopefully discover their destiny, save the planet, and get in a few rounds of golf in the process.
Dark Cloud 2 is a dungeon crawler at heart but you'll also do things like visit unique and interesting towns, partake in the occasional fishing contest, and explore vast environments teeming with potential dialogue exchanges and mini-quest opportunities. Those familiar with the first Dark Cloud will have no trouble jumping into party two. The fundamental dynamics of that game pretty much carry over to this one. For those who weren't lucky enough to play the original Dark Cloud, the basis of progression revolves around making your way through a string of dungeons and hunting down elusive geostones. Each dungeon harbors one of these stones which are actually components of the town you need to restore but in rock format (don’t ask). Once you've acquired all the geostones from the series of dungeons in a chapter, you'll be able to put together the town piece by piece, and to a certain degree, even customize its layout to your liking. But unlike the first DC, you'll be able to travel into the future and check out how the town you've created has weathered the passing of time.
One of the biggest new additions to the series is the ability to invent things. By taking pictures of your surroundings, you will plant the seed of an idea, and by combining three idea-inducing pictures, Max may be able to come up with a spanking new invention for use on his journey. Inventing things is completely optional but those who really want to get the most out of the game should spend some time taking in the scenery and trying different picture combinations. After a few hours of playing the game, you'll acquire a fishing rod and be able to earn FP (as in “fishing points”) by reeling in the big ones. And then towards the latter half of the game, you'll be able to compete in fishing tournaments. Another cool addition to the original DC formula is the introduction of a game called Spheda. Spheda is actually a fully functional golfing simulator that is built right into the game's design. After you rid a dungeon of baddies, you're given the opportunity to play a round of Spheda in it. If you succeed at hitting the Spheda ball into a time distortion (read: black hole-looking thing), you'll be rewarded with an ultra-helpful item or weapon. And if you can believe it, Spheda actually fits into the game's storyline.
While it may seem on the surface that DC2 is spread pretty thin on account of the sheer variety of things you can do, don't believe it. The real-time combat system that the game is heavily dependant on is rock-solid. Max and Monica control flawlessly as they hack and slash their way through countless enemies. Their roster of offensive maneuvers is quite impressive. On top of the expected moves like Zelda-style lock-on, blocking, sword swinging, and item usage, you can also perform back flips, lunge attacks, and long-range attacks with the greatest of ease. The precision of control coupled with the intensity of the actual combat and the spot-on physics makes for an incredibly addictive dungeon crawler experience. The solid gameplay is immensely complimented by the utter diversity of weapons that can be equipped, each with its own unique look and special attributes. You'll notice that each weapon controls a little bit differently and the character's method of attacking differs depending on what he is using. The change from weapon to weapon is subtle but definitely noticeable when you've used the same weapon for five hours, then suddenly upgrade or replace it.
The combat in Dark Cloud 2 is just as strategic as it is intense. If you attempt to attack an enemy from the front, for instance, chances are that you'll suffer some damage. So attacking from the back is usually a better strategy since enemies turn around slowly, giving you a window of opportunity to take them out. But on the other hand, a quick head-on lunge attack is the best course of action for weaker enemies who can be defeated with one powerful blow. Or, if you'd rather play it safe, you can lock-on to a baddie from a distance and contend with him via long-range attacks. The great thing is, regardless of what strategy you end up going with, the weapon-based experience system will ensure that your stats reflect the consistency of your personal style. Each enemy that you defeat will explode into a mess of money and experience jewels that increase an on-screen meter bar that visibly shows how many more experience jewels you need to collect before the weapon that you are using levels up. Each of the two weapons that you have equipped also have their own on-screen hit-point display. When you attack opponents, the weapon that you used will decrease in, well, health, for lack of a better word, and once the available hit points of that weapon are depleted, it'll break. But unlike the first Dark Cloud, in which you were pretty much SoL if your weapon broke, this version allows you to fix broken weapons with a 60-gold-piece item that can be easily procured from numerous shops and locations around the game world.
This method of focusing more on the weapon than the character who is using it may initially seem less exciting a prospect than the traditional character-based experience system that most RPGs swear by, but the sheer depth and profit-on-return of the weapon-based EP system ensures that you'll derive plenty of satisfaction from it. Max and Monica do receive occasional HP enhancements and defense boosters that permanently increase their stats, but these come in the form of foodstuff items that can be found in non-combat areas.
Both Monica and Max are able to take alternative forms for use during combat situations. Max can board his ridepod at any time by pushing in the R3 button and Monica can literally transform into various monsters that she has destroyed the same way. I wasn’t too keen on Monica’s monster transforming ability, as her various forms proved to be of little use. But Max’s ability to board a customizable ridepod (a mech-like robot made from things like wood and tin) was invaluable since it is capable of unleashing some serious firepower and has a large health meter. Plus, if the ridepod gets critically damaged, you can always revert back to using Max, whereas if the monster that Monica transforms into gets killed, she can no longer be used in that dungeon.
As downright ass kicking as the combat in DC2 is, it makes up only half of the total equation. The other half of the game is spent striking up conversations with townsfolk (sometimes in an attempt to get them to move to your town), tracking down various materials that will aid in the process of building towns, traveling into the future version of the town you built, and watching relatively lengthy (yet undeniably tasty) cut-scenes that propel the storyline forward. So I guess you could say that Dark Cloud 2 is, at its core, one part destroying and one part putting together. The traditional-esque RPG style that overlays the entire game is what ultimately seals the proverbial deal and ensures that a mélange of genre-specific fans will be able to easily get into the game. Hell, if the developers threw a few floating blocks into the mix and included a "jump" button, they could have won over a few platforming fans.
It would have been nice to see some kind of obvious indication of whether you can go inside a particular house or not when exploring the game’s main town Palm Brinks, instead of having to go door by door and watch your character shake his head for 3 seconds every time a door doesn't open. In Palm Brinks, there must be a hundred similar looking houses and various other structures, but only a few can actually be entered. This isn't a problem so much about 10 or 15 hours into the game when you’ve memorized where everything is, but the fact that you must invest a large chunk of time figuring out where you can and cannot go may bode disappointing for gamers who expect neatly wrapped bits of scripted action in their RPG. If things were laid out a bit more clearly in Palm Brinks, I would have felt comfortable giving Dark Cloud 2 a perfect 10. Also, a portion of playing Dark Cloud 2 is spent navigating through menus, flipping back and forth to item shops, key-areas, and dungeons. You'll need to visit many places that aren't necessarily that close to each other on a regular basis, so learning the ins and outs of the menu system is critical in saving time.
Visually, Dark Cloud 2 is one of the best-looking RPGs ever, for any system. It isn’t a matter of technical poly-pushing prowess, but more of an artistic quality that makes the visuals so impressive. The character models, environments, and everything in between utilize the popular toon-shading technique that is making the rounds these days, but the amount of detail and architectural talent that went into DC2 is something that has never been portrayed to such an impressive degree. You’ll run around huge, expansive areas and marvel at the immensity of the game’s environments as you pan the camera around at will with the R-analog stick. Surprisingly, there is no slowdown whatsoever, even when the PS2 is churning out dozens of separate polygon-intensive structures and characters simultaneously. Not to put too fine a point on it, but suffice to say that Dark Cloud 2’s visuals do justice to its amazing structure and gameplay. The cut-scenes are an equal balance of excellent choreography, impressive cinematography, and genuinely touching musical orchestrations.
The music consists of tracks ranging from a Greek-y organic-sounding synthetic rhythm, that just kind of perpetually builds up and never fully reaches its crescendo, to what can only be described as an unplugged stringed-instrument masterpiece. Some songs tend to repeat but since they are impossible to get sick of, it’s all good. The majority of the game’s dialogue is voiced by professional talent – Max, Monica, and the supporting cast all come off as genuinely interesting personalities, thanks in large part to the voice actors who portray them.
Dark Cloud 2 is an amazing game. I mean, seriously, wow. Expect to invest an absurd amount of time getting to the end of the game. Shigeru Miyamoto has stated on multiple occasions at various press conferences that a game’s overall length is becoming an increasingly less important factor in what gamers want and expect from their videogame experience, but apparently SCEA hasn’t gotten the memo because this sucker will keep you glued to the screen for at least 60 hours. I’m not questioning Mr. Miyamoto’s opinions on the state of the gaming industry, but if a game can manage to stay consistently fresh and fun from beginning to end, I say the longer the better. In any case, PS2 owners would do well to pick this game up without hesitation and by any means.