Dark Cloud

I remember seeing Dark Cloud at E3. It was just about to come out--this was the E3 immediately after the PS2's release--and Sony was hyping Dark Cloud as the next Zelda or somesuch. I played a few minutes of it, but what can you get out of a game at E3 other than "pretty graphics" and "need more time to get a feel for it?" (Answer: Not much.)

When the game came out, I wrote a review for it at the site. Of course, I didn't have time to put thirty-plus hours into the game, and so my review was based on experiences up to the second or third dungeon. Nonetheless, looking back at that review now, I think that what I saw at the beginning of the game holds true throughout--it requires too much micromanagement, weapons break too easily, and the game tends to frustrate because of issues like that.

It's a damn shame my score didn't reflect my feelings.

I can understand why people thought Dark Cloud was a good game. The graphics are solid, the controls are easy to get used to, and the battle system is deep enough to keep it interesting throughout most of the game. On the surface, the game seems to get a lot right. It satisfies the obsessive gamer by allowing them to build up insanely powerful weapons; it satisfies the casual gamer by allowing them to find lots of weapons strewn throughout the various dungeons, and provides them with a fishing minigame to entertain them when they get tired of the core experience.

Having just beaten the game, though, I find that "good game" is perhaps going too far.

As the old cliché goes, the devil is in the details. While Dark Cloud has a lot of options for upgrading your weapons, the characters themselves have a minimal growth path. You can use gourds to increase their water meter, you can use fruit to increase their maximum health, and you can use their "favourite food" to increase their defense. That's it.

Even worse, there are a limited number of each type of object. The last character you get has a whopping two chances to get his defense boosted; one wonders why the developers even bothered giving him a food. There end up being plenty of gourds to go around, and it's easy enough to max out your primary characters and have lots of gourds left over.

The worst part about the character "development," however, comes from increasing their health. The game places an arbitrary limit on the number of fruit each character can consume. This might not be so bad if the various characters were all equally useful. They're not, though; two of them (Toan and Ruby) are so much more useful than the rest that it's hardly worth leveling the other character's weapons. Ruby will be stuck with 140 health throughout the entire game, though, which means that a number of tough enemies can kill her with one hit. Does the game care that she was my primary warrior once she joined my party? Nope.

There are other flaws like this. Weapons break too easily, and you lose all of your progress in the weapon along with its attachments, effectively requiring you to hit the reset button unless you like losing hours of development. Said hours of development tend to be tedious. The menu system is slow and clunky, and switching your weapon's attributes takes too much damn time; I ended up sticking with Holy through most of the last half of the game, mainly because I was too lazy to take the time to switch between the different elemental affinities.

Where the game utterly fails, however, is with its "Limited Zones." Every once in a while, you'll come across a level that forces you to use a particular character. While this is all well and good for Toan and Ruby, when you're forced to use Ungaga in the last dungeon and he has to hit the enemies an average of ten times to kill them, you realise that you should probably be doing something more productive with your time. Other limited zones make you get thirsty more often--oh boy, more micromanagement!--or make your weapons lose experience instead of gaining it. What sort of sadistic designer thinks punishing gameplay is a valid design choice? (Well, Level 5, obviously.)

The game's redemption comes in the form of the Georama mode, where you rebuild various towns (and other things) throughout the game. It's fun to play around with this, and right when it starts to get boring the game mixes it up some. It doesn't make up for the rest of the problems, but it gives people who like lots of small goals something to look forward to as they progress in the game. Of course, only Toan can pick up the Atla pieces that Georama requires, forcing you to switch back and forth between characters every time you come across one. (Did I mention this game has lots of micromanagement?)

The simplest summary I can give of Dark Cloud's problems is that the game squanders its potential with lots of annoying--here it comes--micromanagement. Switching between characters, changing weapon attributes, keeping your weapons healthy, and staying hydrated shouldn't be what you remember about the game; you should instead recall the exciting battles and interesting (if sparse) storyline.

I bet you can guess what I remember most, though.

Back to the Playstation 2 review index.

Last Updated: 2004.08.15