Past Expiration: Dark Cloud 2

For those who don't know, Past Expiration is my little term for talking about a game way past its prime. In this case, an RPG randomly generated dungeon crawler slash town builder that was released in 2003 for the Playstation 2. Topical!

Dark Cloud 2 (Fantasy Back to the Future: The Game)

He's an Inventor, She's a Princess: They fight Crime
He's an Inventor, She's a Princess: They fight Crime

I have to admit I don't remember how I was introduced to Dark Cloud 2. I may have rented it back in the days when you actually visited a store to rent games. But for whatever reason I remember that it had a strong opening and a crazy invention system that involved creating items and weapons by taking pictures of objects and combining them. So I took it upon myself to track down a copy and play through it to the end. And this is a great little game. Well, not little. This game is long and dense. It's one part dungeon crawler, one part Sim City with plenty of story to fill out everything else. You might consider it a slow burn, but once things get moving there is a lot of fun to be had.
Well, unless you hate randomly generated dungeons. Then you're flat out of luck there. 

Story Keeps on Slippin' Into the Future

 No Such Thing as a Good Clown
 No Such Thing as a Good Clown
This game is pretty easy to sum up in a sentence. A young inventor named Max and a princess from the future named Monica team up to restore the land through use of time travel. If I had to be more specific (and I do) it starts in an isolated town called Palm Brinks where no one has gone outside the walls in a really long time. You play as Max right off (and eventually Monica) when the circus comes to town with some really shady clowns and discover that the world is pretty fucked up at the moment. After a tutorial dungeon in the sewer and shaking off a bunch of carnival freaks, you learn that the only way to save the future is to rebuild key areas in the past. How they get this done involves amulets known as the red and blue Atlamillia. Max can travel to the future with his, while Monica can use hers to go back in the past.
That means you get a whole system dedicated to planting trees, placing houses and other environmental stuff. The closer you can stick to history, the better off the future will be (and you'll also get some helpful upgrades). Of course, Emperor Griffin, the guy responsible for wrecking the past has plenty of soldiers to harass you throughout the game. You meet friendly faces and get to the bottom of all this time distorting nonsense. There's also a time traveling train involved. Doc Brown would be proud.
Overall the game is pretty lighthearted. I did appreciate that Monica is no damsel in distress and will frequently hold her own in and out of cutscenes. Max is pretty chill for a main character and doesn't get annoying after 20 plus hours of game time. There's also a great villainous clown known as Floatsam early in the game.

Crawl, Crawler

The RPG action part of the game involves exploring randomly generated dungeons. Every area you visit and revisit will be different every single time. The only constant is the type of enemies you'll find in a particular section. When it comes down to fighting, fleeing and using items, it plays out like an third person action game. Max and Monica play similarly with both a melee and projectile attack. The difference between them really depends on how you upgrade their weapons, but I played most of the game with Max because his special move is an awesome Mech called the Ridepod that you can customize throughout the game. It can LAY WASTE to most of the enemies in a stage no problem. Whether you're feeling Metal Gear or Main Battle Tank, Max has the guns to bring it. Also, as you upgrade his weapons he becomes the long range master equipped with rapid fire pistols or a fully automatic sub-machine gun.
 Gatling Guns would work Better
 Gatling Guns would work Better
Monica was more of my melee master. She has some really great swords... and that's about it. Her projectile attack involves some magic that hardly does any damage (if you're lucky) and becomes situational at best by the end of the game as higher level enemies develop immunities. Not to mention, her special mode involves transforming into enemy monsters... but they're so weak, slow and overall pathetic that I never stuck with it long enough to find out if she got anything better. It also doesn't help that you have to jump through some serious hoops wooing enemies over with care packages in order to get more monster transformations. I found it damn near impossible to see if it ever paid off.... because enemies never develop immunities to tank cannons. Nope.
However, the game is pretty good about keeping you from blowing through a dungeon with one character. There are stages that pop up where you can only use one character only. Luckily, all you need to do is find a key and then the exit. So if you weren't giving Monica the time of day, you're not totally screwed if she's too weak to fight. It also has you keep track of weapon condition, ammo, fuel so you can't one button it through an entire stage. You can buy supplies at shops... but it can get pretty pricey.

Build a Wrench, then Build a Town

The other part of the game involves inventing things and rebuilding towns. The invention system uses a camera Max carries around. He can take pictures of objects like windows, barrels, stop lights, trumpets, and store it in a photo album. Then you combine three objects you've taken photos of and see if it results in an item or weapon you can make. Of course, doing this repeatedly with random objects will result in frustration. Your best bet is to look around town and get "inspired" by books and people that give you a useful combinations. And since you can whip out the camera anytime, anyplace, it gets really tricky figuring out what can be used for an invention or not. There's one combination that uses a hallway chandelier right before the final boss confrontation. Some even use certain frames of an enemy's attack animation. It can get pretty crazy. But sometimes you can create a trumpet gun made from a fountain, a rapper, and a tree.
 Gonna Build a Town
 Gonna Build a Town
More importantly (as in, required to move the story along) is rebuilding towns in each area of the game. You get materials from dungeon crawling and things called geostones that allow you to make houses, trees and other stuff. It will also give you conditions to fulfill in order to repair the future. Stuff like, putting a fence around a house, or putting a bridge over a body of water. It's sort of like Sim City with the overhead view but without the income tax and water works. Each area has different materials to build with, like the coastal town that uses large docks to build on. You only have to hit a certain percentage to fix the future, but if you go 100% you get items that increase health for Max and Monica. Mercifully, the game is not really picky about each objective, so you can build some ugly ass towns and still get through the game. The only time building gets frustrating is when you don't have enough geostones to figure out what each objective is. When the game tells you to put "??????" next to "??????" you'll want to give it the middle finger.
Once you've put a town back together, you'll also need to move people in. Ghost towns don't count in the world of Dark Cloud 2. Most of these people are recruited from Palm Brinks, the starting area. And just like Suikoden or Majora's Mask they'll all want something before going along with your crazy plan to save the future or whatever it is you plan to do. This varies from simple actions like answering questions and more annoying tasks like upgrading a piece of junk weapon or figuring out complicated math problems. Yeah.

Lost FOREVER and Time Distortion Golf

Dark Cloud 2 is also not afraid to use the greatest of gaming fears, losing something forever. One of the worst offenders is a guy who wants you to take photos of certain events, characters, or boss battles. The majority of his requests are events you will only see once. So if you didn't catch that elephant rearing up to smash you to pieces... tough luck. Or when that effeminate fish pulls a big goofy smile. The list goes on. Certain weapons also fall under that category too. My best advice is to just roll with it. This game is not so hard that you'll regret missing out on some content. And luckily a lot of the missable stuff is side quests and other junk you can live without.
The other thing I have to mention, because it gets really damn bad, is a mini-game where you try to fix time distortions with a game of golf. They justify it with a piece of time and space rolling around where it shouldn't and Max or Monica can't touch it because it's dangerous. The end result is a golf game where you try to hit a color changing ball into a vortex. But since every dungeon is randomly generated, there are countless times where you just can't win because you can only hit the ball a number of times before it disappears. What keeps you from trying over and over again is that you can only play this game after killing every enemy on the stage. Even if you're power leveled, it takes time. Way too much time just to figure out that you can't possibly hit a ball up and down a hallway, bend around a corner, and cross a gap because the stage isn't set up right. And winning gets you gold cards that can buy pretty cool stuff too.
I guess it's not gamebreaking, but I still found it really annoying.

Final Thoughts

Dark Cloud 2 is a really cool game. At first I was afraid it would be too hard to balance town building mechanics and exploring dungeons for materials and boss fights. It seemed awkward at first but I got used to it as I went on. I appreciate all the crazy names they give each level of a dungeon, and the level of customization in costumes and pieces for the Ridepod is awesome. Slap a rotor and some cannons on that thing and you're good to go. Don't forget the voice box that gives your mech plenty of one liners.
And remember, clowns are always trouble.