morecowbell24's Dark Cloud (PlayStation 2) review

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Silver Linings Stretched Too Thin

Dark Cloud is a dungeon crawler in which the dungeons are rote and the crawling is repetitive. It only puts up resistance with its final boss, which would have you wrestle with the menus and camera. The neat city building, cute weapon progression and sweet moments are largely spoiled, because the core gameplay loop is a mess of mind-numbing combat through mundane environments.

Setting the stage is a choreographed dancing ritual for a communist type trying to summon a genie, so that his wish to rule the world might be granted. Shortly thereafter it cuts to Toan's (your) home village of Norune, where a festival celebration of sorts is under way. It doesn't take long for the festival to be interrupted by the genie's raining of purple cloud fire that brings about the apocalypse. Naturally, Toan managed to survive with the help of a mysterious and magical old man who comes and goes inexplicably to explain your destiny. It's through talking to this old man you learn that you can restore Norune and the world back to the way it was before the night the purple fire rained down from on high.

This is where an Actraiser-esque city building dynamic comes into play. During the core loop of dungeon crawling you'll find orbs that hold objects and people that you can bring back to the village and move around as you see fit. There is a puzzle element to this in which the characters you rescue have requests as to how they'd like their living arrangements arranged. You'll be rewarded with various odds and ends as you fulfill their requests, and while this is probably the most interesting facet of Dark Cloud, it can be a bit tedious if you choose to pursue it.

While that bit of tedium isn't mandatory, the dungeon crawling is. There are several floors randomly generated floors in each dungeon, and almost all of them are the same. They look the same, they have the same enemies, with hardly any notable loot and you constantly have to be conservative with how you approach the rather dull combat. At a cursory glance Dark Cloud's combat might look like The Legend of Zelda, but it's not nearly is interesting as that. It might look like you are in the process of a combo the way Toan dances around as you repeatedly mash the same button, but that's just the game locking you into its animations. You can't roll or dodge or cancel commands. It's devoid of challenge and the animations, while nice, only mask how stiff it actually feels.

To mix it up other player characters join your party and you can swap between playing as any one of them at any time. The stiff combat isn't helped at all by these characters as they're combat options are just as limited. Making all of this worse is the weapon degradation system that is more of an obstacle than any enemy in the game. The weapons aren't very durable, and accidentally breaking your weapon means it’s gone forever. It's often more time efficient to load a save from 3 hours before than it is to build up an entirely new one.

Despite this, the weapon upgrade system is another of the more interesting parts of Dark Cloud. Managing your parties weapons and specking them to be better against certain creatures or trying to upgrade them to an ultimate weapon of sorts sparked a bit of a Stockholm Syndrome in me that kept me playing despite not really enjoying myself. That said, the time investment as it pertains to the payoff hardly seemed worth it. It's as if Dark Cloud was an attempt at the Diablo-style loot game, but the loot is too few and far between and the benefits take too long to reap. Being constantly at risk of your weapon breaking and losing a lot of progress clashes against the idea of sticking it out every floor, hunting down every enemy and every chest.

For all it's design flaws and dreary bits, there are some charming moments sprinkled throughout Dark Cloud. The plot as a whole is your average tale of the chosen hero saving the world from evil, but more than a handful of moments from side quests, visiting home's I'd restored and parts of the larger narrative brought a smile to my face. I wish I could say the same about the rest of Dark Cloud. It's certainly got some silver linings, but they are stretched too thin and shrouded by a core gameplay loop so dull; it's difficult to describe Dark Cloud as anything other than a tedious grind.

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