Title :Dark Cloud
Platforms :Sony PlayStation 2
Publisher :SCEA
ESRB Rating :Teen
Game Rating :5.7
Review by :Ken Gagne

Dark Cloud, a PlayStation 2 game from Sony, thrusts players right into the action with this brief prologue: 

A peaceful celebration in the simple village of Norune is shattered when the Dark Genie awakes from a 400-year slumber. Commanded by the evil Flag, the genie ravages the world, but not before the benevolent Fairy King works his subtle magic. The village buildings and people were not destroyed, but sealed in giant Pokeball-like spheres which only our hero, Toan, can recover. It's similar to the Super Nintendo game Soul Blazer: as the hero explores the dungeon, more of the town is rebuilt and more items and clues become available. After finding and releasing the Pokeballs in local dungeons, Toan must combine accessories with buildings to complete each locale, then place them on a blank landscape. 

Despite this setting, Dark Cloud is typical of a modern trend in role-playing games that emphasizes player freedom over structured storytelling. Dark Cloud exhibits this trend in the aimless nature of the dungeons. Each floor is randomly generated upon entry, so no two gaming sessions are alike. Though this method of planning creates a high replay value, it deprives the catacombs of any deliberate design, which explains why there are no hidden rooms, or why a vital item is as likely to be guarded by a powerful monster as it is to be lying in a corridor. As any Dungeons & Dragons player can tell you, there's nothing like an ingenious dungeon — and in Dark Cloud, there's nothing like an ingenious dungeon. 

It may be unfair to expect such detail from Dark Cloud, however, as it is more an adventure game than an RPG. Battles occur in real-time, not in the menu-driven or turn-based fashions of RPGs. It's like Zelda 64, only faster paced, and lacking much of the strategy. Most victories come from quick button-mashing, though the occasional magic item will produce superior results. 

Toan's weapons are of the high-maintenance variety. Each blow a sword strikes weakens the weapon, until finally it irreplaceably breaks. The only preventive measure is Repair Powder, an item that restores a weapon to its full status. This "feature" is an unnecessary irritation. At the beginning of the game, when player deaths are frequent, Repair Powder can be expensive and occupies valuable slots in Toan's inventory. It is difficult to judge the damage a weapon will suffer per blow, so players must always keep an eye on the damage meter and err on the side of caution. If a weapon breaks, it's gone forever, so you might as well reboot. The more a weapon is used, the more powerful and customized it becomes, which makes the loss of a weapon all the more painful. 

It is not so easy to criticize Dark Cloud's graphics. Toan's world is bright, colorful, and easy to navigate. Multiple characters can be animated simultaneously, effortlessly filling the screen with movement. The dungeons have different styles, from caves to forests, but the levels within individual dungeons look the same, thanks to their random fashion. 

Anyway, Dark Cloud gets the big things right, but stumbles on some finer graphic details. For example, Toan is shown opening all treasure chests and Pokeballs from the south, regardless of the direction from which he approached them. The animation also lacks details of his surroundings. Opening a chest only to have the game resume with Toan facing east, ringed by foes, can be disorienting. 

Though the dungeon levels are random, the music is the same — over and over and over. It hints of faraway places, but continues to do so for the many hours it takes to overcome a single dungeon. 

Dark Cloud is a 128-bit version of old computer favorites Rogue, Moria, and Dungeon Hack. The relatively simplistic gameplay has been dressed up with a unique weapons system, and a dash of SimCity for good measure. Despite these additions, Dark Cloud is a repetitive and unoriginal adventure-RPG. It is a dark cloud on the PS2, just not the way Sony intended.

This article is copyright (c) 2001, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 04-Jun-01