Thursday, June 14, 2012
Review: Dark Cloud
It's funny when you look back on certain games - like what seemed like one of the best games you've ever played is actually just an above average one at best. It's not so much that Dark Cloud has aged badly because I think it's actually aged pretty well, but rather, it's just me really looking at a game and realizing that some things could afford to be a lot better, or that some things could be abolished altogether. That's just what Dark Cloud feels like to me - it wants to be a masterpiece in the rough that's the early PS2 lineup, but all it felt like was a game that tided you over while you're waiting for Final Fantasy X. Not bad or even mediocre, but there's always the feeling that it could be so much more than what it is.
The Dark Genie has been resurrected by a cult, and the first thing it does is destroy the world. But the Fairy King manages to save everything, though besides our hero Toan, everything is confined into spheres known as Atla, which have been spread throughout the dungeons in the world. The Fairy King gives Toan the power to interact with Atla by putting a gem known as the Atlamillia onto one of his gloves, and gets him to save the world. Pretty much up until the last dungeon where the plot really starts to thicken, the most you'll get out of this story are some sidestories about the area you're in or an ally you'll get in that area, and while they do their best in at least giving you something to give a shit about, they're pretty dull and half assed at best. A few times throughout the game though, you'll bump into a character who seems to have survived the Dark Genie's attack and wants to stop him because he keeps on getting possessed by him, and he does offer some foreshadowing for the last dungeon, where the plot thickens. So basically, you have to wade through what could be considered an excuse plot to get to a point where the plot actually starts to exist. It does give you something to look forward to, but it's pretty fucking cheap if you ask me! Fuck that.
You'll spend most of your time in dungeons. Each floor has a randomly generated design, although there is still a sense of difficulty and progression as you'll get stronger enemies as you get closer to the boss floor. But yeah, they're randomly generated, meaning you'll have the same simple goal(s) throughout each floor. You have to find the key to the next floor either by killing a certain enemy or opening a certain chest. Since you have no indication of where it is, you'll be encouraged to kill every enemy and open every chest, and since that benefits you with weapon EXP and items, shit, you should be going through everything to be as good as you can be. You'll also have to hunt down and open up every Atla sphere in all the floors so that you can restore the towns that have been destroyed. My biggest problem with the dungeons is that there are too many fucking floors. What could've been a somewhat entertaining romp of 10 floors feels like I'm just slogging along 15/20/even 30 floors at one stage, and at the end, I'm just like "why" because it feels like I'm doing busywork more than actually having a good time playing it. None of the designs of the floors are particularly special either, so it just begs the question of why bother with heaps of floors if you clearly don't give a shit? It's a shame, because it does start off rather fun. The enemies may be simple in that they have one or two attacks and all you really need to do is dig into them at the right time, but it's still fun to kill them. Not "holy shit fapfapfap" fun, but just "cool" fun. Too bad that as the dungeons drag on, so do the enemies, and while there are different designs, they're all essentially the same and as such, all the fights feel the same. This borders on Assassin's Creed 1 repetition at the worst of times, particularly the last dungeon (and don't get me started on the optional 100 floor dungeon... if you've beaten that dungeon, you must not have any better games to play).
Thankfully, the bosses are worth slogging through eventually boring dungeons to get to. They, too, are simple in design - a couple of attacks, nothing fancy here, but what makes them work really well (besides the fact that you only have to fight them once) is that they're actually somewhat of a challenge to fight! It's not just a matter of doing a lot of damage to you; there are also patterns to consider, like one boss will try to freeze you while you have to take her shield out before you can get to her (gee, I wonder where Square got their influence for Vexen from?), or blow away a dark figure to attack its coffin. It may all sound basic, but it works to its advantage in this case because it still requires some cognitive effort to beat them. In fact, boss fights can be downright intense at times, depending on how much grinding you've done throughout the game. The difficulty curve is a little bullshit though - the second hardest boss in the game (besides the optional one) is the third boss, yet the fourth boss is actually the easiest with the only hard part being that you must use a useless character... at least his ability to conjure a light breeze from spinning his staff doesn't have to deal much more than like 1 bit of damage to actually do something.
There is an RPG aspect in this game, and that's in making the weapons stronger. As you progress through dungeons, you'll find weapons in big chests that you can make stronger by kicking ass. Now, you can level up your default weapon as well, but why level up a shitty weapon when you can access a better one? Anyway, as you kill enemies with a weapon, it'll gain EXP and once the little blue bar underneath its HP fills up, you can upgrade it to, say, Bone Rapier +1. But there's more to it than that. Throughout the game, you'll find gems with elements and attributes, which you can attach two of to a weapon to give it extra properties, like extra Fire damage or more power, and when you level up that weapon, it'll absorb the gems, letting you attach two more. But this isn't just to make that weapon worth more than one that just levels up - you can also upgrade certain weapons into certain stronger weapons with different names and much better stats depending on how you level it up. It winds up becoming an interesting system as you can customize your weapons while working towards the goal of making it the strongest sword or whatever that it can be... Just don't break it. Oh yeah, for some reason, they gave weapons HP, meaning as you strike, it'll lose HP, and if it breaks... bye bye weapon. What a stupid idea. Imaginary difficulty at its finest - yeah, I know combat isn't complicated, but you know, rather than insert stupid shit like weapon HP, why not make the combat better? Otherwise, well, there are better games to be played without such ridiculousness. Oh, and just because there's Weapon Powder, doesn't meant I suddenly think this is a good concept... because it's not. At all.
In all honesty, don't be surprised if you're not playing as every character, as only two are really useful. It probably doesn't help that you have three melee attackers and three ranged attackers, with the ranged attackers only differing in how much damage they deal... fuck, at least the melee squad has speed, special abilities (usually a stronger attack, though one has that spinning thing I mentioned before) AND power to deal with. Sadly, this game thinks that you'll be using all of these characters, and the dungeons will make sure of that because there are specific floors where you can only use that character. It's not so bad early on, but good luck in the final dungeon using a character you've probably only used like once.
But don't forget that you're not just stopping the Dark Genie - you're also rebuilding the world, and he's where the power of the Atlamillia comes into play. Using the Atla you've collected, you have to first fill in the slots (like putting people and objects in a house or shop or something), and then place it on the ground. At first, it's just a matter of assembling things together, but once you complete the dungeon, you'll have to talk to the people and ask them how they'd like to have their houses positioned - usually by the river or near a certain person, among other things, but the point is, you have to take their suggestions into consideration so that you can get a rare item from them. Actually, there's more to it than that, as some houses have to be finished before you can complete the dungeon - in fact, one has to be done at the halfway point - because these tend to have items that you need in order to progress. There is a sense of open endedness with this, but that's if you don't want the super special awesome item from the townsfolk. Funny enough, besides the bosses, this is probably the most fun you'll find in the game. Just trying to get the exact locations right is one that, while it won't rack your brain, will make you think at least a little, and I like to think that it's a fun little exercise.
There is practically little replay value to speak of. I mean, I guess you could continue to work on upgrading your weapons if you haven't already gotten the strongest one, and then go through the 100 floor snoozefest of a dungeon... no thank you. I didn't have fun going through even 15 floors, why would 100 floors sound appetizing? Oh, and there are back rooms in each floor, in which the enemies are much stronger, but there are rare items to get. But I have to say... in the 10 years I've been playing this game, I've been to about 10 back rooms because the items needed to access them are fucking rare!
The game looks good for its time, there's no denying that. Actually, it still looks good to this day, but let's get the elephant in the room out of the way - the look of the environments get really old. Like the dungeons themselves, they're fine for the first 10 floors, but afterwards, it's very easy to start wishing they'd do something to give it more pizazz because you start to realize just how bland they really look. Nothing pops out or even looks good, and the biggest offender is the dull color scheme for them. It's funny, because - and here's the awesome side of the coin - the character models are actually fairly colorful! They're bright, they're vibrant, they stand out and they look excellently crafted, even by 2001 standards and even when stood next to Final Fantasy X's models! The animations flow pretty well and don't really have any unintentionally delayed frames, nor does it lag at any time throughout. Overall, yeah, it has actually aged well... too bad the dungeons start to look redundant after a while and aren't that good looking to begin with.
Much like the environments, the songs get tiresome after a while. At first, the songs sound good and even pretty catchy at the best of times. They all suit their environments pretty well as well, but the real shitkicker is that each song is a 30 second loop, and after a while, it grates on your nerves and when you remember the songs (which is possible), yeah, it sounds nice, but after a while, you just feel like bashing your skull in against the nearest brick wall until you can remember an awesome tune. The sound effects are underwhelming, but not nearly as underwhelming as the voice acting... of which there is none. At all. Besides grunts, there is no voice work, and I'm not sure whether to say it's a blessing or a curse...
Dark Cloud is, by no means, a bad game. It's simply a game that gets tiresome after a while. It's like Level 5 gets an idea in their heads that sounds at least kind of fun and drag it on forever, eventually making it feel redundant to the point where it stops being fun and starts feeling like work. When a game starts to feel like work, the only reason you bother to keep playing is because you have hope that something fun will pop up, and when you face a boss or work with restoring the world, it ranges from refreshing to quite fun and makes the banal dungeon crawling worth it.
6/10 (Above average)