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Looking Back: Dark Cloud PS4

When you hear the name Level-5 many games come to mind: Ni No Kuni, Professor Layton, Dragon Quest 8, and Yokai Watch. Today we are taking a look back to what started it all - the PS2 rogue-like action RPG cult classic, Dark Cloud.  Level-5 developed Dark Cloud with Sony Computer Entertainment handling the publishing. The game was initially released in December of 2000 for the Japanese PS2 with the North American version coming out five months later. Europeans had to wait four months after the North American release to get there hands on it. In June of 2016 it was released digitally on the PS4 for $14.99. At the time of writing this, it is currently on sale, until December 23rd, 2019, for $5.99.

The story of Dark Cloud is pretty simple. An ancient evil known as the Dark Genie is unleashed from his prison and begins causing havoc on the planet. Luckily, the Fairy King was able to save almost everything from the Dark Genie's wrath by sealing things in magic "Atla" orbs. Toan, a young boy, is then given a magic stone called the Atlamillia by the Fairy King and tasked with unsealing the Atla orbs with the Atlamillia. Toan meets several unique characters, who wind up fighting alongside him, on his journey. Each character has different weapons and abilities to help with dungeon progression. Examples of this are hitting switches with Goro's hammer or using Xiao's feline agility to clear gaps in the dungeon. As the game progresses, having to constantly change characters to clear dungeons begins to feel like a chore and ruins the flow of gameplay.
The international versions of the game feature some key differences from the original Japanese release. These changes include a new dungeon after finishing the game, Toan’s attack being changed from a single vertical slash to a 5 hit combo, new duels, new enemies, a sound when your weapon hp is low, new items in shops, and some tweaks to enemy properties. These changes make the international version a meatier and, in my opinion, superior version of the game.

Compared to other RPGs at the time, the story of Dark Cloud is pretty simple. However, the characters and creatures you meet on your journey make up for the lackluster story. As you reassemble villages, you can speak to the residents you have saved to ask them how they would like their house and the village to be rebuilt. All the villagers have different interests and relationships with other villagers and, for the most part, each villager will have something interesting about them. It could be their appearance, their behavior, or whatever bizarre reward they give you for helping them.

The game is split into two main parts. Dungeon crawling to collect new weapons and/or items and using Atla to rebuild the village you are currently in. Every time you enter the dungeon its floors will be randomly generated with new layouts, items, and enemy placements. To clear a floor you must first find and kill whatever enemy is holding the key to the next floor. You can then use the key to unlock the path to the next floor or head outside. Don’t worry about choosing to leave a dungeon because once you go back in you can pick up where you left off. Alternately, you can go back to any floor you've previously completed to grind for experience.
The combat itself isn't anything special, it’s mainly waiting for an opening in the enemies attack pattern and mashing the X button until they die. Alternately, you could use one of a variety of items that can be thrown at the enemy to do damage or inflict a status ailment but, for the most part, you are better off selling thrown items as their effectiveness is very limited. You can take cheap shots at enemies you aren't comfortable hitting up close by tossing these item but you might as well just switch to a character with a long range attack instead. This way you can use the money you get from selling items to buy more important things.

While combat is pretty straightforward, dungeon crawling has a few unique quirks. In the dungeon you will have to manage multiple things: your HP, your thirst, and your weapon's HP. Making sure all 3 of these things are kept up with is a major part of the dungeon crawling portions of this game. Running out of HP is bad enough in a dungeon but running out of Weapon HP is many times worse as the weapon you are using will be destroyed and gone forever. You can prevent this from happening by using items called ‘Repair Powder’ to restore your weapons HP before it hits zero. Repair powder being one of the "more important" things you can buy that I mentioned earlier. Letting your thirst meter drain will cause you to slowly lose health as you continue through the dungeon. Drinking water and/or stopping by the springs that appear in the dungeons will keep your thirst meter high and prevent this from being too much of a problem. You can also improve your character's thirst meter which will make your thirst meter last longer and the issue of needing a drink less frequent.

During dungeon runs you may come across something, such as a rusted cart, that lets you use an item on it. If you can find the correct item to use on it you will be taken to the dungeons back rooms. These areas are full of hard-hitting monsters but the items you find in the chest there are well worth the risk.
During key events in the story you will have duels, which are various quick-time events that must be completed to progress. If you can perfectly time each input you will receive a reward at the end of the duel. The duels themselves are pretty cool, but due to your focus being on not messing up, you might miss a few cool moments.
Unlike most RPGs, you don't level your character up by defeating monsters. On the contrary, much like Azure Dreams, you level up the weapons you use, which is why repair powder is so important. Breaking a weapon you've spent hours building up can leave you in a tough spot wielding a weapon that barely does any damage. Dark Cloud takes weapon leveling a bit further than Azure Dreams because you can connect weapons with various gems and attachments when you level them up. These attachments give your weapon a boost to its stats, elemental damage, and effectiveness against certain types of enemies. After leveling a weapon enough times, you can either build it up to a stronger weapon or you can choose to status break it. When you status break a weapon it is destroyed and turned into an attachment that you can put on another weapon. These attachments add a fraction of all the stats that previous weapon had to the new weapon you attach it to. This will dramatically boost your new weapon's stats. The various weapons, and their unique designs, make it very satisfying to open a chest and find a weapon you've never seen before. Finding a giant frozen fish you can use as a hammer is plain funny. However, the sentient slingshot that makes witty remarks about whatever enemy you happen to be fighting against is a whole new level of awesome.
The controls of Dark Cloud may take some time to get used to as the game features tank controls. If you are unfamiliar with tank controls, it means moving the stick up makes you move forward in whatever direction the camera is facing while moving the stick to either side makes you walk in a circle. The key to effective movement in Dark Cloud is by using L1 and R1 to slightly move the camera left or right so you can make turns.

One downside of the game is how poorly everything is balanced; at the beginning of the game low supplies and hard to hit enemies with poison attacks will make the first few floors difficult and downright frustrating for newcomers. Once you’ve unlocked the sixth and final party member the game becomes frustratingly easy. The final party member, for the most part, completely removes the need to switch characters. This character is constantly flying and can effortlessly cross gaps you previously had use Xiao to clear. The guns he uses are great for long range attacks while also being some of the strongest weapons in the game.

The second half of the game is the city building aspect. Atla contains various people, places and objects. These objects range from llamas and cats to dumbbells and giant windmills with almost everything in between. Once you have returned to the village, you can enter Georama mode which gives you the ability to place and move what you have found in your trips to the dungeon. Just placing buildings down isn't enough to completely restore villages as they were before, you must also assemble the buildings themselves in the Georama menu by putting the people, animals, and other objects you find with the building they belong to. After completely assembling a building, you will be given a reward. Some rewards are weapons or a consumable item, but sometimes it’s something else, like a place to store unneeded items, or getting the size of your inventory increased. There is always an incentive to find every Atla in a dungeon. And if you can make a village that satisfies everyone's request you will get a very worthwhile reward.
The game was originally developed as a launch title for the PlayStation 2, so the graphics aren't going to blow you away. However, the enemy and character designs make up for very dated graphics, even after the ps4 ports upscaling. The ps4 version of the game has various minor visual bugs, while you are exploring dungeons you may notice parts of the floor turning black for a second, but for the most part it isn't much of an issue.  The music, on the other hand, is some of the catchiest and fun music I’ve had the pleasure of listening to in a video game. The battle theme, that catches your attention and keeps you on your toes, makes every fight exciting. Meanwhile, the serene music and chirping birds you hear in your home village as you hang out at the pond fishing. hoping to save up enough points for a sweet item, keeps things from seeming boring. The music plays a major part in setting the tone for the game and Level-5 pulled it off brilliantly. The sounds, however, can be very hit or miss. The sounds each character makes when they attack and take damage can get irritating fast. This may even put you off of using certain characters because of how headache-inducing their grunts are, looking at you Goro!

FINAL VERDICT: Recommended
Dark Cloud is one of my favorite games on the PlayStation 2 and, to this day, holds up wonderfully. The dungeon crawling is addictive. The city building features aren't the most advanced, in some ways limited, but the feeling of watching an empty lot become a populated village is very satisfying. At its best Dark Cloud is a whimsical and charming adventure with new and interesting things to see at every turn. At its worst, it can be a slow, tedious grind as the enemies pelt you with poisoned attacks from all sides. You sit in horror at the realization that you haven't saved in two hours. Then, you break a sword that you spent 5 hours grinding to build up. Overall I’d say the game is a great buy for any hardcore RPG enthusiast. Additionally, it’s a great piece of gaming history that kick-started one of the industries most renowned developers.

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