Dark Cloud 2 / Dark Chronicle Review

Introduction

Dark Cloud 2, released as Dark Chronicle outside of North America, is the sequel to the PS2 action JRPG Dark Cloud that was released in 2002/ 2003 to critical acclaim, scoring 87 percent on Metacritic and a 9/10 from IGN.  It was rereleased as a PS4 title on January 19, 2016 with a 1080p upscale and trophy support.  Whether you first experienced this game in the early 2000s or the late 2010s, odds are pretty high that it was one of the most charming, unique, and downright fun games you have ever played.  With its blend of classic JRPG and dungeon crawler tropes, as well as a few mechanics that were rare for the genre or all together new, it is hard to describe Dark Cloud 2 as anything other than a timeless classic, which is quite fitting considering the themes of time travel and the past affecting the future.

Review

On paper, the plot of Dark Cloud 2 is fairly simple.  You play as a young man named Max, who lives in the city of Palm Brinks.  One day a traveling circus comes to town, and while enjoying the show he is targeted by the leader of the troupe and has to escape.  In doing so, he leaves Palm Brinks for the first time in his life, and meets a strange woman named Monica who claims she is from 100 years in the future.  Monica explains to Max that something known as Emperor Griffon is waging a war against humanity in her time, and somehow has the ability to destroy things in the past in order to prevent the great leaders and technologies of the future from ever existing.  Seeing this as not only a way to save the world, but also to answer many questions he has, such as the mysterious disappearance of his mother, Max decides to join Monica and travel the world along with a number of recruitable teammates in order to save both the present and the future.

The combat of Dark Cloud 2 is also relatively simple. Both characters have a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, and a special form that they can use to fight, as well as a wide variety of items that can cause damage or apply status effects when used.  Each dungeon is made up of a number of randomly generated floors.  One enemy is holding the key to the next floor and must be beaten to move on, with the rest being optional.  Each floor also has a few challenges that reward you medals, such as for beating all of the monsters within a certain time frame, completing minigames on each floor (which will be detailed later), and a miscellaneous challenge such as defeating all monsters with a certain character or weapon, or without healing.  These challenges give one medal each which can be exchanged for rare items at a store unlocked about a quarter of the way through the game.  

The weapon system is where the intricacies of combat begin to show. Unlike other games where weapons have locked stats and effects and you are expected to find or buy better weapons, Dark Cloud 2 has the synthesis system.  With this, every weapon has the same list of stats, such as base damage, durability, and elemental damages that affect monsters differently, which can be independently levelled up by adding items you find to the weapon.  So if you want to deal more damage to beastly monsters you can synthesize items like leather or hunter crystals to the weapon.  Once a weapon has a certain level in specific stats, it can be built up to the next weapon, and the cycle continues.  There are also certain items you can synthesize in order to add effects like poison, increased durability, or increased money and item drops.  This system allows for any weapon in the game to be useful in some way.  You never have to go out of your way to find a better weapon if you find yourself against something you were not ready for, you can simply add the stats you need to the one you have.  On top of this, if you do happen to find a better weapon, you can synthesize your old weapon onto the new one and carry over all of the added effects and a good portion of its stats.  This means that it is entirely possible to get the ultimate weapons in the game to have the maximum value for every stat without having to spend hundreds of hours grinding to add points a few at a time.

One of the many places where the game shines is how it weaves the mechanics and story together.  In other RPGs, the extra team members would merely act as an extra body in combat or a resource.  While this is partially the case in Dark Cloud 2, with most extra characters selling something and having certain in dungeon abilities like increased weapon experience or having access to the full map as soon as you enter the floor, they are also crucial to the plot.  In order to restore the Origin Points in the future, the player must use the Georama system in order to rebuild destroyed towns that will eventually become a prominent place in the future, and one important element of towns is the people who live in them.  For example, the first Georama is the Origin Point of a powerful tree spirit named Jurak.  In order for Jurak to exist in the future, there must be people living in the area who respect nature and know how to properly maintain plants.  It just so happens that Max knows a gardener who has that knowledge and can pass it on to future generations, so by recruiting him and placing him in the Georama you are one step closer to completing the goal.  Each Georama also has supplemental goals which can unlock extra shops and items, so while they may not be required for completing the story it is still worthwhile to complete them to 100 percent.  The game also does a good job of helping the player balance the amount of time spent fighting through dungeons and building Georama’s by giving them a few items and clues for the Georama per floor, as well as placing some roadblocks to prevent them from blitzing through the whole dungeon while completely ignoring the Georama and associated plot.

Being a JRPG from the early 2000s, Dark Cloud 2 does suffer a bit from having too many minigames.  While attempting to stop a timeless evil, Max and Monica can also fish in just about every body of water, enter both fishing competitions and fish races, play temporal minigolf, be a city planner, and get into photography.  Thankfully most of these are not required to complete the game, with there being three mandatory fishing segments and one round of golf, but every floor of every dungeon does have a golf related medal and a good portion of them have a fishing medal so if you want 100 percent completion you will be doing quite a bit of both.  Thankfully these minigames are very well fleshed out in comparison to others in the genre that feel more like filler, with the golf mechanics being lifted straight from Hot Shots Golf, so even if they aren’t your particular cup of tea they will still be enjoyable. 

The photography mechanic is interesting, because it is first introduced as a crafting system where Max can take photos of things in the world and combine these ideas into inventions.  This allows the player to make weapons and items without having to find a shop that sells them, or make things that are not sold in shops at all.  There are also special photos called Inside Scoops, which act as a collectible in the game, and are rare or unique photos such as certain bosses or an enemy as it is performing a certain attack.  You can also earn rewards for reaching certain photography levels by taking a lot of photos and collecting Scoops.  These combine to create one of the most unique mechanics that I personally have seen, and a brilliant way to tie collectables into the game without them just being a random collection of things.

On the graphical front, the game is cell shaded and the style holds up well.  The enemies are well designed and there is a good blend of classic JRPG enemies, like skeletons and giant rats, with some out of the box choices, like a mech piloted by a cursed balloon or a sentient zucchini with bombs. Due to the nature of cell shading, the character models tend to be a bit cartoonish in proportions and movement, which adds to the charm of the game.  The PS4 upscale does well for the most part, but there are a few cases of tiles not meshing properly or models acting up when viewed up close.  A good portion of the charm also comes from how the game sounds, with a talented voice cast headed by Scott Menville (most known for voicing Robin in the Teen Titan animated series) as Max and Anndi McAfee (a regular in Don Bluth films) as Monica, and a soundtrack composed by Level-5 veteran Tomohito Nishiura.  With over 70 songs on the soundtrack, the odds of getting tired of hearing one on loop is slim, and each song embodies the area it plays in.  To this day when I think of the beach, I hear the first few bars of “Vennicio” in my head.  In dungeons, the music seamlessly transitions from the dungeon music into combat music and back when you find and defeat enemies, and once all the enemies on a floor are defeated the floor music fades and is replaced by a new upbeat track.  I find myself agreeing with reviewers of the time who said that “the soundtrack ranges from good to very good,” and think that it deserves a spot on the shelf of any soundtrack collector.

Rating

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Pros:

  • Innovative weapon upgrade system
  • Well composed soundtrack
  • Good blend of story and gameplay

Cons:

  • Repetitive minigames
  • Rough around the edges upscale
  • Lengthy and somewhat luck based 100 percent completion

Summary

In sum, Dark Cloud 2 is more than a game.  It truly is an experience, and I found it hard to write this without devolving into nostalgic mush.  If you are a fan of the genre, or are new to action JRPGs and want a good starting point, this is indeed the game for you.  There is something for everyone in this game, and it is one of the few games I would happily give a personal rating of 10/10.

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Game & Developer Information

Developer Website: Level5 Studios
Developer Wiki: Wikipedia
Publisher Website: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Publisher Socials: Twitter
PSN Store Links: £11.99/€14.99 Europe / $14.99 North America
Trophy Information: 31. 40-platinum 1 / Gold 4 / Silver 17 / Bronze 9

Images – https://www.igdb.com/

Dark Chronicle / Dark Cloud 2 (2003) – E3 2003 Trailer

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