Back in April 2017, I was tabling at Camden Comic Con, selling my comic wares and keeping an eye out for any videogame-related cosplayers. Alas, didn’t see a single one, but there were several for Stranger Things and Sailor Moon, go figure. That said, a few tables away from me was a business whose name I no longer recall selling retro videogames, and by retro, yes, sadly, I mean PlayStation 2, PlayStation 1, and similar ilk of that time period. Wow. Man, I remember when retro meant Atari; hashtag I’m so old. However, in better news, I was able to reacquire a copy of Dark Cloud for a few bucks, one of the first games I originally got with my PlayStation 2, but ultimately ended up trading in for something else, an action I greatly regret to this day.
One of the PlayStation 2’s first big RPGs, Dark Cloud is a title that challenges players to not only battle enemies and solve puzzles, but also to create geographical landscapes using the Georama system, which limits a certain number of houses and items being placed in the world, as well as NPCs only being allowed in specific spots. The game was the first full-scale production by Level-5, a developer who would quickly go on to make some of my favorite titles down the road, such as Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, Rogue Galaxy, and Professor Layton’s London Life from Professor Layton and the Last Specter, among several others. Here, I’ll name two more, just because—Fantasy Life and Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.
Well, in Dark Cloud, you play as Toran, a young boy on an unforgettable journey of rebirth, revival, and hope. Not my words exactly; also, the early marketing for this game claimed this was a “Zelda killer,” which it definitely was not. The game begins as Colonel Flag Gilgister of the Lagoon Empire Army of the East attempts to awaken the Dark Genie, a legendary evil creature, whom Gilgister wishes to use to control the world. Upon summoning the genie, Gilgister orders him to attack the West. However, prior to the attack, Simba, the Fairy King, casts a protective spell around the land, sealing buildings, objects, and people inside magical orbs called Atla. Toran must harness the spirit of those destroyed to rebuild the lands in time for an epic confrontation. You’ll recreate demolished villages by re-building houses, hills, churches, volcanoes, and streams, populating these places with people, and you’ll even be able to control the weather. Ooh ahh.
All in all, Dark Cloud is an action role-playing game played from a third-person perspective, in which the player moves through procedurally-generated dungeons, battling monsters, collecting items, and doing their best to manage a bunch of different meters. This may have been my actual first taste of randomized levels; sorry, Rogue. In these dungeon levels, the player may have the option of entering a separate “back door” area that contains stronger monsters and rarer treasure. Most of the combat involves real time hacking and slashing, along with a lot of stepping to the side, but the player will occasionally “duel” a boss-like enemy, which boils down to a quick time event (QTE); alas, these aren’t all that exciting, but this was the beginning of the era for QTEs.
Here’s one of the two things I greatly dislike about Dark Cloud–while in dungeons, you have both a health meter and a thirst meter. The thirst meter gradually decreases over time, and, when fully depleted, it causes the health meter to begin to decrease. That sucks. To prevent the thirst meter from depleting, Toran must drink water from his inventory or use a small pool found in some dungeon levels. It’s not the most fun thing to keep on top of, forcing you to move through dungeons as quick as possible, almost frantically, which leads me to great dislike number two in the next paragraph…because it deserves its very own paragraph.
Weapons have durability and will, without constant care, degrade and eventually break completely, disappearing from your inventory. How sad and cruel. You can upgrade weapons after they gain a specific amount of experience, infusing them with extra abilities and bonuses, and all of that can be lost if you aren’t careful and continue swinging away at monsters while your weapon teeters on the edge of breaking. Early on, this is a major problem, because you only have access to a couple of weapons, and the mayor will give you one free weapon repair powder each time you talk to him, but only if you don’t have any in your inventory; I have not gotten to the point where I can unlock a shop yet. So my dungeon crawling has gone a lot like this–enter dungeon, fight monsters until weapon almost breaks, repair once, fight monsters until weapon almost breaks, stop fighting monsters, hopefully find key to get to next floor, run around frantically, leave, go back to town, and stock up on items from the mayor. It’s fine, but not very thrilling, and I’m hoping that the weapon upgrade system becomes something I can really dig into, like in Rogue Galaxy.
Still, I love the Georama system very much in Dark Cloud, which should surprise no one. I mean, my favorite part of the Suikoden series is watching my castle fill up with people and seeing where everyone goes and what they can offer me. This sort of hits the same vibe, with some slight differences. After you acquire enough orbs, you can begin placing houses, trees, and ponds wherever you like (so long as it all fits nicely); for houses, you then have to fill in specific slots with items, such as beds, barrels, benches, and who lives there. I just got a llama for Toran’s home…well, barn area. It’s fun to find the right item to slot in and complete a full structure and then go out and meet your new neighbor.
I’ve never got too far in my original copy of Dark Cloud before trading it in, certainly not far enough to unlock fishing or other people to play as, which I know is in the game thanks to reading its manual. I’m hoping to make a bigger dent now and am excited to watch Norune Village grow at my discretion. Stay tuned for further updates down the road. If I build a road, that is.