Review by !.ACA.!

Reviewed: 03/30/06

C + ... Dark Cloud is an interesting adventure, but its lack of personality and many minor flaws significantly hold it back.

Dark Cloud is an interesting adventure, but its lack of personality and many minor flaws significantly hold it back.

Dark Cloud is obviously inspired by Nintendo’s solid Zelda franchise. In fact, many of the levels (most notably the forest dungeon) bare a remarkable resemblance to The Legend Of Zelda: The Ocarina Of Time. The combat system is a simplified Zelda-style hack and slash, and the hero, Toan, even shares similar clothes to Link. These comparisons to the Nintendo 64 game brings up important questions, like whether or not this game matches up to Nintendo’s masterpiece.

Ultimately, Dark Cloud falls very short in comparing to The Legend Of Zelda’s story, presentation, music, and gameplay. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, but it has major shortcomings that hold it back from competing with Zelda.

The story begins with the hero, Toan, fighting to restore his hometown, Norune Village. In order to restore the village, however, he must find its pieces. This begins the Dark Cloud adventure. Oddly enough, the town’s pieces (the villagers, windmills, houses, rivers, trees, and the sort) are trapped in little orbs known as Atla. As Toan explores the cave near his village, he can collect the orbs into his wristband, thus recovering one part of the town at a time.

Atla are spread across different parts of the cave known as floors. Each floor is randomly generated, a very cool feature that is exciting when first discovered. Each of the game’s dungeons (which include the aforementioned cave, a forest, a temple, and some other surprises) contain approximately twenty floors.

The novelty of randomly generated floors quickly wears off, though, since it’s essentially twenty floors of the same textures, enemies, and puzzles repeated over and over; the experience gets tiring. Luckily, the gameplay has some interesting elements thrown into the mix.

The first thing to note is that though this is somewhat an action-RPG, your characters do not level up. You can extend their health bar and stamina bar with items, but defeating enemies does not yield experience points to your characters. Instead, the characters equip weapons that level up as you kill enemies. Toan, for example, wields a sword. It begins very weak, but it can quickly level up as you slay your foes.

You can also find newer swords, too, if you don’t want to spend the time leveling up your original sword. Every sword you find can be leveled up and eventually evolved into a stronger sword. You can equip items to your sword (in a similar fashion to Final Fantasy VII’s material system) that also boost your sword’s abilities, such as dealing more damage to animal monsters or adding to your sword’s endurance.

Your sword’s endurance is one of four key stats that also include attack power, magic power, and speed. Every time you strike a foe, your sword loses some of its HP (determined by its endurance). Should a weapon’s HP fall to zero, the weapon will shatter and disappear forever.

This, too, is an interesting concept that brings some care into how you attack enemies. Carelessly walking into a crowd of armored monsters, for example, will likely result in a broken sword. However, it also hurts the game’s fun. Too many times you’ll find yourself meticulously watching your sword’s health meter and repairing it the middle of battle. And if a sword breaks, it’s gone forever. If you break a sword that you’ve been working on for hours, it’s a real setback to either go back to your last save or re-level up that sword.

Toan’s only weapon throughout the entire game is a sword, which becomes boring since there are only two different attacks the sword can do: normal and charged. Luckily, Toan has five friends on his quest, each with different weapons (some of which include a slingshot, a war hammer, and a machine gun). Each of these characters, which you’ll find in even segments throughout the game, helps diversify the Dark Cloud adventure.

Each character also has unique abilities. The first character you meet, Xiao, can jump holes in the floor; another character can activate magic switches. The last few dungeons require the use of each character frequently, so you’re forced into using each character in a pretty equal manner. This, too, is a good concept in theory but it falls apart since some of the characters are far inferior to others. Some floors allow you to use only a specified character, but it’s often very hard to complete the floors with just that character. Some characters are simply not meant for battle, so when battle time comes and you’re forced to use that character, it’s a time-consuming uphill battle that really slows down the pace of the game. Most of the game is way too simple, but there are a few levels which are just way too hard; this quaint mix of difficulty is almost always a downside to any game, and Dark Cloud is no exception.

Completing, floors, however, and collecting Atla, make for a very rewarding experience, for when you finally leave the dungeon you can put together the town. Think SimCity, where you have complete control to design the town how you see fit. If you want to place the item shop by the cave’s entrance so that you’re not running all over town to stock up on items, it’s your decision. You could even divide the town into two halves with a river. The town can be customized to your liking, though you’ll unlock certain events and items if you place the town down according to the villagers’ requests, which are often cryptic and fun trying to decipher.

Placing the town pieces into the town is a snap, thanks to the well designed map editor. Included in the map editor is the ability to drop your hero onto any location of the particular town’s map. This speeds up tasks like visiting shops, but it also disrupts the adventure. It’s a nice convenience, but the game’s atmosphere is interrupted since you don’t physically need to walk from place to place.

As you travel from town to town collecting new friends and restoring towns, you’ll notice that the game falls into a somewhat boring sequence: Visit town, learn some back story, find a new character, fight through a repetitive dungeon, rebuild the town, and then defeat the boss to move onto the next town.

The second town you arrive in (which could easily be Hyrule’s woods) is tedious and it’s hard to say if many players will make it past this part of the game due to its extremely boring nature. If you do finish this town, though, the game shotguns ahead to a compelling story and some interesting towns. Unfortunately, the game stalls again later, leaving players feeling that the only reason to continue is simply because you’ve come so far and you’re at the metaphorical point of no return.

Part of the reason Dark Cloud peaks so high but then falls so low is that the characters, though fun to use in battle, are quite uninteresting. Their back stories are hardly compelling, and you simply won’t fall in love with them. Their interaction with each other is practically non-existent. Dark Cloud’s story in whole is average at best, though there are certain moments when the game’s story is actually quite compelling.

The soundtrack is completely forgettable, an especially big problem in an RPG. A memorable soundtrack helps add personality to a game, and perhaps Dark Cloud’s biggest problem is its lack of personality. The player is simply going through the motions for most of this game.

In the end, it’s a whole collection of smaller things mixed with an overwhelming lack of personality that stop Dark Cloud from being a truly solid game. Little things like the lack of a true world map and strange little “mini-battles” that involve Dance Dance Revolution-style button combos that give Dark Cloud a distinctly disconnected feel. With a handful of minor improvements and a more involving atmosphere to engage the player in Toan’s world, Dark Cloud could have been stellar game; as it stands, however, it’s merely an average affair.

C … Presentation
The game lacks a personality, leaving the player with a feeling that you are simply going through the motions. The map editor and menus, however, are completely solid.

C + … Graphics
Dark Cloud looks nice, but the environments are very repetitive.

D … Audio
A completely forgettable soundtrack. Voices, especially for storytelling, would have been a solid addition.

C + … Gameplay
By large, a solid game that is unfortunately plagued with many little details that should have been improved or fixed entirely.

C … Value
A long adventure with some secrets and items to be found.

C + … FINAL GRADE


Rating:   3.0 - Fair

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