DEVELOPER: Level 5
RELEASE DATE: 12/14/00 (JP), 05/29/01 (US), 09/21/01 (EU)
ALSO AVAILABLE ON: PS4
In early 2001, Dark Cloud was the first PS2 RPG worth caring about. Yes, the launch lineup brought us Summoner, Eternal Ring, and Evergrace, but those were about as exciting as a shoulder shrug. Sony hyped the hell out of Dark Cloud and for good reason. The game is bursting with ideas. Re-build towns a la ActRaiser. Talk to the townsfolk and make sure their homes are in the right spot. Explore dungeons, unlock treasure chests, collect pieces of the town, fight villainous creatures. Level up your weapons to absurd degrees. Go fishing, why not. Micro-manage your items constantly all the time, all the time. Dark Cloud, unlike those aforementioned launch RPGs, felt like a truly next-gen experience.
You play as Toan, a young teen whose village was blown apart by the Dark Genie. He’s summoned back into existence by Simba, the Fairy King, who gives him a stone named the Atamillia. The Atamillia can collect “Atla,” which are pieces of the village scattered throughout a nearby dungeon. As Toan collects Atla, he can rebuild the village – using rivers, trees, roads, and the houses of the townsfolk – into something resembling his former home.
But Toan isn’t just assigned to rebuild his home village. The Fairy King is a taskmaster and won’t let Toan rest until he destroys the Dark Genie and the man who resurrected him, Colonel Flag. This journey takes Toan through a mysterious forest village, a barren desert, a bustling Mediterranean city, the friggin’ moon, and eventually, the titular dark cloud where the Dark Genie’s castle resides.
In each of the first five regions, you’ll acquire a quirky ally to assist you in your journey. Xiao is originally a cat that Toan transforms into a teenage girl. Awkward? You bet, especially when she starts rubbing up on Toan’s leg. Initially, Xiao’s a terrible addition, but once you get her Bandit Slingshot, she becomes one of your most reliable allies. Goro is a forest warrior and an absolute beast of a child. He wields larger weapons like axes and, uh, frozen swordfish? As you’d expect, he’s incredibly strong, but he controls like complete butt and that’s not OK. Ruby is a genie with excellent magic attacks via her ring bracelets. Like Xiao, her ranged attacks are invaluable in the dungeons. Ungaga is a stick-wielding desert warrior who packs a mighty wallop, but gets hit easily. Osmond is a moon person who has a jetpack! He’s fast, uses laser guns, and is an all-around excellent addition.
Dungeon exploration is where you and your kooky cohorts will spend the most time. You won’t be able to fully rebuild a town to 100% until you explore each of the dungeon’s 15-20 levels and collect all the Atla, so… I hope you like that monotonous battle theme. Each dungeon floor is randomly generated each time you enter and mostly consists of Atla, enemies, and treasure chests. To progress beyond your current floor, you must kill an enemy with a certain item that unlocks the door to the next floor. Occasionally, the dungeons will force you to use one specific character on a certain floor (usually one that isn’t as strong as the others) or limit your weapon capabilities and/or increase your thirst (I’ll explain thirst in a bit).
Toan and his allies are unable to level up, no matter how many baddies they kill. Rather, it’s your weapons that gain experience and can be customized as much as you want. Weapon customization would be more interesting if 1) combat was any good, and 2) your weapons didn’t break and disappear forever if you’re not careful. Since combat is clunky and tedious, most of the time you’ll only be fighting enemies to find the necessary item that unlocks the next floor. After you’ve obtained the item, you can ignore enemies with no penalties unless you really enjoy bulking up your weapons. And yes, like Breath of the Wild circa 2000, your weapons have HP and will vanish forever if you don’t sprinkle some Repair Powder on them before their HP fully depletes. To be fair, the game does warn you twice that your weapon is about to break before it actually does, but… I’m still not sure this feature was necessary.
Let’s discuss Dark Cloud‘s many powders and the perils of micromanagement, shall we? In addition to the Repair Powder that patches up all your weapons, there’s also Stand-In Powder, which allows you to change to another ally in case your current character dies mid-battles. Revival Powder revives you should you die, but only if it’s equipped in one of your three menu slots. Escape Powder lets you escape from a dungeon floor before you’ve cleared it of all enemies. Power-Up Powder lets you upgrade your weapon one level on the spot. And then, there’s all the other items: food (bread, cheese, bananas) that’s necessary for health, stamina potions, antidote potions, HP/Thirst/Defense upgrades, amulets that prevent curses or poison, one-use weapons like bombs, poison apples, and element gems. Frankly, there’s too many items to keep track of. Yes, most of them are useful, but there’s one particular item whose presence baffles me: the water bottle.
Most games have health meters of some kind, but how many have thirst meters? Certainly more than Dark Cloud, but the others escape me at the moment. In the dungeons, all the characters have thirst meters that slowly dwindle the more you run around. If your thirst meter runs dry, your HP will slowly start to deplete as well. To counter this, you can either drink water from bottles that you purchase at stores or run into little pools of water that occasionally pop up within dungeon floors. Your thirst – like your weapons, your health, your status – is just one more thing to keep track of in the dungeon. This thirst meter doesn’t detract from the overall experience, but it is a completely superfluous idea.
Where Dark Cloud really shines is its town building. It is an absolute joy to re-assemble people’s homes, place them down, then talk to them and see what else they need. The Georama mechanic works so smoothly too. Whenever you’re in a town, press ‘Select’ to enter into Edit Mode and start laying down town pieces from God’s point-of-view. Then when you want to view your handiwork, simply press ‘Select’ again and you’re immediately on the ground looking at the building you just constructed. Not all the villages/towns are visually interesting (Queens is particularly hideous, which is a shame because its colorful inhabitants are my favorite), but that didn’t prevent me from loving this portion of the game. A fully rebuilt town is incredibly satisfying.
Dark Cloud‘s gameplay loop – dungeon, rebuild town, dungeon, rebuild town, boss, story, repeat – is addicting enough that I’m willing to forgive the game’s flaws. Clunky combat, repetitive dungeon layouts, and that awful thirst meter only occasionally hindered my overall enjoyment. Only the game’s boss battles – too hard and over-reliant on elemental combat – threatened to stop me from seeing Toan’s journey through to completion.
Dark Cloud plays like an early PS2 game, which is to say awkward and janky in almost every way. Still, the game’s scope and ambition cannot be denied. Especially considering that this is Level-5’s first game! You can almost sense their excitement in playing and experimenting with what the then-new PS2 tech could handle. No idea seemed too small, and perhaps, no idea was rejected (this would certainly explain the thirst meter and the equally unnecessary fishing minigame). Other RPGs, like Final Fantasy X, Kingdom Hearts, and Dark Cloud 2 would quickly overtake Dark Cloud in the gaming cultural consciousness, and rightfully so. Still, the fact that I can appreciate Dark Cloud in all its bizarre, grandiose glory over twenty years later says a lot.