Level-5 may be a big name in the gaming industry these days, but once upon a time they were just another nobody set to release a launch title for the PlayStation 2. Whilst Dark Cloud is certainly showing its rough edges in this day and age (and has undoubtedly been bettered) it’s still interesting to see the scope this studio invested in their first outing.
Written, Produced and Designed by Level-5 President Akihiro Hino and made over an intensive 2 year period, Dark Cloud was the darling of demo scene when Sony showed off the graphical capabilities of their new console. Showing waterfall effects, a magic carpet ride and a rendered character (which never made it into the completed game) the demonstration animatic quickly built interest in the title ahead of its debut in playable format in 1999 at the Tokyo Game Show. Though the game received a spiritual successor in ‘Dark Chronicle’ (a direct sequel in America where it was retitled ‘Dark Cloud 2’) it has never received a direct continuation of the world or narrative presented.
Graphically this title employs 3D models for characters that retain cartoon-like proportions and renders its environments in 3D with a rotatable camera. The textures mapped to these are light in detail, but a significant upgrade on those seen on the then-aging PlayStation and were impressive at launch. Environments themselves are generated procedurally for dungeons, with towns acting as hubs from which these stem. This can lead to a box-like impression of the world and a certain blandness to some areas, but does significantly up the replay value of the title. Weapons are shown and rendered in real-time when equipped to the main character, and each have their own unique designs by family tree, and additional party members have their own body shapes and animations. The game uses a light Arabian theme at its outset, which does mesh into a more generic fantasy setting the longer the game is played.
The soundtrack is a likable collection of melodies, whilst not being massively memorable in the way later scores by Tomohito Nishiura would become. Sound effects are crisp and well timed to punctuate the action on screen, though nothing impressive. There’s some limited voice acting on display here, which is competent though slightly campy in tone, rounding off an even audio package.
The narrative follows a young man by the name of Toan who is given a magical stone known as the Atlamilla by the fairy king which he must use to rebuild the world after the Lagoon Empire awakens a dark genie that has sealed buildings, people and objects into stones (called ‘Atla’) across the whole western side of the continent. Toan becomes a rallying point for wayward heroes after learning to free and rebuild his own village of Norune, and sets out on an adventure that leads to an inevitable confrontation with the genie itself. This tale does take some unexpected turns, giving villainous characters motivations that render them likable in their own misunderstood manner and edging the story into the concept of time manipulation in its closing quarter that lays a lot of mental groundwork for Dark Chronicle. It’s played lightly, with a cartoon-inspired atmosphere and for comedy at times, though emotional elements do manage to generate some weight.
Gameplay is split into three distinct modes that make up the title as a whole. The first is a rogue-like dungeon crawl that sees Toan (initially alone) venture into a series of randomly generated dungeons to retrieve special stones containing items, objects and people from the town he’s currently inhabiting. Combat is action orientated and sees you blocking and swinging in real-time against monsters generated in groups of up to 5 at a time that can be highly elemental, leading to a significant amount of weapon swapping. In full RogueLike mode, Toan has a water supply that dwindles as he explores and will need to be kept topped up in order to avoid taking damage. Weapons also have their own life bar that wears with use and if it hits zero the item breaks and vanishes, losing progress on turning swords from sticks to slick tools of destruction with the games internal upgrading system. As you find new party members you can swap out Toan at any time to use their abilities, such as the cat-girl’s ranged attacks, and each has their own life bar. Combat can be dull, especially on longer crawling sessions, and its uncomplicated nature does make it repetitive. The second play style is a fast-reaction rhythm mode that plays out as a duel between two characters. These appear sparingly and like duels in ‘Suikoden’ are highlights for tense moments rather than a crutch for gameplay. The final and most impressive of the games features is the georama mode, that is effectively a sim-styled town builder. Each location you visit will have been ruined by the Dark Genie, leading to Toan having to use the georama mode to place elements that he has rescued/unlocked from Atla in dungeons to rebuild them from the ground up. It’s a simple drag and drop system but it is implemented seamlessly with exploration of these regions with immediate results, meaning that you can be running through a barren zone, tag the edit mode, drop in a house and snap back for the house to be right there with no loading required. This was seriously impressive for the time and still feels fun now. Towns must be rebuilt according to some simple rules that the game outlines to trigger new events (such as populating a home with the right people) and progress the overall plot, driving the game forward.
The early stages of the game do give an unfair idea of what the game will be like outside of the starting town, with powder to heal your breaking weapons in free supply and then expensive and rare going forward. Random generation can also mean that it’s a while before you have a weapon that’s worth a damn, and make some elemental enemies very tough until you have an item that is better suited to dealing with them. The game does however feature a lot of charm and whilst it’s hard to recommend over its successors, it can make for a fun and engaging playthrough. Currently available for a reduced price tag and in HD on the PlayStation Network, with boxed copies of the title still easy to find online, we recommend that you add it to your personal collection.