Known in some regions as ‘Dark Cloud 2’, Dark Chronicle is a follow-up to the PlayStation 2 launch title that put Level-5 on the map. A sequel in the loosest terms (the game carries over none of the characters, story or world trappings, but does incorporate and build upon systems first seen in Dark Cloud), it’s an Action RPG that many consider to be the hidden peak of the genre on Sony’s black box, eclipsing even the far more prominent ‘Kingdom Hearts’.
Level-5 have implemented variations on their construction engine in multiple games, including the original Dark Cloud, ‘Rogue Galaxy’ and ‘White Knight Chronicles I & II’ for the PlayStation 3, but it’s probably implemented the most effectively in Dark Chronicle. In a manner similar to only the original ‘Actraiser’, it expertly splits actions elements with what can only be considered Sim-like building of towns and other locations. Level-5 seems to have moved away from this element in their later titles, but early in their lifespan it was a key factor in making them stand out from the crowd and an excellent showcase of the power of a PlayStation 2 console.
Graphically the game uses cell-shaded graphics overlaid onto 3D models that are proportioned in a manner similar to that of an anime, though the game has a much more European comic book aesthetic. This works extremely well in allowing for the game to appear simple in textures but show complex and interesting environments and character details without overtaxing the games engine, and handles especially wonderfully when zooming in and out for the overhead building sections of the game or when using Max’s camera in first person. Design is extremely well handled here, with vibrant characters and interesting locations that are skinned onto randomised dungeons that would otherwise appear repetitive on multiple visits. The games HUD is clean and easy to read, whilst displaying a lot of information at all times, and the in-game menus are fluid and quick to understand at a glance. Lead characters Max and Monica herald from different time periods and backgrounds, and their designs do a good job in making it apparent that they are from the same overall world, but leagues apart.
Sound effects and voice samples recorded for this game still hold up to a high quality to this day, with dialogue feeling quite natural and delivered by an expert anime voice cast. It is however the soundtrack and score to Dark Chronicle that will remain with the player long after completing the campaign and seeing the end credits roll, with memorable tunes that are exciting and impactful. Replaying the game several years after originally completing it, it’s amazing how many of these tunes aren’t just remembered, but able to be hummed in their entirety despite only ever completing the game once.
The game opens with Monica, a princess who survives an assassination attempt on her life only to discover that her father has been murdered by an agent of Emperor Griffon. We’re only given a little time to get to know her however because the game then snaps to following a young man by the name of Max who lives in the industrial town of Palm Brinks and works as an inventor/handyman, and is excited to learn that the circus is coming to the semi-isolated location. A series of events leads to Max and Monica meeting and the discovery that she comes from 100 years into Max’s future, with her pendant able to move her into the past whilst Max’s matching pendant can move them into the future. Teaming up, the pair begin a battle to rebuild their world, fix time and thwart the evil plans of Emperor Griffon. Not unlike a ‘Dragon Quest’ game, much of this title’s run time is driven by narratives for individual locations that are set up and resolved by the pair as they travel through them on their larger quest. This can occasionally make the stakes seem smaller than they are, and does lead to an episodic feel to their adventures, but doesn’t damage the experience overall. The story does have some twists, which are telegraphed but satisfying, and a substantial amount of time is spent on building the partnership between Max and Monica who always feel properly motivated and act according to their characters.
Gameplay mixes Action RPG dungeon delving through procedurally generated environments with a Sim-themed approach to town building using items discovered or built through dungeons. The player can control either Max or Monica at any time (unless the plot dictates otherwise) with each having their own special play style. Max wields a close combat wrench/work tools and ranged gun whilst having the ability to hop into a mech of his own creation that the player can build and alter in-game through a number of upgrades. Monica meanwhile employs swords, throws magic and has the ability to transform into monsters which can radically alter your approach to a dungeon. This includes stopping to have conversations with monsters who are now treated as NPCs while their consider you one of them. All weapons are fully upgradable on evolution trees through multiple forms through a mixture of melding them with items, other weapons and levelling them through use. At first this seems simple, but the number of options on display here are wonderfully broad. Max can also take photos using his camera which act as elements in inventing new items to aid your progress, which is implemented in a natural and fitting manner and helps to further define him in-game. Hopping between locations in the present and future gives radically different variations on them, and coupling this with the Sim mechanic gives a level of world interaction that’s almost unseen in RPGs. NPCs can be won over to the player’s side and recruited in an unconventional sense, adding one at a time to the menu for access to a special ability that only that character possesses. These vary in how useful they are but usually provide a passive bonus and help to make the world feel more pro-active and characters less like bystanders in the adventure. Two major mini-games are included, though other distractions are presented, these being in-world takes on the sports of golf and fishing, both of which can also be done inside dungeons.
Overall, what Dark Chronicle lacks in storytelling clout it more than makes up for in fun. The game features a robust system, strong mix of gameplay modes and a randomised dungeon generation system that neatly inter-splices plot-elements every few floors whilst presenting endless variation for those seeking to grind. It can be hard going back to previously cleared dungeons due to the low challenge level, with levelling to meet the next challenge always totally outpacing the monsters you left behind, but a few late-game optional bosses and challenges help to keep the game feeling fresh. The post-game delivers a harder than nails multi-level dungeon that you’ll initially have to tackle with just Max, and makes for an excellent challenge that can be ignored for a replay or dived straight into. With the game being re-released on PlayStation Network at the moment and available for a reduced price, we strongly recommend that you purchase a copy.