Dark Cloud 2 | Video Games Par Excellence
There’s something glorious about a game that sucks you in as much as this game does, and does it all while keeping you trapped to very confined hall-way styled dungeons, never allowing you to fall or lose your way with invisible walls, and keeping you to a generally very linear storyline.
The world is not as it seems. Time… is not as it should be. A dark, unseen force has begun to reshape the land and its people as it sees fit, furthering a yet unknown agenda. In the present time, one lone, walled-off city known as Palm Brinks retains the last vestiges of human life on Earth: sheltered from the darkness and uncertainty that lies beyond. 700 years in the future, a young girl watches as her castle is invaded by demonic soldiers, and as her father is killed by a devilish man in a long red cloak. With no other alternative, this young Princess sets off to set things right, and uses the power of a stone called the Blue Atlamillia to travel to the past, in order to find the person who can help her restore the timeline, and return the world to what it once was. And, perhaps, destroy this villainous force known only as, Emperor Griffin.
Dark Cloud 2, also known as Dark Chronicle, and the sequel to the first Dark Cloud by Level-5 Games, is without a doubt one of my favorite video games of all time. And over the next 5000 words, I shall do my best to explain why that is.
First off, this game is brilliantly designed. Working within the limits of the early years of the Playstation 2’s processing power, this game crafts a universe of bright colors, slightly impractical anime-styled outfits, a quirky yet comfortingly soft building architecture, and a wide variety of environments and locales.
The approach to design is very much in keeping with many RPG video games, where buildings and objects have a slightly bloomed effect to their shape and stature, and everything is rather round and shapely even if they still retain sharp polygonal edges due to the still early graphical limitations.
The visual appearance of the game is done in the cel-shaded style, where characters and objects have a thick black outline along their edges, and their textures are fully painted on with very little actual environmental lighting creating their shadows or mid-tones. The backgrounds and environments also have a rather flat appearance to their lighting.
Light has very little effect on the game as far as graphics are concerned. The tone and color of the environments, especially each of the villages you end up rebuilding and repopulating, change as day progresses to night; but the difference between light and shadow is never as drastic, or even as realistic as perhaps it might be in something like Minecraft. But that really isn’t a detriment to the game in this case. It’s very much like many adventure game titles like Ratchet & Clank or Sly Cooper in this regard.
The creature and monster design is also quite varied and very satisfying in their multitude of sizes and difficulties. You have creatures based on animals, based on rocks, based on machines, and based on living objects. One of the most common and iconic being the Mimics; which can be a point of much frustration as you progress through the game. You never know which treasure chest will burst out as either a small, or even a king Mimic. And if you are on the last legs of your health, and your weapon is about to break, you might as well call yourself screwed.
The characters of Dark Cloud 2 have been reduced compared to the first game, at least as far as your core playable characters are concerned. This time you only have two, compared to the six that you would have had in the first game. Here you have Max and Monica.
Max is the son of a rich philanthropist named Gerald, and is very much a hard-working and unspoiled individual, learning to be a mechanic, as well as an apprentice inventor: not at all like his rich upbringing would lead you to assume of him.
Monica Raybrandt, on the other hand, is the Princess of an unnamed but large kingdom, 700 years in the future, and puts it upon herself to travel to the past by way of her magical blue “Atlamillia” stone, in order to team up with Max, restore the world to its former appearance, and repair the time-line molested by Emperor Griffin.
Max is a charismatic, head-strong, and very loyal male protagonist. And although Monica is an equally important main character, Max is undoubtedly the surrogate for the audience, as it is his story that is most relayed to us through his off-screen monologues and narration, telling us all of the things that he writes to his mother in a long and detailed letter.
Max’s mother is an important point of inspiration to Max and his journey through the game. His mother was actually also from the future: sent back in time in an attempt to reshape the timeline by orders of the Gundor military. But, either fortunately or unfortunately, she was unable to complete her task, and fell in love with Max’s father, which resulted in Max’s birth; and the passing of the Red Atlamillia stone to him in the form of a necklace, which Max wears throughout the game. The red stone, of course, takes you to the future. All the while writing to his mother, Max actively pursues her, as he soon discovers that she came from the future, which prompts him to wait patiently for a chance to speak with her again.
Monica, personality wise, is the more upbeat and cheerful of the two characters. Max has never been on a daring adventure before, so everything is quite a bit for him to take in, resulting in him seeming a tad sheepish or unsure at times. Monica is the Princess of a grand kingdom, and knows how to handle a blade as well as some magic spells, she has also traveled a lot more: resulting in her being far more confident, and providing a lot of encouragement and support for Max as he learns many new things over the course of the five major lands that they visit, both past and future. But Monica also has many instances of anger, resentment, fear, harsh words, and a tender moment or two. So she is by no means a one-note character. But from beginning to end, she never leaves Max’s side, and she even turns back up again to help him through the bonus levels at the end of the game, because she just loves to hang around with him.
A very endearing element to this game’s over-all experience are the many moments where Max interacts with Monica directly through dialogue. Because unlike the first Dark Cloud game that only had minor voice-over grunts and groans, almost every major cut scene in Dark Cloud 2 has voice over. Sure enough the majority of the dialogue spoken is still spoken in word bubbles: what self-respecting RPG doesn’t do that? But my point is that there are far more dubbed scenes here than in most RPGs I’ve seen, resulting in many points of interaction where you do thankfully get to learn a bit more about Monica and her world from 700 year in the future.
The rest of the initial supporting cast you don’t see very much during the game after the first outside dungeon: that being the Rainbow Butterfly Wood. But when you do interact with them, Max’s inventor friend, Cedric, is a very enjoyable and perhaps even favorite character, and serves as a source of many useful bits of knowledge. He’s especially helpful with teaching you how to craft new items through taking photographs, and inventing new gadgets and weapons based on them, as well as how to repair and upgrade the Ridepod: a souped-up robotic analogue through which Max can battle larger, more dangerous monsters.
Donny is one of Max’s friends in Palm Brinks, and is the first character to help supply you with food, water, and other necessities while you traverse the first dungeon: the Underground Water Channel.
Mayor Need of Palm Brinks can be a tad cowardly and unfit for office, but he soon shapes up by the time the railroad is set into motion, allowing our main characters to traverse the world much more easily beyond the borders of Palm Brinks.
Max’s mother doesn’t have a whole lot to her, and mainly serves as a Galadriel-like figure to guide Max and Monica to their final dungeon-crawling tasks. She is also clearly designed to be the most beautiful mother in the world, which allows Max to be even more awestruck when he finally meets her.
Along the way, there are plenty of other interesting characters that pop up, especially within each new land that you visit.
In Sindain, near the Rainbow Butterfly Wood, you meet the Firbits: small dwarf-like nature-loving creatures, led by their elder, Conda. They serve as the builders and suppliers who help reconstruct the landscape of each land in the game, by way of their enormous flying robot.
Pau is a young rabbit-like creature who lives in Veniccio, and befriends you upon your arrival, as you end up saving the life of his sea-dragon friend.
And Lin is a young magician’s apprentice to the Great Sage, Crest, who later on provides you with some much needed help and information in the far future, after you save her from a dream-eater monster in the present.
Even beyond all of those characters there are still dozens more that you have to talk to and do errands for in order to convince them to move out of Palm Brinks, and out to the many other villages and towns, in order to repopulate and rebuild the human race across the world, allowing the future to (seemingly) return to what it once was. As if that really makes any sense.
Along with the many heroes and good characters you meet, there are a few notable villains, including Flotsam: a crazed and insane Joker-like clown who antagonizes the Mayor of Palm Brinks whilst trying to locate the Red Atlamilia stone to bring back to Emperor Griffin. You manage to dispatch with Flotsam just after you make it to Sindain.
There’s Doctor Jamming, who uses the power of sound and Heavy Metal Rock in order to control sea dragons which cause you a bit of trouble on the shore lines nearby Veniccio.
And then there is Gaspard, the other main henchman to Griffin whom you fight on many occasions throughout the game; although he is mainly Monica’s adversary, as he was the one who killed her father at the very beginning of the game. He tends to follow you around through both past and future throughout the majority of the storyline, until finally you destroy him just before heading to the Emperor’s palace.
Well, with all of those characters out of the way, what about the game-play?
The game-mechanics of Dark Cloud 2 are slightly different than most J-RPGs.
For one thing, it has real-time battles rather than turn-based combat, which I greatly prefer, as I always feel like turn-based combat pulls me away from the experience of exploring a vast and exciting world, or a dark and mystifying dungeon, and makes me feel like I’m playing a table-top board-game. I’m sure I might enjoy playing a real game of D&D someday, but I’d prefer to keep my D&D styled strategic combat out of my RPG games, because I don’t think it’s fair to expect me to role-play, and immerse myself in another world, if that entire world is just going to stop in its tracks and ask me what my next move should be.
The combat itself is unfortunately lacking, as it’s a far cry from the varied and extremely satisfying combos and alternate moves that you get out of something like God of War. But then again, I can’t say that Skyrim is any better in this regard, as both Skyrim and Dark Cloud 2 allow you to use different weapons if you so choose (although you’ll mainly just use one that you gradually upgrade). And you can choose to upgrade your weapons, both blades, guns, Max’s wrench, and magical arm bands to use different elemental powers such as poison, lightning, fire, or ice. Beyond that, though, it’s mostly just a lot of button mashing. But you do have to be careful many times about when you choose to strike, and when you choose to block or step back, as many of the monsters in the latter four dungeons will kick the living crap out of you if you aren’t careful.
As I’ve been stating before, one of your chief objectives throughout the game is to rebuild and repopulate the outside world as you move from each new land to the next. There are four lands in total which you must rebuild and repopulate, and a fifth where you must simply restore its architecture. The first dungeon, which lies inside Palm Brinks, is mainly there to serve as your training ground for experiencing what the rest of the game has in store, as it only has 8 levels compared to the 15 or so in the Rainbow Butterfly Wood, and the 20+ in each subsequent dungeon.
When you arrive at each new area, you can’t immediately begin to build there until you obtain what are called Geostones. Oddly enough, the geostones are said to be capsules which hold the wisdom of the ages, and the collective information of the world within them. This essentially means that Geostones are like encyclopedic records, or backups of what each land and village is meant to look like, according to the true flow of time. Thus, you can only restore each land to its original state once you have collected every single Geostone inside each dungeon, and add them to your collective information storage inside the giant robot that you rebuild each town and village with.
The Geostones will then give you information on what buildings are meant to be where, which buildings should be next to what, which individuals should be living inside certain houses, and how many specific objects might need to be within a village in order for the past to line up properly with what the future is intended to be.
It’s quite a lot of hard work, and it requires a lot of money and a lot of materials. It’s also best to carry out this task in each location by consulting an internet walk-through break-down of what each village needs, because otherwise, it will require a lot of trial and error. And I honestly always found the world rebuilding to be a bit of a chore rather than a part of the game I looked forward to. I enjoy doing it to an extent, but only if I don’t have to fumble around to find out which individuals I need to do errands for back in town, in order to get them to move out with me, and then me having to figure out where they have to live, not to mention where their house has to sit.
Many RPGs often employ the concept of both Weapon crafting, Weapon upgrading, and Weapon breaking. In the original Dark Cloud, if your weapon broke, it was gone for good, so you always had to watch the meter up top. In Dark Cloud 2, thankfully if your weapons break, they only become ineffective, requiring you to repair them if you want them to cause any more damage. So there is no longer the fear of losing your weapons here.
As for upgrading, there are massive weapon trees (which you can consult online) by which you can guide your weapon from one form into the next, as you “synthesize” different elemental gems and stones into your weapon’s many stats. Although if you have no gems of a certain type in your inventory, just about any other item you have has at least one elemental stat point that can be added to your weapon.
The only way to add gems, elixirs, or other elemental items to your weapon, however, is through synthesis points; and these can only be gained by leveling up and gaining ABS points from little blue glowing orbs that fall from each enemy that you defeat. And every time you level up, you gain four synthesis points. So leveling can take quite a while.
Once your weapon is finally upgraded to a new weapon, the level-up process can be very quick, especially when you defeat more difficult monsters. But once you’ve leveled up at least three times in a row with this new weapon, the amount of ABS it takes to level up again can get more and more time-consuming. So a lot of patience is required for this game, and a little bit of strategizing when it comes to dungeon-grinding and repeating old levels just to get your weapons and your health up to snuff.
One of my personal joys with this game is actually the inventory system. You really only get one bag or knap-sack to work with, and it gets enlarged to double its size by the time you make it out to Sindain. But the thing I always enjoyed with it was going through from front to back and swapping everything around until it was essentials at the top, then repair powders, then synthesis gems, then elemental potions, building materials, paint, and then anything involved with fishing and Spheda. And every item was always organized by the colors of the rainbow wherever it could apply.
This then logically leads us into the two major sub or mini-games of Dark Cloud 2, Fishing/Fish Raising/Fish Racing, and Spheda.
Now Fish have technically three mini-games related to them here, but they are all interrelated, and they all string together for the purpose of you eventually entering your caught fish into the Palm Brink Fish Races, where-upon you can win awards that add to your overall achievements in the game.
First you must get a fishing pole, which, if I remember correctly, you get initially when you have to get a certain special fish to come out of a pond, deep in the Rainbow Butterfly Wood. After that, you have to get fish bait: which can be worms, grasshoppers, certain types of special sweats, acorns, or even bananas, depending on the region and the fish you want to catch.
Now once you land a couple of good fish, you want to place them inside the fish-tank that Monica will give to you, and then it is up to you to raise and breed them to produce the best possible racing fish that you can. After which, you can enter them in the many races that will occur during the course of the game (announcements will appear over your pause menu), and then you could gain medals or other awards if your fish wins.
I never really subscribed to this particular mini-game except once, because it’s really not my kind of pass-time. Real fishing is enjoyable, especially on the right kind of river or lake. But fishing in a video-game is not at all the same, even if you’re more likely to catch a fish in a much shorter amount of time.
Spheda, on the other hand, is basically the sort of sport I’m sure the Doctor would get a kick out of: likely the 4th, 5th, 7th, or 10th. I’m speaking of “Doctor Who” of course. Because you see, Spheda is what happens when you take the death-defying task of repairing rips in the space-time continuum, and mixing that with a leisurely game of golf.
A rip or hole in the time stream will appear after you complete each and every level in a dungeon (specifically once you get to Balance Valley, when Monica first explains it to you), and your job is to take a Spheda club, and knock a much smaller spherical rift into this larger worm-hole, thus closing the rift, and repairing time. The worm hole will either be red or blue, and the ball will be the opposite color.
Your objective is to then get this ball into the rift within a certain amount of shots, much like regular golf, except you must be sure that the color of the ball is the opposite color of the rift once ball and rift meet. If you only have one shot remaining, and both the ball and rift are the same color, it is then up to you to bounce your ball off of a wall or other standing object in order to change its color, and then get it into the rift. Once the rift is closed, a very special treasure chest will appear, and inside will be a very rare object, or at least a larger number of a particularly useful object. Usually there are special attribute coins inside which add extra oomph to your weapons if you synthesize with them.
Major mechanics aside now, what is the defining element that makes this game so likeable. I think ultimately it has to be the musical score.
As it is with almost every single video game that I enjoy, the music is almost always the defining factor in why it is one of my top 10 favorite games. Skyrim, Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, Spyro: Year of the Dragon, SpyFox in Dry Cereal, Pajama Sam, Tak and the Power of Juju, Sonic CD, all of these games have one thing in common: their music is AWESOME! And Dark Cloud 2 is one of the finest examples.
Despite being built upon midi-file tracks, the music is extremely textured and full, providing a long list of just over 70 tracks that are designed for each and every environment you go to. Each village you visit and rebuild has a theme, each dungeon has a theme, sometimes two, each future version of each village has a theme. And beyond that you have a theme for battling monsters, you have a theme for battling bosses, another theme for the last level of a dungeon leading up to the boss battle, and a theme for after you beat each level in a dungeon and all of the enemies are gone. But believe it or not, there’s even more themes on top of that, which makes for a very rich audio experience, despite the fact that you will be listening to many of these songs over and over and over for hours on end. But the quality of these songs and their lack of gradual irritation can be attributed to how well they are written and how seamless they are able to loop with themselves.
The sound-scape of the music is very soft when you break it down, with a specific emphasis on string-based instruments like violins, cellos, guitars, mandolins, a harp, and a few instances of harpsichord. It has a lovely wood-wind section with oboes and clarinets, a strong use of brass flutes during many songs, perhaps even a pan-flute. The violins are often teamed up with an accordion, which is actually a staple of Level-5’s musical scores for their games.
Surprisingly there’s very little percussion throughout the games except for a few specific tracks, very few horns except for moments of grandeur and wonder, and there are only a sparse few times when any sort of specific synth-like sounds or even electric sounding instruments are used. Most everything in the soundtrack is meant to sound Earthy and traditional, adding to the already very grounded and steampunk-inspired nature of the game’s universe.
All of this gives the musical environment a very warm and comforting tone, where most of the places you go are described to you through soft wood-winds and strings rather than loud brass, and the tone is usually not menacing by way of the lack of percussion, until you get to Gundor Mountain of course, where the monsters are much stronger, and you are continually flanked by either deep chasms or lava rivers. Beyond that, the tempo is usually relayed through the bass cello or through the low woodwinds.
The soundtrack should also seem very familiar to anyone who has played Ni No Kuni, or the Professor Layton games, or has even listened to a Hayao Miyazaki movie, because the sound is rather similar; since Miyazaki’s composer, Joe Hisaishi, wrote the music for Ni No Kuni, and Kuni and Layton were both games that were also developed by Level-5, who made Dark Cloud and Dark Cloud 2. It’s also a style of string and wood-wind that is indicative of the typical J-RPG style and many other similar games, as well as the Japanese musical palette: even though it may not immediately sound Japanese in origin, and perhaps far more early-European, which it most certainly also is.
Rounding things out before we get too lengthy here, Dark Cloud 2 is one of the most rewarding experiences I think I’ve ever had playing a game. It was only a few years ago that I finally beat the game as far as its main story is concerned; but even so, I’ve never once found myself frustrated with it, or giving up on it out of impatience or irritation. It’s honestly rather juvenile as far as RPGs are concerned, but it’s definitely one that I think everyone needs to try at least once.
It’s also perhaps one of the most fully realized anime-styled games that I’ve ever played, as it perfectly mimics the feeling that I get from watching fantasy anime, but allows me the opportunity to interact within the story itself and battle the many monsters and demons with my own two hands on a controller. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen a world quite like this in any anime I’ve ever watched. It’s far too PG to fall in line with your typical anime fare, making it closer to Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, and yet I’ve seen some shows that come close like perhaps Disgaea or Gokudo, but never an something that had both constant monster battles, time travel, evil demons, a world-ending event, lovable protagonists, and a steampunk styled technological time period. The entire game is extremely eclectic in both it’s setting, it’s design, and it’s music: which makes it a very unique experience apart from any other title you could be playing.
The English dub for the game is top quality, involving some recognizable actors from many late 90s animes and some early 2000s American cartoons: including Paul Eiding as Cedric, who usually finds himself performing additional voices in numerous games and films, but is perhaps most well-established in his ongoing role as Grandpa Max Tennyson on Ben 10.
There’s also the great Mark Hamill as the first dark form of Emperor Griffin, and Kath Soucie as both Max’s mother, and the child-like true form of Griffin, known as Sirus, before he was corrupted by a dark spirit.
Then there’s Anndi McAfee as Monica, who’s most notable role is her run as Cera in the Land Before Time sequels, starting with film number five. She also provided the voice for Pheobe on Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold.
And finally there’s the ever adolescent Scott Menville as Max; who is perhaps most recognizable as Robin from Teen Titans and Teen Titans GO!, but he also played the ever popular Ma-Ti on Captain Planet and the Planeteers, and you might have heard him show up in shows like My Little Pony (from back in the 1980s), Rugrats, Ben 10, and a version of Jonny Quest.
I’ve always said that if I ever wanted an anime movie to be made about any recent RPG game, this would be the one, because I would love the heck out of it. There’s always a chance they could screw it up and lose the heart and soul of the game in movie form, especially when it comes to pacing and action. But who knows. I think there’s enough of a reason to make a movie about it, even now. But I think this particular game is best told in animation, unless one would want to gritty it up a bit to make it work in live-action.
Plenty of people have cosplayed as both Max and Monica even to this day, and the game won many accolades when it was released way back in 2003. And yes, it is that old.
The game was so popular in Japan, in fact, that it not only got an original 2-disc soundtrack released for it, which you can actually buy Used from both Amazon and Ebay (from Japan), but an entire additional soundtrack was produced, featuring remixes of selected songs composed by other popular video-game music artists.
I personally didn’t like as many of the remixes as I thought I might, as I’m far too attached to the originals, and I prefer a remix to be a more booming and grand alternative to its original rather than a more somber or subdued alternative, as many remixes tend to be. But I’m sure some of you out there might like many of the remixes featured there. I’ll include a link to a playlist on youtube if I come across one.