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A Grab Bag of Diversion
By: Tommy Moo
In the growing anticipation of FFX, Dark Cloud slipped under a few radars back when it was released. It didn’t tout the talents of a famous character designer or composer. Neither was its sub-epic plot anything to write home about. Nonetheless, DC’s incredibly inventive weapon system, SimCityesque Georama minigame and refreshing random dungeon designs propelled it to sleeper-hit status.
This time around brings back almost everything fans loved, while lending some much appreciated augmentation to the plot and refining the character swap system into something deeper than “Switch to whoever can push the button / cross the gap / etc.” Returning is the familiar weapon synthesis system. Those new to the series won’t need to invest too much effort into picking it up. Gain a few levels by whacking sewer rats and clowns, and your battle wrench will be ready to be built into a drill wrench, upon fusing with the correct elemental crystals, of course. Fans of Zelda will feel at home with the lock-on and circle system. In addition to defending and attacking with melee weapons, Max and Monica each boast characteristic projectile attacks and battle techniques. While Max’s drill can string together five hit combos compared to Monica’s three sword swipes, Monica more than compensates with her ability to swipe directly out of a blocking stance by pressing L1 while holding R1. Max’s gun is faster, but not as powerful as Monica’s magic attacks, and while Monica is able to store energy in her sword to unleash elemental attacks, Max can summon a powerful (if clunky) robot to clear himself out of most rough situations. It all adds up for a well-balanced PC lineup. You’ll find yourself using both characters roughly 50 / 50.
The interface is streamlined, but not dumbed down. In particular the player is given enormous customizability in city building. In spite of that, collecting geostones in the local dungeon slowly pieces together lists of tasks necessary to propagate certain elements of the future. These consist of such simple assignments as placing at least eight trees in a town or making sure that so-and-so lives in a red house. Perhaps too simple, in fact. My only complaint in comparing DC2 to its predecessor comes in the Georama minigame. DC1’s towns were complex puzzles often requiring each house to be built near water or a windmill or facing a particular direction, no small task in the cramped space offered. Rather than collecting cultural items from atla, in DC2 fences, rivers and trees are built from materials found in dungeons or purchased. Also much more generously sized sites are allowed for building each town. The result is a set of Georama puzzles that can be bought rather than solved. Still, the act of putting a town together is far more enjoyable than tedious.
As a strict member of the “5 is average” camp, I declare the music of DC2 to be quite respectably average. While the music is yet another marked improvement for the series, the relatively low number of total tracks compared to RPGs at large is a limiting reagent. All of the compositions are pleasant to listen to (especially those played at Luna Lab and Stonehenge,) but at least a couple are overplayed.
DC2 is packed to the brim with gameplay, and it does a fantastic job of introducing the player to one element at a time. By the time you’ve got fishing down, you’ll be handed a golf club and required to try your hand at Spheda, a 3D pinball / golf crossover. And if those aren’t enough for you, feel free to try your luck at breeding and racing fish, snapping photographs of over a hundred landmarks in the game, inventing and producing new items, or collecting medals to change your character’s outfits (only 65 medals to get the bikini for Monica, you sicko -_^ ). And this is the single largest argument for DC2: it’s fun! There will be no dodging lightning bolts or jamming on the X button as fast as you can. DC2 is like a PS2 demo disc packed inside a dungeon crawling RPG.
Like the music, the plot is still short of other RPG series, in spite of a laudable improvement. In particular the beginning of the game is near snooze worthy until the action starts, and the first villain you’ll come in contact with will make you embarrassed to play the game with a friend in the room. DC2 strives to satisfy the modern RPGamer, but comes up with just enough plot to form a string of excuses to get the player from one dungeon to the next. Some of the cheap devices are actually laughable (how many times do you guess the train tracks will just happen to be blocked by rocks when the game wants you to stop and fight through a dungeon?) Nonetheless, it is as good as could be expected from this type of game, and can be skipped altogether a la Xenosaga if it’s stymieing your enjoyment too much.
DC2 features gorgeous environments. Lush forests and mountain paths are brought to life by rainbows and waterfalls. I stopped short of bestowing a 10 / 10 for graphics, however. Admittedly this is a personal preference, but after playing through games with polygon based characters, I had to dock this game for electing to go with flat, spritish figures bordered with noticeable black lines. Cel colored graphics do not have to stick out sharply against their backgrounds, as Wind Waker taught us.
This game will hook you and keep you, not with frustrating game-overs and cheap challenge, but with its genuine ingenuity. Don’t make the mistake of renting it like I did. You might be able to blast through it in a week if you’re on vacation, but with so much to do, this is a game to be savored.
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