While we could debate backwards compatibility all day and until some of us are blue in the face because we’ve been holding our breaths for so long, the idea of PS2 games upscaled onto the PS4 with trophy support may be as good as we get. There are PS1 and PS2 classics for the PS3 and the Vita but it’s not the same as being able to take out the case for the game you want to play from two generations ago and insert its disk it into the most current generation.
On the subject of two generations ago, Dark Cloud was an early PS2 title. I own it physically for the PS2 but I own it because my brother loved it. Up until recently for this year’s Extra Life I had maybe done the first few floors as I had played much more of its Steampunked sequel Dark Cloud 2 (or Dark Chronicle in Japan). Figuring why not, I loaded up Dark Cloud’s PS4 port for part of my marathon and while nostalgia can be a great thing, sometimes, things don’t quite scale well with time.
Before Yo-Kai Watch, before White Knight Chronicles, Rogue Galaxy, Dragon Quests VIII & IX*, was Level 5’s first title. Designed for the PS2 at the beginning of its lifespan was a Roguelike that saw a young man named Toan (if you took the default) who was charged with restoring the world after surviving the Dark Genie’s attack. Needing to go into dungeon after dungeon in order to find people and buildings that were essentially time bubbled in order to spare them being annihilated, Toan has his work cut out for him.
From a design standpoint Dark Cloud is great. Multi-leveled dungeons with a thirst system (instead of hunger) and breakable weapons alongside a bit of a Simulation Town Builder and this Roguelike was in the bag. Even now the concepts that it works off of are great, however, the controls in which how to effectuate all of this? They felt awful and I would need to load the original version as I’m not sure if they remained the same or if the PS4’s controller was simply that much more sensitive than the PS2’s.
When it came to the controls it was an accumulation of things. Hitboxes could feel off as sword swings wouldn’t connect however monsters would simply hit you because you’re standing too close even if you couldn’t hit them. They hadn’t even taking a swing or a bite at you either, they simply were standing too close and voila, loss of HP. That I know comes from the design aspect of a 2D roguelike in which if an enemy bumps up beside you then say goodbye to said HP but when in a 3D world in which you need to get up close and personal? It doesn’t work.
The other portion of the overall design that drove me nuts was the long winded tutorials that lead to “well do it yourself and you’ll understand better”. I would have preferred the do it yourself from the beginning and save the frustration. More than that that however is that a lot of the features that I could have used on the first few floors? Those were all given much further down and would have saved loads of headaches such as how to lock on. It sounds dumb, but without knowing that “O” was there for facing the camera behind you AND targeting? I had a swell time on those floors.
In regards to the floor, Dark Cloud’s dungeon designs are among my favorite. Dungeon floors are random in regards to floor layouts and coming in and out was made easy by allowing Toan to restart from any floor that’s already been cleared. Clearing floor 2 for example allowed for starting at floor 3. Better than this, once a floor was cleared then it was easy to head back to town to buy more supplies instead of heading down another level and possible biting the dust. If you really needed to escape then an item could be used but generally they weren’t required.
Dungeon floors themselves were intriguing as some could hold two halves. There’s the normal half in which everything you’ll need is present such as the shells in which people or town parts can be acquired as well as the key to the next floor. Then there was the other half in which monsters were much harder but the possible rewards were more than worth exploring their depths. The items required to explore these other halves were not always present however which would be rather disappointing especially if you had the resources to possibly survive.
As the story advances it becomes clear that if you are not a completionist, this may really not be for you. In several cases it was required to dive back into older floors in order to obtain missing parts of the world in order to unlock the way forward. This could either come in the form of an obtainable item or of an additional playable character such as a stray cat that turns into a humanoid or a genie after being summoned from a lamp. Each character adds a bit of extra to the dungeon designs as only they can bypass certain elements.
Now while each new character can add new elements to the dungeons, in a lot of cases it may come down to you not wanting to use them for more than their dungeon mechanics. By the point that even the first new party member is added, it’s possibly been hours and you’ve upgraded Toan both in regards to his weapons and to his health and thirst meters. Each new character starts with weapons that are mediocre at best and in the case of the third available character? He’s too slow to hit anything before enemies take him out while he was trying to swing. This wouldn’t have been an issue however each dungeon has locked floors in which one of these other characters is the only available one and in almost every case these floors were hell. I say hell because either the character did little to no damage or simply was too slow to ever lay a hit. I hoped every time that the first or second monster would lead me to the key in order to leave.
“But if you’ve upgraded Toan why don’t you upgrade them?” Honestly while I asked myself this, unfortunately not every time a treasure chest was opened did it grant another character a weapon. More often than not it was a new weapon for Toan and not someone else even if “someone else” opened the chest. Once a new weapon was acquired however then it had to be used to be leveled up so most of the time, new weapons were acquired, equipped, and were generally left un-upgraded as that character was only used on locked floors.
Weapon upgrading itself was fun as it allowed for a fair amount of customization as weapons gained experience when used in order to become more powerful. Once ready to level, materials that offered bonuses could be fused in for permanent boosts. This meant that keeping multiples of certain weapons was not a bad idea as one could specialize in destroying the undead while another could be designed for dealing lots of fire damage. Once a weapon passed level five (not sure if that was on purpose of not but well done Level-5!) then it could be broken down into an upgrade material of its own containing sixty percent of its power. This means that older weapons were never useless as they could always be used in one way or another.
Where things broke down, literally, is that if a weapon broke, that’s it. It was gone. Any fan of roguelikes or older Fire Emblems know this pain. The only weapon that could not shatter into the abyss of your broken heart as it disappeared from your inventory was your first weapon making it a good idea to infuse stronger weapons into it to make sure that if push comes to shove, you’ve got a backup. If your first weapon broke then it simply did a fraction of the damage.
While three quarters of Toan’s time will be spent dungeon crawling with his party, the other quarter will be spent building up the lost towns from the pieces acquired in the dungeons. Houses, shops and other establishments can be placed wherever you see fit, though, if you talk to everyone they can tell you what is missing and where they would really like their building to be. I honestly for the most part just put things where I saw fit but that’s just me.
Because not every building is actually useful, it can sometimes be worth waiting until there’s enough to put together before putting anything down. Each building can be placed on its own though it will have slots for people and for items. This means that a shop owner for example can be placed but without storage and a sign he won’t open shop. Some slots are open by default but others will require talking to the people using that building in order to find out what’s missing. This includes asking your mother who gives you crap for not knowing what goes into your own house.
Dark Cloud had a lot of interesting ideas from the dungeon crawling to the town building simulation. Unfortunately the controls and some of the design choices of the other characters made it more frustrating that it should have been. By all rights Dark Cloud could have been an epic title instead of just an “ok” one. I didn’t have loads of nostalgia to back this one up as almost all of it was new to me. That being said, although Dark Cloud is now sixteen years old the graphical upgrade to the PS4 and the well aged Cel Shading does make it pretty to look at.
*Dragon Quest VIII & IX were co-developed between Level-5 and Square Enix
Sony Computer Entertainment America
Article by Pierre-Yves