When last we saw the Hall of Fame, Jon discussed the greatness of Anaxronox. Hall of Fame is a space where we talk about some of our all time favorite games. In last week''s Head to Heads, we read about Snake vs Big Boss and Dragons Dogma vs Gods Will be Watching.
In the gaming world, there are games that are simply lost to time. Anyone involved in gaming for any length of time will understand what I mean. A hidden gem that no one knew existed, that one game everyone praised the day it came out and forgot the next. That title that was just too weird for people to bother despite its acclaim. Dark Cloud 2 is one of those games worth remembering, but was not.
Produced by Level 5, which you may recognize from titles like Professor Layton, Ni No Kuni, Dragon Quest VIII, and White Knight Chronicles, Dark Cloud 2 was the follow-up to Level 5’s first game, Dark Cloud. The story presents two time-traveling youths named Max and Monica. Max is a rich-boy intent on seeing the world outside of his walled-off town and to discover the fate of his missing mother. Monica is a princess who lost her kingdom while resisting against an invasion force. The game is wonderfully imaginative in a number of ways rarely seen in many games today, offering as much unique and varied content as possible.
For example, instead of a linear progression system for weapons, weapons ‘leveling up’ when you graft various items on them. So if you wanted to level up a weapon only using straw, while highly impractical and limiting, you can do so. In fact, one of the best ways to make weapons stronger was to graft other weapons to them because they bring a large chunk of their stats with them. Dungeons are randomly generated with each visit, so you never see the same level twice. To make them more interesting, certain levels offered unique restrictions or mechanics that may not be present the next time through. Both Max and Monica have distinct ways of fighting, with Max capable of fighting highly armored foes while Monica uses a more defensive style that works well against the magically inclined.
Beyond combat, there are a ton of things to do. For example, after clearing a level in a dungeon it was possible to play a variation of golf inside of it for extra rewards. The golf mini-game is challenging and, usually, fun. You can take photos of objects in the world and use them to invent new items and equipment, play in fish races, recruit other people into your party, and more. Most importantly, the world follows a ‘create your own world’ philosophy, with each new location acting as an open canvas. The player has to design and build each town from scratch and inhabit them with the people they recruited. By doing so, they can then make alterations and changes to the future that grant various rewards in addition to progressing the story. The story was very strong and dealt with the nature of time-travel, the impact of altering the past, the question of SHOULD the past be altered or not, and even contained several nice twists.
Dark Cloud 2 received many rewards when it was released, but it soon faded from the gaming collective. Despite the abundance of content and generally great design, few people cared for it, especially those who were not major JRPG fans beforehand. But what does this game do that vaults it the from being a simple, if inventive, RPG to being one of my favorite games of all time? With over 400 games under my belt, there is a 1/80 chance that any title could even make my top five, so what does Dark Cloud 2 do to earn a lofty place?
It became an epic.
Here’s the thing, people tend to make an oversight when they talk about what makes a game ‘good’. When they talk about choice and freedom they look only at the world map. They seek to get off the railroad tracks and explore the world at their leisure, but they forget that there needs to be something compelling about that world. Let’s take a look at one of the most simple aspects of the game, Spheda (the golf mini-game).
Spheda is an optional aspect of the game. Beyond its introduction, you are never required to play it again. Sure, the rewards are nice, but they can be found elsewhere in the game. It's not particularly easy, as playing golf inside of a volcano with few, if any, walls can be quite hard. But when Spheda opens up, suddenly there is much more to do. You can go back to those earlier dungeon levels you missed and easily waste a day golfing because it's fun, not for the sake of completion. Once you beat the game you can go back and do those things you missed out on. You can build your own set of clubs from scratch to pick the one you like best… or not. The simple OPTION to explore something like this is what makes it stand out.
Want to make a better sword? Most games let you buy one at the mart or find one while exploring a dungeon. But what if you wanted to make a sword using just straw? It wouldn’t be a very GOOD sword to be sure, nothing like the carefully crafted blades you could normally make, but you CAN do so. Do you want to delve into a dungeon and have little to do but kill a bunch of baddies? Or do you want to spend five minutes hunting down one monster and lining up your camera for the perfect shot to photograph him as he is charges you? Do you want to just roam around town only visiting the shops? Or do you want to seek out people to ally with you and yield unique bonuses and abilities? Do you want to be stuck doing a ‘paint by the numbers’ building, or decide that every house needs a metal smokestack just because?
Sure, they may not be the most inventive things around, but they exist. You don’t really have to bother working on Max or Monica aside from giving them a good enough weapons. Do you want to just use Max? Do you want to just use Monica? Do you want to just use guns, hammers, swords, magic, robots, monster transformations? You can!
But wait! What about games that let you do good or bad things? Morrowind offerend enough weapons and spells to kill an entire town off if you wanted too, right? Isn’t that freedom of choice? Not in the same way. Being a hero in games like that is often a conscious, active, choice. You killed that town because you WANTED to do so. You used spears because you WANTED to. When you go out to take photos, play Sphera, engage in fish races, even when you upgrade your sword, your choices are an expression of your character. Did you focus on the anti-water aspects because you want to upgrade sooner? The anti-beast aspect cause you had a nice weapon to break down? Wait until later to see if you could find a nice gem? These are choices you don’t even think about. You see what you want and you do so and you may not even realize that you made a choice like that in the first place until you sit down, after the game, and realize ‘Holy crud! I just wasted two hours seeing if I could find that one photo that let me build antidotes because I hate poison that much.’ The railway is set, the end goal is clear, the role defined. You are the hero, you will do good, but your choices aren’t set. What you do on that path is up to you.
Even today, when I sit down to play Dark Cloud 2, I think about what I can do differently. Maybe this time I can take all the photos first and see if I can invent a new weapon? O perhaps I’ll put in the girl who makes upgrading swords easier instead of the guy who increases my damage against plants? Maybe I’ll pass up on just using gems in favor of earlier leveling?
That is why this is my favorite game of all time. Solid story, solid visuals, good gameplay… and achieving a degree of freedom I have yet to really see in another game.
Well, that's our look at Dark Cloud 2 . Stay tuned here on Darkstation.com for more upcoming articles and editorials and go checkout our featured pageto catch up on our previous entries.