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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Dark Chronicle

KOTOR may have overshadowed it, but we always liked the shade...

These are dark days for RPG fans. Not only are reviewers making puns in the very first line of their articles but, worse still, the NTSC to PAL conversions are slower and less frequent than ever. The recent news of Suikoden IV's development only served as a sorry reminder of this fact. Sure, we're all happy to hear of another title in a quality series, but we'd be a lot happier to see the third game in Europe.

Suikoden is not alone, either. PAL gamers are still waiting on enough RPGs to feed a horde of level 20 slimes, among them XenoSaga, .hack (all three so far), Star Ocean 3 and the tasty-looking Disgaea: Hour of Darkness.

Still, every once in a while we get a game that makes us forget these woes (if only for a while) and satisfies our cravings for a good adventure. Dark Chronicle is definitely one of those games.

This might be the sequel to the rather average Dark Cloud, but don't let that fool you. While similar to its predecessor in core gameplay, Dark Chronicle improves upon it in so many ways that it deserves to be considered on its own, free from misconception.

Clouded over

Despite that we, umm, still have to start with a reference to Dark Cloud. For anyone who isn't familiar with it, Level 5's first offering was basically a dungeon-crawler action-RPG that caught people's attention with nifty graphics and an interesting 'georama' system that let you build your own towns. It was far from the PS2's best launch title and pre-release hype heralding it as 'the PlayStation 2's Zelda' was laughable. Still, underneath the lack of excellence was a solid system (namely randomly-generated dungeons and the georama) and some fairly addictive gameplay.

Dark Chronicle takes that solid system and fleshes it out into a quirky, involving and deep game that the original could only have dreamt about being after eating cheese before bedtime. If it ate, that is. Or dreamt. Or slept.

Chronicle's story is as simple as it is charming. You begin the game as Max, a young boy living in the town of Palm Brinks. One day he attends a visiting circus and its hilariously evil ringmaster spots a special medallion around his neck. The ringmaster tries to take it from him - claiming the stone is just what his master has been searching for - and in the process Max learns that Palm Brinks is the only place in the world that hasn't been laid to waste by a wizard named Griffon.

Fleeing the town, he soon meets up with a girl from the future called Monica, who also has a special medallion. Thanks to their two stones, Max and Monica can travel to the future and back at certain points. By restoring destroyed towns and populated areas in the present, they can help to restore peace to the future too. Obviously!

This restoration work is central to the game and basically involves building up, customising and adding villagers to towns. But it isn't as easy at it sounds. To do this, players first have to find the necessary 'geostones' in dungeons. Every geostone contains information that unlocks new building options on the georama screen and if you don't build a certain amount on to a town, then you can't make progress.

Likewise, you need attract enough villagers to a town. Most of these will come from Palm Brinks and while some people will move home for little or nothing, others will send you off on a lengthy errand in order to be convinced.

Creating and shaping your own settlements is one of Dark Chronicle's selling points, made easy through the use of an overhead camera and a user-friendly system. Still, we're not sure how long people will really want to spend tinkering with their towns' fences and the colour of their houses. Most of you, we assume, will just try to get the georama bits out of the way quickly and move onto the next dungeon. That's not to say that watching your areas expand and grow (and being able to walk around them) isn't fun, it's just not the game's most compelling quality.

Dancing in the dark

That award could easily go to one of Dark Chronicle's superb mini-games, but the battle system probably edges them out. Essentially, it plays like a mixture between Wind Waker and Kingdom Hearts, though unfortunately it lacks the fluidity of either title.

Once you lock on to an enemy, by pressing circle, you can then swivel around them while attacking from up close or at range. Pressing X repeatedly results in a string of basic combo attacks, while holding X down builds up a charge attack for hitting multiple enemies. Pressing L1 and X lets you attack from afar, though these attacks are generally less powerful and deplete faster than their melee equivalents.

The battles themselves can actually be quite dodgy, and sometimes border on infuriating. This mainly comes down to the game's level of timing and reaction. For instance, it generally takes half a second for Max and his friends to attack after you press X. If you haven't chosen your moment carefully, an enemy can easily counterattack before you have a chance to defend (by pressing R1). Even when you do pick your chance well, trying a combo attack is risky too, as enemies can often sneak off an attack of their own in the midst of it. To top it off, moving away from an enemy while also tapping X produces a defensive backflip, something that is hard to avoid doing by mistake during battle. With some enemies knocking off half your health in one blow, this can be pretty annoying. That's not to say we don't appreciate a challenge - we just don't appreciate it being compounded by a slightly clunky battle system.

Still, there's a reason we said the battles were the game's most compelling quality. Aside from the concentration needed for the challenge above, the level of customisation available to weapons and characters is amazing.

Every time you defeat a monster, it adds experience to the weapon you killed it with. Once a weapon levels up, it is awarded 'synth' points, which allow its stats to be modified by certain items. So, for example, if you 'spectrumise' a sugar cane on the inventory screen, it can then be applied to a weapon, adding two points to its fire rating. The ratings - such as Attack, Beast, Lightning, Exorcise etc - each improve the weapon in certain areas and against certain enemies. Plus, once the right stat conditions are met, your current weapon can transform into a new one, giving players more reason to upgrade.

Aside from this, one of the game's other battle characters, a robot named Steve, can be used against bigger, tougher enemies. He too can be customised to a silly degree, and though he handles even worse than the main characters, that's forgivable considering his mech-like stature.

Random attacks

Dungeons themselves are a little uninspiring, due in part to their random nature. In general, they are broken into multiple floors, with a monster on each holding a 'key' needed to exit the level. Aside from containing geostones, chests and items needed to build stuff in towns, there's not a whole lot of variety to them. Nonetheless, there's always something that keeps you moving on to the next floor, be it the story attached to the dungeon, the attraction of finding more items, or just the strange therapy there is in routinely cleaning a dungeon of its monsters. Every level has extra challenges attached to it too, with medals awarded when you manage to complete them. It might be as simple as beating all the enemies in under three minutes, or it could mean, for example, having to defeat them using only Monica's main weapon. The excellent bosses are also worth working towards, and are reminiscent of Zelda in the way that they must often be outwitted before being beaten.

If the battle system sounds detailed, then a special mention must go to Dark Chronicle's mini-games. From the amazing fishing game (with mechanics all of its own, along with a huge amount of different fish to catch) to the time-devouring golf game (you can build your own courses for crying out loud!) to the excellent 'invention' process, there is so much more to this game than just dungeon-crawling.

The invention system, in particular, is utterly brilliant. At the beginning of the game you get a camera, which, as in the Wind Waker, allows you to take photos of anything in the game. The twist is that, once pictured, most items in Dark Chronicle can become 'ideas' for Max to combine and create new items. The game's first example of this (Two milk cans plus a belt plus metal pipes equals jetpack) is actually a necessity to continue but most of the items you can make are just useful additions to the adventure - like a digital watch for telling the time! It's nice to see a game that gives you a real reason to put in this kind of effort.

Another level

With so much to do in the game, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Dark Chronicle's resources would have dried up by now and that aesthetics would suffer. Actually, wait, you wouldn't be forgiven at all. You have seen the screenshots, right?

Artistically speaking, this is one of the games of the year. The characters would probably be more at home on a Saturday-morning cartoon than a game, and the use of colour and design is top notch. On this basis alone, it's easy to see why Level 5 were trusted with the handling of Dragon Quest VIII. It's true that the dungeons are graphically a step down from the rest of the game, but that's a worthy trade off for the resulting longevity.

The voice acting, too, is top drawer. However, it does suffer from the quality of acting in Knights of the Old Republic, which was released on the same day. Having just played through that, DC's acting - like every other game in existence - doesn't compare favourably. During interaction with other characters, Max's lines are pretty wooden most of the time, though during his voiceovers they are excellent.

The only problem with Dark Chronicle on this level is that it is almost a little too childish. Max and Monica are really designed to please younger gamers, as is the whole cast. Thankfully, they are generally quirky enough to appeal to older gamers too, but sometimes we felt as if Level 5 had decided to make this game for ten-year olds. Bloody lucky ten-year olds.

Shot in the dark

Dark Chronicle is a bitch of a game to review. But for the same reasons it's a joy of a game to play. There's just so much to it. It's a town-builder, a compelling dungeon-crawler, a fishing game, a golf game and, in short, a great RPG.

Above all, it deserves credit for making us focus on actually doing things. Its qualities aren't designed to bring quick gasps from casual gamers - they are designed to keep people like you playing for hours on end. Add great graphics, decent music and quality voice-acting to the mix and there's not much to say against it. We were tempted to dock Dark Chronicle a mark for its slightly clumsy battle system but then, ahem, we saw the light. Sorry.

9 / 10