Dark Cloud 2 is a wonder to behold. The hinterland metropolis of Palm Brinks, tightly modeled after turn-of-the-century European cities and with a pleasing tinge of French vaudeville music, is thoroughly recreated. The dungeons, despite being randomly generated, never seem to lose their luster, all at once menacing and inviting, all of it accented with a variety of bold, resplendent colors. Realizing that the world they’ve created looks good enough for a hardbound fairy tale, the creators of the game try especially hard, at times are even plain desperate, to pull the player in, using some camera shots that either linger for too long or focus on something unnecessary, however beautiful. (Unnecessary indeed considering there’s a free-look, first-person view that lets you stare to your heart’s content and there’s a side quest - the side quest of the game - involving taking snapshots of everything you can with a camera.)
Even the opening credits, displayed to the tune of some lovey-dovey piano pop, use a pastiche of pretty cut scenes from the game that have yet to happen as a way of creating some kind of pre-emptive nostalgia - and, I suppose, to introduce the time traveling theme. But when one hasn't yet played the game, it’s like a spoiler-filled train wreck; unaware of what kind of bearing they’ll have on the game, are we really supposed to be genuinely affected by what we see on the screen? And in the grand scheme of things, that’s what this game really boils down to: fun to look at and, yes, definitely fun enough to play to completion (sixty hours at least), but it is ultimately, emotionally detached. It lacks the tightening force of rising stakes that 90% of games need to become good games, but in the case of Dark Cloud 2, it lacks what is needed to become a perfect one.
Traveling from 100 years in the future, Monica, a girl that can take the form of the monsters she encounters (which is done by enticing them with their favorite food and taking their "monster badge" after they’re killed), ends up in Palm Brinks knowing that a boy in this city has been chosen by and possess the Red Atlamillia, a stone that contains extraordinary powers and grants the wearer the ability to travel through time. Monica has the blue one, and Emperor Griffon, whose henchmen killed her father and is altering the past and destroying the future, has the third one.
The game opens on the night of a Fellini-esque circus, with big-top music, elephants, juggling acts, and, of course, lots of clowns. With the Red Atlamillia draped around his neck, Max, an inventor virtuoso, is about to enter the circus tent when a boy snatches the ticket out of his hand. Taking a few minutes to find the boy by talking to the townspeople (this part is also a good showcase for the top-notch voice acting the player is in store for), Max then willingly gives the up the ticket, but the boy disappears before anything can happen, though not before cryptically saying something about Max being worthy. This was actually a shape-shifted Monica, testing Max to see if he is truly the one that can stop Emperor Griffon. It’s kind of amusing though, as who is she to judge the wisdom of these sapient stones? And that form she took - did she strangle a kid earlier in the day after feeding him some licorice or what?
Aside from these occasional unintentionally funny reasoning by these characters, there are times when the game attempts ardently to make you laugh, but like most Japanese RPGs, it relies heavily on the mystic or the absurd, so the gags are all visual and none are terribly good. There's some really painful stuff, like a big ugly fish that thinks it's beautiful or a tacky-looking train that the designer thinks is a work of art. Fortunately, these are spread pretty far apart and rarely break any momentum the game may have had at the given point.
Charmed with the new RPG fad, the game is narrated by the main hero and looks to be the new way that writers create depth for their characters, though more often that not, it just pricks open holes of unsubtlety and annoying observations. But just thank your lucky stars that, though Max does sometimes reduce himself to saying "I don’t know why, but I felt . . .," he steers clear of those "I didn’t know it then, but . . ." passages that sound like something from a Wonder Years writer’s wastebasket. Max isn’t an airhead like Final Fantasy X’s Tidus, whose disproportionately bad lines could curdle fresh milk. But on the subject of humor, while I profess that I’d be very pleased if there were no more narration in video games (that is, if what is available so far is any indication), the writers of Dark Cloud 2 potentially could’ve used this to their advantage. Rather than making Max narrate in hindsight, have him narrate from the present, leaving him as clueless about the future as the player. There are few things more humorously effective than fallacious narration, to hear one thing in his head and only to see it flipped completely upside-down in the next scene.
Level 5 has taken the complaints of the original Dark Cloud to heart. Possibly the developers are heartbroken over the critical skewering for what they obviously thought was a quality product. With Dragon Warrior VIII and True Fantasy Live Online - two massively high profile titles that can entrench them further in the game development bourgeoisie - in the works, this series may be put on hiatus for an incalculable amount of time and, as a result, Dark Cloud 2 plays like the end-all, be-all apotheosis to a series that has had many more than just two installments. They’ve taken all they’ve can from recent games that can mix together cohesively and have made a Mulligan Stew of Ocarina of Time, Breath of Fire, SimCity, and Mario Golf, then gingered it with their own spices. You can almost hear the designers chewing on their nails nervously, hoping that we’ll describe their game as whatever we want, just not as being repetitive.
And you know what? It works. It works with such élan and is so coolly calculated that if one part of the gameplay failed (and none of them don’t) it's supported with the strength of so many other aspects that it either quickly covers up the aperture or doesn’t allow us enough time to stop and think about it. Busy hands are happy hands, right?