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November 11, 2012

I Should Have Finished... Dark Cloud

I remember in 2001 how much I looked forward to the release of Dark Cloud, a role-playing game from Level Five, particularly owing to its "Georama" system, which allowed for a small amount of SimCity-style gameplay, though admittedly far less economically focused.

The narrative behind the game is fairly straightforward save-the-world-and-its-bacon sort of stuff: a wizard seeking power frees a great evil which then goes on a world-destroying tear, and your young hero is chosen by the forces of light to restore it and defeat the Big Bad. Typical stuff, from a story perspective, but what most caught my attention back then was the ability to restore the world directly, to take those parts of the world that the Dark Genie had stolen away and, using the strange mechanics of the game, to place those pieces back in the world.

It worked like this: in each area of the world, you would delve into a dungeon¹ and find pieces of the world wrapped up in little balls² and store them away. On returning to the surface, you could then place these items in the world in a special grid layout mode. For example, you might find a building and its occupants, as well as various adornments that would dress up the place (storage space, signs, benches, etc., which could not be placed in quite the same way, they were simply parts that had to be restored). Once you had enough of the building you could place it, and once all of its places were restored you would be treated with an event of some kind, a little bit of story about that building and its occupants. It's fairly innocent stuff, especially in the early villages.

Beyond that, you could interact with the little computer people and determine their various wishes, such as "Oh, I'd like to be by a little stream" or "It would be great if I didn't have to live next to so-and-so, his chimney stinks" or what-have-you. These little bits of story really made the world very vibrant and when I played the sequel some years later, I was very disappointed that these things had gone.

However, as I played the game anew, I saw the progression of world-building from village, to town, to city, to a logic puzzle of a tribal village in the desert (complete with totems), to a giant magic robot and a spaceship³, and finally to a series of memories of how the Dark Genie came to be and how it came to be imprisoned and all of that. This last section was particularly affecting, assembling the back story of the game and even having the opportunity to participate in it in a small (cutscene) way. What I realized, as I got to the end of the game, was that this particular idea, the "Georama" idea was completely played out; they had done basically everything I could have wanted with it, and indeed, also did a few things I couldn't have anticipated given the game's setting. There was nothing more to do.

The reason, of course, is the limitations of the approach -- there's only a single arrangement of the world that is "perfect" and the stories that come from it are fully based on achieving those arrangements. Characters may wander a bit near their newly rebuilt homes, but they don't interact in any different ways if you place them differently, nor do they seem to interact at all except in the most scripted of ways -- cutscenes, again.

There's nothing wrong with this, of course; an early launch window RPG like this couldn't be expected to do more than the many things they already did (new platform, randomly generated dungeons, many many monster types, a six character party with individual environmental interactions4, a fishing mini-game, etc. etc.). But the Georama concept had reached its limits simply because it was little more than a collection game gating game progress with a very light logic puzzle element. It only could have gone further if there had been more Sim in this City.

What remains is a very inventory-management heavy game: sure, there's the combat in the levels, but what I spent much of my time concentrating on was the various ways in which I could power up my characters' weapons. The main character wields swords, and they can be built up in various ways until they are at a power level required to beat the game's hardest monsters and final boss. This requires a lot of inventory management; you have the various items that are in your main inventory (cures for various status ailments, primarily, as well as potions and equipment for fishing), but you have secondary inventories of the weapons themselves and of the items that power them up. There's no stacking in the game, so you're constantly storing items away for later use as you power up the weapons -- these secondary items, which grant elemental damage powers, are put on the weapons and then stored there until you've slain enough monsters for the weapons to consume the material and level up. Weapons also only have a certain amount of swings or shots in them before they break, so you'll end up carrying lots of items to repair them.

What remains, then, is a highly repetitive RPG involving an enormous shell game of inventory space management. For example, fishing bait can be turned (via a mini-game) into more of these power-ups, which frees up one type of inventory for another. Furthermore, there are characters in several of the towns who serve as overflow inventory slots. If you ever die, you lose half of your gold, so you may also want to trade in 1000 units of money for a bar representing that amount... in this case trading inventory slots for post-resurrection security. Sadly, all of this inventory management gained the play nothing whatsoever, as discarding items or figuring out what to store where was largely a matter of seeing how much I had of one thing versus another -- the game would have lost nothing by stacking equipment in a manner akin to a Final Fantasy game, or indeed most RPGs.

On the whole, it was a game I really enjoyed, to the point of finding myself grinding away to improve my main weapon just to see what it would turn out to be. When late in the game I accidentally allowed one weapon to break and decided I didn't feel like playing the last half hour or so again (the time since I had last saved), I knew the game was over for me, and I just powered through and killed the final boss at that point. Good game, but its inventory management had overstayed its welcome, and the original Georama conceit had played all of its cards.

¹Randomly generated and, as a result, more or less completely forgettable. Each time you entered the dungeon, it would be randomly generated anew.

²Considering the genie destroyed the world by eating these pieces, the provenance of these pieces of balled up world is rather dubious and probably quite unclean.

³I know, right? A giant magic robot to do battle with the genie in what amounted to a boss battle.

4These amount to the characters in question just being special purpose keys to procedurally placed locks, and some crucial interactions to make boss battles work. I don't say this to be dismissive, because it's clever and ties well to the save-the-world story, with many characters from all over coming together.

Posted by Brett Douville at November 11, 2012 04:45 PM