Format reviewed: PlayStation 2
Level-5 began life in 1998 and, after mild success from its first release, Dark Cloud, in 2000, the developer again collaborated with Sony on a sequel. This would fix the issues that kept the original’s review scores hovering around the seven and eight mark, publicly acknowledging bugbears like breakable weapons and a superfluous story, as well as addressing the complaints of bland art direction. The most noticeable change in Dark Chronicle would be the look of it, which took the cel-shading style that had become embarrassingly popular at the time and transformed the visuals into a selling point. Rather than merely jumping on this tired bandwagon, though, Level-5 employed the technique in a way that gave the graphics a timeless quality, drawing favourable comparisons to anime and aiming to sell this sequel to a larger audience, though sales numbers were similar across both games.
Dark Chronicle was definitely built on the foundations of its predecessor – advancing the mechanics and ironing out the nonsense that had frustrated gamers, this was a model sequel, and justifiably earned higher review scores and a passionate following in the West. Strangely, despite Dark Cloud’s already positive reception, its sequel ended up being one of the most improved follow-ups of its time. Level-5 even designed the mini-games in Dark Chronicle to be the same size as a standalone game; this overload of refined content would be noted positively by critics, though to date the franchise hasn’t continued in any form.
The PS2 was a healthy platform for the Japanese RPG, seeing franchises like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy hit high creative watermarks – but Dark Chronicle was more creatively daring than all of them, combining traditional roleplaying-style dungeon crawling with a real creative flair and intimidating levels of customisation. This allowed a great deal of player expression in a whimsical and imaginative fantasy universe. This is one the most packed titles on the PS2, with even the mini-games unfolding into huge, hour-swallowing ventures, along with a town-building strategy element that may well be its strongest feature of all.
Dark Chronicle’s similarities to the original Dark Cloud are innumerable, yet accessibility tweaks meant it was easier to get to grasps with right away. Almost by default, the visuals are attention-catching – but it’s so obviously the Georama system that locked gamers into the 70+ hour experience. A Sim City-esque world-building simulator, but on a smaller, more detailed scale, this hangover from Dark Cloud was commendably expanded upon and fed into progress within the main quest. Finding Geostones in the game’s random, sprawling dungeons essentially provided the bits and pieces to make the towns, while putting citizens into these newly renovated locations helped restore them to prosperity.
This is vital, as the story is based around a time travel mechanic, where you have to repair the future by creating towns in the past in order to advance. Though anyone could get on with the interface, Georama unfolds into incredibly complex micromanagement. That’s not even mentioning the equally in-depth item creation mode, which rewards replaying the game’s tough dungeons in similarly brilliant fashion. Absolutely everything, including the masterful golf-esque Spheda and the black hole of time that is the fishing minigame, leads back into the endless progression at the heart of Dark Chronicle’s quality real-time combat.
This wealth of gameplay ideas is exceptionally woven together – and the fact that a game with such a huge overarching narrative permits such experimentation really is remarkable.
Georama forges a strong connection between the player and the environment. It makes you feel that your actions are actually having a meaningful effect, and that restoring the world is much more than a bolted-on part of the adventure, a magnificent turn of gameplay design that showed how keen Level-5 was to impress those less sure of the original Dark Cloud. Stating that the game’s many diversions are as complete as most full games does sound like something that should be put on a press release, but Level-5 didn’t leave a single weak point with Dark Chronicle, regardless of the gameplay style at hand, and the cohesiveness of every feature resulted in a unique RPG.
Why It’s A Future Classic
It’s the combination of player expression, accessibility and long-term play that made the game so far ahead of its time. Dark Chronicle has a multitude of different, accomplished games brought together around its dungeon crawling – and the combination of ideas is so esoteric that we doubt it could happen in the riskier modern world of modern development.
With the JRPG having been in a bit of a rough state of the last few years, Dark Chronicle summarises an era when this type of game was frequently innovative, whereas Level-5’s output in the last few years has felt mostly safe. This sequel showed a developer hungry to impress and iterate on its laudable ideas from the first Dark Cloud, and the level of variety and polish means that every RPG aficionado just has to sink a large portion of their life into it.