Since it's inception in 1998 Level 5 has slowly built a following as an amazing game developer. Their Dragon Quest game for Enix became one of the most popular of the series, their collaboration with Studio Ghibli gave us Ni No Kuni, and their Professor Layton games speak for themselves. For those not in the know let's look at what makes their games so great.
While the Dragon Quest VIII art is helpful make no mistake we're talking about Dark Cloud today. Part of their connection with Sony the game was designed as a launch title for the new PS2 system.
Dark Cloud is just the epitome of a good RPG with diverse characters, a unique world, and wonderful music.
Before JRPGs turned to mostly niche titles, in that period before Square sacrificed Final Fantasy on the altar of Lightning and set the cosmos out of alignment, there was a great diversity of JRPGs that weren't super dark or super weird. Unique game design was key and many elements had to come together in the final product.
To set the stage remember that Dark Cloud doesn't have spoken dialogue. This would be the weakest part, some might say, of titles like Final Fantasy X and Dragon Quest 8. When Dark Cloud was released this was something that could still be foregone. Instead players imagined their own voices, their own cadences. No horrible laughs or British accents to get in the way of the story.
Dark Cloud is so beloved because it draws from such interesting sources. Great music that sets a tone and feeling, dynamic and colorful art that makes areas and enemies and characters unique, and gameplay that pulled away from the formulaic questing that was becoming the norm in JRPGs at the time.
Instead of moving along a set path of towns and dungeons for dozens of hours leveling up characters Dark Cloud deconstructed these ideas. The "big bad" in the form of a resurrected evil genie has begun tearing apart the world, however an ally has saved the world from destruction....somewhat. Every house, every tree, every person in these devastated areas has been placed in a sort of bubble and hidden in a nearby dungeon for Toan, our Link-ish protagonist, to find and save.
These dungeons are roguelike affairs, truly difficult at times in the way only roguelikes can be. However, as always if it's too rough you can use an escape powder and hope the next procedurally generated map is less caustic. Characters don't level up like most RPGs, HP and water(the thirst gauge fulfilling the roguelike demand to be able to die for wasting too much time) gauges can be increased on any character, as well as defense, but these come from powerups that are somewhat rare. The thing to really keep an eye on are unique items to guard against bad status effects like curse or poison, and new weapons. Every weapon has hit points and when they go to zero your weapon breaks-a tough proposition when you've been using the weapon synth system to build each weapon into the next since the beginning of the game.
Though this sort of design usually pushes the player to do a reset rather than live with this result it's a strong boundary to keep players focused and resourceful during dungeons not simply fighting everything that moves haphazardly but using your party more equally and using attack items resourcefully. It feels like a little mini accomplishment to get through a stage for the first time, collecting all the pieces of the town hidden in the dungeon, then finally the key to the next level, and then moving on.
Back in the towns you piece these places back together and try to mend these people's lives, sometimes making their world even better. Your time in town is a much more relaxing experience and nicely offsets the chaotic nature dungeons sometimes create. The towns give you NPC interactions, shops to buy and sell the junk required for dungeoneering, and chances to fish prosaically for those legendary fish.
One of my favorite moments was fishing next to the waterfall in a town, listening to the games wonderful soundtrack and the white noise mix together, controller on my lap waiting for the vibrations to kick in to tell me I could catch something. It was such a unique moment, to be in this town I had rebuilt completely but to be back there to try my luck with fishing. That's basically the opposite of most JRPGs where once a new town opens up there is no reason to ever retread ground to shops selling lower tier items and NPCs that spout the same line forever.
However the game is not perfect by any means with it's share of hiccups and weirdness at times. Upgrading weapons can be a pain and isn't really well explained, inventory space is always at a premium, and the difficulty can fluctuate from quite challenging to really simple and then back to almost impossible. Though getting these elements to work together at all is an amazing accomplishment and Dark Cloud epitomizes what Level 5 does with their RPG titles, taking players on a journey, full of great visuals and music, but often with an interesting combat system that provides lots of depth for those that want that.
Though I haven't played the sequel I hear it's better, only having 2 party members so some of the problems a large party creates can be pared down.
Their next truly big RPG was the Dragon Quest entry. This is a great game and holds it's own amongst any of the games in that mythic style. Like many Level 5 games I consider these "summer RPGs" those sort of epic games that you play all summer, a cheerful art style that helps hold your attention, with good gameplay, to a game with a long run time. It's a game that can drain hours from your life but not feel like it's overstaying it's welcome.
The opposite is the winter RPG, likely put out by Atlus or From. However Level 5 seems to really continue the tradition of making great games that don't care about having much darkness. Depth they have, but they create worlds you really enjoy while you have the chance. Like that moment fishing by the waterfall, any game that can create a moment that serene amidst serious roguelike dungeon crawling is a masterpiece and Level 5's fans know this.
I'm just going to leave this music here: