Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week we venture once more into the nostalgic past with an absolutely top game for its time, whose sheer breadth is rarely rivalled in action-RPGs even today.
#14. Dark Chronicle, by Mitchell Akhurst
A quick way to determine if one’s favourite game will stand the test of time is whether it engenders unrealistic demands for other games. These are the unique voices, the big-budget blockbusters, the risky one-offs, or even those seven out of ten oddities that just tweak the right knobs in one’s brain. God of War. Red Dead Redemption. Deus Ex. Last week’s game, Conker’s Bad Fur Day.
Dark Chronicle, also known as Dark Cloud 2 in North America, was not the first Japanese action-RPG I played—nor the most polished or popular—but it took hold of my heart and never let go. Dark Chronicle‘s aesthetics, combat design, and sheer level of variety came at the exact right time in gaming’s history, and since its release, few adventures have been able to do everything it accomplished.
Not Your Average JRPG
As a fan of anime, you might think I am also a fan of Japanese RPGs. Yet—though I have deeply loved a handful of JRPGs and enjoyed the soundtracks of many more—RPGs, in general, are a bad genre for me. With their sheer length, formulaic storytelling, and repetitive grinding, it takes a very special JRPG to grip me enough to see it through to the end.
Dark Chronicle was one such game. As an action-RPG with no small influence from The Legend of Zelda, the tone and aesthetics are not dissimilar to other timey-wimey anime adventures, filled with dorky heroes, sentimental music, and dramatic villains (or maybe dramatic heroes, dorky music and sentimental villains—mix and match to taste).
No surprise, then, that the same team would go on to develop Dragon Quest VIII several years later. Dark Chronicle delivers the flavour of Shonen Jump and/or Saturday-morning sorts of adventures with aplomb: steampunky mechas, floating castles, fairy-tale forests, and an evil clown besides—all wrapped up in a time travelling narrative that, though not as intricate as Chrono Trigger, is represented mechanically through the player’s interaction with the world (more on that below).
Perhaps the least accomplished element of Dark Chronicle‘s magical world, then, was the synthetic soundtrack. Compositionally, the sounds are approximate to Zelda and Chrono Trigger in ambition, but the quality of virtual instruments was slightly out-of-date even in 2003.
Tomohito Nishiura’s music defines much of developer Level-5’s early catalogue, and he received a sort of pardon for this lo-fi music style on the Professor Layton games since they were Nintendo DS titles. For something on the PlayStation 2 however, Dark Chronicle‘s soundtrack is a little cheap compared with its contemporaries.
The older PlayStation 1 and 2 style of action-RPG sees very little AAA play in the modern era. Kingdom Hearts III proved that, with the right level of marketing, these hack-and-slash, experience-driven games can still win over huge audiences, but that still requires confidence from the publisher.
Dark Chronicle had that publisher support. The first Dark Cloud was a naked attempt at producing something Sony could tout as “its Zelda game”, and it was an okay, if clunky, game in its own right that could never hold a candle to Nintendo’s output. The sequel, though, was allowed to go in a direction all its own—still maintaining the Zelda connection, but experimenting with systems that took another ten years or more to see finally trickling down into other games (mostly indie games like Stardew Valley or Recettear).
Firstly, Dark Chronicle does not even attempt to compete with the puzzle dungeons of The Legend of Zelda series, instead refining the procedural dungeons of its predecessor. This means that each of the game’s dungeon areas (following the traditional JRPG tropes of magical forests, sprawling sewers, fiery caves, and so on) has a long list of floors, each with their own list of enemies and features that are then arranged in a semi-random configuration.
These dungeons are the closest that Dark Chronicle comes to the tedium of some turn-based RPGs, given their length, but the nuts and bolts of the action combat alleviate this mostly by being rather fun. The two main playable characters, Max and Monica, lack traditional stat blocks, instead upgrading their melee and ranged weapons with experience collectables that drop from defeated enemies. Mixing melee and ranged combat against different enemies becomes essential, but those are not the only options players are given.
Max comes with his own homemade mecha, the Ridepod, which gives him a massive damage boost and has its own upgradable body parts, while Monica can transform into various monsters of the dungeon. This increases the effective party size to four, though players only control one at any time during their adventures.
Along with experience, enemies drop a variety of materials: slimes, lumber, seeds, food, metals, etc. Basically, everything modern crafting-game players will be familiar with—and these raw materials fuel the aforementioned world interaction in surprising ways.
“The Adventure With Everything”
The primary reason that Dark Chronicle set unrealistic expectations of action-RPGs for my young mind was its chief sales tactic. Ads would describe the game as “The Adventure With Everything”, touting the insane variety of activities, and they were not being especially hyperbolic about it.
As a prospective Zelda rival, the game has side-quests and fetch quests, the many NPCs to interact with and, of course, fishing. But the fishing minigame was not just for one watering hole. Any large enough pond or waterway could be fished in at will, even inside dungeon levels once the enemies had been taken care of.
Fishing pervades every mechanic in the game, the same way that weapons or magic does. Different kinds of bait and lures could be discovered all over the world, or bought in town. Once fished, players could take care of their catch in an aquarium, grow them, and sell the choicest morsels, or attempt to breed rare species.
This extreme level of detail applies to every facet of the experience—photography, upgrading the Ridepod, costumes, finding homes for NPCs, and even a version of golf called Spheda. But above all, one mode took each of these elements and tied them together. Called “Georama”, the city-building side of Dark Chronicle is by no means as deep as SimCity, but still deep enough to allow for customising your own towns all over the game world.
These towns require the raw materials collected in dungeons, allowing tangible, world-changing experiences instead of crafting recipes. Some towns need lakes, others need fireproof roofs, and you can bet that you could fish in those lakes, or go inside those houses after you found the right NPC to live in them.
The game can be completed with only a cursory dive into each of its sprawling sub-systems, and at the same time players can spend hours without advancing the main narrative just tooling around. Level-5 would return to these ideas in later games, but never to the same extent or with the depth of character that the world of Dark Chronicle boasts.
Naturally, praise of Dark Chronicle‘s systemic intricacy and aesthetics must be tempered both by time and correction for nostalgia. In the former case, Dark Chronicle‘s graphics were never going to stand up in the HD era the same that The Wind Waker‘s delightful cel-shading does. What’s more is that, since the early 2000s, the industry has seen indie games and mid-range JRPGs that co-opted bits and pieces in gameplay and in world design so that, of course, the game is no longer a perfect example of its genre.
In the latter case, nostalgia cuts like a double-edged sword. The fact that so many PlayStation 2 gamers remember Dark Chronicle fondly is a testament to its popularity and quality. At the same time, the game was not in a vacuum, and plenty of other JRPGs of its era were trying similar kinds of experimentation that are now forgotten.
Nevertheless, the fact that the game still stands with all of its experimental systems makes it a curious reminder of action-RPGs as they were once-upon-a-time. This year’s Kingdom Hearts III feels like a game out of time, because its home was contemporary with Dark Chronicle.
Ni no Kuni, by Rhain Radford-Burns
Another one of OnlySP’s favourite games—one that did not make the final cut but would be remiss in ignoring—is the Ni no Kuni franchise. Conceived in 2008 for Level-5’s tenth anniversary, Ni no Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn was released exclusively in Japan in December 2010 for the Nintendo DS. The game’s animated cutscenes were produced by Studio Ghibli (the Japanese animation house known for films such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbour Totoro), with the original score provided by longtime Ghibli contributor Joe Hisaishi.
The game felt truly representative of a Studio Ghibli production, and this became more evident with the release of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch—an enhanced, 3D version of the DS game—for the PlayStation 3 in November 2011 (and in Western regions in January 2013). The game’s world, narrative, and characters felt alive, and the game remains a testament to the talent of the team at Level-5.
Although Studio Ghibli was not directly involved with Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, released for the PlayStation 4 in March 2018, Hisaishi returned to the project alongside former Ghibli artist Yoshiyuki Momose. The game still made a significant impact upon its release—especially at OnlySP, where Damien Lawardorn awarded it a Distinction (4/5) in his final review, and it received six nominations at OnlySP’s Best of 2018 ceremony, including Best Game. We also took a look at the game’s beautiful world in an exclusive video.
Thanks so much for joining us for a look at some incredible JRPGs. Come back next week as we look at another game with great personal significance—one that is much deeper than most on the list to date. In the meantime, you can follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and why not join the OnlySP Discord too?