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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #14—Dark Chronicle

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OnlySP Favorite Games 14 - Dark Chronicle

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.

Action-RPG Evolution

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.

Disclaimer

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 Wrath of the White Witch gameplay screenshot

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 AwayPrincess 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 FacebookTwitter, and YouTube, and why not join the OnlySP Discord too?

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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #12—Uncharted

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Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s entry covers an action-packed series with an incredible amount of emotional depth—and one that shares a writer with last week’s entry in Amy Hennig.

Uncharted 1 Drake's Fortune gameplay screenshot

#30. UNCHARTED series, by Rhain Radford-Burns

“There is no such thing as [Uncharted] 1,” Nolan North told me at Supanova earlier this year. When he was cast as Nathan Drake in an upcoming video game from Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter developer Naughty Dog, North did not know what he was getting himself into.

When Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released for the PlayStation 4 in November 2007, it was well-received, selling over one million copies in less than three months. The story follows Nathan Drake, who claims to be a descendant of explorer Sir Francis Drake. As he searches for the lost treasure of El Dorado, Nathan is joined by his mentor Victor Sullivan as well as journalist Elena Fisher.

The game’s narrative is engaging, keeping players on their toes as they search for the treasure and encounter some creepy creatures and interesting characters along the way. Above all else, though, the dialogue is a winner in Drake’s Fortune. The conversations between Nathan and Sullivan are a standout of the entire series, and they all started in the first game.

When Drake’s Fortune received critical acclaim and several award nominations—but no wins—Naughty Dog knew it had to outdo itself in the sequel; and outdo, it did.

Uncharted 2 Among Thieves gameplay screenshot

“I remember just being excited to do the second one,” North said to me. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves exceeded its predecessor in basically every way. Set two years later, the game sees the return of Drake, Elena, and Sullivan, now joined by the charming Chloe Frazer, as they search for the Cintimani Stone and the lost city of Shangri-La.

The game’s narrative is even more engaging than its predecessor’s, taking Drake across the world as he searches for the treasure. The set pieces throughout the world—usually running, falling, and jumping away from nasty enemies—are stunning and could easily be mistaken for a scene from an Indiana Jones film. The graphical fidelity of Naughty Dog’s engine also clearly saw an improvement from the first game, and players took notice.

After it was released in October 2009, Uncharted 2 became one of the highest-rated games of all times and has since sold over six million copies. Having won the most Game of the Year awards for 2009, Naughty Dog knew the success that it had on its hands—and it knew what it had to do to continue that success.

“When [the second one] really took off, [Naughty Dog] pretty much knew that there’d be a third and a fourth,” North continued. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception continued the trend of Drake looking for historical artefacts: this time, the lost city known as the Iram of the Pillars.

The witty banter between Drake and Sullivan returned, as did the character of Sullivan himself, taking a more leading role here than in Uncharted 2. The cinematic quality of the gameplay and cutscenes hit a new high in Uncharted 3, combining voice acting and motion capture to make the player feel as though the characters were real.

Naughty Dog split into two teams to develop Uncharted 3—with the other half working on The Last of Us—and this split focus shows, with the game never really living up to its predecessor. While the game received critical acclaim and sold well upon its release in November 2011, the second game remained the leader of the series.

For now, at least.

In Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Nathan has retired and settled down with Elena, now his wife. When his estranged older brother Sam returns to his life to look for the lost treasure of Henry Avery, however, Nathan joins him, bringing Sullivan along.

The emotional depth of the narrative truly hit a new high in Uncharted 4. Watching Drake struggle as he lies to his wife about coming out of retirement, and the tension that ensues as a result of his lies, leads to some of the most emotional scenes in any video game and prove that Neil Druckmann perfected his writing craft after his work on The Last of Us. The performances of Nolan North as Drake and Emily Rose as Elena are incredible, building upon the three predecessors to make the player feel truly engaged in their lives.

The graphical quality of the game exceeds most other games that came before it (and many since). The new open world-style gameplay adds a level of replayability not found in the game’s predecessors, and the improvements to several gameplay mechanics—including more stealth options and the addition of a grappling hook—even more so.

Whether or not Uncharted 4 exceeded the quality of Uncharted 2 is an argument that continues long after the former’s release in May 2016. Nonetheless, Uncharted 4 stands as a worthy adversary for the second game, selling more copies and winning more awards. But what about a sequel?

As North said to me, “It wasn’t until the fourth one kinda started that there’s no fifth one, and you’re kinda going, ‘Okay, what’s next?’”

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Chloe and Nadine

Thankfully, something did come next—but without Nathan Drake. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, released in August 2017, followed Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross (from Uncharted 4) as they search for the Tusk of Ganesh within the mountains of India. The chemistry between Chloe and Nadine mimics that of Drake and Sullivan, though in a different way. The player remains engaged through the narrative, with some incredible moments that will stun them along the way, and the fine-tuning of some of Uncharted 4’s gameplay features such as the swinging and vehicle gameplay make The Lost Legacy a fine addition to the franchise.

And, for now, that is where the story ends.

“It was bittersweet to end the franchise, but we’re proud of what we’ve made,” North concluded. “If that’s the way that Sony and Naughty Dog decide to leave it, then I’m fine with that.”

Jak and Daxter

Don’t Forget Jak and Daxter

Hi, Mitchell here. At the end of the Hellblade piece, I popped up to say how one should not skip Enslaved, and that fans of Hellblade would find more Ninja Theory greatness therein.

For Jak and Daxter, the story is very different.

These games were Naughty Dog’s series prior to Uncharted, and are different from the latter in almost every way. Where Nathan Drake styles himself after Indiana Jones as a globetrotting adventurer, the Jak games were an American spin on the fantasy cartoon universes of shounen anime—filtered through the chunky aesthetic of Joe Mad’s Battle Chasers comic (just look at how similar the two logos are).

Devotees of the consciously cinematic, endlessly propulsive linear action of Uncharted need not apply. Instead, Jak and Daxter is an almost perfectly balanced midpoint between such cinematic ambitions and the earlier Looney Tunes energy of Crash Bandicoot: a sort of preteen, but slightly edgy action-adventure with weird human-like characters and interesting, magical locales.

For the young or young-at-heart fan of series like Fullmetal Alchemist, Star Wars, or Avatar: The Last Airbender, the three Jak and Daxter titles were the ultimate in fantasy escapism on the PlayStation 2, save maybe Dark Chronicle (a game that hewed even closer to the king of the genre, The Legend of Zelda).

The first title, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, began proceedings in 2001, with an original fantasy universe featuring lost ancient technology, big ugly beasts and a cornucopia of different level themes. From the aptly named Misty Island, through a forbidding jungle temple, across a mountain pass and into various rainy swamps, sunken cities and spooky caves, The Precursor Legacy was a fascinating implementation of the Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie format on then-next-gen hardware.

Still remarkable today is how the whole game plays without load times, a feature Naughty Dog continued to champion into the present. Aside from its era-appropriate collect-the-things objectives, The Precursor Legacy was highly influential thanks to its Saturday morning cartoon presentation—the game more or less set the standard for dozens of western-developed PlayStation 2 games afterwards.

Jak 2

With 2003’s Jak 2 (dropping the “and Daxter” entirely), Naughty Dog was not content to merely iterate, instead making the controversial and occasionally-mocked decision to transform Jak from voiceless do-gooder into tortured monster, experimented upon by the new villain, Baron Praxis.

Rather than the assumed edgelord reasons for “darkening” the series up, this was actually an attempt by the developers to craft its own version of the Grand Theft Auto III formula. Far from being just another Super Mario 64, the game’s setting was now a futuristic authoritarian city, though the game also has other creative levels that take place in the surrounding landscapes.

Thanks to Praxis’s experiments, Jak gained a little in anger management issues, and a lot more in Jekyll-and-Hyde style Dark Eco powers. With more going on under the surface of his heroic personality, Jak (now a voiced protagonist) participates in a dramatic Star Wars-like tale of rebellion and old wounds, with plenty of plot twists and new characters to meet. At the same time, despite being dropped from the title, Daxter continues to provide comic relief and is even playable at times determined by the story.

Jak 3

After Jak 2‘s epic glow-up of the story and tone, Jak 3 came along one year later as a final episode to tie the series together. The less said at this point the better, as the third game has its own twists that are best not spoiled. The game also suffers somewhat from a lack of challenge and less dramatic story compared with its distinctive predecessor. Yet, even as a lesser sequel, the third game’s story presentation benefited from Amy Hennig’s involvement—she joined the Jak 3 team while the other series that she had been brought on to lead (later titled Uncharted…) was still spinning up.

Although the series could reasonably be characterised as the studio’s adolescent years between mascot platformers and serious, dramatic stories in Uncharted and The Last of Us, the Jak and Daxter games are no half measures or mere historical curios. Their animation and story presentation remained heavily influential on western-developed action-adventure games, and their type of game has only become more rare among triple-A releases.

If nothing else, Sony should remember that despite its current focus on “serious” cinematic presentation and adult-rated open worlds, it once developed a series of cartoony adventures that nevertheless boasted triple-A production values.

Thanks for joining us for a look back at some Naughty Dog gems. Next week’s game is an interesting one, with a graphical style significantly different to that of Uncharted. Be sure to follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube, and join in with the OnlySP Discord.

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