Like the first game, Dark Cloud 2 is an Action RPG which combines classic action role-playing elements - complete with random-generated dungeons - and the so called GeoRama system, that works like a simplified fantasy version of games like Sim City: but this really say nothing about the rich experience offered by Dark Cloud 2.
A pretty long introductory section lets you familiarize with the two main characters, Maximilian and Monica, and with the game basics. Since the instructions booklet says very little about the story, the next paragraph of the review may spoil the first half-hour of the game. So, if you are not interested, just skip it.
Maximilian is a young man living in a little, peaceful town that has been isolated from the problems of the outer world for years and years, the town gates always closed to avoid any contact with the outside. Intelligent son to one of the richest men in town, Maximilian has only one interest: repairing old objects and inventing new ones. One day, he's attacked by an evil fat clown named Floatsam (a scary guy, let me say) who seems terribly interested in the amulet Max was given by his father. Max faces Floatsam's clown-puppets, and armed with his mighty wrench manages to survive, escaping through the city sewers. Later, he will meet Monica, a valiant and cute warrior from the future: together they'll have to save the world from an evil antagonist that's trying to rearrange the future changing the past.
The game doesn't lack a decent cinematographic direction - camera movements and angles are usually well used to convey the meaning of a scene - but Dark Cloud 2's plot is easily its less original element. The storyline, despite the bright, excitingly vivid world created by Level-5, is packed with the most common clichés of the genre, complete with a rather simple good vs. evil theme and a boy in search of his lost mother; even the time travels theme is more intriguing in terms of gameplay than in the storyline, where it's handled with great simplicity. Inevitably, older players will care little about the storyline, and will focus all their attention on the gameplay.
And what a game Dark Cloud 2 is. Few RPGs can offer the variety of Dark Cloud 2 maintaining the great sense of balance of all elements achieved by Level-5. Dark Cloud 2 is clearly made of separate, different gameplay moments. There are pure action parts like the exploration of the dungeons, there is the GeoRama system, but there are also tons of mini-games, secondary quests and activities: but surprisingly, all this is tied together to create an addictive role-playing experience like few others.
A part of the game consists in exploring cities and locations. So you can talk with other characters, buy objects from shops, and take a look at the beautiful world of Dark Cloud 2. Anyhow, while going around, you should always be ready to use Maximilian's camera to take photographs of curious objects, and in general of all things that attract your attention. Since Maximilian is an inventor, these photographs can suggest him new inventions that can be useful during the adventure, like modified weapons, defensive items, "enhanced" food, and so on. After you've taken a photo, it is automatically put into your the album; the album lets you easily manage and order your photos, and delete the ones you don't want to keep or you just don't need. When a light bulb icon appears next to a photo, it means it can be used to create an invention. Three photos are needed to "design" an invention; once you've got the idea, you must find the materials to realize it: these can be bought from shops or found fighting in the dungeons. If you collect a good number of photographs useful for your inventions or that depict a "scoop" (a special or curious event) your photographer level will increase, and you'll be rewarded with many precious prices. The system is pretty simple, but it's very addictive and can lead to the creation of an uncountable number of strange objects, adding hours and hours of gameplay.
Many characters you encounter during the adventure can accept to be recruited in your team in exchange of some favor, a little subquest where you might have to find some objects, take photographs, and so on; while they don't become playable characters like Max and Monica, they all offer some kind of support that can be of invaluable help in the dangerous dungeons of the game. Certain characters can cure abnormal statuses, sell you special items, open locked doors, and much more. Most important, these characters can be used in the GeoRama mode to populate the houses and change the future with their attitudes. More on this later.
The game's dungeons are easily the part that you'll be playing the most, together with the GeoRama part. Like in the first Dark Cloud, the dungeons are randomly generated; each dungeon is divided in floors and in each floor you basically have to fight enemies, find the exit door, and find the key to access the next floor. Considering you'll spend hours, hours and hours in the dungeons, the game might have resulted in a boring, hypnotic endless hack & slash experience, but thankfully, Level-5 developed one of the most amusing combat systems ever to grace an Action RPG. All battles are in real-time, so fighting in Dark Cloud 2 is like fighting in an action game; you can use either Max or Monica - switching characters is as easy as pressing the L3 button - and the game uses a perfect lock-on function addressed to the Circle button. The characters can perform many combo attacks, powerful charge attacks (you just have to hold the attack button for a longer time, but nearby enemies can attack you while you're charging), grab and throw items and characters, and also use long-range projectile weapons. The good A.I. of the enemies, frankly far more varied than I would have imagined in an Action RPG, makes combat challenging and always fresh: enemies can attack alone, in groups, and can always be defeated in multiple ways; just to make an example, flying enemies, like bats, that are usually just annoying in action games, can be easily killed with your gun, but if you're out of ammo, you can lock on them and then try to attack at the right time with your hand weapon. Each character has also a special ability; Max can use a Ridepod, a mechanical robot, and Monica has the power to turn into different monsters. Max's Ridepod can be upgraded like any other weapon in the game, and Monica can find new "Monster Badges" and thus acquire new monster forms across the adventure: collecting all of these and creating the ultimate Ridepod require an enormous amount of time, for the happiness of all the hardcore role-players around the globe: with my 50 and plus hours of gameplay, I know I still missed a lot of objects that might have made the experience even more surprising and varied. And that's one of Dark Cloud 2's strongest points: it's immediately fun, but it constantly rewards the most tenacious, explorative player, like any good RPG should do.
The game features an objects-based level up system; basically, characters don't level up in Dark Cloud 2, but they can gain new abilities and become much more powerful modifying their objects and weapons. A very well-developed system lets you upgrade any weapon and object, or to reuse it as part of a new invention. The system is intuitive, and an ultra-detailed in-game help menu is always available to teach you all the basic and advanced elements of the gameplay, so it's very difficult to feel lost. Like in the first Dark Cloud, weapons wear out as you use them; anyhow, this time they don't break and disappear, they simply become useless until your repair them with the repair powder, a very common item in the game. The dungeons, the enemies, the boss battles become little by little more challenging, but the process is very gradual, and players are constantly encouraged to gain new abilities, invent new objects, and spend some additional hours to have better weapons. It's very important to reach the end of the game with well-equipped characters, mainly because the final boss, for some reason, is incredibly difficult when compared to any other enemy encountered during the game; maybe I missed the basic strategy to defeat him, or maybe it's the only error made by Level-5 in giving balance to their adventure, even if it's a bit surprising, considering the care used for the rest of the game and the obvious importance of the final boss in any RPG.
The GeoRama system, back from Dark Cloud in an enhanced version, is the other big half of the game. You must recreate towns and places in the past that have been literally erased by the game's villain, with the purpose of changing the future. You have to build houses, customize them, create rivers, plant trees, and populate your towns with the right people so that in the future the situation is restored. Yeah, a bit like in Back To The Future. Of course, you don't have to rebuild the towns exactly as they were before they were erased. The game gives you a list of goals to achieve while building a town, and you have infinite ways to complete all of them: for example if in the future a lake must exist in the area, you should put a reasonably big river in your town in the past; if a wooden bridge must be built in the area, be sure you created a thick forest to provide the inhabitants the necessary supplies of wood, and so on. There are lots of ways to reach all the goals, so while you must follow certain criteria, the game provides scope for your creativity when building your town. The new GeoRama system is way more polished than the old one; creating new objects and buildings, painting them as you desire, is easy and fun, even if as a whole the system is complex enough to require some time to be fully mastered. The mode is, in a way, connected to the exploration of the dungeons; each dungeon floor has a GeoStone: basically, a GeoStone unlocks many objects and structures in the GeoRama mode. Good explorers will find more GeoStones and more materials, and will have more freedom in the GeoRama mode; anyhow, all items needed to build the GeoRama parts can also be bought from a non playable character you meet very early in the game.
And if you think all this would be enough to make you happy, there also many fun mini-games that become available as the story proceeds. In Dark Cloud 2 you can play a sort of futuristic golf game called Spheda, you can fish and catch about twenty different species of fish, you can raise the fishes you caught in your own aquarium and then train them for the "fish races", and you can even let your fishes breed and generate new species with new strengths. While I called these activities "mini-games", it's immediately noticeable that Level-5 developed them with great care to offer the players additional hours of fun gameplay instead of just five minutes of mindless button smashing activity.
Overall, the game's only limits are the aforementioned final boss battle, which seems a bit out of tune into the average difficulty of the game, and the storyline, too clichéd to really involve older players; but frankly, these are little flaws in a game that's simply one of the most brilliant and fun role-playing games of the latest years. Excellent.