The story of Dark Cloud is extremely classic. During the common dances of the peaceful celebration of the Harvest Festival, the village of Toan, the hero of the game, is attacked by an evil creature, the Dark Genie. The monstrous creature spreads terror and destruction. Fortunately the Spirit King, the ancient man that can join all the spiritual forces in nature, cast a magical spell before the village of Toan and other towns vanished. Everything (persons, houses and all the rest) was encased in magical spheres called Atla. The Atla are now scattered over great distances into the dungeons created by the evil Dark Genie. Toan, that the Spirit King consider a brave young boy, has the mission to resurrect his shattered world.
Dark Cloud is an interesting fusion of many elements coming from different genres. The developers have been able to create a complex gaming experience that on the whole is extremely harmonic - and entertaining. Dark Cloud is still an RPG, but it's far away both from the classic style of Eternal Ring and the histrionic attitude introduced in the genre by Final Fantasy VII. It's different from a classic RPG because it's not based only on the alternation of explorations and battles, but it has a third important moment in the construction of the towns destroyed by the Dark Genie. It's different from a game like Final Fantasy VII because all its three moments (exploration, battles, creation) are all constitutive elements of the gameplay. In the Final Fantasy series certain events like the Chocobo Race (FFVII) are sorts of secondary games. You can go through these events to improve certain abilities or certain weapons but if you prefer you can simply ignore them and proceed with the main quest. While I don't think that's the best way to enjoy a game like Final Fantasy VII (or Final Fantasy VIII and IX), here I'm simply saying that the structure of these Squaresoft titles is the same of older Nintendo episodes of the series, based on explorations, battles and a deep storyline.
While Toan is the main character, during his adventure he will meet several allies. Many of them are gifted with special abilities that if used wisely will make your life easier. Toan has to find the Atla spheres containing the citizens and all the rests of the destroyed towns. The Atla are usually located into the dungeons created by the Dark Genie. These are complex randomly generated levels where besides the Atla you can find chests, keys and water. In fact you have always to keep an eye on the so called "Thirst Bar": Toan and his friends always need to have a sufficient amount of water or they start loosing their HP. Fortunately you can buy water flasks and there are many springs and water sources into the dungeons. The exploration moments in Dark Cloud are extremely amusing. You will pass a lot of time trying to upgrade your weapons or finding certain objects.
Battles are obviously a fundamental element in Dark Cloud. During your explorations you will have to fight continuously against different types of evil creatures. The Battle System is clearly inspired by Ocarina Of Time. There are no Active Time Bars here; all the battles are real time. You can perform special attacks or lock on a certain enemy, exactly like it happened in the game from the Zelda series. In order to beat your enemies you have to switch from one character to another of your team, choosing the one with the right ability for that type of monster. Weapons are fundamental to win a battle. You can upgrade them through several objects that you find during your explorations or that you receive as a reward when you have defeated an enemy. Certain items boost the stats of your weapon while others add them elemental affinities (Fire, Water, Wind etc.etc.). Another important characteristic of the battle system is that weapons can break if you don't repair them. You always have to be careful when using your weapons or you'll risk to loose all the work you've done to power them up. So, if you are going to buy this game please remember: repair your weapons often!
For certain battles, in Dark Cloud is featured a special Duel mode that simply consists in pressing the right button at the right time. In other words you can't control all the movements of your character. This is the same concept that was behind old games like Dragon's Lair. While this is not the kind of gameplay I prefer, that's surely something that adds more variety to a still complex game like Dark Cloud.
When you have collected a good number of Atla, you can start rebuilding a town, just like in a simulation game. This can be probably considered the true core of the game. You can follow the requests of the townsfolk you have freed; for example they will ask their houses to be built in a certain position or they will tell you which items are missing in their houses. Visiting your newborn town you will be rewarded with objects useful for your mission. This mode is extremely addictive and well developed. Several tutorials help you throughout the game; give them a look and you will have no problems.
Overall, Dark Cloud is surely an original game. The developers did a nice job mixing different elements in a unique formula. Dark Cloud is an RPG and much more than this. Only the story may appear a bit poor, especially if you have played a deep game like Summoner or an episode of the Final Fantasy series. On the other hand, Dark Cloud is one of the most addictive titles available on Ps2.