GerbilMechs 039 : Pirouette

25Mar03 (Monthenor): Whoo, Spring Break! Spring Break was great, a restful recharge that I really needed. All I did was sit around, watch TV, and play four hells of a lot of Playstation2. And because I always think of you, the reader, I took some notes. Shall we?

The original plan was to rent three games and play them each for a couple of days. Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, Dark Cloud 2, and then finish up with Xenosaga Episode 1: Zur Wille dur Macht. I'm going to spoil the surprise and say that the plan didn't quite work out. Let's take this one game at a time.

Tenchu: Where Shinobi was a fast-paced rocking old school action game, Tenchu is a slow and thoughtful ninja simulation. You're not a very good head-on fighter...any more than two opponents and you will in fact get your butt kicked. No, Tenchu is all about sneaking along walls and rooftops until you get the drop on your opponent from high overhead. You are then treated to a little cutscene of you killing your enemy in a brutal and nearly silent manner. How could this game not totally rule?

I'm sorry to say that it doesn't completely live up to its premise. It may be worth it if you're willing to invest untold hours learning every aspect of every map, but for a casual rental it's not going to have more than about six hours of fun. The initial easiest stages are a blast as you grapple around the rooftops and shove your sword through people's heads. Three characters (I unlocked the "special" one with a code just so I could test him out) should mean triple the joy, right? Wrong. Around the fourth stage in each campaign, the game dumps you into an area with extremely vague descriptions of your target and little to no direction. This is not the lack of direction that you get in something like SimCity, where you can go off and build a damn nuclear plant for your farming community and then summon a tornado. No, this is the lack of direction that would get a real ninja killed. A real ninja should at least have a vague physical description of their target.

The specific example I'm thinking of is in the secret character's campaign. I'm tasked with the elimination of a Buddha cult leader and the subsequent escape from his mountain stronghold. The past three boards had me tracking somebody and killing them, so I figured I'd have to search around for the leader while taking out the guards. What the game actually did was put me in a large room with a very large enemy that immediately spotted me. In every fight up to that point, getting spotted was very bad, and usually required getting really high up and hiding until the guards lost my trail. So that's what I did; I climbed up some convenient girders and hid in the shadows. Unfortunately this particular badguy didn't lose my trail at all. In fact, he stood directly under my hiding spot, swinging his big spear ineffectually at thin air. I finally realized there were no open doors out of this room, so I dropped down to kill the big bruiser. Only after I finally killed him did I learn that he was the cult leader, and that the stage was actually focussed around my escape.

That was the last straw. I took the game back and picked up Dark Cloud 2.

Dark Cloud 2: I knew a bit about the game before I picked it up. The first Dark Cloud had gotten some pretty positive reviews, and the screenshots looked pretty cool. It's cel-shaded...not as much as Zelda, but enough that you notice. I knew there was city-building and inventions and a camera and time travel. What I didn't realize was that the game was actually constructed not of binary instructions, but of pure joy.

Like I told Morgion, the entire game exudes joy from every pore. The very first thing you do when starting a new game is play dress-up with the main character. You have three different selections each of hats, overalls, and shoes to look at. It's accompanied by a happy, light music that was infectious like no music since Tony Hawk. I chose the swank ensemble of the red vest and cap with leather shoes. Further, this choice is actually used on his costume in all cutscenes in the game. Everything runs smoothly on the in-game engine, blending pre-rendered backgrounds with the cel-shaded characters and enemies.

The entire prologue is based around going to and being entertained by a traveling circus. The joy continues as you run around town, looking at things and talking to your fellow citizens. After finally making it to the circus, you are treated to a rather long cutscene of circus-type happenings. Elephants and acrobats go flipping around the center ring, and you share in the main character's awe at the spectacle.

Then, of course, we get to the game. We quickly pick up a wrench (melee weapon), gun (ranged weapon), and camera and set off for the first dungeon. The joy continues as we bash our way through cartoony sewer rats, frogs, and clowns on our way to the outside world. In fact, I put in forty hours in five days and the joy didn't let up for a moment. This appears to be the Playstation's answer to Zelda, and not only does it compare, in some cases it exceeds the venerable master. Saving and loading times are a fraction of Xenosaga's, the fishing game is more fully realized than in Ocarina of Time, and we also have a kickin' golf variant to play. Even the plot is more fun than in most Zelda games, although necessarily it doesn't have the weight of legend behind it quite yet.

I haven't even discussed the city-building yet. See, there are areas in each chapter (from 2 onward) that have large expanses where cities used to exist. It's your job to jump into your flying dwarf-powered Carpenterion and rebuild the cities. You want a brick house? Collect some Sturdy Rock, Sticky Clay, and Glass Material to slap together into a Brick House. Want a chimney? Sure, build a Brick Chimney. You don't just say "put chimney on house", either. You say "this is where on the roof I would like the chimney to be, and I think the roof should probably be purple, and while we're at it let's add an Iron Lamp 2 to the left of the front door. Oh, a mailbox? Sure, we'll put a mailbox out front and face it this way." It takes a little while to learn which pieces go where (can't put a chimney on an Iron House, for example), but the level of customization is still insane. Even with these completely real-time player-created cities, saving a game never takes longer than ten seconds.

These buildings and accessories come from special items in the dungeon, but if you want to make weapons and armor you can use your camera and your head. Walk around snapping photos and you'll come across Idea Photos. These are mostly logical ("river", "flower", "pipe") but can occasionally cause frustration ("energy pipe? WHICH PIPE IS THE ENERGY PIPE??"). Three of these ideas can then be selected, and the main character attempts to invent something with them. Fireplace + Wheat Flour + Bakery Sign? Sounds like Bread to me! These inventions can then be constructed with the same types of ingredients you use to make buildings.

Continuing with the customization theme, you can go fishing. Catching fish gives you Fish Points with which you can customize your fishing rod's stats. Your fish then go into an Aquarium (provided you invented and built one), where they can be fed food to increase their stats, bred with other fish to create a hybrid-statted child, or battled to raise their endurance in preparation for fish racing.

More customization, you ask? How about building up your weapons? Or saving up special medals for the Panther Bikini ensemble? Not enough joy yet? How about a cross-dressing swamp-ruling giant gay fish that entrances people with his beauty and glittery eye shadow? Or the spot-on voice acting that actually made me turn off the subtitles for once? Or the fully-voiced and relevant tutorials in the Help menu?

Seriously, if I wasn't already buying Zelda today I would run right out and buy myself Dark Cloud 2. It even pre-empted my continuation of my mind Xenosaga or .hack won't be able to stand up to Dark Cloud 2 until some more chapters are out. Dark Cloud 2 stands by itself, a shining paragon of gaming.

In fact, there are only two problems that I have with the game. Sometimes, rarely, there are portions of cutscenes that require you to press the X button to advance the dialogue. There is absolutely NO indication of when these parts are. You're watching a nice little plot exposition, and suddenly everybody goes into an idle animation and the voice acting stops. The game just sits there and expects you to know that you should press X. Silly designers. Secondly, by the time you finish Chapter 2 (of 8), your inventory is so crowded with healing items and building materials that it can be a pain to find what you need. This game really needs separate inventory screens (like Zelda) to keep everything straight, or at the very VERY least a way to sort the mess on a particular type of item. These two "problems" really don't detract from gameplay, but they're annoyances on an otherwise unblemished whole.

I urge you all to play a little Dark Cloud 2 at some point in your lives. You'll thank me.