While games with dark themes are fairly commonplace these days, they often try much too hard to be hip to a particular gamer demographic, leaving some players seeking out low-key releases that don’t try to prove how cool they are. Most fans of recent console strategy/RPG genre consider games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre key games in the genre, and while both games are indeed great, the storylines in both games tend to be rather bleak affairs. It’s almost gospel that a good SRPG has to have a constant sense of dread, betrayals, and cruel enemies that don’t think twice about decimating a village full of innocents. Thank to Japanese developer Nippon Ichi (the folks who bought the world Rhapsody, the first musical RPG), evil not only has a new face, but a damn good sense of humor to boot.
Atlus’ new release, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, turns the RPG world on its ear by adding some occasionally bawdy humor and a really bizarre plot to some truly innovative gameplay. The game initially looks and plays just like many other turn-based titles, but there’s an incredible amount of depth and customization here that makes Disgaea a game that no two people will play the same way. It’s entirely possible to create an army of hundreds of characters (you may use up to 10 in battle) or use a select few. You’ll acquire dozens of normal and rare goods and can level them up in the game’s Item World. You can even petition, bribe, or battle against a group of corrupt demon senators in order to raise or lower prices, add items to the shops, create higher level characters, or a ton of other things. There’s a lot more, but I suppose you’d like to hear about the plot, no?
If you were expecting the usual good vs. evil stuff, Disgaea throws you a curveball right at the beginning. You play as Laharl, heir to the throne of the Netherworld. The game begins as you wake up after a two year sleep and find out that your dad, King Krichevskoy, died just about the time your head hit the pillow. Now you have to deal with a number of pretenders to the throne, the sneaky machinations of your second in command, Etna, and a bunch of greedy and powerful senators who aren’t much help unless they’re bribed or defeated in battle. There’s a lot more, but you’ll have to really see it for yourself.
You’ll meet up with other characters that will battle you and join up once defeated, and you can create dozens of others as you go. There’s nary a serious bone in the game, but there are some nicely handled dramatic twists mixed in with the jokes. The whole thing is played for as many laughs as possible, and it’s easy to imagine Tactics Ogre channeled through Tim Burton after an hour or two with the game. You’ll find yourself laughing out loud quite a few times during the game, and some of the jokes are definitely not for the younger kids whose parents may buy this game because of the cute art style. Go into Disgaea as open-minded as possible, and you’ll enjoy it all the more, I say.
The battle system initially seems straightforward, but the ability to throw enemies or allies, combine up to 4 allies for some massive combo attacks, and even take enemies and force them to your side give the game a definite edge over others in the genre. Making the battle portions of the game really interesting are the Geo Symbols. On some maps, you’ll find colored areas and small pyramids that can be destroyed to gain bonus experience, money, and weapons. There’s a load of strategy in fighting on these boards, and the Geo Panels add varying effects like Ally Damage, No Lifting, Invincibility, or Defense Up, among many others. Some maps seem almost impossible to win, but that’s where stuff like throwing enemies or finding a way to use the Geo effects to some sort of advantage comes into play. It’s a really fun puzzle element added to an already great strategy game.
The Item World is also an amazing addition to Disgaea. You’ll acquire hundreds of weapons and items during the game, some of them “Rare” or “Legendary”. You can then go inside any item in your inventory and defeat the monsters that inhabit them, which levels up the item and also gives you loads of experience and loot in the process. It’s entirely possible to get through the game with no more than one or two trips to the Item World, but the opportunity to max out your characters to level 9999 (!!!!) will no doubt keep the diehards coming back. You can also capture monsters for your party here (and in regular battles as well), and when you subdue certain monsters called “specialists”, you can add them to weapons and armor to increase the power of these items.
Probably the most unique thing about this game is the Dark Assembly, where you can create hundreds of new characters, transmigrate them into stronger ones, or petition groups of greedy demon senators to allow upgrades to the shops, among other things. Bribery is common, and every now and then, you’ll have to literally beat members into submission for a “Yes” vote. You’ll sort of wish this was possible in real life, what with the way things go down in D.C., but let’s not get into real political trouble here. Some really, really strong monsters are part of the Assembly, and this actually encourages you to level up significantly, especially if there’s a request you’d like to see get passed.
If you’re one of those folks who expect every next-gen game to have flashy 3D graphics, Disagaea’s look may make you cringe. However, anime fans and folks who loved games like FF Tactics and Tactic Ogre will be completely enamored of the awfully cute (and quite sexy at times) character designs and colorful style found here. The game plays out like an anime series, substituting pop-up character art for full animation. In between stages you’re treated to Etna’s hysterical “next episode” spiel, with the occasional guest comment by other characters in the game. Pretty much everything here could be done on the PS One, but that’s not a knock against the game at all, just the choice of the developer. Disgaea follows the style of a previous Nippon Ichi PS2 release called La Pucelle (Japan only, until some smart publisher here snags it), and shares a few interesting links to this game and Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure. You’ll have to really be hardcore and play for quite a long time to make the connections, though. Hit gamefaqs.com for walkthroughs (but keep away from the troll-filled message boards if you get stuck!).
Along with the anime-style graphics comes anime-inspired voice acting and music, and Disgaea is near perfect here. The game offers up the option to listen to the original Japanese voices or play with English voices if you’d prefer not to read so much text. The English voice acting is absolutely hysterical- somehow, Atlus managed to hunt down vocalists who pull off the personalities without a hitch. Laharl is arrogant yet slightly whiny, Etna’s acid tongue and sassy, icy tone are evenly balanced by her bizarre sense of humor, and Flonne is completely innocent and clueless (“Nin, Nin, Nin”). There’s a great sense of the ridiculous on display here, from one enemy’s flustered mutterings and rants at being renamed “Mid-Boss” to the plotting and scheming of one of the “good” angels. Some of the humor here is a bit risqué for younger kids, so parents who pick this one up because it looks cute may be in for a shock. Most of the real zingers are buried a couple of hours in, but hoo boy- I found myself falling off my chair a couple of times from laughing so hard.
What isn’t funny at all, and the game’s only major issue, is the camera control. While you can rotate the camera during battles, the angle is unchangeable. You’ll sometimes find it hard to see where monsters or treasure are hidden, and it’s possible to blow a Geo Panel combo because you missed that crystal tucked away behind a column. There should have been an overhead map feature similar to the one found in Vandal Hearts, where you could zoom the map out at will and locate friend or foe. It’s not enough of an issue to be a game killer, but it definitely makes things way too tough at times. But hell, if you’re a SRPG fan you’ll most likely be hooked the moment you crack the shrink wrap. Disgaea is a winner from start to finish, and one of the best games in the genre in years.
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