animefringe december 2003 / reviews

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness
Format: Playstation 2
Production: Nippon Ichi \ Atlus
Comments: Fun and anime inspired.
Animefringe Reviews:
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness

Disgaea, released early in 2003 in Japan, seems to have come completely out of left field and become quite the sleeper hit for its American release. While console gamers have finally taken notice of the Nippon Ichi and Digaea, anime fans haven't really noticed the title yet, which is unfortunate, because anime fans will certainly get a huge kick out of this fun little title.

Strategy RPGs, for the uninitiated, are an offshoot of the RPG genre that are wildly popular in Japan, but haven't seen much success in the U.S. While they often have the same sprawling stories of normal RPGs, strategy RPGs concentrate on RPG like battling, usually on an isometric board where characters move around fight each in turns. Additionally, like an RPG, units on the board have stats for things like attack, magic power, and other attributes. It's a complicated genre, and recent titles like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Onimusha Tactics have offered an introductory experience to it.

Disgaea is not one of those introductory games. The whole genre requires a certain level of nerdiness; to play through and keep an eye on all the stats and issues, one has to be a bit obsessive. But Disgaea is definitely geared towards hardcore strategy RPG players. In many genre titles characters get leveled up to say, a maximum level of 99 and a player hardly even needs to reach that level to finish the game. In Disgaea the characters can level up into the thousands, into realms of god-like power. To get everything in the game, one has to be obsessive and chase down everything. It's certainly not necessary to gain such unwieldy power to finish the game, but to get everything, it's a necessity.

The story starts out with Laharal, the prince of the Netherworld, being woken up after a two-year nap. During his long hibernation, the prince's father, the Overlord, has died, and now demon nobles are vying for the title of Overlord. Laharal immediately decides that he's the true ruler of the Netherworld, and amasses an army to begin his conquest. Unfortunately, as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that Laharal is going to be battling more than just demons in the Netherworld...

There are so many aspects and twists to the standard strategy RPG formula in this game, it is difficult to cover everything that Disgaea does. In what appears to be a strategy RPG first, characters on the board can toss other characters across the board. This can help your teammates reach far off enemies or areas. You can also toss enemies, either to capture monsters or to get them closer or farther away. You can even toss enemies into other enemies to get create one higher level enemy. Also, in a change from, say, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance where both enemy characters and your team take turns based on a speed stat, in Disgaea you have free reign for your turn; that is, you can take as many people out of your base panel as the level allows, you can move them as much as possible (and even take back most moves), and then end your turn and let all the enemy characters act. It's a system that allows more fine-tuned strategy and control.

The levels in Disgaea are almost board game-like. The tiles in each level can be colored; these are known as Geo Tiles. Levels can also contain Geo Panels, special blocks that sit on tiles and can give every tile of the same color special properties like Invincibility or 20% Damage Each Turn, which effects any characters on those tiles. Additionally, Geo Panels can be destroyed, getting rid of the effects and causing damage to everyone on the same colored tiles. These can be linked together in chains, which can cause massive destruction. Linking together massive chains can not only really hurt the enemy, but it also fills the bonus gauge; the higher the bonus gauge is at the end of a battle, the more money and experience you get at the end.

Another great aspect to Disgaea is the Item World; basically one can enter an item to level it up. This is most useful with weapons, but can be done with any kind of item. The game randomly generates levels, populates it with enemies, and you fight through. The more levels one passes, the more powerful the item becomes. Additionally, in items, special resident monsters exist; if you kill them they boost the stats of the weapon. The monsters can be moved from item to item, to increase the powers of another item. Unlike Final Fantasy Tactics Advance where leveling up weaker characters means fighting exactly the same characters (at higher levels) in the same places, the randomness of the Item World levels in Disgaea are spectacular.

The game has a mentor system, where a character with enough kills can create another character. The new character becomes a student to the creator. The relationship is a two way street; characters can team attack in Disgaea and having a student/mentor relationships ups the chances that a team attack will occur with characters. Since characters all get experience from participating in a team attack, weaker characters can attack with their higher level mentors and easily gain ten or twenty levels with one blow. The mentor, on the other hand, can use spells the student knows when they are standing together. If the mentor uses the student's spell enough the mentor can permanently add it to their own skills.

Other aspects of the game include the Netherworld Senate, a group of demons whom Laharal has to meet before creating the most powerful allies or for passing bills to aid his conquest of the Netherworld. Unfortunately, the Senate is not always on Laharal's side, but he can bribe them to sway their vote or he can battle them if they vote against his bills. Units in Disgaea can also be transmigrated. You can take an existing character and, basically, create a new character from them who knows the skills the old one does. This allows you to unlock more skilled units and gives individual units bonus stat boosts.

Of major interest to anime fans will be the delicious character designs the game sports. Everyone in this game is adorable. Even the would-be demon king Laharal is a big bag of cute. None of it is overpoweringly, Disney cute (well, the angel Flonne has her moments...); instead, the game has zombie penguins and wayward lecherous space heroes. Adding to the experience is option to turn on Japanese audio for story sequences. This adds to the anime-ness of the game. Unfortunately, in battle, the audio is a mix of Japanese and English (and some very annoying English at that) and there is no option to change it. The game music is varied and interesting. There are a few vocal tracks thrown in the Japanese audio, so it's well worth a listen.

The game takes pains not to take itself seriously (take that, convoluted Final Fantasy Tactics!); it's very humorous and a times somewhat bawdy. Unlike many games which try to be funny (especially ones where the translators took out the original Japanese humor and tried to inject some themselves) Disgaea will have you laughing out loud. For example, groups of levels in Disgaea are put together in episodes. At the end of each episode is a Next Episode Preview. In the vein of recent anime, the previews have nothing to do with the next episode.; instead they parody anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mobile Suit Gundam.

There are a few bad aspects to the game; the story sequences aren't animated. Battle models act out the scenes but are overwhelmed by the beautiful character profiles that serve as the real cutscenes. The game itself is low-res and looks a little dated. And the lack of full Japanese audio (you'll be spending most of your time in battles ? Hearing “Shazzaam!” and other such nonsense will grate on your nerves).

However, SRPG fans will eat this game up with a pair of chopsticks. Brave players unfamiliar with the genre will certainly come to love it if they give Disgaea a chance. Fair warning though: After some time with Disgaea, you'll find yourself up in the wee hours of the morning trying to boost the stats of some obscure weapon. Disgaea has already become such a hit in the U.S., Mastiff Games is brining an earlier Nippon Ichi SRPG, La Pucelle to the PS2 next year and there is already a lot of buzz for the in production Phantom Brave, which shares character designers with Disgaea. However, right now, Disgaea is the best way those of us outside Japan to get acquainted with Nippon Ichi's innovative SRPG cannon.