Summary: Rare is it that we see the release of a strategy RPG translated and released on this side of the Pacific. But when they do come over, they again become rarities. Ogre Battle for the SNES is still a hot item on Ebay, and so was Final Fantasy Tactics on the PSone until its reissue. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness for the PlayStation 2 could be the next impossible-to-find console strategy game. Read our full review to learn why it's worth your while to track down a copy today!
Same, but different
Familiar is the basic game system. You move players around spaces on a field presented from an isometric perspective and attack enemies in a turn-based combat system. Like the PlayStation’s original Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea’s fields are presented in 3D, with 2D sprites representing players and enemies. Characters are moved into position and various actions can be taken. This is where most of the similarities end. Certainly many of the actions are carryovers from earlier games in the genre, but the other options Disgaea opens up, both during combat and out of combat, are surprising in both their originality and what they add to the gameplay.
Like most games in the genre, you tend to gang-up on enemies by surrounding them with the up to 10 characters you can bring into a battle. But in Disgaea’s case, there’s a reason to pay a bit more attention to your characters’ position: combos. Combos are one of the more interesting additions to the typical strategy RPG formula that this game brings to the table. Essentially, the position of your characters in relation to each other and the enemy can trigger a combo. The chance is random, but you can control the likelihood by placing characters with an affinity for each other in adjacent panels. The game tells you the chance of a combo attack before you attack, so you’re not shooting in the dark. The game’s tutorial, which should be mentioned as much nicer than Final Fantasy Tactics’ exceptionally long lecture on the game’s minutiae, explains this and other bits, while still letting you figure out a lot of it on your own later.
SIDEBAR: While not a gigantic publisher, Atlus is very good at spotting well-made niche games to please the old-school gamers in North America. If it weren’t for them, we’d never have Tactics Ogre.
Perhaps the biggest differences come out of combat. You can visit a demonic senate to get their approval for things, such as new items in the item store, new characters and classes, etc. Of course they’re not going to do this for nothing, actions in the senate take mana, which you’ll earn by killing enemies. Trying to get the votes you need may also include intimidation and bribes. If this sounds strange, it’s not half as weird as Item World. In Item World you take your characters on a trip inside your items. Defeating enemies that live in your items makes the item stronger. Later on you can add to your items as well. If hiring people to live in your items sounds weird, wait till you see the story unfold.
A rude awakening
Laharl is a demon prince who’s overslept, paying homage to the one of the oldest RPG clichés of an oversleeping protagonist. The difference is that Laharl has overslept for a few years. Fortunately his loyal servant Etna has been there to use various implements of destruction to finally wake him up. Unfortunately, Laharl’s father died while he was asleep and his power has been usurped by others in the netherworld. Rather than mourn the loss of his father, Laharl is anxious to get out regain his birthright by beating down those who stole it. This only hints at the wackiness you’ll see in this game’s story. The game makes it clear early on that it doesn’t take itself seriously. There are a lot of slapstick gags and general silliness presented in the game. But unlike other games that have tried to be both serious and funny, Disgaea rarely gets bogged down in a heavy or serious mood.
The quality of the art continues into the actual game scenes. The character sprites look great from any angle or zoom level, though sometimes you might wish they had more frames of animation. Perhaps more importantly, it’s easy to tell one class from another by just scanning over the screen, so you know where everyone is even in fairly complex scenes. Perhaps the only real failing of Disgaea’s graphics is that the scenes are occasionally a bit too complex. It can be hard to get a good camera angle in some spots and the sprite-based characters mean you can’t put the camera wherever you wish. The fantastically over-the-top special attacks and highly varied fields make up for some of this.
Music and sound
Music is one area where Disgaea didn’t really impress me. The music can’t be characterized as bad, some of it is actually quite good, but hearing the music loop over and over can get tiring quickly. The sound effects are good, however. Things pop, smack and go boom in a convincing manner. Unfortunately, the choice of language doesn’t affect battle voices. The main characters are in English, everyone else is Japanese. This doesn’t really amount to much difference as most voices in the battles are generic and repeated battle cries.
Disgaea is not without flaw. The first few hours of the game are mostly an exercise in powerleveling so you can clear the end of the first chapter. You may be repeating the battles more often than you want to. Fortunately the game picks up quite a bit from there, but it can be quite a turn-off early in the game.
Where Disgaea really fails is in being an outstanding example of a genre many gamers simply do not care for. This is a game for people who take great joy in leveling their characters to the point where the peons the game throws at you are hardly capable of touching you, let alone killing you. The impressive thing is that the game manages to be engaging to that type of player without becoming a game where you have to keep track of every tiny stat on all of your characters. Throw in multiple endings and you could be playing this game for a long time to come. Still, the casual player may find this game tiring, but for the people it’s aimed at, Disgaea is a rare event.
SIDEBAR: Disgaea developer Nippon Ichi has already announced that it is working another strategy RPG, currently titled Phantom Brave.
We can’t wait to play it!
SIDEBAR: Disgaea really is one of the best PlayStation 2 games of the year. Never heard of it? Blame that on its limited exposure. But now, consider yourself informed and among the elite. Agree? Disagree? Want to start a Final Fantasy Tactics vs. Disgaea flame war?
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