To show my appreciation, I’ll only beat them half to death.
“The following is a contributor post by the Blue Moon Mage.”
Time for a history lesson, dood. In 2003, developer Nippon Ichi Software published Disgaea: Hour of Darkness for the PS2. The game received critical acclaim and became an instant cult classic for its humor and jaw-dropping amount of content. IGN even named it their “Best Game No One Played” that year. Its success was such that the series spawned 11 more games (including spin-offs), a manga, and an anime adaptation.
Disgaea 1 Complete is a remaster of Hour of Darkness, celebrating the title’s 15th anniversary. Full disclosure: I have not yet finished this game, although to be fair, one almost never truly “finishes” a Disgaea game. With nearly limitless in-game content and a character level cap of 9999, players often spend years with these titles. In fact, while I can’t confirm, I’ve heard tell of gamers still working on their characters from the original PS2 game even these 15 years later.
If you’re not familiar with the Disgaea series, it’s a powerhouse in the tactical RPG genre. Hour of Darkness centers on Laharl, demon prince of the Netherworld. As the story opens, Laharl wakes after a two-year-long nap and learns that his father, King Krichevskoy, has died. Because Laharl was indisposed and did not immediately step up to claim the title of Overlord of the Netherworld, a power void has resulted. Many demons now seek to claim the throne for themselves.
Accompanied by Etna (his vassal) and the series’ iconic Prinnies (a penguin-looking race of creatures), Laharl embarks on a quest to remind the Netherworld who is the true Overlord heir. But meanwhile, a plot is being hatched in Celestia, the heavenly realm. Flonne, an angel trainee, is sent to the Netherworld to assassinate King Krichevskoy, but she is shocked to find him already dead. She joins Laharl’s party to learn more about demons–specifically whether or not they can feel love.
Laharl’s party continues to grow as he meets new companions while pursuing his throne, as well as the truth behind Celestia’s plans and the death of his father. But if you think this sounds like a serious plot, think again. The game’s tone is mischievous and silly, and while there are some touching moments, no one would ever accuse Disgaea of taking itself too seriously.
As a tactical RPG, Disgaea lacks many of the characteristics common to other RPGs. There are no areas to explore, treasure chests to find, or side quests to complete. What you have instead is strategy-based gameplay executed on a grid-lined board, along with the nearly infinite possibilities that exist within that seemingly simple framework.
Players control up to ten characters in a turn-based battle against whatever enemies are on the board. By taking into account the various strengths, weaknesses, and abilities of your army (along with the strengths, weaknesses, and abilities of your foes), you can develop strategies for success. Players must also consider the terrain, the order in which moves are executed, and any special status effects that may exist on the board (these are caused by blocks called Geo Panels).
If you don’t like grinding in RPGs, then I hearken you to listen and listen well: Disgaea = grinding. Grinding = Disgaea. They are twin entities, joined forever at the hip, and you either love them for it or you hate them for it. Tactical RPGs are already a niche genre, and Disgaea ratchets that dial right up to 11. IGN was correct to call Disgaea the “Best Game No One Played”; this is a very specific type of game for a very specific type of gamer.
You will not be able to accumulate the necessary experience points to level up your characters simply from progressing through the game. Therefore, you can either play the levels over and over ad nauseam, or you can turn to Item World. In Item World, Laharl and company enter the inner landscapes of the various items in their real world. They can go inside a sword, a piece of armor, even a pack of gum.
Each item in Item World has up to 100 procedurally generated levels. There you can level up both your characters and your items, making them more powerful. For added variety or challenge, you can also combine the “residents” (a.k.a. the monsters) of the different items to form a new creation. Trust me when I say, when playing Disgaea, the vast majority of your time will be spent in Item World.
How does one judge the visuals in a remaster of a PS2 game? Some aspects (such as the character sprites) are shiny and new, while others (like the textures and landscapes) still look like they’re trapped in 2003. Is this a shortcut or an homage? A lazy time saver or a conscious decision to stay true to the game’s origins? It’s difficult to say. Some aspects of the game’s older visuals stick out like a sore thumb, like how Laharl doesn’t so much walk as float through the halls of his castle. Yet the transitions between chapters contain completely untouched classic scenes, and it’s a charming bit of history.
Where do we draw the line? What is bad because it was left untouched and what is good for the same reason? I don’t have a concrete answer. All I know is that some I liked and some I didn’t. If it feels like an arbitrary conclusion, that’s probably because it is.
Hit play on the video above, and let’s discuss the music of Disgaea. If you ask me whether I enjoy it, the answer is, “It depends.” Due to the grinding nature of the game, you will naturally hear many, many repetitions of the same pieces, whether you’re redoing the main levels or attempting an endurance run in Item World. I’m only human, and I can only handle listening to the same thing for a finite amount of time before it starts to make me question my sanity. That’s when I turn to the mute button.
However, outside of the game, I love Disgaea’s OST. Played for reasonable periods of time, the music is playful, and some tracks demonstrate elements of jazz, swing, and opera. It fits the tone and the characters perfectly. I realize it’s asking way too much for a game with zillions of hours of content to have unique music for each of those hours, but neither can I be blamed for hitting my limit with the music that is there, enjoyable as it may be.
As for the voice acting, it’s well-done and fits the characters perfectly. It’s silly and sometimes over the top, so if that’s not your thing, you’ve been warned.
I’ve explained the gist of the gameplay above, and if you want a detailed exploration of strategy within the game, plenty of content like that exists elsewhere online. Instead, I’m going to discuss why I feel the gameplay is where Disgaea most acutely shows its age.
In general, Disgaea does a masterful job of executing its main purpose: providing a framework for strategy battles. However, it is lacking in a few key quality of life areas that I think are forgivable in the 2003 game but are sorely missing in the 2018 remaster. For example, there is no easy way to compare two pieces of equipment side by side. Instead, trying figure out the difference between two swords or two pieces of armor is a complicated dance of switching between menus (and a bit of guesswork).
Aside from basic melee attacks, characters have clever animations that accompany their actions. These are fun and an absolutely necessary part of experiencing the game. However, when there’s a large number of characters on the board, watching the attack animations for every single one of them means you often have to wait a long time between turns. I don’t want to switch the animations completely off (which is an option); I just want a way to have them not add five minutes of downtime between every turn.
But the 100% most annoying aspect of the game is that stupid camera. As you navigate your cursor around the board, the camera follows you. This seems normal, except when you realize that it’s not at a fixed height. If the terrain of the board goes up, like on a hill, the camera goes up. If the terrain goes down, the camera goes down. And because the cursor movement is fast, the overall effect is of the camera jerking every which way and making you feel like you’re inside a plastic ball that someone is shaking up and down.
Things get even worse when you accidentally drop your cursor off the board. Yes, for whatever reason, the board is actually only a small part of the space available for you to move the cursor, and when you move it off the board, it basically disappears. It still exists, but you can’t see it, which sometimes makes it hard to figure out where it is so that you can move it back onto the board and continue your game.
I love the story and characters in Disgaea. The narrative has a silly atmosphere and a mischievous tone, but things are much more clever than your run-of-the-mill cartoon experience. For example, at one point in the game, a character breaks the fourth wall to tell the player not to forget him because he won’t appear in the game again for a while.
As another example, the very first boss in the game is a demon named Vyers. After Laharl taunts Vyers by saying he is only a “Mid-Boss,” that becomes his name everywhere in the game. When he speaks, when you hover your cursor over him–everywhere he is known as Mid-Boss. I never stopped laughing over it.
All this humor and light-heartedness does not mean that the game lacks any substance, however. There are several very touching moments of character growth, especially at the end of the game. Overall, the story of Disgaea is a great time, and I can absolutely see why it inspired both a manga and anime.
Despite the ready availability of tutorials and instruction manuals almost at every turn, starting a Disgaea game for the first time is an overwhelming experience. There is just so much detail in everything–menus and stats and items and strategies and even a committee that you somehow have to win over to your side by a combination of force and bribery.
Once you get eventually get the hang of operations, the gameplay presents its own challenge. You’ll quickly notice that instead of gradually ramping up the obstacles, the game doles out huge difficulty jumps and steep learning curves. Things will be cruising along, and you may breeze through two, three, or even four boards, but then your progress will be impeded by a brick wall of a level that is basically impossible.
I suppose this is the game’s way of hinting that you’ve been away from Item World for too long (and it’s time you did some leveling up), but it’s hard not to feel that the difficulty is unfair at times.
To judge replayability, one has to assume that you will finish the game in the first place, and that in and of itself might be a tall order. But assuming you do, there are four regular endings (good, normal, and two bad ones) plus four secret endings. Beating the game also unlocks Etna mode (where you replay the game from Etna’s perspective), and this mode has two possible endings.
In case trying to get all the different endings isn’t enough for you, thanks to Item World, you can create an endless series of challenges for yourself. And thanks to the Dark Assembly (where you can create new characters), you can craft yourself a different army for each one. It’s no wonder some people are still on their first playthrough of this 15 year old game.
Disgaea is by no means the first or even the biggest name in the tactical RPG genre. But whereas so many RPGs can be quite serious, dramatic affairs, Disgaea is just here to have a good time. It has won over fans with its unique story, characters, and tone. In addition, this game does one thing (strategy battles), and it does it very well. It’s a tactical RPG for the purists.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
So it’s the moment of truth, and I’m forced to admit that Disgaea 1 Complete is simultaneously too much and not enough for me. I like tactical RPGs, but I am not so in love with strategy battles that I’m happy to sit there and do nothing else. Likewise, some aspects that initially seemed to be fun, such as the character creation, turned out to be a double-edged sword because that new character is utterly useless until you level them up. Every new character created begins the grinding cycle anew.
I can absolutely appreciate that Disgaea is a giant of the tactical RPG genre and a superb game for what it is. But as I already said, it’s a niche game for a niche type of gamer, and it turns out I don’t fall in that niche.
P.S. Thank you so much to NIS America for providing a free copy of the game in exchange for an honest review!
Aggregated Score: 7.8
The Blue Moon Mage, aka Blue Williams, is a nerd of many layers: games/anime/film/books/dogs/coffee/seriously so much coffee. You can find her on Twitter at @wrytersview or at her other writing locales: The Loot Gaming, GamerheadsPodcast, The Gamer, Hot Cars, and wrytersview.com.
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Categories: Game Review