"In short, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is the sequel that might have happened if Square weren't developing for the Game Boy Advance at the time. Then again, it may not have. You see, the game has all kinds of personality that we haven't seen from Square in, well... forever."
I have this theory that any company will eventually produce a masterpiece, given enough resources and the right developers, armed with just the right idea at just the right time. For Square it was arguably Final Fantasy VII, the game that has done more to define that company than any other. For Quest, it was Ogre Battle. And for Nippon Ichi Software, apparently, that game is Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. A brilliant masterpiece in every sense of the word, the title is the kind of game that should put the relatively unknown developer on the map for a long time to come. Simply put, you must play this game if you have even the slightest interest in the strategy role-playing genre.
If you've ever played Final Fantasy Tactics on the Playstation, you should have a good idea of what to expect. The two games are quite similar in basic execution. However, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is a monumental evolution. Where Final Fantasy Tactics gave the player two choices of orange marmalade, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness asks a person to choose from a whole rack of jams and jellies. In short, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is the sequel that might have happened if Square weren't developing for the Game Boy Advance at the time. Then again, it may not have. You see, the game has all kinds of personality that we haven't seen from Square in, well... forever.
I'll start with the story, since the plot here is one of the freshest I've seen in a role-playing game since I first picked up the NES controller and led four light warriors to a showdown with Chaos. The hero in Disgaea: Hour of Darkness might well be described as the perfect anti-hero. He's a demon, in fact, one who has woken from a two-year nap to find that his father, the Overlord, has died. With a position of such power waiting to be claimed, trouble has erupted throughout the Netherworld. Laharl, the Prince, decides that the vacated position is rightfully his, and so begins his quest to reclaim that.
What makes everything work so flawlessly is the cast and the sense of humor they bring with them. The cast is colorful and varied, from Etna the personal vassal, to Flonne the angel trainee, to a dashing hero from Earth, Captain Gordon. With masterful strokes, Nippon Ichi paints a beautiful canvas and sets the player on a path to splash even more color on it. Most characters have multiple dimensions. In the rare case where one doesn't, he or she will eventually develop one.
Development plays a major role as the plot progresses. It has to. This is because the story starts out simple in nature, but soon evolves into one every bit as epic as anything you've seen from Square. Humans, demons, and angels will all become embroiled in a tale of treachery and ambition. The tale unfolds in an episodic nature that somehow adds to the excitement. One episode might involve a plan to ransack a rich demon's house and another might tell the story of a galactic war. The two elements might seem unrelated at a glance, but play long enough and everything starts to intertwine in a truly satisfying manner.
Though the writing is a large factor of what makes everything work so well, another thing Disgaea: Hour of Darkness has working in its favor is flawlessly-executed voice acting. Never have I heard a group of actors more suited to the task, and I find it impossible to imagine anyone else doing the job more appropriately. There's not a weak spot in the lot of them. If Flonne's chipper voice gets on your nerves from time to time, it's because it is supposed to. If Captain Gordon sounds thicker than pea soup, well, he should. And Laharl is best of all, displaying a wide range of emotions without stumbling over a single line. There's an insane amount of voice acting on this disc. Not every line of dialogue is spoken, and I found myself disappointed whenever I came to the few lines that weren't.
Another element that helps plot and characters along is the artwork. Nippon Ichi created several different frames for each cast member, and they accompany the voicing perfectly. Though I don't have a count of the number of frames for any one character, I imagine there are at least ten for each. They are done so well that they almost appear animated as a given character changes from one emotion to the next. The detail is terrific. Try not to laugh as Vyse appears stunned by the new name Laharl gives him.
If I've rambled on a bit long about the story, characters, and their presentation, please forgive me. I just feel that they all add so much to the basic game that lies underneath. But by now you must be thinking that it's time to stop looking at all the delicious icing and cut right to the cake. And so I will.
As I've said, anyone who has played Final Fantasy Tactics will have a good idea of what to expect. A typical stage involves a bit of story (there's hardly a level that doesn't advance the plot in one obvious way or another), then the actual battle. Once again, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness pulls out the personality card and plays it for all it's worth.
When a battle begins, you might feel like you're looking diagonally at a board game. This isometric view allows you to determine depth, and to get a good idea of just where every enemy is in relation to your base panel, from which you will be drawing your characters. Not sure you're seeing every enemy on the field? The press of a button allows you to rotate the view so that you can see everything more clearly. Generally, the number of enemies you'll face on a single map numbers between about 8 and 12, though there are some maps where you may face as many as 20 assailants. Fortunately, your crew is not restricted to 5 or 6 like in some games. Instead, you may choose a total of 10 people from your roster and send them out as they are needed.
So, suppose a fight begins in a stage. You're in the middle of a snow-covered field, and there are a bunch of zombies nearby. It's not quite safe to bring out your mages just yet; they'd be slaughtered because of their low defense. So you bring out Laharl and your dragon, and have them trounce those nearby foes. Then you end your turn and the monsters go. Some distant ones move a little closer, but not within striking range just yet. When your next turn comes, you pull out a mage and have him cast a fire spell. It totally fries a zombie. You notice that Laharl's health is a little low, so you pull out your cleric and have her heal him. Throughout any of your moves, you can input all your commands to execute them all in one string, or if you prefer you can make one move at a time so you can plan accordingly based on whether or not an attack took out one enemy and it is time to move onto the next one.
The system works very, very smoothly. Fortunately, Nippon Ichi was not content to stop with just that innovation, however. They made another change that adds immeasurable depth to the picture: Geo Symbols.
The Geo Symbol is a prism that rests on the field. Laid across the field are glowing, semi-transparent strips of varying colors. These are called Geo Panels. If you place a Geo Symbol on a panel of a certain color, it will affect all panels of that corresponding color with its effect. For example, one symbol might cause the attack power of all enemies to triple, while another might increase your defense by 50% or something similar. Using these effects to your advantage can change the tide of battle. Of course, the symbols can also work against you. Many stages use them as a means of providing a puzzle of one sort or another. In later stages, disabling one that works against you may be necessary before you'll stand a chance against your foes. Another strategy involves setting off combo chains. When you set the symbols properly, you can destroy one, which in turn destroys another, and on down the line. You will be awarded bonuses based on your ability to set off the chains, which can also damage your enemies. The system is so intuitive, so unexpected. At first, I was sure I would hate it, but I grew to love it.
I also grew to love other innovations. One of these is the Assembly. Basically, this is a group of demon senators with power over what actions you can take. When you fight battles, each of your active characters gains mana points. These are used to make requests of the Assembly. You can use it to make new characters, for example, or to improve your character's movement. The Assembly may or may not approve your request. When you ask them for something, they will line up on benches and vote for or against you. Many will be inclined to vote against you, but some bribery (in the form of items gained) can turn the tides. To access hidden arenas, you'll have to do quite a bit of bribing. You'll learn to recognize some senators, to hate those that vote against you, to love those that have been won over to your side. Or you might just decide to overwhelm the lot of them with force, though this is typically a very bad idea.
I mentioned character creation. As stated previously, this requires mana. Making a low-level character doesn't require approval by the Assembly. When you create a character, it has several levels, which affect how powerful it can become. You'll have to spend more mana to make a distinguished cleric than a good-for-nothing one, and the more powerful characters do require approval. As you progress through the game and meet new enemies, as well as increase the levels of those characters you have already created, new classes automatically become available. There are somewhere around 100 classes in total. Though they aren't as varied in nature as you might hope, it's always exciting to see that a new type of character can now be added to your roster.
With new characters, of course, comes the need to buy new weapons and equipment. New items are always a good buy. The game provides a large number to choose from, and each class is particularly suited for one type or another. Yet again, though, innovation comes into play.
In one of the odder moves the developers made, they chose to create what the game calls the Item World. This is a special way of increasing your item's level. Any item you find starts at level 0, with a set of stats. If you venture into the item world, you can increase that level to 30, and with each level comes a boost to the stats. The Item World is just an extended dungeon. Each floor represents a level, and the monsters get tougher and tougher as you descend further into the abyss. Along the way, you'll find 'residents' of this world. They create large boosts to statistics. Once you subdue one, you can then move him or her to another item. Any one item can only hold so many residents.
In this way, the game does a lot to extend its length. Building up the levels of your weapons and armor is truly rewarding, so you might well spend a few hours on a single item without even realizing it. Not only that, but your characters themselves can be leveled up beyond belief. Though you won't have to level up to even 100 to beat the game, you can in fact go far beyond that. Some enemies you meet will be at level 400 or more. And yes, your characters can get that high. The game in fact rewards this, with multiple endings. Even after you beat the game, you find you've gone through only one 'cycle.' You can keep going with your stats, playing through your favorite scenes all over again, accessing new stages with more powerful monsters. Somehow, it remains engaging even after the closing credits.
The system is truly wonderful, and I'm afraid I've done a botched job describing it. But that's just the thing: there are so many wonderful things about Disgaea: Hour of Darkness that no single review can do the whole game justice without sounding like an instruction manual. Does that mean the game makes no sense, that it will take ten hours just to figure out how everything works? No, it doesn't. Amazingly, you'll be familiar with just about everything after only an hour or two of play. My wife, who had never played a strategy RPG before, was at home with all the elements within a single hour. Everything is that intuitive.
There are elements I've not touched on, little things you can only appreciate after you've played the game for a while. I won't go into those. Instead, let me close with the same thought I voiced when beginning this review: you must play this game if you have even the slightest interest in the strategy role-playing genre. I mean that.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (October 18, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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