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Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (PlayStation 2) artwork

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (PlayStation 2) review

"Disgaea belongs firmly in the first camp of superior tactical roleplaying games, although it should be noted that it’s hanging by its fingernails off the edge of the cliff. The requisite tactical gameplay needs some tweaks, but this is balanced by the charm that the characters of Disgaea possess."

The list of immersive games that manage to combine tactical strategies with roleplaying elements is a small one. At the top of that list lurks Final Fantasy Tactics, one of the genre’s few that successfully combines statistical formulas and a macabre storyline without the feeling of overbearing complexity. Ogre Battle 64 also possesses this distinction, trading better gameplay mechanics for slightly less character development, despite being released to a minimal audience for a dying system.

Failure is a common trait in games of this genre because of their attempts to mix many divergent styles. Creating too many factors for the player to control can create a frustrating experience as twenty different statistics must be constantly juggled - See the original Ogre Battle and any game by Koei as an example. Alternatively, taking away the statistical freedom in games such as Vagrant Story leaves the player wanting more.

Disgaea belongs firmly in the first camp of superior tactical roleplaying games, although it should be noted that it’s hanging by its fingernails off the edge of the cliff. The requisite tactical gameplay needs some tweaks, but this is balanced by the charm that the characters of Disgaea possess.

In Disgaea, the action is presented from the perspective of a teenage demon named Laharl. After being awoken from his four year slumber by his vassal Etna, Laharl is told that he is the new Overlord of the Netherworld, due to the death of his father while he slept. The Netherworld is a demonic planet where the universe’s demons live, as opposed to the land of angels, Celestia, and the human-inhabited Earth.

However, not everyone is thrilled with Laharl’s ascendance to the throne. He must resist assassination attempts from those who desire his crown and defend the Netherworld from interstellar invaders. During his quest, Laharl meets the obligatory group of characters who attempt to temper his fiery disposition, such as Flonne the angel trainee and Gordon, the defender of Earth.

Disgaea does an excellent job of developing the characters present. Major characters, especially Laharl, go through long maturation processes, but the mood is kept light with the humor in every story sequence. Each episode provides insight to a character’s motives or personality. The only qualm is that certain characters are shifted to the backburner by story’s end. Their development is not evenly dispersed over the long journey.

Voice acting is the key to each character’s development. A distinctive tone is present for each character, which immediately isolates them from one another. The verbal shifts and tenses allow for a range of communication that text alone can not. This is one of the things that Disgaea does well that other games in the genre lack.

To display your characters, Disgaea uses the tactical roleplaying game staple of a three dimensional overhead camera which shows an overall “board.” Two dimensional characters move around on this board, along with enemies, using magic and physical attacks to vanquish their foes. Movement and attacking range is limited by the class and equipment of the character chosen.

And boy, there sure are a lot of classes and equipment to noodle around with in Disgaea. Story characters such as Laharl are limited to their original class, but the characters they create at the Dark Assembly can morph into hundreds of other classes. These classes vary, from fire wielding mages to gun toting aerial scouts to samurai warriors.

That’s not the end of it either. Once you kill a monster, you can create it in the same fashion that you would as a human class. Don’t feel like spending time to level up a new character? No problem! If an enemy is weak enough, you can capture it by throwing it into your base. Of course, if you’re too ambitious, it will slaughter every character lurking within, but hey... No risk, no rewards!

Disgaea could easily be overwhelming with so many classes, but experimentation is encouraged through the ability to transmigrate. By transmigration, characters are reset to level one in a new class, but they inherit part of the statistics and abilities they formerly possessed. The rate of inheritance is determined by how many enemies they have killed; the more enemies, the higher the rate, up to 95% of the original class. Transmigration is unlimited, and allows for ridiculously powerful characters.

You will need transmigration and ridiculously powerful characters to muscle your way through Disgaea. It eschews traditional level limits, allowing members of your party and enemies to level up to 9999. Individual statistics such as hit points and strength can stretch to five million in each respective category.

Every piece of equipment you receive also has levels to be gained. Gaining levels in a piece of equipment can turn even the weakest sword into a formidable weapon. In addition, equipment contains stat-enhancing “specialists” which can be transferred from item to item once they have been liberated from the Item World.

Ah, yes, there’s the catch - To level up an item, you have to venture through the Item World. The Item World is a one hundred level dungeon with enemies on every level. An enemy’s strength is proportional to the initial strength of the item involved and the current level of the item. Weaker items contain weaker enemies while stronger items contain stronger enemies. You can only exit the Item World after every tenth floor, or by using an item known as Mr. Gentry’s Exit.

Oh, there’s one last leveling area to discuss. An individual’s skill with a specific piece of equipment, whether it be a staff or gun or sword, can also gain levels. This also extends to spells and special abilities granted by the piece of equipment. For example, the blade rush skill granted by a sword class weapon can only be gained after a level three proficiency in the sword skill, and then that blade rush skill can be further leveled up by usage, allowing for more power.

To sum up: Every single character, piece of equipment, and individual ability can be leveled up to mythical proportions. Every. Single. One.

Most of this absurdity is unnecessary until the bonus dungeons, which are available late in the game. Thankfully, you are not required to clear these to win the game. Assuming a few transmigrations to more powerful classes, Disgaea can be beaten once your levels reach the sixties.

Notice that the word “easily” did not appear anywhere in the preceding paragraph? Disgaea spices up the difficulty by peppering levels with area effects known as geo panels. These panels make areas of the board turn different colors with special statistics added. Some are beneficial (Experience +50%, Attack +50%) but most provide triple power bonuses or invincibility to enemies. Before you can even make a dent in the enemy, you must often rearrange the cubes that give these panels their power.

And how do you rearrange these cubes? Why, by lifting and throwing them on to other panels! Disgaea also allows you to throw party members around, expanding the range that characters can move to. Throwing is a vital skill, and often times it is the only way to reach an enemy or cube that absolutely positively must be disabled.

Disgaea intentionally stacks the deck against your characters. The previously mentioned cubes are often in far flung places, sequestered or surrounded by enemies. The enemies themselves are no slouches, as they will actively hunt and attack the weakest characters on the map. This is a stark change from other games which feature enemy attack patterns with little rhyme or reason.

Of course, enemies tend to be humorous, making them in line with the main characters. Drooling zombies hungry for brains, the appropriately named Mid-Boss, and exploding penguins provide character to your foes. Thankfully, the same care that went into developing your main characters also appeals to the evil villains, as their motives are always elaborated upon.

Need more playability features and options? No problem. There’s the Dark Assembly to play around with. The Dark Assembly is basically the administrative center of the Netherworld, and houses senators who will grant you powers. Well, if you bribe them with goods, that is. The Dark Assembly allows you to pass many different proposals, ranging from increasing the goods available in stores to opening up secret dungeons.

The gameplay and immense statistics involved in Disgaea help to distinguish it from the pack of tactical roleplaying games, but unfortunately, it can also lead to a tedious feeling at times. Leveling is needed at certain points in the game and it can be an agonizing process of venturing deep into item worlds for their specialists. The hours it takes to level up characters and equipment can lead to detachment from the main story arc.

This process takes so much time due to the infuriating lack of an option to turn off spell and attack animations. This is a feature present in other games with prominent leveling, since you see the same animations over and over again. Unfortunately, you’re forced to sit through thirty second spell sequences each and every time you chose to cast them.

At least they’re pretty animations though. High level spells summon forth immense gods of ice and thunder to strike with elemental fury. Characters are presented in simple solid colors. Compared to most games, Disgaea looks simple, but this is important in a game and in a genre where complexity dominates all other aspects.

Disgaea tries its best to make sure that you’ll never run out of things to fiddle and tweak. Numerous bonus dungeons are available, along with multiple endings based on how you treat your allies. With the nature of the statistics in Disgaea, the simple quest of finding the weapon to end all weapons is an undertaking of itself that can consume a gamer. It took me about a hundred hours to beat just the main quest.

The tactical roleplaying game genre is one that is normally lacking in choice. This makes it imperative that you play Disgaea, if you only have a small interest in the genre. The memorable characters and distinct gameplay more than makes up for the quibbles you might have with repetitive animations and leveling.

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Staff review by Stephen Greenwell (May 24, 2004)

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