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Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (PlayStation 2) artwork

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (PlayStation 2) review

"At a glance, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness looks like your standard strategy RPG: turn-based battles on a grid, a variety of weapons and classes, a small amount of customization. But from the first time you meet the main character, you know that you’re in for a very unusual trip. "

At a glance, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness looks like your standard strategy RPG: turn-based battles on a grid, a variety of weapons and classes, a small amount of customization. But from the first time you meet the main character, you know that you’re in for a very unusual trip.

Laharl is the prepubescent son of King Krichevskoy, the late Overlord of the Netherworld. Arrogant and cruel, his behavior is typical of a demon: totally self-serving. He’ll steal, lie, and cheat without the slightest hesitation to serve his nefarious ends, which are currently vanquishing all other claimants to the throne and seizing his father’s position.

Right. There will be no saving the world here.

With his questionably loyal vassal Etna, a flippant but devilish girl scarcely any older than him, he begins his quest. Enter Flonne, an adorable but naïve angel trainee from the Netherworld’s heavenly equivalent, Celestia, sent to assassinate Krichevskoy. But it’s not her nature to judge others without first knowing them, so she can’t help but question what she’s always been told about demons: that they are pure, unadulterated evil, no exceptions. So, when she discovers that the Overlord is already dead, she decides to stay in the Netherworld to discover whether demons really are incapable of love – the ultimate force in the universe as far as she’s concerned.

Thus begins the tale of our three intrepid (anti-)heroes. Sound cheesy? Well, it is, and we’re not talking a little here and there – but it’s deliberate and self-aware. Flonne’s fixation on the power of love! is so great that Laharl, fed up with her attempts to get him to realize the love she claims is in his heart, dubs her “you damn Love Freak” and for a long time refuses to call her anything else. Even the special effects contribute to the overall ridiculousness; occasionally enemy heroes give speeches about justice and whatnot, striking poses as gyrating beams of light emanate from behind them. There’s even the odd competition between rival groups of heroes with regards to who can produce the biggest lights.

All the same, Disgaea isn’t very ambitious in the graphical department, but CGIs with photorealistic models would be seriously out of place. Disgaea uses a series of beautiful anime stills of the characters displaying various emotions during the story sequences that precede every map, almost all of which are voice-acted flawlessly. The voice actors are perfectly suited to the characters they represent; Flonne is high-pitched, nauseatingly cutesy, and overenthusiastic, while Laharl is a snotty kid with a lot of bravado. Although Etna’s voice actor does try a little too hard in the last few episodes, the VAs overwhelmingly nail the characters’ quirks and peculiarities.

And there are a lot. Laharl’s evil laugh is unsurpassed in all the Netherworld; while he might look like a thirteen-year-old, his wrath is to be feared! He actually names a mid-boss Mid-Boss and calls him that for the rest of the game, and once he raids the castle of some random rich guy because he’s too cheap to pay his vassals’ salaries out of his allowance. But his secret weakness is women with sexy bodies – and not in the usual way that men are weak to sexy women. The mere sight of cleavage makes him scream and run away. Flonne goes starry-eyed whenever enemy heroes show up with their flashy effects and tries to convince Etna and Laharl to join in as she strikes her own poses, proclaiming herself the Defender of Love. But Etna’s next episode previews take the cake: instead of having anything to do with what’s going on in the game, they’re deluded fantasies in which she stars, be they culinary deathmatches with mysterious ninja cooks or Flonne becoming a berserk killing machine and morphing into a space monster.

But despite Disgaea’s predominant funniness, it can be serious, too. The characters are deep, and they evolve over the course of the story. Laharl’s antipathy towards love isn’t entirely due to his demonic heritage, as unresolved past conflicts have skewed his perception on the subject. While he acts tough, he can be at least a little kind even if he explains it away with cynical reasoning, and it’s cute when he gets embarrassed when people try to point it out. Flonne’s dedication to her cause and the people she cares about is unwavering, but she doesn’t let her faith in them prevent her from asking difficult questions. Even Etna, who is the epitome of the cynical demon, wants to see Laharl live up to the legacy of his father’s wise, just rule and pushes him towards that end in her own way. The characters that enter the story later are similarly juxtaposed, usually funny but every one of them with his or her touching moment in the spotlight. You end up genuinely caring about all of them. And all of their growth to a climax as the game reaches its thrilling, emotional finale.

And then the credits roll – but you’ve only scratched the surface of the game.

There’s an almost unlimited amount of optional stuff to do in Disgaea. It’s a powerleveler’s dream: the maximum level is 9999 while the final boss is level 90, and while getting there can be a chore, the progress you make along the way really feels like an accomplishment. With the proper setup, you might gain a couple dozen levels per twenty-second battle, and the result is striking. You start out doing tens of damage at level one, but eventually there are so many digits that the game starts measuring damage by the millions. Disgaea’s power scale is so vast that even a little leveling makes a big difference in whatever you’re trying to do at the moment, but the higher echelons of optional bosses become no less out of your reach.

But even more important than levels are weapons. You can increase the strength of your equipment by entering the Item World, a randomly generated dungeon (and a damn good one) found inside every item. The deeper you delve, the more the item’s stats increase. The floors look like an insane child’s playground: a hodgepodge of jutting cliffs and plateaus randomly protruding from the floor, all covered in a messy patchwork of brightly colored squares that have different effects like damaging or healing anyone standing on them when the turn ends, randomly warping characters to somewhere else on the field, or even invincibility. One level you might be fighting on snow-encrusted battlements, the next in a forest of concrete pillars, the one after that in a park complete with trees, tall tufts of grass, and fragments of cobbled pathways. Scattered throughout the chaos are flavor items like barrels, fences, and larger-than-life replicas of the item itself.

But if you venture too deep into the most powerful items, the monsters may become too much for you to handle, so it’s better to level up first. To help with this, whenever the enemies don’t give enough experience or don’t pose enough of a challenge, you can pay a visit to the Dark Assembly, the Netherworld’s legislative body. You can propose a variety of bills that affect the game in different ways, such as making enemies stronger (or weaker), putting better items in the store, or unlocking bonus dungeons. You can give the senators “gifts” to make them more amenable to your proposals, and if they still don’t pass your bills, you can persuade them to change their minds with some good, old-fashioned asskicking. After all, what else would you expect from the Netherworld?

All in all, there’s something about Disgaea that compels people to spend hundreds of hours immersed in it, leveling up characters and items for the next optional boss and occasionally playing through on another new game plus simply to remember how wonderful an experience it is. While the gameplay is nothing revolutionary, it’s simple and addictive; the plot is touching, the characters adorable. It’s lighthearted and cute, occasionally grave, always brilliant. Disgaea has character. It has that special something that keeps drawing people back, because it’s just too loveable not to adore.

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Featured community review by viridian_moon (July 06, 2006)

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