Review by JPeeples

Reviewed: 09/12/03

Best. Strategy RPG. Ever.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is one of the most unique strategy RPGs I have ever played. Unlike most, the game doesn’t take itself seriously all the time, and injects quite a bit of humor into the mix. This is certainly a refreshing change of pace from most strategy RPGs, which tend to only use humor sparingly. On top of that, Disgaea sets new ground for graphical quality in strategy RPGs with its’ lush colors and rich animation. Voice acting is another unique feature in this game, I can’t think of another strategy RPG that uses it, and I can’t think of many games that use it as well as Disgaea does. Another little Disgaea innovation for strategy RPGs is the ability to explore an area, you are no longer are you limited to just going across a world map, which is nice.

Disgaea tells the tale of Prince Laharl, the son of King Krichevskoy, who has been asleep for two years. Unfortunately for him, he slept through his father’s death, and finds out through his vassal, Etna, that his father’s kingdom, the Neverworld, has been taken over. It is his job to right this wrong and become king.

On top of adding some new features to the aesthetics of the genre, Disgaea also introduces some new wrinkles in the gameplay as well. One key innovation lies in being able to throw your human allies and enemies around the battlefield. This feature enables you to add another layer of strategy to the game as you can throw your allies near your foes that are out of range so they can deal out damage they otherwise wouldn‘t be able to, or you can throw enemies around like rag dolls to prevent taking damage in a turn. These are just two scenarios you can implement, as throwing is quite a versatile tool. You can also throw around the geo symbols that appear during battle, which adds yet another layer to the game’s battling system. Speaking of the geo symbols…

They act as environmental equalizers during a battle. They appear as colored pyramids on the battlefield, which each color signifying an element. When one is destroyed, the power of the symbols is unleashed, and all those it the path of the released power can, and will be harmed. Damage will vary depending on what element is unleashed and what element type your foes and allies are affected by. Geo symbols can give you a huge advantage at the start of a battle, so use them well when you can.

Disgaea’s battles are yet another thing that set it apart from the pack. Unlike most strategy RPGs, which move along in a very slow, deliberate pace, Disgaea’s battles have a brisk pace to them. Actions occur quickly, and no time is really wasted during a battle. The strategy elements in the game are also a bit more diverse than what you might be used to in a strategy RPG. Unlike most of them, you aren’t tethered to a character after moving them around the battlefield. You can move a character, and then go right on to another character and command him/her. After that, you can go back and select an action for a character, such as using an attack. You are also free to move from character to character after selecting an attack, or an item, or any kind of normal activity in a strategy RPG that would normally force you to stay with that character until the end of its’ turn. This diversity in battle helps things move along quickly, as you have quite a bit of freedom to do what you want in a battle. This degree of freedom is something I would like to see again, as it adds quite a bit to the game and adds more pure fun to the genre as well. Plus, it doesn’t come at the expense of depth during battles, so you can use most, if not all of your regular strategies in a strategy RPG, only faster.

Aside from what Disgaea brings to the table for the genre, the game succeeds with the usual stables of strategy RPGs. Unit placement is easy to do and can be done in a flash thanks to the quick pace of the game. Leveling up is handled well, with the added bonus of being able to level up your items and weapons in the game. The inclusion of a balanced, progressive job/class system is something I enjoy as well. I’ve found job/class systems to be an essential component to any strategy RPG, as they let the player really put a personal touch on the characters in the game by letting them build their fighters from the ground up. The system in Disgaea is one of the most unique since you can choose to start your character all over again from scratch, only when they start, they will be able to progress through the classes and jobs faster, which is a nice touch. You can either stay your course, or start again and maybe improve your fighter. It’s a very deep system that really lets you sink your teeth into it.

The only issue I take with the game’s battling lies in the somewhat loose controls used to navigate your characters around the battlefields. The controls for this don’t seem all that responsive, which is certainly disappointing considering that other control elements, like getting around menus and changing the camera position during battles are very responsive.

Graphically, Disgaea is easily the most beautiful strategy RPG I have ever played. Does it make great use of the PS2’s hardware? No, it doesn’t need to. The game is visually striking without any extraneous bells and whistles, and I applaud it for that. The anime-ish art style is done wonderfully, with changing animations during a conversation to show off the emotions being displayed by the characters. Even the character designs are all fantastic, which came as a shock to me since most strategy RPGs have pretty generic character designs. On top of that, there is a low occurrence of repeating sprites used, which is certainly a welcome departure from most strategy RPGs, which tend to overuse them.

The sound in the game is a mixed bag to be sure. While the music is far from bad, it isn’t all that memorable. No songs in the game really stand out, and the music is just kind of “there.” It does enhance the mood for battles though, so that’s one upside to it. The voice acting is where the game’s sound really shines. The voice actors do a great job at getting across the personalities of the characters, and they have great delivery with the humor in the game as well. Beyond that, the sound effects are done nicely, especially for attacks, thanks to rich, full sound effects being used for them. They really help get across the damage done by the attacks.

Disgaea packs in a lot more replay value than most strategy RPGs thanks to its innovative class/job system, and the humor, which is done so well in the opening dialogue between Laharl and Etna that it’s worth restarting the game over a number of times to see. The banter between them is hilarious, and showcases the off-the-wall humor of the game perfectly. The class/job system will have you experimenting for eons, it’s just that deep. There are so many ways you can use it that it seems nearly impossible to grasp at first. However, once you get the hang of it, you will have to force yourself to put the controller down.

In the end, Disgaea is a finely-tuned strategy RPG that brings quite a bit to the table. It succeeds far more often than it fails, and stands as a testament to innovation in the genre. The game’s comedic qualities really set it apart from the rest of the pack, as does the brisk fighting pace. The voice acting is some of the best I’ve ever heard in an RPG, and by default, is the best in a strategy RPG as well. The only real qualm I have with the game lies in the loose controls on the battlefield, and even that isn’t too bad, since you can learn to compensate for them during the course of the game. If you’re looking for a strategy RPG, and are tired of the methodical pace in most of the other ones on the market, give Disgaea a shot.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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