Review by The Limpopo Pixie
The “Earthworm Jim” of Strategy RPGs
~ Exploding penguin creatures, over the top special effects, story dripping in delightful inanity, crazy techs, team attacks, item worlds, a main character with a phobia of sexy ladies, and Saturday morning cartoon satire. That and so much more describes the atmosphere of this game. Indeed, I highly doubt this will be quite like any role playing game like you have played before hand. Sure, it isn’t a new genre, but the odd ball aesthetics, the satirical atmosphere that pervades over a good portion of the game, and the remaining margin for a fairly good challenge make Disgaea an especially unparagoned title. It is comparable to how Earthworm Jim was. It was something very odd in feel and manner for the action platformer. Disgaea is like that but it is also so much more. While EWJ was different, it really didn’t do anything new for the genre in gameplay; it was more of a contrast in style and mood. Disgaea does the same for the Strategy RPG and then throws in multiple innovational features and extras, easily making it a great game. Now, I will attempt to cease showering this excellent game with aggrandizing praise and give it as much criticism as can be done.
~ First off, we will examine the game’s weak point: the graphics. Granted, they aren’t awful, but the basic character sprites just really aren’t dazzling. They are a bit fuzzy around the edges and tend to look smudged if a character gets really close to the screen. They just aren’t as smooth and sharp as other 2D RPGs. Heck, the PSone could probably do just as good a job, if not better given proper circumstances. A few sprites have constant animation, like Laharl’s scarf that is always blowing in the wind… even when you are in caves. Some of the monster sprites are very well done and crisp looking, actually, but at the aggregate the humanoid sprites could have been done a bit better.
Another point of complaint is the scenes in between levels (intros and outros). While you can choose to skip intros, you can’t skip outros. This gets annoying on the multiple plays through that you may make and you just don’t want to deal with the story any more. I can’t really complain, though, as most of the story is well done and the humor will help along the way; though I can understand how some would tire of the repetition of certain jokes. These scenes also feature detailed character drawings and backgrounds and are slid in and out, and will change to different emotions for the characters as they move along. Don’t get me wrong, they are excellent. It’s just not perfection. These scenes could have been a lot more fun if they were animated. In retrospect of having beaten the game, though, along with seeing as how almost every level has them it would have taken up a lot of space. As such it is forgivable. As a final note for the characters: if you like anime, the art style used on the characters ought to appeal to you.
The level stages and scenery are rather jaggy in some stages early in the game, but they tend to improve as you move along through the game. Most of the areas are very colorful and vibrant, often featuring surrealist vegetation and eccentric architecture. The ice caverns in particular have a great touch of delicacy in the shining floor patterns and the transparent stalagmites that crop up around corners and edges. The lava stages, however, tended to bear a feeling of lacking. These were among some of the less interesting stages and generally felt flat and uninteresting, even if the shaping of the terrain suggested otherwise. There needed to be more contrast here; the streams of magma could have been brighter and the obsidian bedrock could have been darker. It’s not awful, it simply struck me as easily being improved if only for a few minor adjustments.
The crowning point of the graphics would have to be the special techniques. These are often insane, brilliant, and extremely explosive. Even the specials at the beginning of the game can be very flashy and interesting to behold. The animations in their execution are smooth despite the smudged sprites, and all the colors of blasts, beams, flashes, and the like are vivid eye candy. Some of the character specific specials are quite amusing as well, and help to add variety to the barrage of luminance displayed by them.
~ Then, we come to sound. The music in this game is great; it has a cartoony feel to it in many areas. None of it is especially memorable, but at the same time you won’t have that annoying tune stuck in your head for the rest of the day/week/month. Good enough to be enjoyable but not enough to make you addicted. In areas like the ice caverns, the music adjusts very much to suit both the atmosphere and the path by which the story takes; giving a soothing, almost numbing touch to the general mood presented. It is hard and driven where it needs to be, and flippant and silly when applicable. The end battle music is especially fitting to the environment and situation, though I shall not say anything in regards to that for it would be a crime to spoil the game in this review. The special feature song by Tsunami Bomb is also excellent. Granted, if you hate the punk genre you will not like it but there is no denying that it very much fits the prevalent mood of the game. Look up the lyrics sometime and you will understand why.
Sound effects are nothing short of spectacular. There is tons of variance in just how different explosions and rings given off by the special techniques sound. Whines, hums, stomps, bashes, and smashes are all crisp sounding; some of them even have a deal of realism associated with them. At least as close to realism as you can get in a game like this. I have absolutely nothing to complain about here.
Voice acting is also exceptional. This is a very, very good thing when you take into account all the spoken dialogue in the game. Each voice fits the character well, and each VA sounds like they put actual effort into capturing the essence of the character. Etna, Laharl, Mid-Boss, and Captain Gordon are amongst the best. Though Captain Gordon may actually come off as sounding moronic and with a false sense of grandiose, though, it must be realized that he is supposed to sound that way. He is a point of satire and we get clear implications of that even from the manner in which he speaks. These are truly some of the best English VAs I’ve heard in any video game. The only real complaint can fall on Flonne who often comes across as whiny and preachy, but guess what? It’s because she is very whiny and preachy. This isn’t a fault of the VAs, folks, this is the characters being presented in the exact manner that they ought to be. As an added bonus, the Japanese VAs are included as well and they too reek of excellence.
As a final note, there are even a few background music tracks that change when you switch to Japanese VAs. These are just as good if not better than a few of the tracks they replace in the process. I encourage everyone to play through the game all the way with both Japanese and English VAs because they are so well presented and help to give the game a different feel the next time around. It adds to variability and enjoyment, which is what the option to switch between the two ought to be instead of having one that is blatantly superior. Disgaea’s sound is clearly a cut above the average.
~ What’s the story? Well, guess it is crunch time. Is Disgaea really for you or not?
Alright, bub. If you’re looking for a story of FFT’s caliber in this game then I implore you to give up now and look else where. You think FFX-2 is made to be a light hearted and less serious RPG? Who are you kidding? The exuberance and sheer lunacy of this game blows the competition away, but only if you are into the unusual and the unique.
The story starts out with you, Laharl, prince of the netherworld. You wake up from a mysteriously long two year nap to discover that your old man has kicked the bucket in your absence and anarchy in general has set in. Much competition for the throne exists and there are a good few that would like to claim it for themselves. Well, you aren’t about to let that happen, now are you? Thus it starts out as your task to amass an army to bash the foul nobles back who threaten your grasp at authority and establish your place at the throne. You start out with the sarcastic, sassy, and flat chested demoness retainer Etna to assist you. A troop of prinnies, the odd penguin like creatures that shout “DOOD!”, wield machetes, and explode when thrown are dragged into the affair by Etna, and from there you take over. The story doesn’t stay consistent on this plot thread, but will weave in and out of various mini plots that all fit together in the end. The first eight episodes of the game are basically a hodge-podge of adventures that build up the development of the main characters and the “true” plot if there is any starts there after.
Despite the extensive use of parody and the overpowering goofiness that emanates from this game, it does carry a message in it. And it delivers it quite well once you complete the game, might I add. Not only that, but there is more to the story than just what you find along the beaten path of the story stages. Even the side stages that you may unlock have a few things to offer, though they aren’t anywhere near as important or filling as the main game by any degree.
~ We now shall examine the pinnacle of the game. That being the engrossing gameplay and options you bear at your disposal. There is simply a lot to do in this game, and so many bases to cover that this section may very well seem like it is rambling and I may even miss something, but please bear with me.
The basic mechanics of the game function much like a set turn based version of FFT. You move your characters around on the level map and choose actions as are applicable to your situation and distance to enemies. However, your enemies cannot act at all until you have moved around up to ten units to any location within their movement range and select commands for them to perform if you so choose to have them do anything. Then once you can’t do anymore, you choose to end your turn and then your enemies have the ability to do the same.
Different from FFT, however, is the number of options available on the field. When correctly aligned with your allies you may perform team attacks employing normal strikes. Sadly, this team attack gets dated by about half way through the game and you will simply find it more efficient to employ the use of weapon specials. All the same time, though, they are rather amusing to watch and make an interesting and innovative touch to the game. You can cast a variety of magic, the range of which depending on your staff mastery and by how often you use those spells. The more you use a spell, the more usage levels it gains and the greater range it has. Geo symbols also can dot the terrain, making it hazardous to step on certain areas and also beneficial to stand on others. This adds yet another aspect to strategy and difficulty, and can either assist you tremendously or contribute to your destruction.
Each weapon class has its own set of specials, which you can learn based on the level of mastery you gain by using that weapon often. You can equip any weapon you want to a humanoid, but your aptitudes in mastering certain weapons hinders the ability to be able to gain mastery levels through use of the weapon. For instance, if you have an A rank in mastery for swords as opposed to a C rank in guns, you ought to opt for the sword. Sure, you can use the gun if you wish, but you’ll be able to learn techniques more quickly with the sword and gain greater potential at a much swifter rate. In this manner, Disgaea allows for a lot of freedom and customizability yet at the same time is able to divide characters into classes and make each one useful in a certain way.
Another rather unique feature to Disgaea is the item worlds. Each item can be “entered”, sending you to a bizarre series of environments hidden within the item. You can find enemies to fight here, defeat specialists, and level up your items as well. When leveling up armor or weapons you easily get nice boosts to the stats they increase and in many cases you can go well beyond the item’s former capabilities. Specialists are special characters that live in items and can add stat bonuses, defenses, status protection/application, and so much more. When slain they pretty much double in effectiveness and can be moved to other items as well. Each item can only hold a set number of specialists, however, so you best be careful in choosing which go where. You can also combine specialists of the same type so as to make more space, assuming you don’t have really strong maxed out specialists. That more or less gives you the general idea of that.
Next up there is the dark assembly, where you must go in order to pass bills that will increase the quality of the equipment you can purchase, open side areas, make enemies stronger, create new characters, transmigrate, and a few others. This extra feature helps to really boost the customizability of the game, allowing you to create as many characters as you want given that you have the proper resources (I think there is actually a limit, but it is somewhere in the hundreds so you don’t really need to worry about it) and even make the game harder by pumping up enemy levels. You’ll also need to employ use of this feature if you hope to get superior weaponry and open side areas. Problem is, the assembly can be kind of stingy with letting bills pass. So how do you go around that? Well, bribe them of course! There is even a certain art to selecting the proper senators to bribe given that if you bribe any random bunch of the senators you may still not get your bills passed. Or, if you are high enough in level you can choose to “persuade by force”. This addition to the game not only adds another element of interest and innovation but also adds to the humor and general mood through my explanation of the system’s workings.
So, does the gameplay bare any flaws at all? Yes it does. It can take quite a long time to pull together some of the better set ups and formations to use, and even then you might choose to send everyone back to the base and start over. It can be rather time consuming to have to go through all the options, then change things around at the last minute before execution. Some also complain about the lack of free movement, seeing as how you can never explore any area outside of the castle unless in battle. This seems like a supercilious point to me, however, as this is a strategy RPG first and foremost so freedom of exploration shouldn’t really come to be expected. For instance, in FFT there is no singular place you can walk around. You merely move around on the map following the predetermined pathways between towns and occasionally unlock new roads when it is necessary to the plot. That’s it. The focus is in the battling, so I don’t view the lack of world exploration to be important.
If there is any flaw, it is within the enemy AI. The AI has a tendency to do many stupid things, and it also goes in order of the list of enemies rather than selecting who to cast spells on before moving. Often times the computer will select to cast heal on one of their allies, but since the ally is higher on the list they will move before the spell is executed and completely miss it. Heck, half the time those healers only heal themselves and leave the strong muscles on their side to survive on their HP alone. It also seems that enemies chose spells to use randomly as opposed to trying to exploit your elemental weaknesses, and other such procedures that are quite simple to attend to.
All in all, the system works very well, has an incredible degree of variance and flexibility, and most importantly it is fun to use. If anything it can be a bit time absorbing to go through all the motions and the AI is quite dim witted at times, but aside from that there is absolutely nothing to complain about.
~ Is there anymore this game could possibly do? Oh, much more. Even though story mode is a quest in and of itself, you don’t really need to get any higher than level 80 to finish it. The fact remains, however, that you can become much stronger in Disgaea. Hideously so. To the point of reaching level 9,999. No, that is not an exaggeration. You can also easily get hit points, special points, and all other stats into the millions to create deific characters of omega doom. The side areas also feature enemies of astounding levels, especially if you opt to pass even a few “stronger enemies” bills. These side areas demand a lot of hard work and leveling up in order for you to even compete due to the sheer increases in stats and power that go from level to level. If you like simple RPGs that don’t demand too much of you, please stick to story mode.
While the side areas are challenging, fun, and interesting in the same regard as the rest of the game, it really only appeals to a certain kind of gamer. If you prefer to just stick to the story and enjoy a challenge, but not one that will demand you to spend hours and hours working on just one character in order to prepare for that tough side boss, then be wary. These extra areas are truly for only the most hardcore gamers who must take it upon themselves to see every scene in the game and attempt to do everything possible. Though due to the loads of options you have in this game (making that objective never possible to obtain) if you aren’t that kind of person I would recommend against ever trying to unlock the side areas. You’ll just be frustrated with how much the game demands of you at that point.
~~~ In conclusion, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is a phenomenal game. Despite the sometimes rudimentary graphics and design the sounds are splendid, the story is amusing on many levels, and the gameplay will strip you of your free time and inevitably pull you in. I recommend this game to anyone who enjoys RPGs, and to folks with bizarre senses of humor such as myself. However, please keep in mind that the side areas take a lot of work. Perhaps too much work. Do not fret, however, as the story mode can stand for itself and the game is still amazing without the side areas. It’s just for those of us who have more of a leaning towards insanity and have developed an addiction to this magnificent piece of work. Something of this ilk doesn’t come too often and it is important to stop and distinguish it as such. If you can find it, buy it. Simple as that.
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
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