Review by Syonyx

Reviewed: 09/06/05

Think you're hardcore? This is the game for you.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness looks on the surface to be a fun, cartoonish, straightforward strategy game. Well, the first two are true, but straightforward? This game contains a level of depth previously unseen in a fantasy-based strategy-RPG. This should not be intimidating to newcomers to the genre, however, since the learning curve is smooth, and the core game can be completed without venturing too far into the many side features available.

Taking place in the Netherworld (read: Hell, though it’s actually a planet in space. Who knew?), you take command of the son of the now-deceased Overlord as he battles to become the new supreme ruler himself. Of course, if that were all there were to the story, it wouldn’t be very interesting. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that the storyline goes places you could never imagine, taking lots of bizarre twists that weave an interesting, endearing tale involving the fate of the whole universe. The story unfolds through cut-scenes between battles. Dialogue is accompanied by full-screen still drawings of the conversing characters, with several different shots for each character depicting their various emotions, with almost full voice-over dialogue. This presentation style is odd (to North American audiences at least), but after the first couple of chapters you’ll love it. It’s a surprisingly effective way to communicate the characters’ emotions, and some of the images are downright hilarious. They definitely complement the rest of the game’s visual style, which consists of very anime half-pint sized characters.

As a strategy-RPG, playing Disgaea primarily involves positioning your units (characters) on a grid-mapped terrain and executing various attacks against your opponents, using a strictly turn-based attack system (i.e. you input all of your attacks and execute them, then the enemy gets to make all of its attacks, then it’s your turn again, etc.). Some previous games that might provide a point of reference include Vandal Hearts, Final Fantasy Tactics, or the Front Mission series, though that last is more sci-fi than fantasy. Sounds pretty simple, right? But then you throw in Geo Panels, throwing characters around, team attacks, multiple weapon types and elemental magic, terrain height effects, and a combo counter, and things get increasingly interesting. On top of these in-battle features, there is also tons of stuff to do outside of the story-based battles. I could easily go into exhaustive detail on each of these, but I’ll save that for the FAQs and just highlight some of the essentials.

One of the optional areas of the game is the Item World. Essentially, you can enter into a dimension contained within each and every item in the game (of which there are limitless quantities), and go through a series of stages to power up that item, while also gaining experience points for your fighters. However, you often will pick up a better item in the same class as the one you were powering up, tempting you to start all over again and boost the new item, so going through the Item World can be redundant at times, at least until you’ve come across the more powerful items, weapons and armor in each class. To beat the optional mega bosses late in the game, enhancing your equipment in this way will become a necessity.

Another interesting feature is the Dark Assembly, kind of like the Senate of hell, where you try to pass various types of motions, to enhance character abilities, make new items available for sale, unlock side areas to battle in, and other stuff. Now, it’s not easy to get the things you want, but you can improve your chances by bribing the Senators with items to get them on your side. If, after a vote, your motion was not passed, you can also choose to fight the opposing senators. If you win, the motion passes. The mechanics of this feature, however, make it so that you’ll almost always have to fight to get what you want, and it’ll take some time until you’re strong enough to face down a large group of Senators bent on your destruction. So this feature, like the Item World, doesn’t fully come into play until late in the game.

On top of the story characters, you’ll need to create a number of fighters to support you, and these become essential to building up your characters. Each time a character creates another, that character becomes the first one’s pupil, and the master gets an increase in his/her stats whenever the pupil levels up. To further enhance your created characters’ abilities, once they kill enough enemies they can ‘transmigrate’ into a different character class. Though they re-start at level 1, their base statistics are greater, translating into significantly greater statistics as they reach high levels. This game mechanic isn’t really intuitive or explained well within the game, but it becomes essential to gaining enough power to take on the supreme mega bosses in the game’s optional areas. Lacking this knowledge, it can end up taking you a heck of a lot more time to become strong enough to handle to worst that the game has to throw at you.

That’s the end of my complaints, which really aren’t all that serious. These minor issues are heavily offset by the positives that the game offers. These include excellent voice acting (with the option of hearing them in either English or Japanese), wonderful variety and challenge in the design of the battle stages, captivating musical score, humorous storyline, incredible spell/attack effects (some of which are just mind-blowing as you gain the highest abilities in each weapon or magic element), excellent character design, and many more. Overall, however, the best feature of the game is how it respects the gamer and makes the experience of playing Disgaea as pleasant as possible. This is achieved by having all of the game areas (story, Item World, Dark Assembly, shopping, healing) all in the same immediate area, removing all wandering around as is typical of most RPGs. Additionally, load times are incredibly short, all opening screens on loading the disc are skippable (i.e. you don’t have to watch all the companies’ logos if you don’t want to). Basically, the game creators (Nippon Ichi) put in the effort to craft a game that’s entirely enjoyable throughout, by gamers for gamers.

It’s a good thing that the game experience is so positive, since you’ll be playing an awful lot of Disgaea . The main storyline takes 70-100 hours to complete the first time through. Working up to clear the several optional areas and face down some of the most powerful mega-bosses ever can easily take you another 200+ hours. So if you’re a gamer on a budget, Disgaea makes a wonderful investment. With more than half a dozen endings, too, you’ll want to keep on playing for months, assuming you enjoy the game at all. And really, what’s not to like? Okay, so anime-esque demon -child comedy-drama isn’t for everyone, but if you’re not into fantasy settings in your games, you would have no reason to even be reading this far.

Overall, Disgaea provides a deep, immersive, thoroughly enjoyable and exhaustive strategy-RPG that will take you places you never would have expected. Sporting what looks like a cartoonish visual style, the graphics are quite well-developed, and magic and attack effects are out of this world. The music is captivating and suited to the action, and the voice acting is beyond superb. Attention to quality permeates the game from start to finish. As the first of a series of similar games, Nippon Ichi have proven themselves to be a boon to gamers everywhere.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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