Disgaea: Hour of Darkness
Developer: Nippon Ichi
Release Date: August 27, 2003
Buy 'DISGAEA: Hour of Darkness': PlayStation 2
King Krichevskoy, the lord of the Netherworld, is dead. For the last two years, open war has raged between the demons, who’re trying to both knock off their rivals and consolidate their own power to make a bid for the throne.
In the palace, Laharl, the Prince of the Netherworld, wakes up from a “short nap” that—oops—lasted two years. When he finds out what’s going on, he immediately decides that he needs to show the warring demons just who’s supposed to be in charge around here. He gathers up his army—which initially consists of a single vassal with an agenda of her own, and the three bumbling penguin warriors she was able to hire—and sets out to retake the Netherworld.
That’s the introduction to the story of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, another quirky PS2 title from Atlus, the same house that brought us Tsugunai and the Persona games. It’s as funny as it sounds, but the layer of comedy shouldn’t fool you; Disgaea is a turn-based strategy game for either true masters of the genre, or for those with a near-infinite store of patience.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the graphics are solidly retro. Disgaea sacrifices most of the industry-standard polygonal graphics for the hand-drawn art and animated sprites of yesteryear; it kind of looks like a next-gen version of Koei’s Saiyuki on PSOne, combining 3D polygon backgrounds with 2D character art. It has a simple, cartoony look to it, that works quite well with the overblown caricatures that form most of the cast.
This, incidentally, is one of the few occasions where the phrase “overblown caricature” isn’t an insult. Laharl is the ultimate bratty teenager, who sets out to beat the entirety of the Netherworld into submission because it’s his, dammit, and Etna is his long-suffering minder and vassal. Flonne, an angelic assassin who’s the chief antagonist of the second chapter, is cute and playful, even when she’s talking about murdering Laharl in his sleep. Each of the major characters comes equipped with a talented voice actor; Etna’s, in particular, has dynamite delivery.
In actual gameplay, the PS2 can handle the sprites and flare effects without slowdown, or really any load times to speak of. Disgaea moves fast, plays faster, and actually gives you the option of skipping the game’s story. (Of course, the game’s story is adequately translated, deliberately funny, and well-written, so you probably won’t want to skip it unless you’re restarting from a save. Still, it’d be nice if more games gave you this option.)
The problem here is that Disgaea’s graphics, sound, and story make me want to love this game. I really, honestly do. But unfortunately, I’ve played it.
The good news comes first: you can get into Disgaea almost immediately. It’s got a dynamite tutorial, and the controls are quite intuitive for anyone who’s so much as touched turn-based strategy. It has its share of quirks, such as the ability to pick up and throw other members of your army, and the existence of Geo-Tiles.
The Geo-Tiles are probably the single most strategically important part of the game. By placing, or destroying, Geo-Squares that litter a given battlefield, your characters can use corresponding colored tiles to their advantage. Anyone standing on a Geo-Tile can benefit from the powers of a Geo-Square, which can provide anything from stat multiplication to extra experience points. Quite a few battles will be won or lost based on who controls the relevant Geo-Tiles.
Your army’s also quite customizable. Your characters generate Mana through defeating enemies in combat, and you can spend Mana at the Demon Assembly to create new characters. While you can only field nine soldiers at a time, this allows you an astonishing amount of control over tactics and troop specialization. If you want your entire army to be made up of axe-wielding sluggers, you can do that; if you need the sluggers to have an equivalent corps of spellcasting mages, you can do that too. The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but you’ve still got more innate flexibility in Disgaea than in almost any other strategy game I’ve ever played.
Okay, so maybe I’m wrong here. I’ve just described a game that’s got a well-thought-out combat system with decent execution. The only real omission from the combat engine is the ability to rotate the battlefield up or down, so you can see the field from above; there are a lot of maps where that would’ve come in handy.
The real problem is that Disgaea, for all my talk of troop control, deliberate comedy, and cute little bouncing sprites, is difficult. It is, further, not exactly a fair kind of difficult.
Your characters level up very slowly in Disgaea, particularly since the only way to gain XP is to strike the final blow against an opponent. If your archer’s been pelting a monster with arrows since the fight started, and your brawler comes along to do that last one HP of damage to finish it off, the brawler gets all the XP. The result is that your front-rank warriors tend to get all the experience, while your support crew lags well behind.
While it’s possible to replay missions and selectively level your characters up, it’s arguably a design flaw that in order for all of my characters to be roughly the same level, I have to go through the same levels over and over again.
It’s doubly irritating that even if I do sit through a few replays in order to power up my entire army, I will still occasionally run into a storyline battle that tears my army apart like a chicken wing. The last mission in any chapter will generally be stacked against you, owing to either powerful monsters or the other side having control of all the best Geo-Tiles.
For example, the end of the first chapter features a wind mage and an archer sitting on two red Geo-Tiles that do something like quintuple their Attack and Defense. Regardless of your level, a single attack from either of those characters will kill any member of your army in one hit. To win, you must sacrifice at least two characters so someone can sneak around to the side and destroy the archer and wind mage’s Geo-Squares. Then, and only then, can you hope to take on the high-level mid-boss (no, literally; Laharl renames him “Mid-Boss”) that’s waiting behind them.
The end of the second chapter involves a small battalion of monsters, each of which will use its “Hell Pepper” attack almost exclusively. Hell Pepper hits up to three members of your army for amazing amounts of damage and leaves them poisoned; several exposures to this will kill half of your characters in the first round. Victory involves doing something that you’re not supposed to ever do in turn-based strategy games: split your characters up, so Hell Peppers only hit one of them at a time, and whittle the enemy down one by one.
Obviously, both of these battles, and the harder ones that wait after it, aren’t impossible, and certainly aren’t monstrously unfair. They do seem like challenges that’re more suited to characters of higher levels than yours, however.
I would suggest, for any of Nippon Ichi’s future games in the strategy genre, that it incorporate an idea from Shining Force III: everything is worth XP. Casting a healing spell on another member of your army, or a successful attack, can earn you points, although not quite as much as defeating an opponent. A better idea might be to scale experience gains to the character’s class; a healer, for example, shouldn’t be expected to stick his neck out into a pitched battle just for the sake of earning another level. He should be able to earn just as much experience patching up the army as a soldier does by killing off monsters.
My end point is this: Disgaea is a great strategy game by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not meant for anyone but the hardcore. If you’ve been wanting a serious challenge, then here you are; you’re taken care of. More casual fans will probably be put off—and rightly so—by the difficulty of level-building, and the level of tactics that’re required to win.
That said, I love Nippon Ichi forever, because they gave me what amounts to Lunar Tactics, and despite Disgaea’s habit of beating my punk ass every chance it gets, I still enjoy the game a great deal. If you’re looking to get it, you’ll probably like it, as long as you know what you’re in for.