Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Nippon Ichi Soft.
Release Date: September 23, 2008
Back in 2003, a publisher named Atlus released a game called Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. While the strategy genre was beginning to grow obese with sub-par titles that all wanted the underground success of Final Fantasy Tactics, Atlus crept onto the scene unnoticed with a title where you weren't fighting evil; you were the evil one, and you were — at least initially — fighting for very little more than your own empowerment. Moreover, where Square's strategic masterpiece was deadly serious throughout its entirety, Disgaea brought something to the genre that had been woefully missing up to that point: a sense of humor. Five years later, NIS has opted to bring the first game in the short series to the DS, and it's all that a fan could want.
From the beginning of Disgaea DS, the story line is hardly your standard fare. You're the demon prince Laharl, and you've decided to take a nice little snooze to regain the energy you need to torture lost souls or whatever it is that demon princes do, when you're awoken by gunshots and stabbings and such. Etna, your father's retainer, has been trying to awaken you with instruments of mass destruction (or so she claims) and give you some bad news. Your nap has run long … two years long, to be specific. In the interim, your father has kicked the bucket and gone to wherever it is that demon kings go when they die, and the entire realm has fallen into chaos without its late king. Without a moment's pause to grieve (let's remember, you are evil), you set about the task of reclaiming your kingdom through the oldest and most sacred of methods: overwhelming force!
Fans of strategy games will instantly recognize some elements of gameplay, but many features have been added to Disgaea DS that take it well beyond the standard fare. True, you'll have an overhead view of the battle, and you'll deploy units, but that's really where the similarities end. To really do the innovation justice, we need to resort to a list format.
- Units spawn from a fixed point on the map and can be deployed at will; you choose how many units and which ones are included in a battle. Enemy monsters can even be thrown into the square from which your army spawns, if you see fit to try to defeat and recruit them.
- There is no "geography," per se. You teleport from the castle, which acts as a central healing/purchasing/training hub, to various instances that can be repeated on command. This means that there won't be any endless trekking from one side of the map to the other, getting into meaningless random combats.
- Items have statistics, attributes that help to vary them from case to case; the shop might carry 10 amulets, but they'll all be slightly different. Some can even be improved by fighting in the "item world," a randomized area accessible from the castle. You will even level up as a customer as you perform more transactions, unlocking even more content as you continue through the game.
- Different characters will have different levels of skill with items; your cleric will stink with a sword (though he can use it), but your warrior will use it with skill and panache. Anyone can use any weapon, but matching the right one with the right class can mean the difference between defeat and victory.
- Maps are often checkered with color panels, which may have effects on them ranging from enemy boosts or speed boosts to extra experience points. Those boosts are decided by tiny pyramids scattered throughout the board, giving their abilities to squares that share a color with the one on which they rest. Attack and destroy them, or benefit from their powers ? strategic choices abound.
- Depending on the relationship between two characters, they may perform a joint attack on a targeted character if they're standing next to one another; imagine having Laharl take a swipe at an enemy, only to have Etna and one of your Prinnies (cute little penguin warriors) join in and lend some extra damage completely free of charge!
These are just a few of the different and welcome additions to the landscape of Disgaea DS, variations that add endless replayability. You will find yourself playing through scenarios again and again just to see what you could have done differently, improving all of the items to see what they can become, recruiting new and interesting characters, and just pushing through the story line so that you can discover the next tidbit of comical dialogue.
While the gameplay mechanics are central to any game like this, it's just numbers on a page without the graphical and audio elements that give it the personality and engaging presentation that it needs to stand out among its peers, and Disgaea DS is no slouch in that regard. Despite the portable medium, not a single character is blocky or difficult to look at, and even the still scenes during which dialogue takes place are sufficiently well-illustrated so that the player never wants for a more animated cast. Whether or not you think this is a good thing, the cheesy voices from the dialogue have been ported over with surprising clarity; not a single voice seems scratchy, and characters like Etna maintain that snide sneer throughout the duration of the game. Sound effects are engaging, and there truly is very little in this world that is more entertaining than hearing your penguin allies shout "Prinny, Dood!" as they assault your foes.
This really, truly is Disgaea, stripped of its stationary roots and shoved onto a tiny cartridge without missing a step. Everything about this title will appeal to the gamer who's been intrigued by the strategy genre, but been too put off by how dire and dramatic it can be. While the depth of gameplay is nearly endless, enough of the content is purely optional that anyone from an absolute neophyte to a seasoned master can pick it up and get everything that they want. Countless hours of gameplay, moments that will make you laugh out loud, and a spotless port of what could have been the best strategy game ever made (if Final Fantasy Tactics had never existed) make Disgaea DS a must-buy for just about anyone who owns a Nintendo DS or faces the prospect of getting one for the upcoming holiday season.
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