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Disgaea: Hour of Darkness
System: PlayStation 2 :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1
Genre: RPG :: Released: 25 August 2003

By Morphine Jim
It almost looked like Europe wasn't gonna receive Disgaea: Hour Of Darkness. Having read the hype from Japanese and American gamers enamoured with this title, I could only sit back, fixed in the knowledge that nobody would try and sell this game to the uncultured peasants of Europe. Luckily, Koei has plenty of experience with releasing quality games that nobody buys and as such, took it upon themselves to release a PAL Disgaea on developer Nippon Ichi's behalf. Good old Koei, us crook-toothed, tea drinking, football hooliganising, Queen worshipping plebeians don't deserve your favour.

I mean, it's not like even a quarter of this country's gamers would even begin to appreciate something this in depth, humble and quirky. We balk at the mere mention of something slightly clever. Luckily, there are those open to this kinda thing, people like myself who are clearly superior to all other beings and should be worshipped as the gods that they are. Gods. That they are. Yeah, the first review of this I did was far better before my floppy disc screwed up.

Disgaea tells the story of a Demon Prince called Laharl. The Overlord of the Netherworld, King Krichevskoy, has been dead for two years and his son, the aforementioned Laharl, has been asleep the whole time. With the position of Overlord left vacant, every demon with an army and an ambition has prepared to take the throne for his own. Laharl, having recently been woken up by his vassal Etna, decides to summon up an army of his own and reclaim the throne that is rightfully his.

The story and general style of Disgaea is very lighthearted and odd, telling the story of an arrogant demon and his adventures across the Netherworld, taking into account angels from Celestia and humans from Earth who bumble along for the ride. A great deal of emphasis is placed on humour, which, while missing as frequently as it hits, has the occasional laugh out loud moment. In fact, their Power Ranger spoof is one of the very few times a videogame has actually has me in hysterics. Believe me, the Prism Rangers introduction is one of the most perfect examples of parody you'll find. It's packed with in-jokes and self reference with a distinctly Japanese flavour. This is very much an anime game, but it takes enough potshots at itself that I find it should appeal to anybody, not just Japanimation fans. All the characters are pretty enjoyable, from the obligatory effeminate narcissistic demon Vyers (who gets renamed Mid-Boss by Laharl for more self referential giggles) to the lovable Prinnies who insist on talking like helium-sucking surfers and saying dood every other word.

But enough of all that, story and characters are the potatoes and little bits of parsley that garnish the meal of gaming. What about the beef, dammit. The gameplay is in the increasingly enjoyable genre of tactical RPG and at first glance is similar to such titles as Final Fantasy Tactics and even Advance Wars, but is far deeper and more engaging. Battles pit your army against an enemy force of monsters scattered about an isometric map. Somewhere on that map, usually one of the edges, is the base panel. You summon up to ten of your fighters from this panel, one at a time and then partake in a little of the ol' turn based warfare, attacking, counterattacking and hitting blinding special moves. The map is grid based, with each character capable of covering differing distances depending on what they are. The standard formula of summoning, moving and attacking is very easy to grasp from the get go. It's through the simplicity though that Disgaea manages to weave its intricate web of complications. Awareness of your allied positions and the map itself can lead to giving you the upper hand in battle. For a start, positioning allied characters next to each other allows you to hit combos, in which everyone gets a turn hitting the enemy. This is useful for sharing experience points gained in the defeat of enemies and adding a little more bite to your attacks.

You also have to be aware of heights and distances in battle. Sometimes, the map will be split into different islands, or have steep risen platforms on which an enemy remains seated in total cowardice. Luckily, you can get an ally next to another and then lift him up, before throwing him in a straight line across the map. You can also lift enemies, which is useful for hurling them into your base panel and, with a little luck, capturing them to serve you in your army. Surely, this isn't complex enough for you yet. Let's talk Geo Panels...

Geo Panals are flashing squares on the battlefield that often bestow various bonuses or penalties on whoever steps on them. Things like Attack +50% or Damage +20%. These panels get these bonuses from Geo Symbols which are little pyramids that give each panel of the same colour an attribute when sat on one of them. For example, if the Attack +50% symbol is on a blue Geo Panel, all blue panels on the map will have that attribute. What could be simpler? Well, let's make it complicated. You can destroy these symbols by attacking them and, when you destroy one, it causes other panels to explode, doing damage to whatever's standing on them (and turns those panels whatever colour the symbol happens to be). It also destroys other symbols that happen to be sat on the same colour, which in turn explode and change the colours of panels. Now, there are these symbols that have no colour of their own and are called Null symbols. When this is destroyed, it also destroys every panel of the same colour that it's sat on. The key to this is to strategically move symbols onto different coloured panels so that each symbol gets destroyed one after another, eventually turning every panel on the map one colour and ending with the destruction of the Null symbol, clearing the lot. It's incredibly satisfying when it works, but it's equally pleasing if you just get a chain of symbols destroyed and rack up a good combo, which all lead to tasty prizes at the end of it all.

During battle, you have a Bonus Gauge which is filled up when you do damage to the enemy. The more damage you do, the more the gauge is filled, so naturally combos and high powered attacks are the key to success. Getting combos from Geo Symbols is the biggest way of filling the gauge up, though. Once the gauge is filled, it resets itself to be filled again. The key is to keep refilling this gauge in order to gain extra stuff at the end of the level.

Okay, that's the strategy part covered, onto the RPG quota of the title. Simply put, Disgaea's RPG elements are on crack-cocaine. Levelling-up is of the essence here, and it's all over the damn place. See, in Disgaea, everything needs leveling up. You have your character's basic level for starters. Anyone who's played an RPG knows of this. Your character starts at Level One weak as piss and through the defeat of enemies, he gains experience points, leveling-up after collecting a certain amount of these points. You usually reach a limit of Level 99, which, by that point, signifies that you are a badass. Yeah, in Disgaea you reach your peak at level 9999. That's not just for Laharl either. Every character has the potential to reach that stage, it just depends on how much you value sleep and friends. It's not just the base level that can be built up, oh no. For humanoid characters, their experience with a weapon needs to be leveled up. Each different type of humanoid has a different proficiency with different weapons, which determines how quickly their weapon experience levels up. For example, a Warrior learns skills from wielding axes pretty fast, but takes forever to gain experience with a gun. It's best to just give each character a chosen class of weapon, rather than giving them lots of different ones to get a balanced fighter.

Right, once your little pawns have learnt skills, it's the turn of those skills themselves to level up. Yep, the more you use a special attack, the more experience it earns and thus levels up independently from your base level and special attack level. I can tell that really isn't enough for you. How about this then? You can level up every single weapon and item in the game, from a small piece of candy to the mightiest sword. And it's time-consuming as all hell.

See, every item has within itself a little world with it's own monsters. Only through entering the Item World and defeating these monsters can you improve your items. The Item World is presented as a series of randomly generated battlefields that play like any other, except for a few differences. Firstly, each item has special, neutral monsters called specialists. Defeating them is the key to getting the most out of weapons and items, as once one is brought under your control, it adds to the attributes of whatever item it inhabits. You can also move specialists from item to item, so if you go into a particular Item World and defeat a specialist who raises the attack of any weapon it inhabits, you have an instant attack boost that can, like I just proclaimed, boost the attack power of any weapon you desire. Being neutral though, it's often a race to kill the specialist before the enemy does. Unless you have a special item called Mr. Gency's Exit, you cannot exit an Item World unless you complete 10 of these random stages, where you can then exit and continue where you left off at a later date. Clearing a stage levels-up an item by one, and with each level-up, the monsters contained within get harder and harder to defeat, meaning only a true steel-balls set of characters can get the strongest items leveled up to their full potential. Though the Item World is a neat idea, it's just too time consuming for anyone but the most hardcore gamer to bother with. Item World levels are generally choc-full of annoying Geo-Panels and islands that you just can't get to, even by throwing. Each stage has a portal that lets you descend a floor and skip the current one, but there's nothing more soul destroying than killing half the enemy, then realizing that stuck on a little pillar, miles away, is some Zombie, forcing you to abandon your efforts. This can get very frustrating, especially the islands that are touching the one you're on, but is set diagonally, stopping you from throwing your allies over there. I've gone into the Item World so many times, only to abandon it and go play something else.

Therein lies my biggest problem with Disgaea it really is too much. The leveling up to such extremes is cool and all, but with so much to do, you'll have experience points flying out of your arse and still have some left over to feed an obese elephant with, yet still you won't have even scratched the iceberg's tip. Plus, with a story as addictive as Disgaea's, you won't want to hang around painstakingly leveling-up your characters. It's a lot of effort to make breakthroughs in this game. Still, with so much to do, you can't argue value for money, provided you're prepared to put the hours in.

When you're not fighting, you'll most probably be wanting to check out the Dark Assembly. The Dark Assembly is the Netherworld's beaurocracy, and it's through them that you do all the important management for your army, providing you have the Mana. You get Mana points quite simply by killing enemies. Every character can collect Mana, and every character can summon the Dark Assembly. The main use of this is to create new characters. You can create various humanoid characters, more appearing when you fulfill certain un-named objectives in the game, plus you can create any monster you've defeated in the game thus far. The amount of Mana needed for each character depends on how many of them you've defeated, plus you can spend Mana to determine how good the overall warrior is. A Good-For-Nothing character will have statistical disadvantages over a Distinguished or Genius character. If you ever create a Good-For-Nothing (which is likely), you can always use the Assembly to Transmigrate. This brings the character's level back down to one, but you can then build them up with the statistical advantages of a more adept class. Yeah... I hate screwing characters over without realizing it, too.

You can also take part in a Promotion Exam. These exams pit the current summoner of an Assembly against a small group of monsters. If the character defeats them, they pass the exam and move up in rank. This gives them more influence over the Assembly and unlocks more special bonuses that can be wangled out of the Senators, provided of course, that they pass the vote.

You can vote on a variety of things, more of which are unlocked the higher up in rank you go. Starting out with basics, such as More Expensive Stuff, where you can get access to more powerful items from the shop, or Improve Movement, in which the character can obviously move a lot more on the map, you can also get some more interesting ideas past, such as unlocking the gates to Prinny Land, or tripling your experience points for the next battle. Only thing is, getting the Senators to do what you'd like takes time and work. They're usually more than happy to reject an idea without a second thought, but you could always give the more influential Senators some choice items to make them think better of you. If influence and bribing fails, you could always persuade them by force so long as your army is strong enough to take on Level 70+ monsters.

The beauty of the game though, is in how simple it's complications are. Yeah, all of the above is big and at first impressions, intimidating, yet you manage to slide into it so easily. It's surprisingly accessible if you give it a chance. Even the Geo-Symbols are elementary in theory, once you sit down and think logically. There's a user-friendliness to the deep gameplay like I've never seen, and is all part of what makes Disgaea so playable.

If you've read any review of Disgaea before though, you'll know the one thing that gets mentioned above all else, and that's the graphics. Yes, they are easily PlayStation 1 era, and yes, there are no movies either all the plot is revealed with unanimated stills of characters that zip onto the in-game screen. That said, the stills are very nice looking, detailed pictures that retain the anime flavour that Nippon Ichi are going for. The game graphics, however, are just not PlayStation 2 graphics. The characters look and move about the battlefield like they came straight out of the first Grandia, with the maps being nicely detailed, if somewhat simplistic islands floating against a plain background. The special attack animations, however, are very nice to look at and serve as an interesting contrast to the devolved graphics on offer. Anyone with the feel for a quality game get over this with ease, however. After all, if the budget went on making things look great, would Disgaea be as big as it is? Whether Nippon Ichi thought the quasi-retro look of the game would appeal to seasoned gamers, or whether they simply thought, with a flair of arrogance, that their game is simply great no matter what it looks like doesn't matter the fact is, it looks how it looks and it's something you should just get used to if you want to experience the goodness. Either way, it's better looking than the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms series, and that's doing just fine for itself.

Soundwise, things are better. The music is quirky, ranging from jumpy Japanesey tunes to more downplayed and ambient pieces that seem to have come right out of a Tim Burton movie. It never gets in the way, just humming to itself in the background, and there are no standout tracks, but it all comes together very nicely and provides a subtle, enjoyable aural backdrop to the affairs. Except for the Dark Assembly tune that's some good musical funny right there.

The Good
Engaging, addictive and criminally deep.
Intuitive and user friendly systems.
Frankly wonderful story and humour.
Astounding longevity, even in RPG terms.

The Bad
It's depth is a double edged sword. Engrossing yet dangerously time consuming.
Graphically resembles the bastard son of Alundra and a doujinshi.

And The Prinny
If your looking for an addictive, engrossing, game that'll keep you chewing on it for hours on end, yet don't require the brooding, serious overtones that hang over your regular RPGs then this is perfect. This is technically a strategy RPG but that shouldn't frighten anybody away, this is far more roleplay than tactical mastery in terms of style. Leveling-up always takes precedence over an award winning plan. What's more, the battles are so simple to get the hang of that you'll be hammering Manticores in no time. Yet despite it's user-friendliness, it maintains a stalwart challenge with pride. It's deep, but never truly daunting and is perfect for newcomers to the genre as well as the hardcore set. With it's lighthearted story and endearing characters, a more enjoyable experience you won't find. All in all, Disgaea is a masterful example of balance and playability, but above all, honest fun. Nippon Ichi practically got it all right, save for going totally overboard in certain aspects. But then, with a game this well put together, who can blame them?

Deserving of ever percentage: 90%

"Because we don't have any friends of course!" Red Prism Ranger

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