Disgaea: Hour of Darkness - BUY THIS PS2 GAME

Thanks to a friend on the GA Forums, I was able to score a reviewable copy of Atlus’ forthcoming PS2 “strategy-RPG,” the bizarrely-named but altogether brilliant “Disgaea: Hour of Darkness” (coming to store shelves 8/26ish).

If you’re a fan of Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre, you MUST own this game. Period. End of discussion.

The premise is this: you are the newly-awakened Laharl, son of the recently-assassinated Overlord of the Underworld. Aided and abetted by his “vassal”, the surly Etna, Laharl has to prove his right to the throne of the Underworld.

The game has some really cute concepts providing the framework for the gameplay. Although the Tim Burton-meets-anime Underworld is ruled by an overlord, the laws of the land are created by the Black Congress, a host of slimy and confrontational demonic Senators. (Apparently, said Overlord merely keeps the order around the place and co-opts all the wealth.) At a certain early point in the game, you can address the Black Congress to change the laws of the land, like

  • Petition for better items in the stores
  • Petition for improved experience
  • Enact a ban on certain weapon usage
  • Raise more money for your war effort against the lawless Lords of the Underworld

If your rank is low, the Senate will vote against you, and your requests will be denied. As a result, in order to pass items with a low rank, you have to either A) bribe the Senators with their favorite items, or B) beat the holy hell out of them. Doing A is expensive, but it’ll keep their support up. Beating them up means that you’ll get your intiative passed, but they’ll also be actively against you in the next session, and they’ll also be tougher. Since they’re already tough to begin with, B is rarely a smart option unless you’re high level. You can rank up and gain more favor by taking a promotional exam, which translates into the character you want to rank up fighting a fixed cadre of powerful monsters.

The portrayal of Heaven and Hell is funny unto itself (although the weak story doesn’t do the hilarious world design much justice): Hell is a capitalist democracy, and Heaven (Celestia) is a fascist military state. One of the truly funny moments comes with a revelation about the Prinnies (demonic penguins that serve as your starting troops) – they’re the souls of murderers and thieves who were given two options by God: serve an eternity in heaven as slaves, or work off their crimes in hell for sub minimum wage. As a result, the Prinnies are as loyal as long as they get their paychecks, which allow them to pay off their sins. Only hell has currency, BTW.

The game itself takes a very twisted bent on conventional heaven/hell mythos – the “good guys” are the demons, who are really just cynical libertarian types with more pride than prejudice, and heaven is a bunch of burgeoning, manipulative fascists, by and large. Obviously, there’s crossover characters – demons who really are evil jerks, and an irritatingly cutesy angel with a devious side of her own. The dialogue isn’t all that winning – there’s a really dumb arc with the aforementioned angel trying to convince Laharl that he has a caring side – but there’s a few mildly amusing moments, most of which involve the obstreperous Etna trying to pretend she’s some sort of put-upon anime heroine, or when Laharl reaps the rich abuse of his ill-conceived plans. The story is best when it’s being irreverent, and fails miserably when it’s trying to be touchy.

But that’s all good and well, because the developer added the best damn thing ever to come along in console RPGs: the clearly-labeled “SKIP STORY!” button, which allows you to bypass the cutscenes entirely and dive into battle. The cutscenes never discuss objectives or battle information, so nothing is lost. So if you’re irritated rather than amused by anime, whack that Triangle button at the prompt and PLOT BEGONE.

The art style itself is clean and functional, with traditional sprites on a polygonal background. What the game lacks in high-resolution, it makes up for with great animation and insane spell/attack effects. The battles, which are the centerpiece of the gameplay, take place on isometric 3D terrain maps, ala FF tactics, Vandal Hearts, or Hoshigami. The maps can be MUCH bigger than those games, and you can field far more units.

There’s two types of units you can recruit: human, and monsters. Across both types, there’s over 150 (!!) classes, each with largely unique skills and abilities. Human units start out with less powerful stats and skills, but can use specialized weapons and have the ability to lift and throw any unit, friendly or evil. This ability allows you to hurl friendly units across previously uncrossable chasms, or high up onto unreachable plateaus. It also allows you to toss enemies far away from your weaker troops, or even into your base square (where all your troops emerge from in battle). In the latter case, if your base square has a few powerful troops in it, they’ll beat up the foe and subdue it, effectively conscripting it into your army. (This doesn’t work on bosses, unfortunately.) The throwing and lifting adds a lot to tactics – for example, you can lift a boss and thus render him/her unable to attack, but the character holding the foe will take damage proportional to that foe’s strength every round it’s held. You can also hurl archers up to high areas or out of harm’s way, or toss an enemy into dangerous terrain (called Geo Panels).

The Geo Panel system adds another tactical layer on what is already a reasonably deep game. When you enter a map, you’ll see several panels that flash a specific color. These panels have no effect until a Geo Symbol is lifted and thrown onto them, and then the panel acquires the properties of the Geo Symbol. This can be good or bad. The Symbol may add positive attributes, like experience bonuses for foes killed on the panel, negative attributes like 3X enemy attack power, or neutral but irritating properties like invincibility for the unit on the panel, warping to a random panel of the same color, or creating an antagonistic clone of the unit.

If you attack and destroy a Geo Symbol, it can potentially destroy all panels of the color it was residing on, and damaging any unit on one of the panels. You get a huge bonus for doing this, and if the resulting destruction blasts another Geo Symbol, you can set up a chain. If you destroy all of the Geo Panels, you get a massive bonus.

At the end of the round, your bonus meter (increased by destroying foes and Geo Panels) determines what sort of gold (HL), extra experience, and items you receive. The higher it gets, the better the rewards. Clever players will get powerful goods early on this way.

And it doesn’t stop there: you can power up items to ridiculous levels by going into the Item World of that item, fighting through 10+ random levels, and spanking the item’s ruler. The random map generator used is excellent, with a massive variety in level designs and layouts, many of which have Geo Panel puzzles to solve. As you fight through the levels, you’ll encounter some boards that have Sentinels on them – they are noted at the beginning of the level with a “CHECK!” and must be defeated in order to obtain their support.Sounds easy, but here’s the catch: the Sentinels ALSO are fighting your foes, and if your foes beat the Sentinel, you won’t gain its support. Hence, you hafta bum rush the Sentinel ASAP, because it’ll aggressively attack the nearest foe without a thought for its tactical well-being. Add in Geo Panels, and this can be a real challenge some times. You can skip levels by going to the warp, but you don’t get to cash in your bonus meter.

When you beat the Item Boss, the item levels up according to the number of foes you’ve defeated. Any Sentinels you subjugated add their power, as well. These Sentinels can now be transferred between items, up to the population limit of the receiving item. Rare items have really high population limits and can be packed with Sentinels. Obviously, them, it’s in your interest to buy items that have a lot of Sentinels to recover. Sentinels also have levels; the more powerful they are, the more they contribute to the item they’re residing in.

You can cross train characters or move them to a more advanced class level by transmigrating them. To transmigrate, a character must be Rank 3. When transmigration occurs, mana (defined as demonic favor) can be expended to increase the chance that skills and stats are passed to the new class, since the character is reset to level 1. Mana is used to influence the Senate, buy new units, and being bills before the Congress. Mana is earned by beating up monsters, in general. New classes are opened up by meeting level requirements in other classes. New monster types are made available by beating a monster of that type in battle.

Phew!

There’s a TON of items (weapons, armor, et al), skills, and spells you can learn. It’s a massive, deep game with a quirky style and far more customization options than other titles in this subgenre.

Oh, and the music rocks – it’s all very Danny Elfman-esque, in the Beetlejuice or Nightmare Before Christmas vein. The VA work is pretty eh – it’s the Pokemon cast, near as I can tell, and don’t ask how I know – but, like I said, you can SKIP THE STORY ALTOGETHER WITHOUT ANY REPURCUSSIONS.

I recommend folks who liked Dark Cloud 2 and the Tactics titles check this out when it releases on the 26th.

You expect people to read all that?

Kitsune thought it was great and he typed up one of his famous long posts for it too in another thread (about a different game). I think the bottom line is that we should all consider trying it.

Here’s the digest version for lazy smart-alecks: Disgaea is a clever, deep, well-animated take on the turn-based tactical RPG genre with a funny theme and loads of stats for bored PC gamers to play with.

Good enough?

That this would be a good thing is exactly why I don’t play console RPGs. But you do make it sound like a great weird wargame.

Thanks for the review, Doug! I’ll probably be picking it up eventually.

I’m merely trying to make your review marketable.

Geez… just checked out the IGN preview with screenshots and it looks fantastic! Gotta finish (and start :oops: ) Silent Hill 3 by the 26th!

Thanks Doug. I have not picked up a PS2 title in months and this was slated as my probable next purchase. Your validation is like sweet, sweet icing. Or maybe gravy.

Thanks Doug. Gotta love the guys who snap at the hand that takes the time to put down a thoughtful, detailed analysis of an interesting new game that might otherwise get overlooked. Ah, the internet…

Are the cutscenes fully skippable?

I’m intrigued, too, Doug.

But first, can you explain that throwaway remark you made in the Xbox thread about Unlimited Saga owing more to board games than narrative. I think I want to play it now, but I’m not sure.

 -Tom

Hey thanks Doug. This game looks cool. Though the title sounds like a form of diarrhea… I’ll be buying it!

etc

Doug left out that the Hell hospital actually prefers you get your soldiers beat up. You get item rewards for healing your army there.

Hooray! I wants this game so the bad!!

Tom, while I’m sure Drink…Doug can give you a better answer than I, I believe what he’s referring to is how the mission structure is in Unlimited Saga. If I’m not mistaken, the way you play the game is that you start out in a ye Olde Town, get a quest, listen to rumors, group up a party, get all ready with buying and decking and all that and then set out on a mission which uses board-game-style movement through the land. That is, I believe you have a certain amount of turns to go until you run out of turns and you have to return to the village, but movement is by choosing branches and moving spaces, dealing with traps and enemies with several choices. When you enter battle, a certain amount of it is dedicated on rolling this random ring thingy which determines which attacks that you set will be made…something like that. There may be a lot more to it than that, but beyond that I don’t know anything more detailed.

It caused a quite a stir here when it released (the Saga series is very popular here), though it eventually sold 500,000 copies, it got reviews ranging from awful to very good, and people who claimed it was simply an esoteric and others who claimed it was shit come alive to strangle you and use your toothbrush. Therefore, I’ve never played it, but I’ve been waiting for someone Doug to offer their opinion to see if I should give it a chance. I plan to try it now, especially since its only 980 en. It seems to channel a subgenre which to my knowledge has never been translated before, that is the boardgame/RPG hybrid subgenre, where movement and random events are determined by boardgame concepts and resolution and powers to deal with it by RPG concepts. Culdcept is another such game that is coming out for the PS2 for the first time in the States. Others include Itadaki Street, World of a Hundred Stories, Dice de Chocobo and Dokapon (one of which has translated, but its GBA sidequest monster gather thingy which quite royally sucks). If you’re still interested in this type of game, and Unlimited Saga doesn’t do it for you, I suggest you check out Culdcept when it comes out.

As for Disgaea! IT ROCKS! I AGREE! BUY IT! THAT IS A COMMAND! Some things that Doug didn’t mention which I also enjoyed:

-Eight different endings, with their prerequisites being some awfully nasty acts, and a chance to more of the better, more irreverent side of the game’s world that Doug mentioned with the cooler endings.

-When you create a new character, you can first name them, choose their class (by gender too), then decide if you want to augment their personality with Mana, which has various useful balancing effects, but can be costly, then you get to add bonus points to stats just like any PC RPG, so each troop creation is like D&D style character creation, which I think is a neat addition to the control you have.

-Weapons and their proficiencies come in seven different kinds and for once, are separated with elements that make them vastly different in use. For instance, hand to hand combat allows you to knock enemies back further, so is ideal for setting up combos, while staffs increase your magic powers as you get better with them and axes have a chance of lowering your enemy’s defense, etc.

-Before you make your final decisions you can set up throwing/acting chains of commands that make for huge, multi-faceted combos that add even more to the strategy.

Last of all, what Boss says is true, I used to do those super-endless posts whenever I got a game I was enthusiastic about. I got Shin Megami Tensei III a few weeks ago and the game is so fab, I felt like gushing about it for pages. But luckily, I restrained myself. ;)

-Fox

See?

Err, see what?

-Fox

Duplicate post!

Tom, Unlimited Saga is largely as Kitsune described it. Basically, you move your party across board style maps, planning the advance to each square using skills, and trying to herd or avoid the monsters on the map. Since you can’t see the roaming monsters, you have to use certain skills (like Listen) to determine where they are and make sure they don’t gang up on you.

At the end of each board, you can power up your skills. In the towns, you can trade for or construct new weapons and armor and kit out your party.

Battles ask you to load a slot machine like reel with various attacks from each character. When you start a round, you try to hit the attacks you want on the spinning reel, either holding them for a combo, or attacking right out. If you choose to combo, you can have skills combine for massively powerful attacks, but you run the risk of an interruption, which does serious LP (Life Points) damage and can stop a combo altogether.

It’s not a flawless game - first off, it needs a good tutorial, or even a semi-competent manual; GameFAQs is highly recommended, here. Second of all, the HP/LP repurposing is stupidly pretentious, with the HP serving as a sort of percentage chance to block damage to the LP, which are actually the equivalent of HP.

Music is astounding, and the graphics are different but good. The story is rambling gibberish that’s really unfleshed out yet annoyingly omnipresent.

Since I really like the concept of RPG board games, I really enjoyed it despite its faults. It’s not a perfect game by any means, but if you like slower-paced, more contemplative RPGs that emphasize mechanics, it’s definitely worth a look.

It’s tragic how misunderstood this game was by the American media.

And you must - MUST - buy Disgaea. Both me and Jason agreed that this game was right up your alley.

It does sound cool from your posts. But damn I went to look at the IGN preview someone mentioned and…sure enough…its that little kid anime look. I really cant stand that.

olaf