Disgaea: Hour of Darkness
Atlus shows their appreciation for the fans they gathered with earlier strategy releases, with one truly deep production. If you can handle it, come on inside.
Strategy / RPG
By Ben S. Dutka
I'm going to make this easy for you: if you're a fan of turn-based RPGs, stick around and witness something special. If you had no interest whatsoever in games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Front Mission 3, Vandal Hearts, or Ring of Red, then perhaps you may want to just skim the review, and see if anything catches your eye. Atlus has made the ultimate niche game, and it would be lying to say otherwise.
Quite honestly, there is no middle ground here. Either you're going to spend thirty seconds with Disgaea and run screaming in terror, or you're going to look at the clock after playing for ten minutes and find that its three hours later. Then, after hundreds more hours of obsessive playtime, you just might move on to something else - maybe. No exaggeration here, friends. If you don't believe me, come discover one of the deepest and most complex turn-based strategy games ever made.
By all rights, I should almost be able to skip the graphics category entirely. This is one of those genres where the visuals fall far behind in terms of importance, but then again, we can never completely discount them, now can we? Disgaea uses simple yet clean sprite figures to portray the characters on screen, anime-style design during cut-scenes, and colorful battlegrounds that are prettier than you might expect.
This isn't Final Fantasy X-2 or Gran Turismo 4. There are no breathtaking graphical presentations anywhere, and everything stays relatively static throughout the game. However, on the plus side, the development team did not ignore this aspect of the game. The visuals are solid if a tad bit under-whelming, and once you begin to play, I doubt you'll be analyzing the pixels too closely. There's just too much to think about. In the end, Disgaea uses some well-drawn and inspired artistry with a small amount of graphical enhancement, and that's just about where it ends.
The sound is surprisingly engaging; the soundtrack consists of many well-orchestrated tunes, which range from cheerful and upbeat to dark and menacing. The sound effects will tend to completely override the soundtrack during battle, but this only succeeds in drawing us into the action even further, instead of becoming a hindrance. Overall, the sound is well done, but modest, like the graphics.
This game, like all the others in this genre, relies almost entirely on the gameplay. Without captivating gameplay, all we have is a mediocre-looking game with some catchy music to listen to. Thankfully, Atlus is basically handing the fans a gift-wrapped game with a big ol' red bow; this sucker is packed with more options, customization, and battle depth than you can shake a stick at. We'll begin with the standard gameplay.
Disgaea is purely turn-based, in that you will deploy, move, and execute an action with any and all party members you wish to utilize, and then you watch the computer have its turn. Therefore, this is different than games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Vandal Hearts, because speed (higher speed meant moving before a slower enemy) is not a factor. This dimension of strategy was erased, but was replaced with many other goodies.
For example, your characters can "Throw" other characters, and even enemies. There are multiple purposes behind this action: firstly, you may come across a gap in the battlefield that you simply cannot jump across. By picking up an ally, you can toss him over it. Secondly, by throwing enemies at other enemies, you can create bigger, stronger, faster opponents that provide you with more Experience and Mana. In other words, by throwing a Lv. 2 enemy at a Lv. 2 enemy, they combine and become a Lv. 4 enemy.
You may execute special attack abilities, spells, and even combination team attacks on the field. Depending on how your allies are positioned, you may have a chance for a double, triple, or even quadruple team attack. The specifics are too much to get into for this review, but it's an intriguing new aspect that shouldn't be ignored. The typical rules apply as well, if you're familiar with these kinds of games; i.e., attacking from the rear or the side is always a better idea than attacking from the front, height and distance comes into play with certain spells and skills, etc.
The deepest parts of the game lie in the Dark Assembly and the Item World. The Dark Assembly is the Senate, and you approach them to create new characters, gain influence by passing ranking tests, and even have them vote on certain issues. For example, to unlock many secret (and the most difficult) areas of the game, you must poll the senate members and hope they vote favorably. You can try bribing senate members through influence and military funds, or you can simply overwhelm them by force, if you think you're powerful enough.
There are many, many classes in the game, beginning with basic classes like Brawler, Cleric, Fire Mage, Undead, and Warrior, and then later on you will unlock the more advanced classes like Elite Ninja and Star Mage. It's not the initial creation of these characters that is fresh and new, it's how you upgrade your class that is surprisingly innovative.
If you'd like to upgrade your class status with a particular character, you must "transmigrate" him/her. This process is awfully intriguing and is also an absolute micromanagement dream. Say that you're a Lv. 50 Ninja and you wish to transmigrate into an Elite Ninja. When you do this, you will immediately be reduced back to Lv. 1. Now before you let loose with the groans and curses, let me explain:
You can create and transmigrate a character in one of six possible categories- Good-for-Nothing, Incompetent, Average, Skilled, Distinguished, and Genius. Each level costs more Mana (gained by killing enemies on the battlefield), but it's very much worth it to transmigrate at Genius level. When you go through this process, you keep a certain percentage of your skills and abilities from your previous class, as well as add a significant boost to the base stats. By transmigrating at Genius level, you will not only transfer over 90% of your skills (your "Inheritance Bonus"), but you will also have a +10 to the Ability bonus.
Therefore, a plain Lv. 100 character will never be as powerful as a Lv. 100 character that has transmigrated three or four times, because they began each leveling process with increased base statistics. If you transmigrated at the Good-for-Nothing level, you only get a 15% Inheritance and a -5 Ability bonus, so you have to plan accordingly. This process can be immensely time consuming, but if you're the kind of person that absolutely must have ridiculously powerful characters, transmigration is a must.
The Item World is another interesting aspect of Disgaea. Within each armor, item, and piece of equipment, there is a whole ten-level world, filled with nasty creatures and beings called "Residents." These Residents can be extremely beneficial to the item in question. What they do is add a particular bonus to the item if you go in there and subdue them. For example, by going into your Cosmic Sword weapon and defeating (and thus, subduing) a Lv. 200 Statistician Resident, that sword will suddenly reward you with double the experience per kill, so long as its equipped. These Residents can be transferred to other items as well, once they are subdued.
The last new factor that even hardcore fans of the genre are probably not familiar with is the Geo Panels on the battlefield. These are specifically colored squares that offer certain bonuses to whoever stands on them. These squares are governed by little pyramids placed somewhere on the field. If you think you can benefit from the Panels (say you have blue panels directly in front of you, and they signify a 50% increase in defense), then use them effectively. If you find yourself at a disadvantage because of them, you can attack the pyramids of the same color. For instance, if the enemy is standing on red squares that give them 2x Attacks, and you can reach the red pyramid, go kill off the pyramid to negate the dangerous effect.
Finally, characters that get hurt or die on the battlefield must be healed at the hospital. This costs money, but if you have a severely hurt team and give the hospital enough money, there may be a prize to claim. This is especially useful at the beginning of the game, where you can get some supremely great items - if you can only hang on by a thread in battle and heal yourself entirely at the hospital. The more hurt you are, the more likely you are to get a rare gift from them.
The game plays exactly how you tell it to play, so there can't really be any complaints in the way of control. However, there are some camera issues that should've been remedied, and the AI is not very impressive. You will find that you can easily outwit your opponents most of the time; especially once you've gotten a good handle on the mechanics. The game is very much unbalanced, but then again, that's also part of its allure, and once again depends heavily on just how involved you want to get. You can beat this game at about Lv. 60 or 70, but with everything it has to offer, most will move on to more loftier goals. Here's one: the Prinny God is Lv. 6000 with approximately 6 million HP. Good luck.
Depth? I suppose the game is just a tad deep. Essentially no level cap (technically, you could reach Lv. 9999), well over 100 character classes (most of which you need to unlock), "Item World Battles" that can drastically alter a weapon or piece of equipment, a Senate that can be manipulated, bought, or beaten, but stands in the way of major advancement, gameplay that is closer to an intense chess match than to a fast-paced action battle. What more could you possibly want? What more could you possibly swallow without choking to death?
The story is full of typical Japanese-style humor, and is actually quite funny in some parts. You are Laharl, a dark prince of the Netherworld that is fighting to take over the crown from his deceased father, King Krichevskoy. Along the way, you will encounter assassins and betrayal, along with some very strange, yet comical, events. In reality, the plotline plays second fiddle to the gameplay, as do the technical aspects. It's certainly not as fleshed out as the original Final Fantasy Tactics storyline, or as well produced, but it's more than passable.
Yes, we've finally reached the end of the review. Disgaea has its drawbacks and wasn't quite as polished as it could've been, but with the sheer depth and complexity of the gameplay, certain exceptions can be made. Like I said at the beginning of the review, you will either love it to death or hate it with a passion. Atlus is rewarding a particular group of people here; they are most certainly not catering to a mass public audience. But you know what? There is very little wrong with this game as a whole, and is nearly perfect for the fans they were targeting. No more waiting for the next great turn-based strategy game, fellow fans. It's right here.