Plenty of awesome RPGs have been released this year, nearly every one of them exclusively for the PS2, and plenty more are to come before the year’s end. With that in mind, it’s no secret that role-playing enthusiasts have been getting plenty of love as of late. But what about the fans of that oft-overlooked RPG sub-genre, the tactical-tastic “strategy” RPG? Well, it seems like they too will have their prayers answered with two new awesome games, both released this month; Final Fantasy Tactics (GBA), and this game, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, lending themselves nicely as a one-two strategy RPG punch the likes of which should excite fans of the genre something powerful.
Those who have played and enjoyed Atlus’ tactical RPG magnum opus Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis should be glad to know that the company’s latest character building, item collecting, isometrically projected, turn-based strategy affair is just as deep and involving as Tactics Ogre ever was. Newcomers to the genre will have to endure a pretty unforgiving learning curve though. Make no mistake, Disgaea is a strategy RPG game made specifically for hit-point fiends.
But to say that Disgaea is a conventional tactical RPG would be doing this game a grave injustice. Sure, all the familiar ear-marks of the genre are present here: 2D characters overlayed on traditional isometric battlefields, in-depth strategy-oriented combat, and a cute little story to keep things interesting, but developer Nippon Ichi has taken great measures to set Disgaea apart from the crowd.
Hour of Darkness’s story, for example, is about as unconventional and out of left field as any strategy RPG before it. The game’s protagonist, Laharl, a self-absorbed demon who also happens to be prince to the throne of the netherworld, is as unlikely a “hero” as one could expect. The game begins are Laharl is awakened from a two-year long slumber only to discover that his father, the netherworld king, is dead. The netherworld, desperately needing a new overlord, is up for grabs to anyone who is willing to claim it as their own. Laharl quickly vows to replace his father as demonic overlord head-honcho, by force if necessary, and thus begins the 13-chapter tale of Disgaea. The story plays out through the use of 2D cartoon illustrations and professionally voiced dialogue. The tone of the game is decidedly light-hearted and oftentimes just plain weird, but the various characters that you’ll meet up with and the assorted situations you’ll find yourself in are conducive to bouts of laughter and plights of aggression, each in equal measures.
Disgaea can essentially be boiled down to two simple ingredients: planning and combat. Each of the game’s chapters, which are formatted similarly to traditional anime TV episodes, contains a series of battles that must be waged and won before progressing. Between chapter battles, you are able to freely roam Laharl’s castle, which is surprisingly pimped out. You’ll be able to buy and sell items, weapons, and armor at the in-house battle shop, visit the “Item World” where you can literally go inside of your items and battle your way through the levels that exist within them (thus powering up said item and substantially buffing up your character’s stats in the process), get healed at the ever-helpful hospital, or petition an evil congressional group of powerful demonic politicians in order to open up better items, create new characters, and enhance your current characters abilities, among other things. Lots of other things. Lots and lots of other things, actually.
You can always replay any previously beaten battle, so improving your character’s stats can be a perpetual process if that’s how you want to play the game. You can have up to 10 characters on the battlefield at any time and there is no limit at all on the amount of characters you can have in your overall roster. Believe me when I say you could potentially spend hundreds of hours playing this game just to create an insanely powerful party. Have you ever beaten an RPG and still craved for more action even as the end-credits were rolling? Well, that won’t happen here. The randomly-generated Item World maps ensure that obsessive players will go away satisfied, that is if they go away at all. Whereas most games allow you to level up your character to 100, Hour of Darkness doesn’t call it quits until you hit about the 10,000th level! And even then you still have the option of “transmigrating” your characters, which allows you to retain some of your character’s stats while starting from level one as a different class. Just be glad videogames don’t charge by the hour.
The gameplay takes some getting used to, not because the combat is complicated but because some memorization is required in order to utilize the game’s face-button-centric control system. Once you do acclimate yourself with the controls, however, you’ll be happy to see that a wide range of characters and respective abilities are literally at your fingertips. Party members can attack with ranged weapons (such as crossbows or guns) or melee style (swords, staffs, and fists), they can cast a huge assortment of spells (you’ll gradually gain more as you level up), perform combination attacks (if two or more party members are adjacent to each other when an attack is executed), and pick up and throw teammates and enemies. The sheer diversity of tactical gameplay presented in Hour of Darkness can be, to say the least, quite daunting at times.
As in most strategy RPGs, the elemental properties of the square you are standing on directly affects that character’s statistics. Different colored squares represent different bonuses or penalties. For example, standing on one square might decrease your defense by 50%, while standing on a differently colored square might make you invincible. The elemental properties are dictated by small like-colored pyramids that can be found at various points on the battlefield. By destroying these pyramids, you essentially nullify the effect it has on the rest of the battlefield. But you can also pick these pyramids up and drop them on a different color square and adversely or beneficially influence the rest of the map. You can also create huge chain reactions by destroying the elemental pyramids, which is great for quickly amassing tons of booty and experience.
For a game that does anything but take itself seriously, it sure is unforgiving. “Game Over” screens are the order of the day with Disgaea; lose any battle, whether a legitimate chapter battle or a just-for-fun Item World or exam battle, and the game will slap you in the face with a big fat “Game Over”. And while you’ll undoubtedly feel the need to break something more than a few times during the course of the game, its strict requirements never feel unjust or unwarranted. Just brutally demanding.
From a visual standpoint, Disgaea looks good, but not great. Its stylized 2D character sprites seem limited in animation, though when they are in the process of casting spells, all bets are off as the screen literally explodes with cool graphical effects. The battlefields seem lifted directly out of past-generation strategy RPG games in terms of simplicity, and while you are able to rotate the perspective in 90 degree increments, it’s still all too easy for your character and the enemies surrounding it to be obscured by some random scenery or poorly thought out elevations. The static image cut-scenes are well drawn and beautifully detailed, but each illustrated character is limited to only three or four different poses. The audio fares much better than the graphics with catchy music and the option for both English and Japanese voice-overs.
Overall, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is an original and refreshing take on the strategy RPG sub-genre. The near limitless play potential makes this game a godsend for obsessive, compulsive fans of this style of play, and the ocean deep gameplay ensures that there is always something new to do. Diehard tactical RPG fan or not, you’d still do well to check this game out.