Disgaea: Hour of Darkness

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One of my friends is a Disgaea fanatic. When he first introduced me to the game he set me up with a copy of the original Playstation 1 title and gave me a challenge: beat this game and land the final hit on the final boss with a Prinny, the series’ mascot, penguin-like character. 60 hours and a defeated boss later, I was hooked. With the recent re-release for the PC I decided to dive into the Netherworld once again to provide you reviews for all the games in the series.

Demonic Succession Laws

Do you feel love? Are you capable of kindness? Your answer is probably “yes”, but according to Laharl he, and by extension all demons like him, only have evil feelings in them and any perceived act of kindness is just an attempt to put someone in your debt. Maybe he’s groggy, because Laharl was once the rightful heir to the Netherworld, future Overlord of the demons, except his old man died while he was taking a nap. 2 years later Laharl awakens to his ill-tempered vassal Etna explaining to him that all sorts of demon lords have been vying for control of his land. Thus the two set out to put them in their place and put Laharl back on the throne.

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The story is told across a number of chapters that all serve as their own, contained mini-stories. At the start of each of these stories, Laharl and Etna set a new objective for themselves to complete. Each chapter then features a number of stages where you fight battles, which usually start and end with a cutscene advancing the story. It’s a fun way to handle the pacing, giving players bite-sized chunks of plot at a time interspersed with good amounts of gameplay.

The characters are also fun, with Laharl starting off as a selfish guy with a childish interpretation of what it means to rule over people. He is bossy, impatient, and his evil laughs aren’t particularly menacing yet. Over the course of the game you watch him shift as his worldviews are challenged, thanks in large part to the defiant Etna (who has her own, interesting storyline) and Flonne, an angel trainee from the heavenly realm of Celestia who is obsessed with love.

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Plenty of fun side-characters join the fray as well, like the band of space-faring heroes straight from a Saturday morning cartoon, a recurring demon lord too bumbling to be a threat, and the various lazy vassals found in Laharl’s castle. The story is also just the right length and ends on a satisfying conclusion (assuming you don’t get a bad ending) and it feels like all the important characters got enough spotlight and development by the end of it.

don’t let the comedic, over-the-top exterior fool you; while the story of Disgaea isn’t anything mindblowing, it’s excellently told and filled to the brim with fun, memorable moments.

Story score: 8/10

There’s no I in Team

Disgaea is a tactical RPG in which you control an army of characters, monsters, and generic classes in small-scale battles involving around 10 fighters on each side, though enemies tend to get a few more. Each of the game’s stages tasks you with wiping out the enemy force and leaves it up to you to decide if you want to field a balanced army or just spawn in 10 zombies.

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Each of your loyal servants has a basic attack that has a chance of becoming a team-attack when an ally is within range, but more interesting are the spells and skills each unit learns as they level up or improve their mastery with a weapon type. These do a lot more damage and can level up to become even stronger, but have specific profiles requiring perfect positioning to pull them off. The controls are also fine, though a little jittery on the PC, and I enjoy that the game rewards you for queuing up a bunch of attacks before hitting the execute command, as it rewards skillful play without barring players from taking it slow, one move at a time.

An interesting feature that livens up the battles are the geo panels. These are tiles in bright colors that provide characters on top of them buffs or debuffs based on what crystals occupy similarly-colored tiles elsewhere on the map. For example, a crystal that heals characters that is set on a red tile will make all red tiles on the field heal characters, unless it’s moved to another spot or outright destroyed. While it’s a bit ugly to have colored tiles all over the place that cover the floor textures, this mechanic does make battles a lot more tactical than just bringing stronger characters than the AI.

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“Freedom” really is the keyword here, along with “crazy”, “ridiculous”, and a good dose of “random”. The degree to which you can customize characters is absurd, with each generic class (archer, warrior, etc.) having five tiers to unlock and four equipment slots to put weapons, armor, and trinkets into. All of those items are randomized, with stats that fluctuate between a set boundary and special traits that add further bonuses. You can also level up items by going into the item world, where the item is turned into an endurance test where you need to beat 10 randomized battles at a time to improve the item. It’s perfectly possible to grind the item world and fuse some stuff together to create overpowered equipment that will carry you for several chapters yet to come.

That is optional though. While a little grinding comes recommended to power up your army and get some cash, you can get through the story mode fairly okay if you stick with a regular party. With that said, the game is home to a number of difficulty spikes and levels that are notably not fun. One recurring format is a gauntlet of foes on overpowered geo tiles with the crystal to cancel it hidden at the end of a long, twisting path. These levels are long, tiring, and just don’t offer an interesting battle at all. The aforementioned item worlds also have a tendency to generate levels that are literally unplayable, since parts of the level will appear as floating islands that can’t be reached, but which can house enemies.

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After each battle, you return to a cozy HUB area where NPCs offer services like shops, access to the item world, story chapters, and tutorials. It also has a few neat secrets and features my least favorite mechanic: The Dark Assembly. The Assembly is sort of like a parliament where you trade in mana, which is also used to create new soldiers with among other functions, to put forth an idea that a group of monsters then votes on, like upgrading the stores or unlocking special events. You influence the vote by checking their initial stance on the matter and loading them with gifts until they see otherwise. Sounds good, except the AI is treacherous and will often vote against you regardless of what the game says, wasting a lot of items, time, and mana on a process that just feels like random chance, but which often blocks off important content.

This leaves the experience flawed, especially when you want to get the most out of the game and run into a lot of broken item worlds or have to push for new unlockables in the assembly a lot. It doesn’t overshadow the strong core of the game, not by a long shot, but when the RNG is against you it can definitely weigh the experience down and kill your desire to advance the story.

Gameplay score: 8/10

We all float down here

NIS really deserves a round of applause because Hour of Darkness came out of the left field with a universe that is so crazy and lively that it birthed a franchise that continues to impress to this day. The creative design found in each and every creature of the Netherworld is inspired, with finely detailed and animated sprites representing each warrior and monster found in the field. From the iconic Prinny to staples like zombies and slimes, the sprite work is amazing and bursting with character.

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Especially fun are the explosive special attacks. Some of the simpler ones just involve some fancy fencing from the characters or a silly goof, but later in the game characters end up with these huge special attacks straight from an anime. Unfortunately, just like in anime, these moves tend to take forever to resolve and after using them a few times the novelty does wear thin when I am really just interested in the numbers that pop out afterward. Another complaint I have is that most of the levels, though they use nice and simple textures, appear to just kind of float in the middle of nothing. I get that this is a fantasy hell world, but it just looks sort of lame how every battle apparently takes place over bits of useless land.

Interestingly, the cutscenes used to tell most of the game’s story are kept simple with characters doing a scripted event with the in-engine graphics, often using the map you’ll actually be playing in. You do get character portraits, which look good, but it’s just fun to see them get creative with it and make engaging scenes without any fancy, animated sequences.

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While it becomes a bit boring to look at the game’s dull maps, it’s evident a lot of love was poured into the design of the characters and the directing of its cutscenes. The voice acting, however, is kind of hit and miss. I like the silly voice of the Prinny characters in English and the aforementioned team of heroes, consisting of Captain Gordon, his lovely assistant Jennifer, and their robot buddy Thursday, just work better in English considering they are a parody of American characters. On the other hand, Barbara Goodson as Laharl really begins to grate over time, making it more ideal to use the Japanese audio.

Presentation score: 7.5/10

Demonic level cap

A big point in Disgaea‘s favor is that you can keep playing it for almost an eternity. Each of your characters has a level cap of 9999 and all of their equipment houses an item world that grants bonuses that can be fused into other weapons that themselves have item worlds inside of them. And don’t forget there are extra classes to unlock, including some really tricky ones, which all have tiers to them, though it requires you to reset a character back to level 1 to move them to a higher tier. Fortunately, you can unlock all the tiers with a tier 1 character and then bump them up all the way once you have the highest one unlocked, which gives them higher base stats.

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Disgaea also has some post-game content to unlock in the form of extra chapters and there are several different endings to get. What is remarkable about this is that even the bad endings feel like a fitting conclusion to the story, rather than some kind of game over. While I can’t recommend playing through the whole game multiple times to see them all, it was certainly fun to look up the other ones after getting mine. What I will say is that it is kind of harsh that ally kills are the deciding factor in what ending you get, because even one locks you out of the “good” ending and ally kills are very easy to cause without even noticing it once battles get hectic.

Extras score: 9/10

Verdict

Despite its numerous sequels, the original Disgaea is still entertaining because it offers the purest form of its strategic combat. Each time I feel like replaying it I begin fantasizing about all the classes and monsters I could try out, about the rich post-game content I could explore, and how many hours I would be sinking into random item worlds. While I prefer the story of later games, Laharl’s tale is still superbly entertaining and one I can relive much easier than the more elaborate plots of Disgaea 4 or 3.

82/100

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