Disgaea: Hour of Darkness Review
Gaming has been gaining more and more ground in general popularity. One would think that with the rising popularity that all facets of games would get much more exposure than before the boom. On the contrary, several genres have received a boost that's rather miniscule in comparison to more popular genres here in the United States. Role-Playing games are an example of one of these genres. While it is true that RPGs have grown immensely, the strategy RPG sub-genre has remained relatively small with the releases with a few big hits and several lesser ones. The Playstation 2 has a small amount of strategy RPGs to its stable which now has one more in Disgaea: Hour of Darkness from Atlus.
The most notable strategy RPG to most people would be Square Enix's Final Fantasy Tactics released on the Playstation several years ago. Disgaea and FFT share similar styles of combat (isometric, tile-based), however: Disgaea is a turn-based game where all your characters move during your turn unlike FFT in which each character has their own turn. Other than that, FFT and Disgaea don't share much in common.
Disgaea is setup like a television series; more specifically, an anime television series. Each episode is dedicated to a different adventure involving the cast in an anime styled world. This can be quite a recipe for disaster considering some of the past efforts with a game of this style but because of an excellent translation by Atlus it comes off as a quirky, funny and personality-filled adventure. Interestingly enough, this is the first game of its kind to have dual language support for cinematics, which give the player the choice of Japanese dubbed voices or English dubbed voices for the story sequences in the game. Battle voices are a mix of the two interestingly enough.
One of the more interesting aspects to the game is the Dark Assembly. In Disgaea, a lot of the options and items that the player can do and use are based around this. In order to get stronger items, get bonuses, or open certain areas, one must take a proposal to the Dark Assembly for a vote. There, you're given a chance to look at the Senators in attendance and their general stance towards the proposal. From there you can bribe them in favor of your proposal. Should your proposal fail, you can also try to persuade them by force. This was a bit aggravating but at the same time intriguing.
Outside of battle, Disgaea has two systems for the player to work with and customize to their heart's content. The game's take on the job system is very and perhaps the best in the genre. After creating a player character and leveling them to your preference, you can advance that character to Rank 3 in the Dark Assembly. From here the characters can transmigrate to a different class of their choosing by expending mana points. Transmigration gives the benefit of increased stat growth and the inheritance of skills from the previous class. Doing this allows the player to grow characters to fit their personal needs in battle and possibly even create an omnipotent character with all the skills and incredible stats. It's a very flexible system that has boundless combinations. Levels also reach far beyond that of any other game in the genre. The first time you see a level 400 monster is quite jaw dropping.
The other customization system for players to use is the Item World. In Disgaea, the player is able to travel into the world of an item of their choosing. When you enter the game generates 10 levels of a dungeon for the player to go through based around the attributes of the item. The rarer the item is the harder the levels will be. By finishing an item world trip, you can boost the statistics of a particular item. The Item Worlds also contain specialists that roam the levels that are generated. These specialists give the item boosts in statistics perhaps gives the item a certain characteristic that others don't. You can actually subdue these specialists and move them to other items to customize a favorite one with a variety of effects. Each item also has a residential limit so you can't move them all to one. Since the dungeons are randomly generated in the Item World, it stands to give unlimited replay value should the story maps start being boring.
In battle, there's an element called Geo panels which gives the game a feeling a tad like a puzzle game. Geo panels are colored tiles placed all around the map. By themselves, geo panels do absolutely nothing. When a Geo symbol is placed on a Geo panel, that color panel gains an effect according to the Geo symbol or symbols placed on that type. This effect then goes across all the panels on the map. These effected Geo panels can become an excellent element of help or deter the player. You can also change the color of the Geo panels on the map be destroying a Geo symbol on the panel that isn't the same color. Destroying a blue Geo symbol on a red panel will change all the red ones into blue ones on the map. While this is changing, it'll deal damage to whoever is on a red panel. You can also destroy all the colored panels in a level for a huge bonus by chaining color changes in a row and ending it with the destruction of a Geo symbol called null.. If a Geo symbol is destroyed as a result of a color change, that Geo symbol will then change the color of the panel it was on granted that it isn't the same. You can magnify the damage this way and make a level that seemed incredibly tough incredibly easy.
Sound and graphics are perhaps the weakest points of Disgaea overall but both are still quite strong. Graphically, Disgaea's nothing really to write home about considering it's 2D sprites pasted on 3D environments. On the other hand, the effects implored for techniques in the game are fantastic and are amazing look at, especially the later techniques. The same can be said for the music. At certain points, the music is quite strong with very nice rock tunes but at certain points it'll just die down and seem rather bland. Thankfully the dubs in English and Japanese are both quite strong although I personally garnered quite a few more laughs from the English one.
While the game has many good points to it, Disgaea has several downsides. This is most notably the fact that the AI is essentially dumb as dirt and that the enemies don't grow alongside your characters. The AI won't activate unless you come in range of its sphere of influence. This will allow you to systematically kill off enemies. The AI also will make some dumb decisions on spell and technique usage. It also won't help support its own team members often. The levels of enemies won't grow with the characters so it makes it much easier for diehard levelers to breeze through the main chunk of the game. The Geo panels save this somewhat thanks to the several setups found in later levels of the game. Besides those, the storyline might not strike many people since it's episodic in nature is rather fluffy in comparison to other games in the genre.
Aside from the niggling issues with the game, Disgaea carries several very quirky aspects and an excellent base of gameplay. With almost unparalleled levels of customization and near unlimited amounts of replay value, Disgaea will keep many people busy for a long time.
9/10/2003 Anton Cao