• Disgaea Hour of Darkness Review - Sony PS2

    Once in a while, a gem of a game is released that largely gets over looked due to it being away from the mainstream. Whilst games like Final Fantasy arrive to a fanfare parades, others meekly slip by, and this is real shame. Disgaea is such a game and deserves your attention.
    Disgaea is a Tactical RPG, a genre that is not uncommon, but has somewhat of a niche market. A TRPG concentrates its game play on the combat, and less on the storyline and character interaction. That said, in Disgaea the storyline, which is split into chapters, is rather flowing. You, Laharl, awake after taking a two-year nap to find that your father, the demon overlord, has died. Unfortunately while you were asleep, a number of demons have decided to take over the Netherworld, and you’ve been largely forgotten about. Rather annoyed by this, Laharl decides it’s time to show who the real Overlord is, and goes about taking back control.

    With the back-story explained nicely using Anime style graphics and a choice of either English or Japanese voiceovers, you enter the game controlling Laharl in his colourful 3D isometric world (a typical TRPG style, if you’ve seen Final Fantasy Tactics, you know what to expect). The isometric viewpoint can be a little problematic sometimes, particularly where there is a large height difference between blocks. It’s possible not to be able to see things because of the perspective. However, if you move the cursor around, you are given a detailed description of what is on that particular square. The look is what could be described as “Old School”; in this type of game the pictorial element is not as important as the battle engine, as that is where you will spend the majority of your time; here the graphics are nicely done, and suit the game well. As you wonder about the castle, most of which is purely for show, you are introduced to the different parts of the game; the Dark Assembly, the Hospital, a shop, Item World and the Dimensional Gate, all of which will play a significant part in the story.

    To travel through the Netherworld you use the dimensional gate, which is essentially the level selection. The first time you visit the portal, the only available map is the tutorial. This consists of three levels that introduce how combat in Disgaea works. Some very important information is divulged during the tutorial, and you should pay attention to it. As you progress through the game, more and more maps become accessible, which you are able to revisit whenever you desire.

    When you first arrive on a map you are given a single start point, the portal entrance, from which all your party emerges. The concept is very simple; place the members of your party on the map, and wipe out all of your opponents by attacking them with your equipped weapon. For each enemy you kill, you receive Mana points and HLs (the game currency), which you can use in other aspects of the game world. The enemy AI is variable, but this variability is based on level. Your foes will normally try to go for the weakest character, or the highest damage infliction possible, say if you have a number of characters together that can be hit with a special. This means you have to think very carefully about positioning your team. It is a challenging prospect, with hundreds of different workable tactics.

    Basic combat is very simple; it is turn based and driven via a menu system, allowing you a move, use an item, attack an enemy or use a special. However, there is a depth to this game Captain Nemo would be amazed of; all sorts of team combos and stat modifiers can be used to aid (or hinder) your progress. Variety and flexibility is the key here, and keeps the “must keep levelling” mentality going, yet without seeming complex.

    The tutorial introduces the concept of lifting and throwing opponents or allies, the result of which is determined by what you throw. Throwing an ally allows you to increase your movement range, and is one of two ways that allows you to traverse gaps in the maps. Throw an enemy at another enemy and they merge into a single, higher level unit. This is very useful when trying to power level your characters, but be careful, or you could find yourself quickly out ranked.

    The final part of the tutorial covers geo blocks and geo symbols. At first these seem to be very complex and inaccessible, however, you soon get to grips with the concept. A map can have one, or more usually, several coloured squares. These are the geo blocks. When a geo cube is placed on a geo block, all blocks of that colour have a bonus or boon applied to it. If a character is standing on a geo block, the geo cube modifier is applied to that character. The affects of geo symbols can be of help or hindrance, they vary from increased attack and defence, invincibility, warping (which moves you to another part of the map) and cloning (which creates an enemy clone of the same level and skills), and these effects can even be combined. This system gives a completely different aspect to planning your campaign on a map. Do you destroy symbols? Do you move them? Can you reach them before the enemy can attack you with bonuses? Some maps make you think very hard because of where and what geo symbols are present. It’s very cleverly implemented.

    Any of your human characters can lift and throw symbols to different coloured blocks; it’s also possible to destroy them by attacking them. This can lead to a chain event, changing the colour of geo blocks if the geo cube is not the same shade, filling your bonus meter and causing damage to any character stood on the changing blocks. If the chain destroys another Geo block, the process can chain all over again; manage to change all the blocks the same colour and they disappear, giving you a super bonus. This is but a small example, there are many other geo cube effects waiting to be discovered as you progress further.

    When you have defeated all your opponents on a map, the bonus gauge, which was filled as you advanced through the level, is emptied, giving you new items, experience and HLs as it does so. The more bonus points you gain on a level, the more likely you are to get better bonus items; this can be further enhanced by getting a motion passed in the Dark Assembly.

    The Dark Assembly is the Netherworld government. It is made up of a number of Senators who decide whether a motion proposed by your party is passed or denied. Motions can range from raising funds for your campaign, to better bonus items, to higher-level enemies on combat maps. Your mana points and assembly rank (different to your level), govern the availability of these motions. To increase your rank you must pass an assembly test; lone combat against several creatures, which increases in difficulty as the rank rises.

    Each motion you propose costs mana points. In order to get a motion passed, you must convince enough Senators to vote in your favour. However, all Senators are not equal. A Senator has a vote for each of his levels, so even if more vote in favour, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a motion passed. Luckily there’s a trump card. You are able to bribe Senators with gifts, but whether they’ll warm to you depends on your influence, rank and mana levels. Should you fail with your motion, you can force its approval through combat, not easy and not recommended, as they will like you even less come the next vote. It’s refreshing to see innovation like this, particularly in a genre that is very well defined. Passing motions in a game based government with a corrupt senate to improve your lot in life; it’s just like the Houses of Parliament.

    The Dark Assembly is also used for character creation. There are many classes of characters in Disgaea, some human, some monsters; each has their own special skills, either magic or weapon based. Creating a character costs mana points, the more of which you spend, the higher that character’s skill level will be; ranging from Good-for-Nothing to Genius. Once you reach a certainly assembly rank, you can transmigrate to a different character class and higher skill level. This resets your character level to one, but increases your statistics and leaves your special skills intact. You can transmigrate many times; meaning if you play the game for long enough, you’ll end up with an Uber God with skills from many different classes, again upping the replay value.

    The items equipped by a character can further customise their statistics. Like Senators, all items are not equal. There are three classes of items; Normal, Rare and Legendary. Even if an item is of the same class, its stats and affects on a character can be very different. What makes this even more interesting is items can be levelled, making them more powerful. To do this you must visit Item World.

    Each item in Disgaea has its own environment and inhabitants. Some of these creatures, called specialists, can be tamed and controlled and even moved from item to item. In order to gain a specialist, you must defeat them in combat on the item maps. Each item has one hundred randomly generated maps. To clear one, and so descend to the next level in the item, you must defeat all foes on that level. On each map there are also warp points that allow you to skip to the level without killing everyone, though sometimes these are not easy to reach. There is a special item you must carry in order to escape from Item World; namely “Mr. Gency's Exit”. If you are not carrying this item, you can only escape at every tenth level. When you exit an item, for each of the maps you traversed, it gains a level, which in doing so increases its power, and hence increases your character stats when equipped.

    This review can only scratch the surface of the complexities of the customisations and battle tactics available in Disgaea. This is both its strength and its weakness. It is quite possible to complete the game without understanding classes, geo blocks, assembly ranks and item world, but in doing so you will miss out on the very thing that makes the game hugely intoxicating.

    To master a game like this will take months of enjoyable and rewarding hard work. If you are a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to buy this game. If you have an interest in RPGs and have yet to venture in to the world of Tactics, you could do far worse than start here. If statistics and tactical battles are not your thing, well it wouldn’t hurt to try this as your introduction, it could be the beginning of a beautiful love affair, and you’d certainly be missing out on one of the best games to grace PS2 this year if you didn’t take a look.