"I appreciate the comical tone, but by the fifth game, prinny and bust-size jokes tire more than ever."
The crew is back in action in Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness! Laharl, Etna, and Flonne finally get their rightful time in the spotlight with a game that serves as a sequel to the original Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. Turns out not much has changed at all. Seriously, it's unabashedly familiar.
To its own detriment, the latest Disgaea game seems content to rest on its laurels. There are jokes about prinnies and about breasts. You will have to grind until the X button on your DualShock cries in agony for a break. It can be undeniably fun, but it brings with it an air of familiarity.
As you've come to expect from the franchise, this game is a hardcore strategy RPG. No punches are pulled; even from the start, be ready to keep your wits sharp. It's still a grid-based affair; positioning is key to victory. Keeping your units in advantageous positions is often the key to success. Geo panels that change battle conditions are relied upon far too often, but can be toyed with to help or hinder. Ensuring party members are near one another will set them up for devastating combo attacks. If your units are friendly enough, they'll help each other out or maybe put the final hit on a pesky enemy.
Yes, characters develop relationships on the battlefield. They can have short asides about the current topic at hand, but more importantly, the more that characters work near each other, the more often they'll work together for combo attacks. Cover attacks also become a crucial element, as one selected character can pull off an all-powerful special attack and another can ensure the enemy won't survive by adding those extra points of damage.
Also new on the battlefield is the ability for human characters to mount monster types. It has potential at first, but I eventually found it to be far more trouble than it was worth. The two units become one, and the loss of the second positioning never seems worth it despite all the benefits the game claims mounting provides. You can use a mount to provide the rider with quicker travel and the like, but no matter what, I always felt like the negatives outweighed the positives. It fell by the wayside as a useless feature, and I found myself drifting towards an almost human-exclusive party.
The master/student system allows for some incredible breadth in customizing characters. Student characters can learn certain skills and spells, and the master gains some bonus stats. This allows healer characters to learn some surprisingly deadly offensive spells and makes for a lot more variety in your troops. Combined with the Dark Assembly that allows for some pretty in-depth character creation, your party gets very suited to your play style.
For all the good things I like about Disgaea D2, the hardcore devotion to grinding put a major halt in my enjoyment of the game. You expect a fair amount of repetition going into a Disgaea title, but I found myself unprepared for the amount in this one. Perhaps I'm more out of touch with the franchise than I thought, but I seriously couldn't take it. Requiring maps be played again in the hunt for xp is fine once in a while, but not how often this core narrative demands it. It was a major turn-off and massive detriment to the enjoyable aspects of combat.
As everyone knows by now, Disgaea D2 features the return of the beloved trio of Etna, Flonne, and Laharl. Laharl is fresh in the seat as Overlord of the Netherworld, but rebels are already looking to overthrow him. It sounds more serious than it actually is, as the game makes sure to retain the light-hearted nature of the franchise. Unfortunately, the storytelling is a mixed bag all around. I appreciate the comical tone, but by the fifth game, prinny and bust-size jokes tire more than ever. Jokes often fall flat and characters bore, but no matter what, the core trio satisfied me. I blame nostalgia.
Episodic in its nature, each segment of Disgaea features it own small story that fills tiny gaps in the overall narrative. I never found the overall or episodic stories to be compelling, but they are occasionally humorous, and I do suppose that's more interesting to fans of the series. However, I must say that for all the build-up around the female Laharl, it's never funny outside of a joke or two.
Bright colors aid quite a bit in the game's presentation. The change to more colorful scenery helps this entry stand out visually from the rest of the series. You'll still see plenty of dark locations, but it's nice that more lush locations often prevail. The environments themselves aren't much to look at, but the sprites of the 2D characters absolutely shine in HD glory.
Voice acting is the generic anime styling you would expect. Back in 2003, I'm sure I thought it was charming, but I can barely stand it in 2013. I didn't even find the Japanese dub to be much improved. Every character aside from Etna is incredibly lackluster, and even Etna is pretty average. Laharl stands out as the worst of the cast, a terrible quality in a lead character. I admire the dedication to using the same actors, but the results do the game no favors.
Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness is by no means a bad game; it just happens to be an uninteresting one. Five games into the series, it's become far too predictable. The combat is still challenging and fun, but everything surrounding it has become rote. I think Nippon Ichi has played it far too safe with their latest entry, and it shows. For the diehard Disgaea fan, there is an absolute plethora of content on your hunt for level 9,999, but for all other SRPG fans, there are better options out there right now. My fond memories of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness can never be taken from me, although Disgaea D2 tries its best to do so.