|Developer:||Nippon Ichi Software|
|Official Site:||English Site|
Almost a year ago, I got my introduction to Disgaea by way of the PSP port (Afternoon of Darkness) of the first game in the series (Hour of Darkness), and I promptly fell in love with its quirky brand of gameplay. With a new entry in the series out on the PS3, Disgaea's developers have decided to do something I don't think I've seen before: make a port of a port. Yes, Disgaea DS is a port of the PSP port, not of the original Disgaea.
Disgaea DS tells the story of Laharl, the demon son of the Overlord of the Netherworld, King Krichevskoy. As the game opens, a demon girl named Etna is waking Prince Laharl from a rather extended nap. It turns out that while he was asleep, his father died, and this in turn left the Netherworld without a ruler. Unfortunately for Laharl, his father has been dead for two years, which has left plenty of time for other demons to try to step up to the post. As with any good RPG story, though, Laharl's quest to become the unquestioned Overlord is just the beginning.
Disgaea's story has charm and humor to spare, with some great moments where the characters in the game directly address the player and other bits where the story just plain breaks the standard rules for RPG stories. You're fighting for a demon's chance to be in charge of what is essentially Hell, so you could hardly expect less. The tone switches from chapter to chapter, and some moments of the plot are far more serious than others, but it generally restrains itself from being overtly dark. There are a few nice plot twists, some of which are more obvious than others, and several different endings, at least one of which can only be seen by losing a battle.
After beating the game once, there are two new options available to players, one of which is new to the DS. First, Etna mode returns from its PSP debut. This story replaces the original, and follows Etna after she errs in a pretty serious way when trying to wake Laharl from his nap at the beginning of the game, and as you might guess, certain people get a lot more screen time in Etna's story than they did the first time around. A code is available that will allow you to tackle Etna mode without playing the regular story, but first-time players should be warned that taking on Etna mode before playing the regular story will mean that certain elements of the narrative won't make sense and other plot twists will be given away. Both stories are worth playing, although Etna mode is approximately half as long as Laharl's, and the enemies' levels go up much more quickly from battle to battle. If I had played it first, I would have been disappointed, but as a "what if" scenario after you've already beaten the game, it's fun.
The new story element is Prinny Commentary. This is an option that you can choose to turn on or off, but only after you've unlocked it by completing the game once. The commentary shows up on the DS' top screen during story conversations, and is usually fairly humorous, although it's rarely out-and-out hilarious. It's disappointing that you can't watch it on your first playthrough, because I really didn't feel that it made a difference in how worth your time it is to play the game a second time. It's also disappointing that there's no Prinny Commentary for Etna mode, especially because the Prinnies play a much bigger role in that story than they do in the original.
Note for those who played either of the two previous versions of this game:
For anyone who wants more detail:
As a strategy RPG, Disgaea DS is a game of turn-based battles. In this case, all members of your team take their turns, followed by all of the enemies who survived your turn (as opposed to individual characters taking turns based on their speed statistic). You can queue up as many of your characters as you want, and then execute all of those actions to get combo bonuses, or you can execute one action at a time to make sure you don't waste an attack on a dead enemy, so you have a lot of freedom in how you fight.
Most RPGs have character classes, but there aren't many games with as many classes as Disgaea. In fact, there are many more character classes than you would want to use in just one playthrough. Most, if not all, are classes you'll see in other games, or variations on those classes, but I want to mention the Rogue, because Rogues can steal both items and stats from enemies. Stealing items is fairly normal, but stealing stats is more unusual (I've never played another game that has included this ability). It allows your Rogue to improve his own stats by stealing them from enemies in addition to doing so by leveling up. For example, if your Rogue has a low defense rating, he can steal defense from an enemy and permanently improve his own rating. It won't turn a wimp into Hercules in a single battle, but it's a cool thing to be able to do, and since you can take characters all the way up to level 9999, you've got plenty of time to improve them. Yes, you read that correctly: this game's level cap is nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine. You won't have to get your characters even as far as level 75 to beat the game once, but you can play through with the same party as many times as you wish, with the enemies' levels increasing each time to match your characters.
Something I love in the Disgaea series is the ability to pick up other characters and throw them. If you need to travel really far, you can even stack characters like a totem pole and then throw the stack. Since you can have up to ten characters in any battle, this means that you can go extremely far in just one turn. You can also pick up and throw enemies, including one monster type that explodes when thrown.
Another of the unique and noteworthy features of the series is the inclusion of Geo Panels, which are colored squares on the map that can be given special properties using Geo Stones. Geo Stones are items that appear on the map and have properties such as "20% Damage," "Attack + 50," and even "Invincible." The Geo Stones' properties affect any squares on the map that are the same color as the Geo Panel they're currently on, and using them properly can make the difference between winning or losing.
You will see Geo Panels in many battles, but you'll see them the most in the Item World. You can improve every single item in Disgaea, from the tiniest health potion to the most legendary sword, by entering the Item World, which consists of a series of randomly generated battles that you fight one after another. For every battle you complete (up to 100 per item), the item's stats improve. If you love playing Disgaea, the Item World is a great opportunity for grinding and extending your gameplay.
As much as I love Disgaea, I'd be remiss as a reviewer if I didn't mention one of Disgaea's few weaknesses: experience is only earned through killing enemies, and healers do not learn any offensive spells. There are ways to level up healers, but this was still annoying to me. This issue was corrected in Disgaea 2, but as with its PSP parent, Disgaea DS did not pick up that correction. It's not a huge problem, but I really would have preferred the Disgaea 2 method.
With all of the items in the game, obsessed gamers will definitely wonder what they've already gotten their hands on and how many items are left. Thankfully, the collection book returns from the PSP game, and it automatically keeps track of the items you've gotten. To make collecting even easier, any time an item you haven't had shows up in the store or on an enemy, its icon has the word "New" next to it. The game also keeps track of other stats like the number of friendly units you've killed (which affects the ending you get) and the amount of time you've played.
Multiplayer makes its return after debuting on the PSP, and it features another of the few additions to Disgaea DS: Demon Gadgets. These are items that appear at random on the board that grant bonuses like allowing a player to advance 30 levels at a time. Unfortunately, wifi play is not supported, so I couldn't try out multiplayer for myself.
As you can tell, there is a lot to Disgaea DS. The basics are fairly simple to learn, but there are enough nuances to keep players entertained for as long as they want to keep playing. Playing through the original story once while trying to keep my extraneous activities within the game to the minimum possible took me 100 hours, although I have seen veterans on boards around the internet who say they can finish it in just 30 hours. I found that if I did not spend at least some time grinding levels, the challenge of continuing to win story battles became very difficult. After those 100 hours, I still hadn't touched the second story, and given total freedom, I would have spent much more time improving items in the Item World than I did. Once you finish the game, you can start a new game with your existing party, items, and collection stats intact, so Afternoon of Darkness is really as open-ended an RPG as you'll find anywhere.
The graphics in Disgaea DS return to the original aspect ratio (as opposed to the widescreen presentation on the PSP), and nothing I did caused a noticeable drop in the framerate. Your characters are 2D sprites on a 3D map with 2D items (such as trees) on it. The special attacks all have nice animations, and the first few times you see the spell effects, you'll definitely be impressed by several of them. Seeing the same animation over and over can get very old, though, and using one of my favorite features in this game, the Settings menu, you can turn off skill animations for allies, enemies, or both. If you play for 100 hours like I did, you'll definitely appreciate this.
To go on a somewhat-related tangent for a moment, Disgaea DS' Settings menu may be the best one I've ever seen. Not only can you turn off skill animations, you can speed up walking speed, change the way things appear on the top screen, toggle icons for battery status, time, and other helpful items. Best of all, you can even change the screen brightness, something every single DS game should include.
Story conversations take place through static drawings of the characters doing the talking, although the drawings change to reflect the tone of the character's current line. If the conversation takes place before or after a battle and you can see the character who is speaking on the battlefield, their sprite will also change poses to match the drawing, which is a nice touch. These portraits are expressive, cute, and go well together.
The biggest difference between the DS and PSP versions of Disgaea is the DS' second screen. The developers have done an outstanding job of using it to its best effect. In battle, it shows a simplified, top-down version of the map, which effectively eliminates the complaints I had in the PSP game about on-screen objects occasionally blocking your view of enemies. Although I didn't feel like a second map was lacking in the PSP version, it didn't take long on the DS before I found myself using that top screen at some point in every battle. Outside of battle, it has a few very simple icons that remind you of important things like whether you've healed up your party before starting the next fight. They're mostly a convenience, but they are really convenient.
The previous versions of this game featured voice acting in the story conversations as well as soundbites for each character as he or she took action on the battlefield, but much of the spoken dialogue has been removed in Disgaea DS, as has the Japanese language track. The voice acting is done well, and I enjoyed listening to the characters throughout the story. The battle sounds are cute but get old after a few hundred times, and there's no option to turn them off, but that's forgiveable. I was disappointed at the loss of the vocals, but if I hadn't played the game before, I probably wouldn't have missed them.
The music is also great, although some tracks sound like they've been simplified a bit from previous incarnations. The music in the castle that serves as the game's hub has been replaced with a new tune in Etna mode, and it's just about exactly the right level of catchy - it is good music, but doesn't drive you crazy by staying stuck in your head for days after you play the game.
As mentioned above, there is a song store in Disgaea DS that allows you to purchase any track you've already heard and listen to it in the castle whenever you want or use it to replace the Item World music. It's very pricey, so you won't want to spend your money on it during your first playthrough, but if you're playing again, you may have enough money to blow that you'll feel it's worth it.
As is the case with many SRPGs, Afternoon of Darkness' controls are simple, basic, and intuitive. I never felt like I had to dig too deeply in menus or wonder which button to press to accomplish a task. The Settings menu even includes an option to change how the d-pad works if you don't care for the default, and the controls can be displayed at any time if you aren't sure how to do something. Touch screen controls are included and work fine, but aren't generally worth bothering with. I tried them a few times for the sake of the review, but gave up quickly each time, as using the buttons was at least as easy.
As I said in my PSP review, there are always two questions asked when discussing a game that's a port: should you buy it again if you have played it before, and should you play it now if you didn't before? If you played Disgaea on the PSP, I really don't feel that the Prinny Commentary and second screen add enough to justify buying it again, but if you haven't played it since the original version, it's a great game that's well worth another purchase. If you've never played it before, you've been missing out on a game that combines addictive, deep gameplay with a good plot and a great sense of humor.