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SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Genre: Strategy RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Released: US 08/30/06
Japan 02/23/06
Official Site: English Site



Scorecard
Graphics: 77%
Sound: 95%
Gameplay: 92%
Control: 79%
Story: 83%
Overall: 87%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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The Prism Rangers! Wait, shouldn't they have seven members then?
 
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So, congress really is comprised of bribe-accepting demons!
 
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Everything NIS stands for: combos, flashy 2D graphics, and very large numbers.
 
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Everything else NIS stands for: 2D anime stills with colorful backgrounds to tell the story.
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Patrick Gann
Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories
08/29/06
Patrick Gann

It's finally happened! Years after Nippon Ichi's classic SRPG "Disgaea" was released, Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories has come to light! During the interim, cousin titles to the Disgaea universe, such as Phantom Brave and Makai Kingdom, were released; but for some reason, they just did not seem to impress the hardcore 2D RPG fans the same way that Disgaea did.

For those of you that have followed NIS's long line of strategy RPGs, you should know basically what you're in for with this game. However, if you missed out on all the previous titles (like me), and are picking up fresh with Disgaea 2, this review is going to give you the real scoop on one of the most unique and most silly RPGs on the market. Here we go, dood!

Story

The planet of Veldime was once a peaceful little settlement. Then, fifteen years ago, an evil Overlord named Zenon came to the planet and began to suck the willpower and memories out of all the human inhabitants, slowly turning them into demons. Only one human managed to completely avoid the effects of the curse: your avatar, Adell. Sounds like an obvious plot-opener, right? Of course it does, and NIS knows it. That's why characters such as Adell's siblings (Taro and Hanako) ask if his "main character" status is the reason he's immune to the curse.

See, even from the start, this is what makes NIS titles like Disgaea 2 so different: they openly and willingly break the fourth wall, willingly mocking the sort of hackneyed story you've explored over and over in countless role-playing games. That's why, although the nature of the story itself may seem drab, the presentation and the quirks along the way help to keep it fresh.

In a failed attempt to summon Overlord Zenon, Adell and his family end up getting Zenon's only daughter, Rozalin. She's your typical stuck-up princess, with the added lack of social graces that comes from being locked in a palace one's entire life. You agree to escort her back to her father, and though Rozalin knows what you plan to do to him, she agrees to take you to her father. She assumes (rightfully) that you are simply not powerful enough to defeat him.

That's the opening to what turns into a zany romp through Veldime and beyond. What more is there to expect? Everything. Cameo appearances from the first Disgaea, such as Etna and Laharl, are no-brainers. In fact, Etna is more than a cameo. She plays a major role in the story, as do her loyal band of Prinnies (the penguins who say "dood!")

Speaking of penguins who say "dood!" let's stop for a moment and consider the translation of the dialogue. From a linguistic standpoint, translation can be done in two ways: static (literal) or dynamic (transposed into the vernacular). NIS America has definitely chosen the path of dynamic translation, as many have before them. However, unlike some of the strangely-placed jokes from Working Designs (most of which were usually too mainstream for the niche titles they released), NIS America keeps their humor on the level of their target audience: in short, semi-sophisticated nerds.

The simplest test to determine whether or not a sentence was translated "loosely" is to turn on the Japanese audio and read the corresponding dialogue as it's being spoken. The tone, as well as the length of the statement, can help you see the changes made. Though I'm generally a purist when it comes to these sorts of projects, the result in Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories is fantastic. Again, the humor is oftentimes directed at the way RPGs are made. Characters openly talk about what level they are. And at certain plot points, events are explained because "you've made it far enough" or "the game's almost over and no one's mentioned this yet."

Though the world is populated by demons (and humans that are turning into demons), don't expect the game to be dark, gloomy, or in any way occult. Instead, expect characters to be quirky, crude, and crass. I remember falling out of my chair during the middle of a cutscene where Adell's parents are having a conversation, and right in the middle of it, the demon growing on the dad's chest declares "I love boobies!" and later exclaims "all hail the boobie kingdom!" This breast-obsessed demon is not only proof positive of Zenon's growing curse, but displays the epitome of great comic timing.

I could go on and on about the fun and silliness this game offers. Allusions to other videogames, Japanese culture, and even American culture abound ("Momma said knock you out!" in an item description for chloroform... dood that's hilarious). Also, while the storyline proper ends with about 25 hours of straight play (divided into 13 episodes), the plot continues- with voiced dialogue and plenty of reading- well into the many subquests for post-game and second-game play. There are a number of different bonus endings one can attain through accomplishing insane feats (such as leveling one character to 1000 and then soloing the last boss with him). Yeah, there's a lot to do even after the original plot is over.

But when the humor gets tiresome, and you look back on the meaning and value of the plot, it really is another run-of-the-mill RPG plot. I was able to predict very early the majority of the revelations that Adell and his party make. There's only one that surprised me, and it was right at the game's ending: let that be incentive for you to at least go that far in this massive game.

For its originality, the "story" subscore is boosted plenty. However, the short length of the standard plot along with the standard character development and predictable plot twists do hurt the score a bit. That's why I'm giving it an 83%.

Gameplay

If you were looking for a fun, possibly addictive strategy RPG that allows you to beat stages quickly and level even faster, you've come to the right place. NIS is notorious for ignoring the standard convention of limits or "caps." Characters can level up to 9999, and as far as I know, there is no cap on HP or damage. This blatant disregard for standard RPG rules shows itself early in the game, when you first run into Etna and are forced to cope with the fact that she is stronger than you are by an exponential level. When someone can accidently destroy you by using an attack that takes off 100 times your maximum HP, you know you've met your match.

The beauty of Disgaea, however, is how open the system is to allowing character growth. Leveling can be done by repeating missions, or by entering the "Item World" (randomly generated dungeons created by the items in your inventory), or by unlocking special dungeons through various secrets held within the game. If you wanted, you could easily have your characters leveled to 1000 well before the game's halfway point. Of course, that will take plenty of time and effort, and I certainly don't have the time to do it, but I will admit that it is fun to level-grind in this game, at least moreso than in any other RPG.

While there is some minimal free-roaming and some interesting mini-games and quests available (addressing the Dark Assembly is a particularly interesting feature), the majority of the game is spent fighting on a traditional isometric map. The details of the battle system are different from Final Fantasy Tactics and its many subpar clones. In Disgaea, there is the player's turn and then the enemy's turn. That's standard enough. What's interesting is that what happens during the player's turn is ordered however you wish, and backing out of certain decisions to allow for optimal strategizing is generally doable.

Up to 10 characters are placed on the map, entering from a base panel. From here, the players can move, throw each other around, set up attacks, special attacks, use items, or defend. However, everything you "set" to do doesn't happen until you hit "execute." You can hit execute once for the whole round, or many times throughout the round, depending on how you want things to happen. When you've finished your turn, you choose "end turn" and the enemy goes at it. Added to this is the "panel" system, where colored tiles controlled by geo-panels create various effects on the terrain that can either help or hurt your characters. Extreme panels such as "no entry" and "invincibility" are commonly found throughout the game and require a decent amount of puzzle-solving skill to conquer.

Experience points are, for the most part, awarded for actions taken. More experience is given to an individual character for defeating an opponent. This can lead to some discrepancy in levels, where characters who can attack more than one enemy at a time or who have exceptional ranged abilities begin to level more quickly. By the end of the game, my highest character was well past 70, my main character was 58, and my lowest regularly-used character was 35. They all did great in the last battle.

One struggle that I had in the game was managing the party and their equipment. Unlike the convenient job system of Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea's characters will each have one pre-set job. If you want to experiment with more jobs, you'll have to create a new character (who starts back at level 1) and train him or her to match the level of your current party, or else "transmigrate" a character to an advanced job (with some stat penalties). Advanced jobs become unlockable as your progress throughout the game, but because I didn't want my old party to go to waste, I did not spend much time using these unlocked advanced jobs. They seem more suitable for a second play.

Yes, of course, there is a new game plus option. All your characters, along with their stats and equipment, are carried into a new game.

The open-ended manner in which the game can be played, the customization of characters, and the lack of a level cap all encourage the gamer to go above and beyond. And, for those that wish to do so, the replay value becomes vast. Various hidden characters, hidden bosses, and hidden stages can all be found after putting tireless hours into leveling characters and seeking out new adventures. I have seen some of them myself, and I've read about plenty of others. I'm sure there's a lot of great stuff packed away that I haven't even read about. And the crazy thing is: all of those things are given the same attention and production value that the main story arc receives. Talk about attention to detail!

Of all the score categories (except maybe sound), this one is somewhat subjective. There's plenty to do in Disgaea 2, but if you hate the style of gameplay, it's all worthless. To those who can and do appreciate the way the game is played, there's plenty of it to go around. For that reason, I am giving gameplay a 92%.

Control

Two words: camera angles.

Like many Strategy RPGs, the isometric map can be viewed from four different camera angles, and some zooming in and out can also take place. It wasn't too long ago that I played Stella Deus (from Atlus) and praised it for allowing 8 camera angles instead of the standard 4, which always leave you looking at the squares as though they were diamonds (45 degree angles, dood!). On most maps this wasn't a problem. Near the end of the game, however, levels with extreme differences in terrain and height, especially ones with tall buildings and narrow corridors, became impossible to navigate. Simply selecting the squares you wanted to move on was a burden: recognizing whether or not enemies were in that area was another problem entirely. I'd have to hit L, then R, then L, then R, using that half-second glimpse to look down the straightaway to see if any enemies were there. Some quick programming to allow all eight camera angles could have fixed this.

I don't know whether to put this next complaint in "sound" or "control," because it involves controlling sound. The options menu that allows you to adjust sound wasn't very helpful to me. Try as I might, I could never manage to balance the sound effects with the voice acting. This would sometimes cause problems for me, though not so much that I'd make it a major complaint. Again, props to NIS America for allowing a change from Japanese audio to English audio at any moment of gameplay. This is not the first game where they've allowed this option, but it is the first one to allow the option and have no noticeable bugs go along with it.

The "camera angle gripe" is the one thing that keeps me from letting this score reach an 80%. However, the rest of the control, UI, etc, is all top-notch. Hence, 79% it is.

Sound

Two more words: Tenpei Sato.

You haven't heard of Tenpei Sato? DOOD! Sato-san is the king. He is a veteran in the world of VGM, and he's been doing music for RPGs with anime-like character designs since the late 1980s. Though technically freelance, he's allied himself so closely to Nippon Ichi that the two are nearly inseparable (I say "nearly" because Makai Kingdom had a whole batch of freelancers contribute pieces to it).

Sato's score for the game includes many Japanese vocal tracks (even one that he himself performs), as well as over 2 hours worth of original, interesting, high-quality music. The light-hearted, mischievous nature of the game carries over naturally into the music Sato has composed. Of course, it's not all fun and games here. Some of the more serious, tense, and tender moments of the game wouldn't be one third as great as they are without Sato's melodies. Also, the synth programming is excellent. I don't know where the "real" instruments end and the "synth" instruments begin, nor do I care to find out. It just sounds great.

I could rant about the quality of Sato's work for a while, and how it is better than the first Disgaea, Phantom Brave, and La Pucelle, but I won't; we have the RPGFan Soundtracks section for a reason.

Even with this great score, that alone could not warrant a 95% grade. To get that high (if you noticed the double-meaning, play Disgaea 2), you'd need loads of quality English voice acting, as well as the option to listen to the original Japanese audio. Check, and check. I was floored by how well the English voice actors "got it" with these characters. They really understood the way the characters ought to act. I instantly fell in love with the Prinnies. Etna was great. All of the main characters are solid. Axel and his director are top-notch. Having played other games localized by NIS America (namely the Atelier Iris titles), I have to say that the voice acting on Disgaea 2 is the best I've heard yet from NIS America. Keep up the fine work.

Graphics

The drawback with Disgaea 2 is definitely in the graphics department. Basically, the amount of improvement from Disgaea 1 to Disgaea 2 is minimal. Compare that to the progression from Final Fantasy X to Final Fantasy XII, and you'll realize that Nippon Ichi is in no hurry to beef up their graphics department.

The main graphical attraction with Disgaea is, of course, the anime-style characters and backgrounds. The best graphics are found in the opening anime sequence. Mind you, there is no reason why Nippon Ichi couldn't put more anime sequences throughout the game, or at least at the game's end. However, that introductory two minutes is all you'll be getting. That makes me feel mopey and sad inside.

Anime stills make up the majority of the dialogue-based cutscenes throughout the game. These, of course, are nice. Characters have plenty of different expressions drawn, so it's not the same face and body for each sentence. That's a good thing.

In-game, and in-battle, the best graphics are usually brought out through flashy combo attacks and things of that nature. Otherwise, the layout is pretty mundane. The character sprites are given a fair amount of attention in the form of animation (NIS makes sure to have those pixelated breasts bouncing every time a grown woman moves); however, the quality of the sprites, in pure terms of resolution, makes this a mediocre achievement.

That said, the graphics are definitely the one drawback for the game. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone: neither should the 77% I just gave out.

Overall

If you want a short, fun, quirky, and sometimes sentimental Strategy RPG that knows its market and takes jabs at it with impeccable humor, you should get Disgaea 2. If you'd prefer a game that allows you to play for hours on end (like, over 200 hours) with new events to keep your interest now and then, but you don't want it to be an MMORPG, then get Disgaea 2. If you liked the first game, then get Disgaea 2. If you liked what I had to say in my review, then get Disgaea 2. Support the little guys and get it. The only reason you shouldn't get Disgaea 2 is if other games are taking priority, or if you absolutely hate every NIS strategy RPG you've played to this point, because this one isn't very different in style. If you like the style of games NIS makes, however, you'll probably find my 87% to be a valid grade, and you'll probably be playing the game soon after reading this review.

Whatever you decide, decide soon: the first Disgaea became a rarity in a very short amount of time, due to its limited print. Hopefully NIS America will manufacture a larger number for the sequel, but even so, there's no guessing when this game will become "hard to find." Don't miss out!



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© 2006 NIS America, All Rights Reserved.


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