The Disgaea series of SRPGs is one that is well-known to those who have been following the genre over the past few years. The original Disgaea: Hour of Darkness was released on the PlayStation 2 in 2003 to general accolades, and made enough fans to warrant a second entry in 2006 and a third that will release on the PlayStation 3 in 2008. With a new game on the way, Nippon Ichi (the developers of the series) has released an expanded port of Hour of Darkness on the PSP to help those of us who missed out the first time get on board. Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness contains all of contents of the original game plus a new storyline that follows one of the sidekicks from the first story as she goes down a completely different path.
Afternoon of Darkness 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 and step up to the post. Even taking care of the pretenders to the throne won’t leave things nice and peaceful, so Laharl definitely has his work cut out for him.
Afternoon of Darkness’ story has charm and humor to spare, with some great moments of breaking the fourth wall and others of just plain breaking 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, and at least one of these can only be seen by losing a battle.
If you finish the first story and are looking for more (or have played before and just want to see the new content), you can take on Etna mode. This all-new story follows Etna after she errs in a pretty serious way when trying to wake Laharl from his nap at the beginning of the game. It features new dialogue from the same voice actors who played the parts in the original game, although certain people get a lot more screen time in Etna’s story than they did the first time around. 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, and the high score I’ve given Afternoon of Darkness’ story reflects that fact.
Note for those who played Hour of Darkness:
Let me shorten this section for you by saying that the core gameplay is identical to the original game. There are no new classes or changes to the existing ones, so if you want those super-powered Divine Maijins, you still have the same long road ahead of you. Disgaea 2 changed some elements of the gameplay, but Afternoon of Darkness still follows the original model, following the maxim “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Etna mode features battles on the same maps as Laharl’s story, but with different enemies and different Geo Panels/Stones, all placed in different places. The two new features that I’ll mention here are item collection and multiplayer, which you’ll find near the end of the Gameplay section.
For anyone who wants more detail:
As a Strategy RPG, Afternoon of Darkness is a game with turn-based battles. All members of your team take their turns, followed by all of the enemies who survived your turn. They will do their best to gang up on your weakest characters, which is an AI quirk you have to be aware of so that you can use it to your advantage. Each of your characters can move once and take one action during their turn. During your turn, you can choose to Execute all of the actions you’ve set up at any point, which gives you the freedom to direct all of your characters and then execute all of their actions in one fell swoop or to execute one action at a time. There is both risk and reward to your decisions ; for example, executing multiple consecutive attacks on one enemy grants combo bonuses to your damage and raises the Bonus gauge (which I’ll discuss later). However, if you direct multiple characters to attack the same enemy and the first character kills the enemy, your other characters lose their chance to perform an action during that turn.
Most RPGs have character classes, but there aren’t many games with as many classes as Afternoon of Darkness. In fact, between human classes and the monsters you can add to your party after beating them in battle, there are many more character classes than you would want to use in just one playthrough. Thanks to the ability to “transmigrate” your characters to different classes (or to improved versions of the same class they’re already in), you’ll be able to upgrade the people you’ve put effort into and keep them effective as you progress through the game. This is important, because some of the early classes are quite weak when compared to those you unlock later. One of the more unique classes is the Thief, which has a fairly low level of proficiency with weapons, but can steal both items and stats from enemies. Stealing items is great, because it can get you far better equipment than is available to you in the store for far less money. Stealing stats is, if not better, at least more unusual (I’ve never played a game before that has included this ability). It allows your Thief to improve their own stats by stealing them from enemies rather than increasing numbers by leveling up. For example, if your Thief has a low defense rating, he or she can steal defense from an enemy and permanently improve his or her own rating. It won’t turn a 97-pound weakling into Atlas overnight, but it’s a cool thing to be able to do, and since you can take characters all the way up to level 9999 if you want, you’ve got plenty of time to improve them.
Of course, creating new characters for your party isn’t free. If it were, you could easily create an unstoppable party of characters from the strongest classes and not face any challenge in the game. Instead, creating new characters and transmigrating existing characters costs Mana, which your characters gain every time he or she defeats an enemy. Each character has his or her own pool of Mana, so your party members who tend to get more kills will have more Mana to spend on new characters and transmigrating themselves.
When a character creates a new character, they become that new character’s mentor. The mentor/pupil relationship is very beneficial, at least for the mentor. First, any time that the mentor and pupil are standing next to each other in battle, the mentor can use any magic that the pupil has learned. After the mentor uses the skill a few times, he or she will be able to use it any time he or she wants, whether the pupil is around or not. In addition, whenever a pupil levels up, the mentor’s stats go up by a small amount. The one benefit for the pupil is that his or her chance for a team attack with his or her mentor is significantly higher than with most other characters (more on team attacks later).
In battle, each character has a limit to the number of spaces he or she can move in a turn, and if the player wants to move over to the other side of the map quickly, it becomes very frustrating. Fortunately, Afternoon of Darkness gives you some assistance that most games don’t. For example, human characters can 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. The catch is that picking up and throwing someone counts as the character’s action for the turn, so the character that did the throwing is left unable to do anything else until the next turn. Because you can also pick up and throw enemies means that you can take an enemy that’s next to a strong character and throw them over to an area that is occupied by someone that is trying to level up. There are other interesting effects of this ability, including penguins that explode when thrown (the Prinnies, who still say “dood” a lot) and throwing an enemy at another enemy. The latter actually combines the two enemies, leaving you with one enemy whose level equals the sum of the two original enemies’ levels. This sounds scary, but there will actually be times when you’ll want to do this to increase your leveling ability.
One of the unique and important features of the Disgaea 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 can 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. By lifting and throwing Geo Stones onto or off of Geo Panels, you can change what properties the Geo Panels have. There can be Geo Panels and Geo Stones in several different colors on one map, as well as squares that aren’t Geo Panels at all (i.e. just regular ground), all of which can add greatly to the strategizing you’ll do before and during a battle.
“Invincible” Geo Panels give rise to the aforementioned occasions when you’ll want to combine enemies, because if you combine your enemies and then trap them in a position where your characters are invincible, but your enemies aren’t, you can whittle down their health over several turns and allow your characters to earn tons of experience by defeating enemies whose levels are far higher than normal.
In addition to throwing them around, you can also destroy Geo Stones by attacking them (through either melee or magic attacks). Destroying a Geo Stone of one color when it’s sitting on a Geo Panel of another color will remove that Geo Stone’s effect, change the Geo Panels to the destroyed Geo Stone’s color, and damage anyone standing on one of the changed Geo Panels. On a map with several colors of Geo Stones and Geo Panels, you can set up devastating chains that can result in the death of every enemy on the map.
You will see Geo Panels in most battles, but you’ll see them the most in the Item World. You can improve every single item in Afternoon of Darkness, from the tiniest health potion to the most legendary sword, by entering the Item World. The Item World is simply a series of randomly generated battles that you fight one after another. The game gives you the opportunity to leave after every 10 battles, although you can use a special item that can only be gained in battle, not purchased, to leave whenever you wish. For every battle you complete (up to 100 per item), the item’s level goes up by one and its stats improve accordingly. This means great things for your favorite piece of equipment, as it can stay useful much longer through leveling. In addition, every item’s Item World contains a number of Specialists: monsters that grant additional bonuses to the item. Specialists show up at random in the Item World battles as neutral characters (in the sense that your enemies also want to beat them). If you beat a Specialist (rather than letting one of your enemies do so), the item gains those additional bonuses. After leaving the Item World, you can transfer Specialists from item to item, so a great Specialist isn’t wasted on a lousy item. These bonuses range from raising normal stats to boosting specific resistances or even making the character that uses the item level up more quickly.
Two additional important strategic elements in Afternoon of Darkness are team attacks and the bonus gauge. Any time your characters are standing in adjacent cells (not counting diagonals) and one of them performs a melee attack, he or she has a chance of performing a team attack with the neighboring character(s). The chance for each adjacent character to join in the attack is displayed on the screen, which is helpful and can help you decide where to place your characters. Four-character Team Attacks (the maximum possible) weren’t extremely common when I played but they were pretty cool to watch when they did happen. As mentioned previously, mentors and pupils have a higher chance for a team attack, so I probably could have set up more four-character team attacks through careful planning. If a character joins in the team attack, it does not count as his or her action for the turn, which is great. This is even more true when you consider that you can move a character into position for a team attack, execute the attack, and then cancel his or her movement, as long as that character hasn’t yet performed an action in the turn. If an enemy is killed using a team attack, all characters who participated share the experience gained, which really helps when trying to level up a new character that doesn’t have much attack power yet.
You have the opportunity to earn free money, experience, and items at the end of each battle. These bonuses are determined at random as each battle begins, and what you earn is controlled by how high you get the Bonus gauge. As mentioned above, combos (multiple consecutive attacks on one enemy) raise the Bonus gauge. Destroying Geo Stones also raises the Bonus gauge, and if you can set up a chain that eliminates all Geo Stones on the map, you are extremely likely to max out the Bonus gauge. The strategic decision you have to make when setting up team attacks or combos is really a question of your goal in the battle. Are you in it to help characters gain experience, or to get more items? If you want to share experience, you’ll want to set up more team attacks by moving characters into place, executing one action, cancelling movements, or moving characters into place for a new team Attack. If you’re looking for the free stuff the Bonus gauge earns you, you’ll want to set up more combos by moving your characters into place so that the maximum number can attack the enemy in one long chain, and maybe even choose to use weak attacks (such as low-level versions of magic spells the enemy is resistant to) so that all characters will attack without killing the enemy until the end of the chain.
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. In Afternoon of Darkness, an NPC has been added who keeps track of all of that for you. At any time between battles, you can check the collection book to see what you have and haven’t had, including whether you’ve had the rare and legendary versions of each item. To make collecting even easier, any time an item you haven’t had shows up in the store, in the Bonus gauge, or on an enemy, its icon has the word “New” next to it. The same NPC keeps track of other stats like number of friendly units you’ve killed (which affects the ending you get) and the amount of time you’ve played, so this is a fairly useful addition.
If you’ve got friends who are also into SRPGs, Afternoon of Darkness also provides you with the ability to play ad-hoc multiplayer. This feature was not in the original game, and I’m sure will be welcomed by many. Multiplayer adds a few additional gameplay elements into the mix: fog of war, which stops you from seeing the whole map unless you’ve spread out your units; and Geo Cubes, which take the whole Geo Stone system up several notches and have the potential to even out a battle where the two sides’ character levels aren’t very even. You can also trade items online, which some players will love and others will hate, since you don’t lose an item just because you traded it away.
As you can tell, there is a lot to Afternoon of Darkness. 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 Net who claim 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, especially on the PSP.
As far as I can tell, the graphics in Afternoon of Darkness are just like the original version except for the change in the screen’s aspect ratio, and nothing I did caused a noticeable drop in the framerate. To handle the new screen size, the viewable area on the screen was increased rather than stretching things out. 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 as a new feature in this game, you can go into the settings menu and turn off skill animations for allies, enemies, or both. If you play for 100 hours like I did, you’ll definitely appreciate this. 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.
The only negative feature in Afternoon of Darkness’ graphics is one that plagues a great number of games: the camera. You can use the PSP’s L and R triggers to rotate the camera 90 degrees at a time, but on maps with large height differences, this will leave you unable to see certain units no matter which angle you use. The option to rotate 45 degrees at a time would have helped me out several times. To the developers’ credit, this issue was mostly just a problem in the randomly created Item World maps, rather than in the main story.
Hour of Darkness featured voice acting in the story conversations as well as soundbites for each character as he or she took action on the battlefield, and Afternoon of Darkness retains them all. 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. Like the original, Afternoon of Darkness features both the English and Japanese language tracks, so you can listen to the original voices if you’re interested. Unlike the original, changing to the Japanese language changes both the story voices and the battle voices (in Hour of Darkness, the battle voices were always in English).
The music is also plentiful and excellent, and matches the original game. 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.
A new addition to the music in Afternoon of Darkness is the ability 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 d-pad and analog stick both move the cursor around the map in slightly different ways, and the settings menu includes an option to change how the d-pad works if you don’t care for either of the defaults. The only issue I had was that it wasn’t clear that holding the square button makes the L and R buttons take on the functions the L2 and R2 buttons had in the original game – L is for zooming in and out, and R jumps you from character to character. Jumping from character to character would have been very helpful had I known about it.
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? Unless you played Hour of Darkness and hated it (no game is for everyone), I’d say that the answer to both questions is yes. The original game is worth playing through again, and the new content adds to the value. If you didn’t play Hour of Darkness, you missed out on a game that combines addictive, deep gameplay with a good plot and a great sense of humor.
Afternoon of Darkness features a fast startup time, even faster game loading times, and almost unbelievably fast level loading times (under 2 seconds), all of which just add to the many reasons why this port is a great fit for the PSP. It features stiff competition, as it comes out just a few weeks after the release of a PSP port of Final Fantasy Tactics, but anyone who likes SRPG games should not let that stop them from buying a game as funny and entertaining as Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness is.