Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Four years after the success of the original Disgaea, Nippon Ichi Software jumped onto the PSP remake bandwagon with Afternoon of Darkness. The original game for PS2 was something of a sleeper hit winning IGN’s 2003 “Best game no one played” award. Reviewers praised the game for its addictive combat system, endless replay value, quirky story, and complex character advancement mechanic. Fans of the original should have no complaints about the PSP port. It maintains all of the content from the original game and adds a multiplayer mode as well as an alternative story mode centered around Etna, the original protagonist Laharl’s second in command.
I tend to keep reviews of ports and reissues short since the original version has usually been covered extensively, but I have to make an exception here because there are a few issues I have with Disgaea that seemingly no other reviewer bothered to address.
I have no complaints about the new content; the multiplayer worked fine for me, is great if your friends dig the game, and the Etna mode is a nice twist with its own challenges and story elements. The rest of this review will read like an evaluation of the original PS2 game, which I had always wanted to write anyway. While Disgaea is one of the better SRPGs out there, the game is still flawed in a number of ways.
Disgaea deserves credit for some ambitious design choices. While the main quest can be completed in under thirty hours, players can spend hundreds more hours customizing their characters and accessing eight different endings. It is possible to beat the last boss with characters around level seventy, but the game allows players to level characters up to 9999 and even reincarnate characters back to level 1 with their abilities and enhanced stats intact, meaning one can reach level 9999 multiple times.
The unique Dark Assembly feature, a kind of netherworld congress that passes bills that affect everything from monster strength to the quality of items sold in stores, gives the game a lot of variety and flexibility. The game also features item worlds, which are basically random battle maps inside of items that strengthen the weapon as they are completed. Since each item has dozens of maps that get progressively harder, this addition gives players nearly infinite challenges no matter how powerful they become. With the ability to revisit old story maps with new bosses, combine enemies to create super opponents, enhance items using Item World specialists and unlock secret job classes, it all adds up to a pretty meaty game.
Or so it would seem. Disgaea, when compared to other SRPGs, is pretty thin in several crucial aspects. Many reviews, such as IGN, state explicitly that the game boasts “over 100 unique character classes with their own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses,” but this is a very disingenuous claim. The vast majority of the classes are palette swaps of a base class, which should be your first hint; the differences between a base class and each advancement are only differences of initial stats and aptitudes. This means that a ‘pugilist’ is a bit stronger than a ‘brawler,’ the base class below it, and the ‘Wushu Master’ is stronger than both.
Since there are no unique abilities for each upgrade and since you can gain access to each class simply by leveling up the base class, there really isn’t much reason to ever use the majority of the classes in the game. Disgaea 2 remedied this somewhat by forcing players to use the highest available job within a class to open up the next character type; this added a nice sense of progression to character advancement. In this game, however, the differences between a brawler and a pugilist are pretty small, and if you have a level 10 brawler, there is little reason to get a level 1 pugilist either through transmigration or creating a new character. Since base stats determine character advancement, once character levels hit three or four digits, you’ll see some big differences, but again, it’s purely a stat difference.
So basically there are about thirteen human classes (17 if you count female versions of certain classes, which have slightly different stats) and twenty monster types that can all advance to beefed up versions of themselves. Considering the complexity of item leveling, weapon proficiency, aptitudes, and transmigration, all of this would still make for a pretty big SRPG if it weren’t for the fact that Disgaea still lacks substance in the skills and abilities department. Even among the different base classes, such as brawler, samurai, or majin, most of these folks do not learn any unique abilities. Their main difference is in weapon proficiency and base stats.
Scouts and mages can learn a few tricks. The latter group suffers from a distinctly shallow magic system. Basically there are four attack spells that each have four upgrades as you gain levels. There are generic shield, magic barrier, and healing spells for clerics, magic and attack boost spells for mages, and that’s it. There is a kind of charm to the simplicity of this system, but it does not add much to the strategic element of the game. Every other class, from ninjas and samurai to warriors and angels, learn the exact same six skills based on the weapon they equip. Now, the weapon skills are pretty flippin’ awesome and add a lot of variety to basic attacks. Along with the turn system, the ability to queue attacks, string together combos and recall units as well as the master/student system, Disgaea’s combat almost never gets old. Nevertheless, it is the strategy aspect that is lacking since, besides being faster, ninjas do the same thing as warriors, who do the same thing as brawlers with higher defense, who do the same things as archers (except they learn bow weapon skills slower), who do the same thing as samurai with less hit points.
This is what irks me about Disgaea. It’s a huge game in terms of range of character advancement and the amount of time one can keep playing. Yet besides a few jazzy endings, you are not rewarded all that much for obsessively leveling and transmigrating characters. In terms of unique character abilities and classes, Final Fantasy Tactics, a 1997 PS1 game, is bigger than Disgaea, a 2003 PS2 game. Disgaea has fixed stats for each class while in Tactics, each character has their own natural proficiencies, zodiac sign, brave points, and faith level. What separates an archer from other classes in Disgaea is merely that they learn bow weapon skills faster and have different base stats, whereas archers in FF Tactics had their own unique attack skills that could be applied to different weapons, as well as attribute upgrades, movement abilities, and counters. The latter game boasted twenty unique character types altogeher (22 in the reissue) each with distinct stats, equipment range, appearance, and dozens of unique tricks separated by command techniques, movement, counter attacks, and status upgrades. Tactics had about forty monster types (with some palette swapping, to be fair) each with their own skills and weaknesses. Add up all of Disgaea’s weapon abilities, spells, and monster abilities, and you’ll get 100 and change. Meanwhile Tactics offers, by a conservative calculation of all of the different character and monster abilities, somewhere in the range of 450 completely unique things that humans and monsters can do, while simultaneously giving players twice as many weapon and armor types.
Disgaea has the ideal reputation for becoming a cult classic; seemingly flawless, deep gameplay with lackluster graphics as its only flaw. This reputation is unwarranted, because as a strategy game, Disgaea is somewhat lacking. It’s lots of fun to play, but not terribly challenging or deep.
Simply put, Disgaea looks like a really clean PS1 game. Some of the skills and magic look amazing, and there are some gorgeously animated sequences. Still, the palette swapping issue, which I mentioned in the gameplay section, really irked me. The vast majority of all the different classes are just color rearrangements of weaker jobs. As I said, it sort of makes sense since the differences between the classes are not huge. Regardless, graphically, it’s unimpressive. For a sixth generation console game that already uses antiquated graphics, this kind of shortcut is telling. FF Tactics at least took the time to give each class a unique look.
Disgaea’s stages are not much better. The Item World is the only place where you will see large, creative layouts. Most of the story maps are flat and rather small, with some exceptions. All in all, the graphics are the game’s weakest link, which is perhaps a compliment. Since this is PSP and not PS2, it shouldn’t bother people new to the series, most of whom will forget about the graphics once they get into the game.
Disgaea has an unmistakable anime vibe in terms of story and character design. You have an obnoxious male protagonist (which beats the more common whiny teenager protagonist), some ditzy/wacky female companions, comical villains, and a plot that can best be described as random. The story mixes demon overlords, megalomaniacal angels, sci-fi superheroes, demonic penguins, and cyborgs in a way that makes sense in a weird way. The self-deprecating, unpretentious story is a breath of fresh air in a market where every other RPG matches Dawson’s Creek in terms of melodrama. There are some laugh out loud moments, and the story wraps up nicely with a variety of endings to suit just about anyone’s taste.
The voice acting in the Japanese edition is generally good, and the sound effects are good all around. There are a number of battle themes, most of them fitting and well written, though the music can get repetitive after you pass the 100 hour mark (what game wouldn’t?) Generally speaking, Disgaea’s offbeat vibe sets the tone for music during story parts and between battles. It’s not a spectacular soundtrack, but it is endearing and suits the atmosphere of the game well.
No big complaints here, except the one that plagues all isometric SRPGs: the camera. Occasionally you will not be able to see enemies or the layout may trick your eye into thinking two areas are connected when in fact there is some kind of gap. You can make use of the PSP’s analogue stick or D-pad to move the cursor and use the shoulder button to zoom in and out for a different view. Nothing revolutionary.
Disgaea is NIS’s flagship series for a reason. The game’s more funny than serious story combined with its excellent combat and character advancement system make for a game that can be played endlessly. The question is, will you want to? If you work out the tricks to leveling quickly, you’ll probably unlock just about everything in under 80 hours. Beyond that, the game offers you the chance to obsessively power up your characters and items, which is fantastic for obsessive hardcore gamers (myself included). In spite of this, Disgaea is pretty shallow as a strategy game. Considering that six year old games on less powerful hardware can offer more variety and comparable graphics, Disgaea seems like something of a missed opportunity. That said, Disgaea is still an above average SRPG, and for what it is, it’s done well.