Disgaea: Hour of Darkness


Review by · September 5, 2003

Strategy RPGs.
Are about to get.
A serious kick.
In the ass.

Those few choice words, found in the introduction to the game’s official trailer, accurately describe Disgaea in its entirety. Boasting gameplay that actually does manage to “kick ass”, both in terms of enjoyment and competition, makes the game a force to be reckoned with. With the addition of a story so uncharacteristically comical, Disgaea feels like the bizarre, twisted concoction that resulted from a mad scientist’s endeavors in his laboratory. In short, this is one exceedingly unconventional game.

Disgaea does not feature the typical story to which gamers are accustomed. There are no damsels in distress, no haunting memories, no inescapable disaster on the horizon. Instead, the game is about Hell. Upon the untimely death of the Overlord, King Krichevskoy, the Netherworld inhabitants, nobleman and demon alike, burst into a tumultuous rush for the now vacant throne. Two years later, the Overlord’s son and quick-tempered, loud-mouthed protagonist, Laharl, awakens to learn of the Netherworlds’ state. Receiving news of his father’s death rather apathetically (so much so that he claims to have plotted an assassination attempt of his own), Laharl and his subordinates decide to assert his rightful claim to the throne. The wackiness of the game’s story is difficult to explain. In no way does it touch upon the sensitive subjects of morality, ethics, metaphysics, and other such items covered in games such as Xenosaga. It does not showcase the inner-struggle of a man burdened with an unfortunate past like in Final Fantasy VIII. Instead, this game is simply a satisfier of humor. Many times it will make players laugh, and more than enough it will make them grin with amusement. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise polluted atmosphere of formulated, same-old-same-old RPGs.

Regrettably, the game takes way too long to get its core plot underway. The story is divided into chapters, each containing roughly four or five battles accompanied by a snippet of plot. Before the start of its eventual development, players are the unfortunate victims of a series of trivial and mundane side-quests each chapter that, although having their humorous moments, ultimately serve no purpose outside of character introductions. It is not until nearly one-half of the game’s completion that the plot of Disgaea truly begins to unravel. Those with great patience will not find Disgaea’s prolonged, drawn-out story to be a bother. Others, however, may find it discouraging. Fortunately, this minor dilemma is not as detrimental to the overall experience as certain other areas.

The most obvious shortcomings of Disgaea come in the form of its graphics and sound. Both are plain, which is, ironically, the very thing the game tries so desperately not to be. The graphics, while not adversely poor, clearly show the lack of importance placed upon them by the makers. Touting sprite graphics, the argument could be made that Disgaea was purposefully designed to have the look and feel of a “classic”, or “old school” game. However, Disgaea could have easily achieved this feat by utilizing the more up-to-date 3-D graphics available on the PS2. Had that been the case, Disgaea would be more of a game to be reckoned with. While it does not suffer terribly from the below-average graphics, it is still disappointing not to see a game shine in all aspects instead of just a few.

At the very least, it would be expected that a game working mainly with spites would take some time into making each one unique and with its own flair. Unfortunately, many of the monsters and classes available to the player in Disgaea employ recycled sprites, changed only in color or tint so as to represent a different class. Nevertheless, despite these very trite complaints, the game falls nowhere near the “eyesore” level, but at the same time cannot manage to crawl out from being bourgeois.

As far as sound and music in Disgaea goes, players are again faced with a mediocre performance. While the voices for the characters are fitting and hold the potential to be amusing, the voice actors themselves fail to give their best performance and end up reading the lines like a Ben Stein commercial. Certain lines fail to meet their potential to be as laugh-out-loud funny as they may have been if delivered with vigor.

The tunes of the game, again, are sort of bland and archetypal for an RPG. Outside of the theme made famous from the trailer, “Invasion from Within”, a song borrowed from the California punk-band, “Tsunami Bomb”, the soundtrack is performed entirely in MIDI, a file-type that by all means ought to be dead this day and age. As with most games, however, there are always a few noteworthy tracks to be discovered and Disgaea is no different. Likewise, there are just as many irritating tracks that have a knack for assaulting one’s ears during certain moments. But just as with the voices, the music can be adjusted in volume within the options menu, a generous feature.

Without a doubt, Disgaea has the most intricate battle system to date for a Strategy RPG. At its foundation, it is comparable to Final Fantasy Tactics. Both utilize 2-D sprites atop a 3-D environment, panels to move across, and job class that allows a variety of different abilities, magic, and special moves. However, where FFT has a handful of job classes that evolve from one another, Disgaea has over 150 various monsters and class types that become accessible a variety of ways. Some come by way of building up the basic class, others by discovering them throughout the progression of the game. Others still yet can be captured by hurling them into the player’s Base Panel, the point from which Laharl’s forces are deployed. Another difference is that while Tactics’ turns are dependent on the speed statistic of each individual unit, Disgaea is straight turn-based. Once the player inputs their commands, and selects “Execute” in the menu, the chaos begins. Afterwards, the player is allowed to do any last-minute work needed, and then selects “End Turn”. The AI then takes over, swiftly completing its turn in a cold, calculating fashion. Then, again, back to the player’s turn.

There are two distinct additions to the SRPG formula fundamental to Disgaea’s gameplay that also emphasize its own innovation in the genre. The first and most obvious feature is the combination attacks. By assigning characters to panels next to, adjacent, or across from another character, various united attacks can be performed. Up to four characters can join up and unleash a devastating combination attack. Couple this with the fact that characters can level up to 9999, and one can imagine just how absurd the amount of damage could become. Similar in effect are the Geo Stones – environmental conditions within the game’s 3-D playing board. The Geo Stones can affect various areas with different types of statuses such as “Attack + or – 50%”, “Defense + or – 50%”, “Enemy Status x3”, and so forth. These afflictions can be negated, however, by destroying the Geo Stones that correspond to the effect. However, Some Geo Stones have adverse effects when destroyed, and can ignite a string of explosions that snake around every panel it once affected, damaging both enemy and player alike. Thus, a strong strategy must be employed to make effective use of these Geo Stones – especially those that benefit the player, notably “Invincibility”.

Not as glamorous as the aforementioned two features, the “Throw” command in battle is nevertheless worth noting. To use the command, a human character must be placed next to any other character, ally or enemy, who may then be picked up or thrown. Twisting simplicity with its gnarled, bizarre touch, Disgaea also allows the player to pick up whole teams of characters and form a giant column, which then can be thrown over distances, heights, and other obstructions. In many instances this technique is a lifesaver, allowing players to gain access to enemies hiding at the top of a map much quicker than only utilizing their long-range characters. Even more bizarre, players will discover that some allies, when thrown at an enemy, have the unusual tendency to detonate. Sounds strange? It is, but certainly worthwhile. Prinny Squad generating headaches with all their “dood!” chanting? Well, give ’em a toss and see what happens. The “Throw” feature is an invaluable asset to the player and strategizing victory. This is especially true when recruiting becomes an issue. Enemy monsters on the playing field can be lifted up and flung into the Base Panel, where there’s a chance at their instant recruitment.

Outside of battle is where Disgaea’s customization shines. Within the walls of Laharl’s castles lie two very important features: the Item World and the Dark Congress. The Item World is a unique element that allows players to shape the strength and status-enhancing properties of the weapons and equipment in the Disgaea. As described in-game, the Item World is a sort of parallel universe that exists within every item. The worlds and their inhabitants are based off the item’s type and rarity, which directly influences their level of difficulty. By venturing into the Item World and clearing floors, players can increase the attributes of the weapon they have entered. Naturally, better things come from wiping out every inhabitant of every floor as opposed to just skipping ahead through the gates. The challenge, however, lies in the players’ inability to leave Item World until every tenth floor, or the use of a more-or-less rare item. With that said, it is often a gamble to jump into Item World, but worthwhile for those who brave its dangers.

The Dark Congress also adds a new, innovative twist. As the name implies, it is a congregation of Netherworld monsters who vote on various topics presented by Laharl. An early example would be military funds. Like all creatures in the Netherworld, however, the Congressmonsters are corrupt and may be bribed in order to sway their votes to a more positive one. Directly challenging the Dark Congress to a duel is another method of swaying the vote. If the player succeeds in winning the support of the Dark Congress on a certain issue, he or she is granted a variety of helpful bonuses.

Also in the Dark Congress menu are the options to create characters at the cost of mana, Transmigrate characters into different classes then originally assigned, and increase Demonic Rank through Promotion Exams, which, ultimately, is the deciding factor in a character’s ability to perform certain feats such as the Transmigration.

The bulk of the game centers on combat, like most SRPGs, and while Disgaea’s battle system may be ridiculously addictive, innovative, and intricate, it is still subject to becoming mundane after many battles. This lack of diverse gameplay, in the end, is where Disgaea fails to keep players entertained. Everything can be resolved by combat, and without any star mini-games to tide players over, it takes stamina to play the game.

So what’s to make of this mess of contradictions, shortcomings, and bizarre abnormalities? A game with, for the most part, all the right features. Whether or not graphics have become a mainstream importance or not, they still pale in comparison to the significance placed upon a RPGs story, dialogue, and gameplay. While not earth-shattering or ground-breaking, Disgaea is most definitely fun and entertaining. It is chock full of wisecracks and rude jokes, along with some foreseeable happenings, but a fair amount of unexpected ones. In short: this is a good game. It is most certainly worth everyone’s time, especially those with a love for Strategy RPGs. Now get out there, get the game, and follow its instructions: Kick some ass!

Overall Score 86
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Christopher Holzworth

Christopher Holzworth

Christopher was part of RPGFan's reviews team from 2002-2004. During his tenure, Christopher bolstered our review offerings by lending his unique voice and critique of the world of RPGs. Being a critic can be tough work sometimes, but his steadfast work helped maintain the quality of reviews RPGFan is known for.