King Krichevsky has died, and his successor is taking a nap. A long magical nap, but a nap nonetheless. When Prince Laharl does finally wake, he finds his kingdom, the Netherworld, in trouble. He has to fight his way to the throne alongside his ally Etna. Atlus is hoping that Disgaea: Hour of Darkness will represent a new awakening for strategy RPGs as well.
The basic premise is no different than Ogre Battle or its disciples. The player manages an army and pits it against opponents in drawn-out battles. The player commands one unit at a time, telling them to move across a certain area and then attack, et cetera. Disgaea attempts to spice things up with numerous special gameplay elements. Not all of them are totally original, but they are at least innovative to tactical RPGs.
One example would be the Formation Attack System, which allows up to four units to combine their attacks if they are close to one another. This, like everything else in Disgaea, is done with unapologetic style and flair. Some attacks even transport the enemy to a temporary, secluded screen where they can be ganged up on in peace. The screen even has a "total damage" counter, which can go higher than 10,000. Of course, there are curative combos as well. Another less direct way to combine efforts involves the throwing of party members across the field to reach new areas. Enemy units can be tossed as well, to the benefit of creative players.
Tactical veterans will be able to appreciate the "Geo Panels." They are activated by placing a Geo Symbol on a panel of a certain color. The symbol's effect on the combatants depends on the color - for instance, red increases the attack of the allies. Needless to say, destroying the Geo Symbol causes direct damage to all units of that color, even the ones in hard-to-reach spots. Imagine the chaos!
Skills and spells play a big role in Disgaea. There are over a hundred in total, and they fall into three types. Character specific skills are learned by leveling up a given character. Obviously Laharl, Etna, and the other main characters will have some powerful moves to learn. Class specific skills are also acquired by leveling up. There are about 60 jobs and 90 monster types, so expect an appropriately wide pool of skills. The basic classes (roughly translated) are Fighter, Soldier, Ronin, Lesser Ninja (male version of Ronin), Archer, Ranger, Pickpocket, Red Mage, Magic Warrior, and Priest. From these humble beginnings, great things like Space Hero and Messiah can come.
The final skill division is weapon specific. Monsters cannot use weapons (their advantage instead comes from class skills), but the more human characters need to make use of them. There are seven weapon types in all:
- Guns: The weapon with the longest range; skills learned with guns use accuracy to determine the damage done.
- Fists: This weapon type has high hit and combo percentages, and they are often used to knock around enemies.
- Swords: Lots of skills available, but they aren't the greatest.
- Spear: A weak weapon that nevertheless allows its wielder to strike from two panels away. Many of its related techniques involve moving units around.
- Axes: The strongest weapon is weighed down with a low hit percentage. The related techniques lower defense.
- Bows: (Attack/2) + (Hit/2) = total damage. Special attack damage, however, is calculated normally.
- Staffs: Using staffs boosts both the range and power of the user's magic, but the weapon has no skills associated with it.
In addition, there are equipment slots for armor and accessories, but these do not contribute to skills.
Nippon Ichi has an ear bent to the mouths of fans. Player friendly, party-related features include the ability to switch units in and out of battle via a Base Panel (one on every field) where units can be dismissed, with or without a replacement. The player is allotted up to ten allied units at a time, and he or she is granted a gracefully large reserve. Reportedly, resurrection also plays a role in party management, which is a pleasant change from some kill happy TRPGs.
So how does it all look? Here again, the developers are sympathetic to the fans. The characters are not at all realistic; rather, they follow a quirky Japanese style that is in-sync with the game's sense of humor. The color palette, especially visible during the dialogue scenes where the character's art is shown, is quite wide and impressive. However, critics will say the same thing about Disgaea's graphics that they said about Unlimited Saga's: fantastic art, mediocre graphics. Disgaea lacks animation, and the battles still look like a PS1 2D title, with some snazzy special effects added. Although it is a bit weak to see the summons with their clunky, two-dimensional movements, the overall effect is pleasing. The backgrounds and battlefields are quite nice looking, and so they should be, so often do the characters jump into the sky and get a vision of the entire area.
The sound is also likely to incur delight. The sound effects are squeaky clean and standard, and much of the music is let's-to-battle marching. But fear not: the option to hear the voices in either Japanese or English is available, and effort was clearly spent of the theme song. It's a slightly modified version of "The Invasion from Within," by North Cal punk band Tsunami Bomb.
It's a pretty crazy song, but not half as crazy as the side quests in Disgaea. One involves going to the Item Worlds. Item Worlds are randomly generated, multi-leveled dungeons that are found in every item included in the game. They are inhabited by fairy-like creatures called Residents. Fighting in these dungeons raises the power of the item. Some Residents, when defeated, give the item some special attribute bonus, which can be transferred to other equipment later. The long trip through the dungeon isn't wasted as soon as a new weapon is acquired.
The other diversion has players passing bills in the Black Congress, a senate of demons that governs the Netherworld. Some of them are sympathetic to Laharl, others are not. Laharl can bribe his political enemies or even defeat them in open battle to get his resolutions passed. Bills have many different effects, and they can contribute to deciding what ending the player gets. Another factor is how many allies are killed in combat. There are eight endings in total. Players can get further replay value from fighting secret bosses and starting in a New Game + mode. All this supposedly adds up to 40 hours.
Disgaea combines the old with the weird to create one of the more intriguing titles to hit the summer market. Will the tactical community be bowing before the Prince? We shall see.