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By: Red Raven
Good strategy games are hard to come by. For every Final Fantasy Tactics, there is a Hoshigami. For every Tactics Ogre, there is a Brigandine. For every Vandal Hearts, there is a Rhapsody. So when internet buzz began to center around Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, perilously close to the release date of Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced, I had my initial reservations. How was Disgaea supposed to compete with a title of FFTA's (presumed) caliber? The answer Disgaea provided was simple enough: by delivering one of the most innovative and fun combat systems ever seen in this genre.
While "innovative strategy RPG" is usually a misnomer, the fact remains that Disgaea adds just enough new spin to classic isometric warfare to warrant the title. Take, for example, the deployment of troops at the beginning of any battle. Instead of locking a player into selecting which troops to use - a decision often made without any foreknowledge of the coming battle - Disgaea presents a special deployment square which the player can then use to summon forth any ten units of his or her demon army, after taking all the time they need to analyze the combat environment and enemy formations. Furthermore, the player can "undo" any action a character has yet to actually execute (actions are queued by default) so as to avoid having caution ruin an otherwise brilliant tactical maneuver. If that was not enough, Disgaea also allows characters to be picked up and thrown. Besides the obvious strategic possibilities of stacking ten characters to be thrown all over the map, characters can also throw enemies into one another to create a higher-level monster more worthy of execution or even to simply pick up an already high-level enemy to prevent them from having a turn. The possibilities are nearly endless before we even consider the effects of Geo Crystal/Square manipulation, Chain Combos, Mentor/Pupil gain, Team Attacks, and the host of different demon/monster classes, items, and abilities.
This tidal wave of innovation spills over into nearly every other aspect of the game. Meet the Dark Congress, the group of demons you need to bribe/assassinate in order to gain access to new recruits, new merchandise, bonus dungeons, extra abilities, and if you're lucky, some extra cash. Welcome to the Netherworld hospital, where you are awarded prizes for repeat business (usually prizes that increase HP, no less). Take a look at the Netherworld item shops whose inventories change every time you access them, and nearly every single item has completely unique stats. Clear your afternoon schedule with a few trips into Item World - the single most brilliant random battle implementer ever created for an RPG - as you gain inordinate amounts of cash and prizes while simultaneously upgrading the item in question. The sheer magnitude of game Disgaea represents is beyond peer. Most games cap levels at 99 - Disgaea stops at level 9999. If you have ever wanted to inflict a quarter-million points of damage to an enemy with one attack, Disgaea is just about the best place to do so.
Even one of the most campy plotlines I've ever seen in a strategy RPG is tempered by lucid moments of emotion, played out by voice actors perfect for the role they were cast. Casual conversations sound casual, poignant dialogues are delivered poignantly, and the obligatory megalomaniac speeches are ended in convincingly crazy laughter. In other words, the quality of the performances far outshines the shortcomings in plot, which may have been done on purpose considering the entire premise of the game is far from serious. Indeed, between the all of the genre in-jokes, brilliant character parodies, and frequently hilarious anime-inspired antics, the overall plot never really registers beyond the few aforementioned emotional scenes which invariably catches one by surprise. I still prefer epic war dramas (FFT, et al) to "love is the answer" camp, although Disgaea has proven that sometimes it really does not matter when almost everything else is perfect.
I mention "almost everything" as there are three areas which mar an otherwise flawless gem. Visuals never tend to be an important factor in strategy RPGs, but when a fourth-generation PS2 title looks identical to something that came out five years ago on the PS1, I begin to question whether it's budget or laziness. In fact, I submit this entire adventure could have been played on a GBA as long as the voices were removed. Along similar lines of disappointment is the elevator music which passes as a soundtrack - a problem exacerbated by the worst tracks being the ones you hear a majority of the time. You enjoy "Tsunami Bomb," that nice J-pop song advertised on the cover? I too enjoyed it... that one time it played for six minutes amidst the 70-hour duration of my first play-through.
The last flaw does not even get assigned a score, but I feel compelled to mention it anyway: the difficulty. Quite simply, just about the hardest thing about Disgaea is trying to pronounce it (Dis-GAY-a? Dis-GUY-a? Dis-GAEY-a?). Sure, it's sort of hard bringing down some random level 151 monster when all your people are level 60, but not by as much as you think. Enemies only sparingly coordinate their attacks with a greater algorithm besides "attack the weakest guy" and tend to enjoy clumping together or not performing any actions at all. When this is coupled with your ability to, say, deploy four guys for a Team Attack, then un-deploy three of them so as to set up successive Team Attacks with the same characters in the same turn, difficulty soon drops to zero. It's entirely possible to go through five story battles in which the enemy never gets an opportunity to inflict any damage much less take an action other than moving, if even that. While it's impossible to overstate the enjoyment of executing huge combos which destroy the entire board in a single turn, it quickly becomes a hollow victory once you realize how bad the AI really is.
Luckily for everyone, these three negatives are more than compensated by the ridiculous amounts of innovation packed into just one game. And hey, even if the AI plays more like checkers than chess, checkers was still pretty damn fun last time I played. Disgaea proves fun enough, in fact, to keep one interested in the various multiple endings and New Game+ options which can end up consuming hundreds of hours of your free time. At the end of the day, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness proves that just because a game is not as deep as some of the other strategy RPG classics, it can still command a place among them.
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