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Decorating Inside the Box
By: Michael Beckett
They say that innovation is hard to come by these days. Certainly we see less originality today than we did in the days of the Atari and the NES, when you practically couldn’t release a game without it being revolutionary. In this particular next-generation generation, innovation in gameplay tends to come not in the form of entirely new game genres, but rather as new systems and styles of gameplay within existing genres. Thus we have Disgaea; Hour of Darkness from Nippon Ichi and Atlus USA, which takes the traditional Tactical RPG base and brings it to a new and imaginative level.
Combat is, at its base, still the same TRPG engine we all know and love. However, the addition of a Base Panel from which you dispatch your characters, Geo Panels and Symbols which give unusual bonuses or penalties depending on the terrain, the ability to transmigrate characters – that is, reduce their level to 1, change their class, and give them an impressive stat bonus – as well as the stringing together of techs, spells and attacks to form excessively destructive combos all make the combat of Disgaea both unusual and enjoyable. The sheer amount of possibilities generated by these fairly simple ideas, alongside the combat designer’s considerable proficiency in implementing them, makes Disgaea one of the finest games I have played in a long, long time.
Alongside an unusual combat system rests an unusual plot, having to do with the ruler of the Netherworld, as well as the relationship between the Netherworld, Celestia and the Human world. While Disgaea’s plot is, on it’s surface, about Demons, Angels and Humans, it is also about labels and the habit people have of forcing themselves into certain roles – I’m an Angel, therefore, I’m good. You’re a Demon, therefore, you’re evil. I’m a doctor, you’re a New York cabbie, therefore, et cetera. It also follows a theme of love along some fairly cliché lines that may or may not be meant as an indictment of other RPGs whose reliance on such happy-go-lucky themes stink of weak writing as opposed to satire.
Although I applaud Atlus USA’s efforts in localization, one problem still nags. In several recent games – Xenosaga Episode 1, Castlevania; Lament of Innocence, and now Disgaea – despite the depth and quality of the English voice tracks, the appropriate voice actors were not, in fact, credited. This is a trend I would most certainly not like to see continue, as these talented actors deserve just as much credit as their Japanese compatriots. Tenpei Sato does a decent job with the soundtrack; it elicits a feel similar to “The Nightmare Before Christmas” with its upbeat Halloween-ish tunes. However, none of the individual tracks really stand out, beyond a brief interlude by J-Rock band Tsunami Bomb. Part of this is perhaps the fault of the localization decision to replace most of the lyrical tracks with instrumental versions of those songs, but at least some of the blame has to rest with the composer.
Disgaea’s only serious flaw lies in its interface. While menus are, by and large, easy to navigate and understand, control on the battlefield can be confusing and difficult to grasp. It seems that the directional pad is oriented so that Up is always a preset direction, no matter which way the map has been rotated. Unless the player keeps a very close eye on which way the map is set, it is very easy to make an error. Luckily, moves are nearly always retractable, but it is unclear as to whether this is just a side effect of the way combat works – moves are only executed after the Execute or End Turn command is selected – or if the designers were aware of this flaw and simply tried to work around it rather than fixing it.
While the character and monster design of Disgaea shows a great deal of imagination, it must be said that the technology is capable of a far greater level of detail and complexity. Aside from a few (fairly basic) polygonal spell effects, Disgaea could have been done on the Game Boy Advance. So points for bright, colorful sprites and spirited design, but points off for not using the medium to it’s fullest.
With a multitude of endings and playable characters, plus a New Game + feature and access to a nearly infinite number of 100 level optional dungeons that reside inside items, Disgaea is readily replayable.
Difficulty and completion time are both a bit difficult to pin down. Due to the sheer level of replayability and the focus on leveling, Disgaea can take anywhere between 40 and several hundred hours to complete, and will be much more difficult for gamers who choose to forego leveling their weapons or characters up.
Although at it’s base Disgaea is a fairly traditional TRPG, the game mechanics it introduces and the manner in which they are implemented make for a highly enjoyable outing. So if you enjoy TRPGs, enjoy playing for completion, and want a game that you can spend literally hundreds of hours on, you couldn’t do better than Disgaea.
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