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Flawed but Fun
If there's anything which breeds originality, it's a struggle against adversity, and in the realm of gaming, there are few greater challenges than crafting a successful strategic role playing game. It shouldn't be, as those games which do manage to make the cut almost always are elevated to the status of rare collector's items, fetching small fortunes in eBay auctions. Yet despite this, only a tiny handful of these survive the culling process each year if we're lucky. Out of these, nearly two of every three has an "Ogre" or "Fantasy" in the name somewhere.
However, as was mentioned earlier, every once in a while, the pack spreads out a bit, and we get an original new addition to the lineup. Although it suffers from some errors and faults along the way, the release of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is assuredly one of those points and serves as a nice hybrid of cultures, in a genre that has been dominated by sweeping, and almost universally grim, wartime epics. From the first time you pick it up, Disgaea already exudes wackiness. The cover art is a chaotic display of randomized anime motion, and things just kind of devolve from there. Following the general story of the death of the underworld's king, players are put into the more focused role of his son who has just awoken from a two year nap to find his father dead and political vultures picking over the remains. Being quickly introduced to the late king's retainer Etna, they are then thrown into a whirlwind escapade to eliminate the prince's rivals, avoid the machinations of Heaven above, and survive to even hold the position. The whole thing has a thoroughly anime quality to it, where almost every character interaction is handled with a hefty dose of zaniness, and villains are humorous nearly as often as they are threatening. This similarity is pushed so far as to include long cutscenes at the end of each chapter, which are similar to episode endings for title's such as Slayer's or Dragon Half, and summarize what has come before while "predicting" the outcome of the next episode. Overall, this entire anime approach is quite effective, helped immensely by a translation that is nearly flawless and of a Working Designs level in its use of popular speech patterns. It also delivers a story product which should definitely appeal to that genre. However, the one blemish on this effort is that many times it is almost "too" anime. The common clichés of character expression, moods, and feelings are carried to an extreme at nearly every scene, and many characters often feel like shallow reflections of their stereotypes, rather than standout individuals in their own right.
Of course, if you're like me, the entire aspect of the story is almost a moot point. If it's at least agreeable and not so annoying as to ruin the transitions between battles, then it could be a galactic escapade about liberating impoverished, working-class flies and I really wouldn't care. What the entire play experience then comes down to is the mechanics of the battles. And in this venue at least, Disgaea really does deliver. At its core, the game is built upon a structure similar to any of the other isometric combat games. Move to a square, choose from a range of abilities, and pummel the hell out of your foe. In addition, all the normal considerations like height, range, terrain type, and affinities are all there. However, pretty much all of these aspects play second fiddle to the two main mechanics of Disgaea. In fact, these aspects are so prevalent in game play that if focused upon, they transform the experience into almost an entirely different genre. The first of these are the geo square's which are basically coloring overlays placed on squares across the battlefield. Intermixed with these squares can then be a selection of crystal items, also with their own colors, which each have abilities. Depending on which color they are sitting, these crystals then impart abilities, powers, or detriments to characters sitting on a similar color. This in itself can be a huge boon as characters will perform special moves twice or more, recover all of their hit points in a single round, or gain huge bonuses to the damage potential. However, it just gets more complicated. In addition to the benefits, if you walk over to a crystal and strike it hard enough with your weapon, the crystal will shatter, and any squares of the color it was sitting on will suddenly be transformed to the crystal's color. In the process, anyone on these squares will also take a significant chunk of damage. This can then set off huge chain reactions where one crystal will break another until every single tile is the same color, at which point, the goal is to break a special "null" crystal, which will destroy the rest of the tiles and net the player a large "tile clear" bonus. This naturally leads into the other mechanic which is the combo meter and rewards system. Each map in the game has a large list of randomized prizes that are rewarded to the player at the end of the battle based upon how many times, and how well they combo foes in the game. These can be simple chains of single characters attacking or more complex "assists" where characters to the sides of an attacking character will join in and deliver extra hits of damage. In addition, the geo square combos also count into this process and are the most effective way of racking up the meter, as they can result in 1000+ combos if laid out correctly. As was said, if you focus on this aspect, it basically becomes the game. Instead of an SRPG, you are suddenly faced with something akin to a strange hybrid of SRPG and puzzle game in a wacky exterior. Personally, I actually enjoyed this mechanic and found it to be a pleasant diversion from the more common versions. However, for those who would like to avoid the "tedium" of solving long geo puzzles, this entire aspect can be almost entirely avoided and there are a host of other special abilities, character combos, and story combats waiting for them.
As far as the rest of the aspects of the game go, I can honestly say they only registered in a cursory sense, which probably says something about their quality. Admittedly, neither the music or graphics for this game are particularly bad; it's just that they're not standout either. I've heard the music compared to such works as The Nightmare Before Christmas, and although there are a number of tracks which are quite creepy, in general, the music is so heavily muted in comparison to the vocal work that it barely registers. On that note though, the vocal work is basically hit and miss. On one hand, you can tell that both the English and Japanese actors put a good deal of effort into their parts (note that you can listen to both), however, in many cases the archetypes they are working off of are simply annoying so no amount of spot on delivery will lessen the edge. Again, this is partially a genre thing, as anime is full to the brim with personalities, which at the very least grate, and are often intended to do just that.
Along a similar vein, the visuals for this piece suffer from their own set of hindrances, although they tend to reflect a mood of apathy rather than spots of brilliance mixed with shame. I've often heard it's hardest to discuss those works which are neither stunning nor awful, but simply produce little emotion to either spectrum. Such is definitely the case with Disgaea, as the battles are simply a common fare of sprites on polygons, while cutscenes are handled like nearly every anime you've ever seen. Wild hair, wild clothes, and expressions are all at the edge of believability. Even so, these almost lose their impact because of how often the heroes' eye's bulge or villains gestate wildly. In fact, some of the most telling performances are actually delivered by the devil penguins, which are the consummate straight men and are all the more amusing for it. In addition, I had really expected that this game would use a wild tone of harsh oranges and reds, as well as stunning combat vistas, to convey the fact that you are fighting over the very depths of hell, but in many cases, it felt more like a stroll in the park with muted purples, whites, and even greens. It's very jarring.
Overall, Disgaea is a fun game. It's hard not to give it that, as the battles are involved affairs that can easily leech away days of your life while you try to set up the perfect combo. Coupled with this, the game also possesses a solid story which could have a lot of appeal for anime loving folks in the audience. I am, unfortunately, not one of these folks, but I can still see the inherent appeal and appreciate the cohesion with which it delivers its hooks, if not the style. What about the graphics and sound? Well, they're there. They do their job and at least help me find my cursor on the screen, but at the end of the day I won't remember Disgaea for its fields of grass or snow covered peaks, because they shouldn't have even existed, but rather been hellish pits of untold suffering. Finally, you may have noticed that I marked it as requiring something around 40 hours of time, but with an open end on the final play. This is because although the main plot for the game takes about 40 to plow through when you're taking your time, there is a huge ceiling on advancement in this title. There are literally a thousand levels of progression to explore and untold hordes of classes and monsters to recruit. In fact, in my initial completion, I managed to only purchase a small section of the available cast for use, and will probably be working on that task for quite a while. Plus, players are also not limited to trudging through the same story battles over and over, as there is also a free-form, and randomized "item world", where they can battle to their heart's content. In the end, a good investment for those players who are desperate for some SRPG goodness to sate their palate in addition to the fun that Final Fantasy Tactics Advance now offers (thereby proving one of my initial points about SRPGs).
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