Platform: PlayStation 2
Developer: Nippon Ichi
Publisher: Atlus
MSRP: 50 USD
ESRB: Teen
Date of Release:
August 26, 2003 (USA)
Jan. 30, 2003 as Makai Senki Disgaea (JPN)

Disgaea can be quickly defined as Final Fantasy Tactics Super Hyper Extra Battle Edition. The story (you are a demon prince, in your absence other demons have gotten feisty and want the throne, you set out to reclaim your power - shenanigans follow) sets up the background for constant battles a la Flame of Recca, and you set out from there. As usual you have your primary hero or two (prince Laharl and his chief vassal) and you get to hire extras (or pupils) of any class you currently have access to - then you set out to fight battles, gain experience and cool swag in the usual isometric, turn-based environment (X-Com started it, the Tactics titles perfect it).

Super weapons? We got your super weapons - not only can you obtain powerful weapons, you can get them in their Rare form, or even Legend form - this means they are harder to find, and can hold more residents - these are basically weapon properties, ranging from pure attack/defense power to causing poison status, to allowing you to improve faster with that particular weapon (and more). Not only that, but as a whole complete sidegame you can enter the Item World, a randomly generated dungeon dimension inside each item in the game (Each. Yes. Every single one) where, as you progress through levels and conquer them and their residents, your weapon gains those levels and builds up appropriately. You could spend half your playing time just building the perfect set of weapons for your party. Of course, the moment you got back to the game, you'd find a new weapon and have to build that up - this game has a lot of obsession potential.

Power moves? Oh yeah - everytime you use your weapon (whatever it is), you gain experience in using it. The more experience, the better you are at swinging it (or shooting it, or stabbing with it), and the more access you have to power moves. Want a different set? Simply switch weapons - but be careful, as some classes are initially better at some weapons than others. Your Ronin and Fighter are best with a sword, Brawlers use their fists, Scouts wield guns, Mages can swing a staff or use a bow adequately, although the staff invariably boosts magic power, whereas a bow does not. In addition, you can equip your team members while in combat easily - take advantage of it and make sure to be always prepared. Disgaea makes it easy to "dual-wield", if you will - so do so! The more versatile your characters are, the better. The power moves themselves are phenomenal and over-the-top, and have different requirements - some can be used at precise distances away from the enemy, some require you to have a lot of clear space around you (the martial arts, mainly), and some enable you to leap over your friends (or enemies) to get closer to your target, like knights in chess. Positioning is everything.

This is especially true as Disgaea allows your team members to team up on the baddies. All you need to do is line up your team members properly, and they will join your primary attacker based on 'affinity'. This calculation is based on fighting style and whether the attackers are mentor or pupil (a character who hires another character becomes their mentor; the new-hire becomes the pupil). It is a wonderful sight to see a joint four person combo attack, as the hapless enemy is sliced, diced and tossed around like a rag doll. Then, you can actually recombine your positioning with the combo members who haven't attacked (joining the attacker in a combo does not count), and repeat the process again, to create a combo of combos; the game encourages this behaviour, as battles can get tough quickly.

There are two more extra facets of the game that make it clear Disgaea is more of a puzzle-fight game rather than a story-based RPG. These are the ability to lift and throw characters about, and Geo Panels. With the ability to stack characters and successively throw them, you can basically cross the entire stage in the first move, rendering a lot of "usual" strategy based on terrain formations quite pointless. For example, if you want a character to reach a particular enemy but you ran out of movement points, simply pick them up and throw them next to the enemy. Conversely, you can pick up the enemy and throw them towards your character.

Geo Panels are arbitrarily assigned panels on the stage, each of which has a property assigned to it by Geo Stones that are on it. You can pick up and throw Geo Stones, thus changing the property of the panel. For example, one stage is fully covered with red Panels (except for one square) and there is a Geo Stone on a red Panel with the property Invincibility. So, everyone on all the red Panels is invincible - only that one square is not covered. In order to kill anything, you either have to throw them into that one square, or go to the Stone and throw it into the one panel that's not red. Hope that helps...

In between storyline fights you can return to your castle to heal, purchase or sell items, beef up your weapons in Item World (although be careful, you can't leave the Item World unless you either reach level 10, or have a special item), or summon the Dark Assembly, where you can hire new characters, upgrade your existing ones (same class, higher starting levels) provided their class requirements have been met, or gather influence for votes on anything from upgrading basic character traits like counterattack, to making the game monsters harder, to increasing the shop inventory. You can even bribe senators with items, or fight them until they're persuaded.

Basically, Disgaea is a slick battle engine with clever extras and a ton of explorable material to play with, all wrapped in a story that is, for the first time in Atlus history, not only comprehensible to mere mortals, but also flawlessly translated into fansub-quality English with many an idiom, pun, and plenty of anime in-jokes and spoofs. Original Japanese vocals are toggle-able as well, a pleasing nod to the Nihon-fanatics, and the English dubbing is of surprisingly good quality (so says a Nihon-fanatic).

Audiovisuals

The game is the first of its kind (isometric tactical) for the PlayStation 2, and the special effects and combat moves make this very obvious, as they're frequently over the top. Your fighters are portrayed as very maneuverable and cute sprites, capable of clearly emoting in cutscenes, and are quite a bit more elaborate than their predecessors, although still don't look as good as they potentially might have. Weapons are now shown at all times, not just when attacking (except for guns, which are holstered during non-combat), and it appears that each weapon is distinct, even if some differences are very small. The only thing lacking is the ability to tilt the board, which came in handy quite frequently in Final Fantasy Tactics - sometimes fighters would be obscured by columns or land features, and tilting would improve visibility. You can still rotate the board and zoom in/out however, and during cinematic portions the entire board will achieve surprising configurations of pan, zoom, and rotate - still, the overall resolution and lack of flexibility does not seem like that much of a jump from PS One days.

Audio during combat is appropriately insignificant background music (except for one song from punk rock band Tsunami Bomb played at a certain point, as well as in the excellent trailer for the game) and a solid set of combat yells, grunts, punching and slashing noises, and a wide plethora of special effects whooshes, tinkles and zaps. Skippable cutscenes are presented as "talking heads", with nearly full voice and subtitles, sometimes with a gameboard in the background where actions take place, if appropriate. More combat music would have been nice, but at 40 hours of gameplay (that's taking it fast; slower players can rack up a lot more) it would have been impossible to fit any great variety.

Any Problems?

There are a few niggles in an otherwise finely crafted game. The shop interface, while adequate, could be tweaked to present you with stats on how much improvement a given item will give your character, not just final stats upon equipping said item. Moving residents and combining residents in the Item World menu should have been made into one menu option - switching back and forth when tweaking your weapons/items is very annoying. In addition, the menu option "End Turn" is right below "Execute Move", which made me end my turn prematurely quite a few times.

I was also surprised to find that changing classes (transmigrating) for existing characters resets them to level one. Then, I realized that you get to keep their expertise with weapons, and the moves they've learned. This was done on purpose - you can repeat this process over and over, and end up with a low level character that's stronger than some of your high level ones, with repeated transmigrations. Then of course you level some more, to end up with some seriously overpowered characters, capable of unleashing cataclysmic fury! A good thing, since the next stage you visit would have probably destroyed you otherwise - the game is pretty clever that way.

Warning: Opinion Summation

Throughout the game you will be constantly surprised at the freedom Disgaea gives you to fight your battles, and the creative ways in which the RPG tradition of levelling is presented to you. The replayable story missions and the puzzle-like Item World make for a lot of replay value, and the tons of items and classes (some easy to get, some nearly impossible) complete it. If you've played Tactics titles before and are still hesitating, don't. You want this game. If you're a fan of turn-based, semi-tactical combat (where you have to keep an open mind) and don't mind a good bit of silliness and a solid chunk of gameplay, you want this game. If you like plodding away to explore deeply concealed secrets, you want this game - but you can also zip through it with "minimal knowledge", as a character in Laharl's castle assures you. If you want an unobtrusive experience gathering system with constant rewards, or endless combinations of randomly generated dungeons to fight in, or...well, I could go on, but the bottom line is - this is a darn good game.

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