In the interest of transparency I just have to put it out there: Disgaea is one of my favorite games of all time. Easily in my top 5, more often than not it breaks into my top 3. With that being said, with the arrival of its newest installment this last Tuesday, I thought it was time to take a look back to Disgaea’s more humble beginnings. Come with me as we take a trip back to the year 2003, when Atlus originally released Disgaea: Hour of Darkness.
The gaming world was familiar with strategy RPGs. Final Fantasy Tactics and Front Mission were two of the bigger franchises on the scene.
Players were drawn by the depth these games had to offer: managing squads of unique characters and classes that could be optimized to develop specific skills, various battlefields with different topography that players could use to their advantage, and dozens upon dozens of weapon skills, spells and summons. This level of detail, combined with a rich storyline and captivating sprites/detail for the time, created a new audience for strategy RPGs, which had largely enjoyed a more niche appreciation before this.
Disgaea arrived to much fanfare on January 20th, 2003. Taking the previous elements I had mentioned before and essentially cranking them up to levels few thought possible, it employed a number of mechanics and elements that made even the high-hour count of Final Fantasy Tactics seem shallow in comparison.
At the center of Disgaea is your not-so-average anti-hero: the son of a demon overlord, Laharl is hardly a bastion of righteousness. After an unfortunate “accident” placed him in a deep sleep, he awakens to find his father dead and the realm in chaos. Being a demon, he doesn’t waste a moment mourning his father, and instead sets out to immediately cement his place as overlord. Along the way he is assisted by his childhood friend and confidant, Etna, who may or may not be plotting to kill him. He also encounters a lost angel by the name of Flonne, who happens to be the worst assassin ever. Together, the three of them battle his rebellious subjects, invaders from Earth and ultimately take their battle to the heavenly realm of Celestia.
Central to the storytelling method of Disgaea is its humor. Numerous reviews at the time appreciated its quirkiness and ability to be self-aware, demolishing traditional RPG archetypes and poking fun at the structure of supposed rivals and enemies. Were there more serious elements to the Disgaea story? Sure. The exploration of Laharl’s history, namely his missing mother, is powerful and poignant. The development of his relationships with Etna and Flonne is also humorous and at times heartwarming, but it’s not central. Central to Disgaea is its gameplay. Hours upon hours upon hours of gameplay.
As you set out on your typical RPG journey, you are but a lowly level 1 scrub. If you anger a particularly large dog you may find yourself facing a GAME OVER screen. You long for the day when you’re a powerful level 99, wielding your magic weapons and ultimate armor and crushing everyone who comes before you. In Disgaea, your aspirations skyrocket towards Godhood. Shortly after arriving in your main base you come across some of your servants; these servants have small information screens that detail their level, HP, and other basic stats, very similar to your own. One of the first servants you approach has a level of over 200. Right away you get a sense that you have a lot more to look forward to than your usual RPG adventure.
The basics of battle are very similar to your standard fare: you move your characters around the battlefield, engage in a variety of different attacks that depend on your weapon and skill level, and ultimately aim to defeat the enemy forces before your limited heroes are eliminated. There are a few mechanics that change things up, the first being the option to throw your allies or enemies around the battlefield. By utilizing throw, players can move enemies into more advantageous positions, or cover more distance on the battlefield and bring the fight to the enemies even faster.
In addition to throwing and combo-attacks, there is one more major departure from your standard strategy-RPG when it comes to basic battles, and that is the “geo-panel” system. On certain stages in the main storyline, and most stages in the item world, which I’ll discuss later, small pyramid-like statues grant certain benefits or disadvantages depending on their placement. By destroying these statues in the proper order, or throwing these statues onto different-colored squares, you can add or remove these effects.
Outside of the traditional battle structure, another interesting mechanic of Disgaea is the concept of the “Dark Assembly”. Essentially, you propose certain “bills” to a room full of demonic politicians, and by utilizing bribes and/or sheer force you can get them to agree to certain terms. Maybe you want better items in the store, or maybe you want to grant a certain character a triple experience bonus on their next kill. You can ask, and sometimes you may succeed, but note that bullying will not be a very effective tactic early in the game, as many of these senators have very high levels compared to yours will easily destroy your rag-tag team.
Perhaps the crown feature of Disgaea, however, is not its quirky humor or even its departures from traditional mechanics in turn-based battles, or even the Dark Assembly…but the creation of the “Item World”. The title is pretty self explanatory: every single item in the game, from the most basic healing item to the most powerful weapons and armor, have their own unique dungeon that you can explore in order to make that particular item more powerful. Within these item worlds are “Residents” that bestow that item certain characteristics and benefits. For example, you may come across a “gladiator” resident in one of your items. If you defeat this resident, you can then move him from one item to another, granting it an attack bonus. There are multiple resident types that provide bonuses to everything from money and experience gained to speed, attack, and movement bonuses. Some weapons have fairly shallow dungeons, perhaps only 10 floors deep. Others are staggeringly large, going as deep as 100 floors for some legendary items. The item world will be your addiction. This is where the most time will be spent, leveling not only your items, but powering up your characters as well.
When Disgaea came out, people were excited that the genre was getting more attention. Disgaea has since grown into a larger series, seeing a remake on the DS and PSP, a direct sequel on the PS3 and of course Disgaea 2-5 as well. Each of these games has taken the foundation that the original Disgaea provided and has expanded, improved or tweaked them in one way or another…but they all harken back to the original.
Disgaea was a game changer for strategy RPGs. A clever game with staggering depth and hundreds of hours of gameplay, it challenged other strategy RPGs to step up their game and was a must-own for any serious RPG lover on the Playstation 2. If you own a DS or a PSP I would highly suggest you pick up the remake of Hour of Darkness, which has been renamed Afternoon of Darkness. While the original game did not age well, the remakes look much better. Do yourself a favor and give this game a shot. I apologize in advance if your social life is destroyed as a result.