It's been said the only things you can count on are death and taxes. We'd like to add a third item to the list: Nippon Ichi strategy RPGs. The little boutique Japanese developer has been cranking out games with the same specific formula--which was inspired by classics like Ogre Battle and Final Fantasy Tactics--for years now, and fans of the company's unique brand of dense strategic gameplay and endearingly quirky humor just keep eating these titles up. Nippon Ichi rarely revisits the same franchise. Instead, it has produced a series of distinctly separate games--such as La Pucelle Tactics, Makai Kingdom, and Phantom Brave--that are nevertheless very similar in art style and almost identical in gameplay terms.
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, released in 2003, must have been especially popular, though, because NIS has been hard at work on a direct sequel, subtitled Cursed Memories. The popularity of Disgaea isn't hard to fathom, what with its bizarre style and sense of humor, not to mention its lovable character design (the evil penguin enemies known as prinnies have essentially become the most easily recognized element from the game). At any rate, we've recently tried our hand at the nearly finished English version of Disgaea 2 to see what's changed this time around (and you can see for yourself in a collection of new gameplay movies).
The short answer is, not much--we can safely report that Nippon Ichi hasn't mucked around with a good thing in this sequel. Gameplay-wise, this is definitely the same Disgaea you know and love, as the battles proceed almost identically to the way they did in the first game (not to mention most of NIS's other games of this type). You'll move your characters around on an isometric battlefield, issuing attack commands, putting together strategic combos based on unit placement, and so forth. For a more in-depth look at the gameplay of Disgaea 2, check out our first hands-on look at the Japanese version of the game.
Since the gameplay will be so familiar to veterans of Nippon Ichi strategy games in general, the most original aspect of Disgaea 2 is its storyline, which has been every bit as darkly comical as you'd expect. As we've reported previously, the game stars Adell, the only human left in the land of Valdime. It's not that the rest of the land's residents went anywhere. They're still around--they've just been turned into demons by the malevolent overlord Zenon. Adell and his demon mother attempt to summon Zenon to their village in order to lift the curse, but they end up with his prissy, aristocratic daughter Rozalin, who's unwillingly (and quite fussily) bound to Adell by the ritual. Adell then sets off with Rozalin as his very unlikely ally to take down Zenon and lift the curse, hopefully restoring everyone to normal.
As always, Nippon Ichi has done a great job of infusing the storyline with over-the-top humor and enthusiastic voice-overs on a par with what you'd hear in most dubbed anime these days. We laughed out loud at the game's irreverent humor during the intro, like when Adell's mother tells one of the protesting townspeople being offered up in the ritual to "be a good little sacrifice!" before whapping him in the head and knocking him back into the cauldron. There's been a good bit of Westernized cultural humor added, too. For instance, later on you'll run into a has-been celebrity named Axel, who wonders if he's found himself on an episode of "Screw'd" when he comes up in battle against Adell and friends.
And of course, since Rozalin isn't exactly interested in fighting against her father and is being dragged along by Adell, the relationship between the two is always tense and offers up a lot of comic moments. After a few hours, it's revealed that Rozalin has been plotting something evil behind the scenes, but we have a feeling she might warm up to Adell before too much longer. So far the localization has seemed fine to us, and the translation's got some zest to it that fits right in with the lighthearted comedy.
It's hard to imagine that Disgaea 2 will miss the expectations of fans who go in for this sort of game, the production of which Nippon Ichi has pretty much got down to a science by now. The game looks like it will serve as a good introduction to the genre for newcomers, too, since it's utterly rife with tutorials on every facet of the battle, experience, and item systems. Disgaea 2 is due out in August, so keep your eyes peeled for a full review at that time.