Most console role-playing games these days appeal primarily to those who've already been playing these types of games for years. By offering a twist on the genre's conventional turn-based combat or a twist on the genre's conventional hero-saves-the-world storyline, recent RPGs such as Xenosaga and Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits are well suited for fans, but probably aren't doing much to help new players get into this style of gaming. But so what? There's something to be said for games that are expressly intended for experienced players. Which means there's something to be said for Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. At a time when most game publishers are desperately trying to expand their audience, sometimes by severely dumbing down their games or including tutorials so simple they border on being patronizing, along comes Atlus with Disgaea, a game that's exclusively for hard-core fans of RPGs, and strategy RPGs in particular. If you have no interest in games such as Final Fantasy Tactics or Atlus' own Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis, then Disgaea is not for you. But if you are a fan of these types of games, then consider Disgaea one great big thank-you card for your ongoing support.
Disgaea greatly resembles other strategy RPGs. Its isometric perspective, 3D battlefields, and nice-looking 2D characters are clearly reminiscent of most other games of this type, and on first impression, so is the game's turn-based combat system. However, you'll soon realize that this game actually plays very differently.
Even the premise of the game is much different from your typical RPG. The hero of the story, such as he is, is Laharl, crown prince of the netherworld, demon, and spoiled brat. He awakens from a long slumber one day to find that his father is dead and that the netherworld needs a new overlord. The choice is obvious to Laharl, so he sets off to take control of the netherworld by force, with his not-so-trusty vassal Etna in tow. Disgaea's storyline, which unfolds using a combination of 2D artwork, text, and voice-overs, is overflowing with absurdly goofy Japanese humor, some of which is actually really funny. This sense of humor pervades the entire game--Disgaea doesn't take itself the least bit seriously, and the anything-goes philosophy expressed by Laharl, Etna, and the other demons of the netherworld actually manifests itself in the game design and the characters' personalities.
Disgaea is structured as a series of chapters, each containing a sequence of battles. In between these battles, you're free to engage in a number of other types of combat-oriented activities and subquests. You can also replay any battles you've previously won, and spend as much time as you want leveling up your characters, acquiring better equipment, and so forth. In fact, you'll find that Disgaea is in many ways the obsessive RPG fan's dream game. Spend enough time with this game, and your characters' experience levels won't just climb into the hundreds, but into the thousands. If you're the sort who likes to develop ridiculously overpowered characters in your RPGs--that is, if you're the sort for whom finishing the storyline in a game like this doesn't mean you're finished playing--then Disgaea is your game. Several dozen hours are needed just to finish the main quest, but far greater challenges (and a number of different endings) await those prepared to devote even more time.
The gameplay itself is, in a word, weird. But here are some more words to better justify that. This is the netherworld, so conventional rules of engagement apparently don't apply. You can deploy as many as 10 different characters in a single battle, which feels like a lot. Characters can attack with ranged or melee weapons, use special abilities, and cast spells--standard stuff for a strategy RPG. But they can also take part in combo attacks, pick up and throw one another or their enemies, and more. Disgaea uses a pure turn-based system. You always move first, and once everyone in your squad has acted, then your enemies get to go, then back to you, and so on. The turn-based system has some idiosyncrasies that could be considered bugs in a game that weren't so wacky. For instance, combo attacks may occur when an attacking character has allies adjacent to him or her. So, one strategy is to always have three characters (the maximum) placed adjacent to your attacking character, in order to maximize the chances of a combo. And, once the attack has been executed, you simply "take back" the moves of the adjacent characters, returning them to their original positions--they don't lose their action for the round by taking part in a combo. Using this trick, you can potentially turn every single attack in a round into a big combo.
That may sound really unbalancing, but the truth is, Disgaea isn't about fair fights. The game practically defies you to do your worst to upset the odds and turn the tables in your favor. Combat in Disgaea isn't terribly strategic in the traditional sense. You don't need to worry about such things as your characters' initiative relative to their foes, there are only three types of elemental magic and corresponding resistances, and with the right equipment, you don't need to worry about running out of spell points. Also, the enemy AI is pretty bad--enemies routinely ignore your most threatening warriors to go for your weakest ones, and sometimes they won't even move until you get close enough.
But there's a grander strategy to the game, whereby you'll constantly be trying to find the path of least resistance when it comes to leveling up all your characters as quickly as possible. For example, you'll find that the main purpose of combo attacks isn't to inflict more damage, but rather to help weak characters quickly gain experience points. Even if a character deals no damage to the foe as part of a combo, if the foe is defeated by that combo, all the characters involved in the attack earn experience--possibly a whole lot, such as if a wimpy first-level character takes part in the trouncing of a 100th-level bad guy.
Character building really is at the heart of Disgaea. Though some characters will join you at key points in the story, most characters you'll create. That's right: By spending "mana" points, which you earn in combat, you can magically create characters like fighters, mages, brawlers, and clerics. Later on, you'll be able to create characters like ninjas, scouts, knights, archers, and more. Character creation can be cumbersome in that you need to come up with a name for every single addition to your team, equip the characters, and then level them up. But as you unlock new character classes, you don't need to just keep creating new teammates--you can "transmigrate" an existing character into a new class. He or she will begin at level one, but will inherit some of his or her earlier powers. Then you can level up the character, transmigrate again, and so on and so on, until you have a whole bunch of ridiculously overpowered party members. The game somehow manages to stay a step ahead of you, though, and it will always have some tough battles in store no matter how strong your party gets.
Characters are created by consulting with the netherworld's dark assembly, a gaggle of demonic senators who can also be petitioned to grant certain bonuses, a greater selection at the store, and more. This is another of Disgaea's clever, unusual, amusing twists. Let's say you're trying to petition the dark assembly to allow you to buy boots or eyewear from the store. You can check out the list of senators and see if they're for or against your request, and if they're not in favor, you can try bribing them with items they might want. Alternately, you can try beating them into submission, though if you lose, it's game over. In fact, for a game that's so quirky and lighthearted, Disgaea can be surprisingly tough and even punishing. Lose a battle and your progress will be lost, so you'd better learn to save in between every fight.
Item World is another of the game's unlikely features. Basically, not only can you level up your characters in this game, but you can also level up your items, too. You do this by entering into the randomly generated, increasingly difficult battlefields that are supposedly contained within each item. With each floor you descend to in an item (either by defeating all enemies on a floor or by reaching the exit), that item gains a level--but only if you manage to escape from Item World alive, and that can be easier said than done.
The weirdness doesn't end there. Many of the battles in Disgaea are affected by special pyramid-shaped objects that confer certain bonuses or penalties (or other effects) upon characters who end their turns on like-colored squares. For instance, some spots on the battlefield may render a character completely invincible, while others might teleport the character to a random spot or allow the character to attack twice in one round. You can try destroying these prisms if you don't like what they're doing to you, and their destruction can sometimes create massive chain reactions, earning you huge bonus points at the end of a battle, which translate into more money and items. Picking up and throwing friends and foes is another important aspect of battle, and these and other factors combine to give the combat in Disgaea its own feel and some real depth.
The game's presentation isn't impressive from a technical standpoint, but it has plenty of charm. The hand-drawn character artwork looks good, and some of the animations are nice and smooth, while the various special moves and spells are appropriately over the top. However, the battlefields themselves are quite simple, and though you can rotate the perspective 90 degrees at a time, sometimes it can still be very difficult to get a good vantage point. The game's audio is of similar quality and of similar style to the rest of the game, meaning it's mostly good but also rather uneven. Disgaea features both English voice-over and the original Japanese language track, though the English voice work is fitting, and certainly on par with the typical anime dub. The upbeat soundtrack generally loops a bit too often and thus can be grating, though a few of the tracks--including this one punk rock song that comes up--are really something.
"Really something" is maybe the right way to describe Disgaea overall. It's a game that's unorthodox above all else, and filled with plenty of cheeky humor, some likable characters, a number of intriguing gameplay elements, and a many, many hours of turn-based combat. This is one of those games that could literally last you a couple of hundred hours if you let it, and if that sounds exciting rather than just plain scary, then by all means give the game a shot. Even if you don't end up leveling your characters into the hundreds or thousands, you'll still probably be glad you got as far as you did.