Disgaea may not be as flashy as many modern games, but it has a likable personality that few can match.
You find yourself in control of Prince Laharl, son of the Overlord of the Netherworld, King Krichevskoy. It turns out that Krichevskoy died two years ago, and Laharl has been in a mysterious sleep for both years. He finds the Netherworld in a state of chaos, as demons all over are battling for the title of Overlord - his rightful title. With Etna, his vassal with ulterior motives, he sets off to remind said demons of just whose title it is they are trying to take. They quickly run into Flonne, a very sheltered and naive angel trainee that the head of the angels has "accidentally" sent to assassinate Krichevskoy. This ragtag group always has a higher goal that they are moving towards, but they are in no way shy of taking a very humorous and often silly detour as their whims demand.
The battles in Disgaea take place on a grid layout and are totally turn-based - all of your characters are allowed to take actions, then all the enemies get a turn. You can queue up commands, and execute them as frequently or as infrequently as you wish. If characters execute and gang up on one enemy, the resulting combo damage increases the damage the next attack will do cumulatively. These combos are an important tactic to maximize your damage. However, if the enemy dies before all the characters attack him, then the characters that haven't yet attacked lose their turns just as if they did attack. This is one of the strategies you'll encounter on even the most ordinary fight - you don't want to over commit fighters on combos, but if they don't do enough damage the combo is broken and you'll need to start over again to form a new one.
One of the more unique features in battle is the team attack. When a character attacks an adjacent enemy with a standard attack, up to three allies surrounding him have a chance to assist him without using up their actions. It is actually possible to move a character next to an ally, have that ally attack to possibly initiate a team attack, then cancel the movement and move next to another ally and repeat. At first this may seem like a bug, but after a bit you'll likely get the feeling that the developers intended such a strategy. The game seems balanced around the assumption that the player will utilize every little trick he has available, and maximizing team attack opportunities certainly is a major part of the game.
Also unusual is the ability to lift and throw both allies and enemies. Not only can you toss enemies to line them up for area effect attacks, but also you can pick up a character that has already picked up another. This allows the potential for a tall stack of characters, which can then toss the shrinking stack to cover a great distance in a single turn. This is absolutely essential to get to a geo panel that gives the enemy a huge bonus or you a huge disadvantage on the first turn, before the enemy can capitalize on the effects.
Geo panels are destroyable and throwable inanimate objects that have an effect associated with them. Some give a 50% attack boost, some give enemies extra attacks or power, and some grant invincibility, among other things. Some tiles on the map are shaded a certain color, and if a geo panel is on one of these tiles, then all tiles of that color will be granted that effect. It is the design of these geo panels that make the level design of Disgaea really shine and create some interesting strategic puzzles to overcome. Is there a geo panel on the far side of the map that makes all the enemies powerhouses? Then you'd better use all your characters to toss each other in a chain to that panel and get rid of it on the first turn. It's also even possible to toss the panel to an uncolored tile, then toss a detrimental panel to it's old location to not only nullify the enemy bonus but to give them a weakness. Without a doubt, the levels that creatively utilize these geo panels are the highlight of the maps, with the three levels with a lot of invincibility tiles being among the best.
Sadly, despite the large number of character classes available, there are rather few special moves to learn. Once a character picks a class, they remain that class for life (there is a method to change them, but it's not feasible until well in the bonus levels after you are capable of beating the final boss). A mage will get an offensive spell upgrade every several levels, and will probably be casting that spell every single turn until they get a new spell. This sadly takes a lot of the options out of the game, as certain characters will have just one feasible attack at many points in the game. Special attacks are tied into a character's ability level with a certain line of weapon. Every non-monster can actually equip any weapon, but certain weapon skills will grow far faster than others. Again, a character will likely want to stick with a single type of weapon and use the best attack available whenever possible. Sometimes it's amazing that a game with so many potential combinations can, in effect, have so few.
Another problem is the leveling system that punishes those without some major offensive power. Experience points are only granted towards characters that strike the killing blow, so someone like Laharl and his unique abilities will tend to kill more frequently naturally. At a big disadvantage are the essential clerics, which can only heal with magic and has rather pathetic physical attacks. It's simply a chore to try to allot a cleric enough chances at kills to even stay in the neighborhood of the levels of the rest of the party.
Looking upon this game, it's very likely that the game can be transferred to a PS1 format without any real loss of graphics quality, or even some handhelds. The maps are 3D, but with rather poor and bland textures. The characters are entirely sprites, but also lack the detail found in games on technologically inferior platforms. The backdrops on the cutscenes are decently done, however, and the portraits of the characters during these scenes are rather large and detailed. The art of the game is rather pleasing when the poor graphics do not hinder it, with the character designs having gained a number of fans. One rather noticeable element of the spell effects and special move animations is that there is an awful lot of interlacing artifacts. Compounding the graphical issues is that this is the only PS2 game I have played among many that refuses to render with component cables, decreasing the quality even further. Thankfully the simplistic approach that the developers took toward this game minimizes a lot of the problems and gets the job done.
The music is rather average, though it is rather catchy. There's a rather wide range of styles covered, which can invoke the feeling of an impending attack, a major battle, or just comic mischief well. Of particular note are some of the more emotional tunes like the ones found in the Lunar Snowfield. The portion of the audio that really stands out is the voice acting. All of it is great, like Laharl's tantrums, Flonne's naivety, and Gordon's over-the-top style that can be compared to some 1960's space heroes. Etna, though, steals the show with her sarcasm, patronizing, and her imaginative silliness between each episode. The way the characters are voiced give them a ton of personality and you cannot help but feel fond of all of the major players.
Playing through to the final boss takes roughly 40 hours on the first playthrough, as you go through about four through six maps in each of the 14 episodes. There are a few points in the game where you'll return to a map to level up, but a few have experience bonus geo panels that helps out a lot there. However, for those that want to really play the game, there's a ton of growth left to do after you beat the game. The final boss is level 90, but the level cap is 9999, which should give you an indication of how powerful some of the enemies are in the bonus maps. There are also worlds inside each item, which you can fight through to make each and every item in the game more powerful. In addition, there's over half a dozen endings that can be unlocked. There's simply a lot to do, but sadly it can get a bit tiring. Getting your characters strong enough to take on some of the level 8000+ enemies takes an awful lot of leveling. An awful lot. Is the sheer number of hours necessary to get to that point worth it? For many, no, but for some, yes. And those that do will find hundreds of hours of gameplay available.
The only real weakness of Disgaea are some elements of its presentation. It does have a few little issues with its design, but they're not a big effect on the enjoyment of the game. And enjoyment there is, for those that enjoy strategy games that can provide a bit of challenge. On top of that, the game is very humorous and light-hearted thanks to its top-notch translation. It's the kind of niche game of old that will almost certainly please its small group of fans, but will be of almost no interest to the great majority of gamers. And in many ways, that is a good thing.