Review: Huh, so this package came with more than just a collectable art book?
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is one of those games that almost no one heard about back in 2003. It was a fun little game putting players in the hi-tops of the young demon prince Laharl as he fought against numerous foes in order to become the rightful heir to his father's throne and assume the title of Overlord. That game featured a witty storyline with charming and very unique characters as well as a good, if not flawed, tactical battle system. Disgaea was developer Nippon Ichi's (NI) big debut in America, and even though it didn't sell tons of copies, it cemented the team in the cholesterol saturated hearts of the hardcore gaming community of America for years to come. Jump ahead 3 years and three games later to 2006 and the release of Disgaea 2. For the fans this was one of the must-have titles of the year. The big question is if NI was able to capture all the charm of the original while streamlining the old system and adding some interesting new features to keep players interested. Were they a success? For the most part, yes.
Disgaea 2 follows the story of a young human named Adell who is about to summon the great and powerful evil Overlord Zenon. Why would such a youth desire to summon the most powerful being in the universe of Veldime? To kill him of course. You see, long ago Zenon changed the inhabitants of Veldime into monsters, and ever since the residents have slowly been losing their memories as well as their emotional sensitivity. The only one who was unharmed was Adell, and so by process of elimination everyone just assumed he was the chosen one to save them all. Of course things go wrong when his mother, a three eyed monster, messes up the summoning ritual and instead summons Zenon's daughter Rozalin. Since Rozalin was summoned in the name of Adell, she is bound to his service until he fulfils his task of killing Zenon. This causes a bit of a conflict of interests when Rozalin wants to meet her father while at the same time Adell wants to kill him. To say comedy ensues would be an understatement. Of course that is to be expected, after all, this is the world of Disgaea.
To start off with Disgaea 2's strong points, let's talk about the gameplay. Long story short, the gameplay is the best I've seen in any SRPG to date. Now, I am going to assume you have some knowledge of the original Disgaea's mechanics as well as some knowledge how SRPGs work, because otherwise this explanation could go on forever. The game still uses the grid based movement system and the Geo system from the last game. Many spots on the grid will be a certain color, and each color may or may not give some sort of status effect depending on how the stage is laid out. These spots are known as Geo Panels Of course the status effects can be positive (giving you more strength, defense, exp, etc.) or they can be harmful (damaging the entire party, dropping stats, boosting enemy stats, etc.). The game features a few new stat changes from the original. Now some Geo Panels will increase any enemy's level by 10% per turn (which is great for leveling up by fighting powerful enemies early on), some will spread damage across the board, and some will even fuse enemies together. One could go on for hours on the mechanics of the Geo Panel system, but it's best if you just play the game and see for yourself how infinitely deep just this one mechanic of the game is.
In battle, character stacking, combos, and attack chains are all still possible. There is now a new attack known as the tower attack. This happens when a stack of characters is thrown near an enemy. They can all attack the one enemy much like a combo, only whereas a combo relies on a percentage system, it appears the tower attacks always involve everyone in the stack. It's a nice little addition if you need to level up some really weak characters, but I find I never used it much.
The game still features the Dark Congress from Disgaea, only the layout is a little different. As you kill enemies, your characters will gain mana. They can then use this mana in the Dark Congress to try and pass bills or create new characters. The bills can do anything from adding new items to the stores, to adding new stages and side stories to the game. This time around, players can even have the main character, Adell, become a congressman. Players will need to use the Dark Congress to get the most out of the game.
The Item World is back from the original. Players can take any item in their inventory and make a dungeon out of it. If they fight their way through to the 10th floor, they'll battle a boss-like character with a rare item. As they progress through the item dungeon enemies will become stronger and stronger, and at the end they'll have to face off against that item's god (who often carries VERY valuable items, just ripe for the stealing). The farther players progress through the dungeon, the more powerful that item will become, so the Item World is very helpful. There are a few new additions to the Item World. First and foremost, every ten levels players will find a safe point where they can heal, find treasures, stock up on items, and enter a special Dark Congress that will allow them to power up the item even more. Why they didn't do this in the original Disgaea is beyond me. Also scattered on random floors of the dungeon are special mystery rooms that will either let players heal, buy very specialty items, or raise the level cap of the item (essentially adding more rooms to that item). If exploited just right, players can create amazingly powerful weapons and armor through the item world. That isn't all, though. The main characters aren't the only ones trying to use the Item World. Besides the stat boosting specialists in every item, players run the risk of encountering very high level ?Item Pirates? in every floor. These guys come equipped with treasure maps which can be obtained through fighting them, but be advised- the Item Pirates are no pushovers. They often dwarf the current floor's enemy level by 10 times and can easily annihilate a weakened party.
Of course players can still move item specialists around the same as in Disgaea, but this time around players can actually mate item specialists in order to form new hybrid specialists. It's something that takes quite a bit of time and some random luck, but the benefits are worth the effort. Of course this just adds 10 times more depth to a game with an already infinite set of possibilities.
One new feature of Disgaea 2 is the Dark Court system. This is basically a cross between the Dark Congress and the Item World. Players will receive subpoenas depending on whether or not they met certain conditions (such as having their HP over a set limit). In these cases, individual characters will be served a subpoena. To use a subpoena, players must enter its item world. The Subpoena item world is special because it has only one specialist- a bailiff. Players must fight down to the level of the bailiff in order to enter the Dark Court. Regardless of whether or not it was the person the subpoena had been served to the character that makes it to the Dark Court will be judged once he or she enters the court. If they are found innocent, they will be punished with a number of status effects, or even worse, they could be reincarnated as a Prinnie (a small explosive penguin) right on the spot. If a character is convicted, the court will add marks to the character's profile and give them a big stamp over their picture that says ?FELONIES? along with the number of marks against them. These felonies actually boost a given character's likeability in the Dark Congress, as well as provide a few other benefits. In fact in order to get one of the endings in the game, the main character must have a whopping 100 felonies on his record.
If you haven't been able to tell, Disgaea 2 is just a deep game all around. The story itself only lasts about 13 chapters, each with 4 to 6 fights. The game can easily be beaten in about 10 hours, maybe less depending on your character levels. Once that's done there's still the ability to overpower characters and weapons and take on the real challenges of the hidden bosses such as La Pucelle Tactics' Prier and Rhapsody's Majorly, both of which made guest appearances in the first Disgaea. A word of advice- try to take on Prier at a level no lower than 1000. At least Disgaea gives you a reason to keep playing and leveling up. Just beating all of the hidden bosses and stages can take hundreds of hours. It's not uncommon to hear of games of the original Disgaea having 200 or more hours logged into them, and the same goes double for Disgaea 2. This really is a fantastically endless game, and it remains addictive from start to finish.
One last positive comment about Disgaea 2 is that they thankfully added some very nice options to the menu screen. As before, players can switch between English and Japanese voice acting- something that will be required once Etna appears in the game, just trust me. One new option that I absolutely adore is the ability to turn Enemy and Ally effects off. This means that every time a special move is performed it shows up as either a normal attack, or a weak magic spell. You have no idea how this streamlines battles. I know from personal experience that in the original Disgaea, enemy turns could go on for minutes just watching the same special attack scenes over and over. Just imagine doing that for 100+ hours and you know how obnoxious that is. It's so nice to have the option to cut those scenes out. Like Xenosaga's much needed cutscene skipping ability, I wish more games had the ability to let players skip the horribly long attack cinematics.
Going down the line from good aspects of Disgaea to mediocre- the first thing anyone will notice about Disgaea is the fact that the game's characters are all sprite based whereas the environments are 3D polygons. This has been true of all of NI's PS2 games thus far, and if you've already played one of NI's other games, you won't be surprised. The sprites are actually a little better looking than, say, Phantom Brave, with a little higher resolution. Of course, if you're more used to games like Final Fantasy, you're probably in for a real shock to the system. The game features cheerful bright colors in some of the outside environment and deep purples, blacks, oranges and reds in other, more hellacious environments. The color scheme works well in the confines of the presentation. The game is supposed to be lighthearted, and it definitely looks that way. HDTV and progressive scan users have been snuffed again seeing as Disgaea 2 provides neither progressive scan nor widescreen settings. Looks like it's back to using the ?ol S-video cable. NI's games never were known for their awesome graphics, and Disgaea 2 is no different. It really is hard to judge any NI game on visuals because ultimately this is how they intended to make the game. It wouldn't work quite the same way if they had used full polygon models. So while the graphics aren't cutting edge by any means, they still aren't bad by any means, either.
Another flawed aspect of Disgaea 2 is its sound. While the music is pretty good, with a few funny Japanese character themes sprinkled here and there (Axel's theme stands out prominently in my mind), and the voices are on the whole very well done, there is one big problem I had with some of the voices. The one that stands out immediately is Etna. Etna was condescending in the first Disgaea, but this time they made her sound like an even more condescending valley girl. It was enough to bug me and many of my peers. I was forced to change over to Japanese voices, which upset me because other than her, the rest of the English cast gave wonderful performances- especially Tink, the French sounding perverted frog demon. I'm not going to drop the audio score for this fact alone, mostly because the Japanese voice acting is well done as always, and it stands as a decent alternative, but I will say I was disappointed.
One other thing that bugged me about the game was the plot. It was really dry. If I've learned anything by playing Nippon Ichi games, it's to always expect the unexpected. All of their games feature really interesting characters from the greedy selfish Laharl in the original Disgaea to the overly ambitious Prier from La Pucelle Tactics. Unfortunately Disgaea 2 doesn't. Adell is your average special youth who is ambitious to fight the evil villain and save the damsel. That's about it. He never changes through the entire game. Princess Rozalin, the spoiled brat princess looking for her father, the evil Overlord Zenon does have a bit more depth to her character as she learns to admire those around her and fight for the things she loves. Tink, the frog demon is probably the most interesting character in the game suffering from a split personality disorder. Still, in contrast with the first Disgaea, there really isn't much to get excited about in the plot. There aren't many twists. Those twists that are there are plainly obvious from chapter 1. Sadly, the more interesting characters from the first Disgaea don't show up until close to the end, and with the exception of Etna, none of them even join your party throughout the main story of the game. Heck you won't even get to see Flonne unless you beat the game and open a special chapter through the Dark Congress. For a game being built upon such an interesting universe, it's too bad that they rarely ever use the elements that were established from the first Disgaea. While it works better for people who never had the chance to play the first Disgaea, it ultimately fails in comparison to the original.