From the Vault of the Cult
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness
Game System: PS2
Distributed by: Atlus
Reviewed by Frank L. Ocasio
Admit it--RPG's take forever. I know you love them, stop shaking that leather-clad fist at me and just think about it. Huge areas and (sometimes) a character who, despite frantic running animation, moves like a snail? Lots of cinemas spread out over hours and hours of random encounters? The sometimes incredibly long moment between when your TV screen shatters (because it nearly always shatters) and when one of the hundreds of battles you'll have in a given area begins (Skies of Arcadia, I'm definitely talking about you)?
Even if you haven't realized it up until right now, you're probably nodding your head and saying, "Wow. Yeah, they totally can take forever. You're ridiculously insightful, Frank." And if you're a fanatic of tactical RPG's, you're probably saying, "I once played a single battle in Final Fantasy Tactics that took me five hours, so I really don't think you should be complaining." Either way, brace yourselves--one of the most fast-paced RPG's of all time... is a tactical RPG. I know, I know; I was surprised too. Especially because this roleplaying game isn't mainstream at all. No, my friends, the game I speak of is Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, an RPG that isn't unnecessarily slow-going, but is still nearly impossible to put down.
"A huge hit in Japan, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness follows the misadventures of the young prince Larharl and his rag-tag army as they battle demons and foul creatures for supremacy over the Netherworld."
Battling demons? Typical. Battling demons so that you can be their master and take your rightful throne as Overlord of the Netherworld? Pretty damn original. Also pretty damn original--the game's tone; sure you're playing a strategy RPG, but seriously, this one has as much comedy and irreverence as it does demon bashing. When Laharl awakens from a 10 year long slumber--during which his father, the previous Overlord, choked on a pretzel (seriously)--the biggest reaction he gets out of everyone is that they were happier when they thought he was dead and that they're going to either make him as dead as they thought he was, or ignore his authority altogether. Yeah. You were thinking he was going to ride in on some demon horse and take back the throne that's already his, didn't you? Nope. He sits on that thing every day and nobody cares.
But Disgaea's story pales in comparison to the meat and potatoes of this game--its gameplay. Among the main staples of Disgaea's gamplay are your characters' ability to Lift and Throw each other and piece together sequences of exploding panels along your map with "Geo Symbols" (trust me, that last bit'll make sense when/if you play the game). There are also Combo Attacks and Team Attacks that keep your battles from being the same, tired ol' demon bashing and force you to place your characters strategically for the best results. Like I said before though, Disgaea is truly incredible because it moves along at the speed of light--but only if you want it to. The gameplay is so tweaked that you can play this game for 8 hours and get pretty far along, or you can play it for 8 hours and get pretty much nowhere. Why? Well, you can move like lightning because progressing the story is as easy as watching little cinemas and completing series of relatively quick fights that end in a boss battle. But you can move like a snail drenched in molasses because you can level up everything--everything.
Imagine this. You start off with 5 characters, all of whom can hire pupils--other characters of varying classes. You can level up all of these characters--leveling up their proficiency with weapons and their Special attacks and spells--and either have them learn Special attacks and spells from each other or create pupils for your pupils, and so on. And at least where character levels are concerned, there is no cap--you can keep leveling up forever. If you'd rather not though, you can discover a rare item with awesome stats and... go inside of that item... to level it up. Doing so requires you to fight through 10 battles that can move at lightning or molasses snail speeds depending on how you play them. You can then move the bonuses you level up in one item to another item, all the while gaining tons of experience. In the interim between whatever you plan to do though, you can also level up each of your party member's popularity with the "Dark Assembly," a group of demon councilors who make demonic decisions that can range from what's being sold to your party in the Netherworld's demonic shop to whether or not a given character can change their demonic class. What does all of this coupled with the gameplay elements mentioned above wind up making? A sadly addicting strategy RPG that can play like a strategy RPG, or like--believe it or not--an awesome strategy board game.
However, this game would not be a cult classic if something wasn't wrong with it. If it was perfect, there'd be nothing culty about it; it'd just be a classic. So aside from the usual, terrible American voice acting (seriously, Laharl, the Prince of the Netherworld, is quite obviously voiced by a 40 year old woman), what's wrong with Disgaea?
The Dark Assembly.
The Dark Assembly is a bunch of scumbags. p;p;p;
Like I said, they control a lot of things concerning your comfort in the Netherworld. Sometimes, this means they decide how much it'll cost you to, say, create yet another pupil. More often than not though, the Assembly gathers and casts votes to deny or (in rare miracles) approve of your proposals. Sounds cool, huh? Yeah, it did to me too, until I realized that the Dark Assembly hates Laharl, his pupils, and their pupil's pupils.
But hey, you can win favor with them and thus have your proposals approved; you just have to complete Promotion Tests that raise your Rank. But seriously, the first test will slap most of your characters into stunned silence. And they don't get any more forgiving as you go; when you get to Rank 4 at level 15 (which you'll only achieve if you can cheap out the four enemies that the Assembly throws at you in the Rank 4 Promotion Test), they throw two level 20 demon lords in your face, and all you can really do is try not to cry and reset your game (because, by the way, if you don't pass a Promotion Exam, it's Game Over for some odd... incredibly aggravating reason).
The fun doesn't stop there though. You can always try to win the Assembly's favor by offering them expensive gifts--a tactic that largely just does not work. I've given a level 90 demon half of the stuff in my Item Bag; in the end, I left that guy "In Favor" of my proposal. When it came time to vote though, he suddenly forgot I'd just given him my entire freaking legacy for his "Yea." Seriously--scumbags.
You can always try to persuade the Assembly by force, but I mean, level 90 demon. You can't win. No one can win. Especially considering that that level 90 demon is rolling with the rest of the council, a group that averages around 14 characters who can range from level 1 to level ? because again, in this game, characters don't ever stop leveling up. Seriously, I don't know how high their levels can go, but I've run into characters who were level 320. And so, there's a good chance there'll always be at least 2 councilors present who can turn Laharl to dust with a single bitch slap.
Will you still get addicted to Disgaea: Hour of Darkness though? If you like strategy RPG's, then yes, you will. Horribly addicted. So if you're a hardcore RPG fan who feels like there's nothing old school to look forward to in this age of FPS's and RPG's that look more like action games, you should check out Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. You'll probably get frustrated, but you won't be disappointed.
One Last Thing Before I Quit: You may be wondering how well Disgaea: Hour of Darkness did here. Well, to give you an idea, after it's release in 2003, Hour of Darkness was followed by Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories in 2006. But that's not all: Disgaea 3 is scheduled for a 2008 release on the PS3, and Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, a PSP port of the original, will hit stores at the end of this month. If you're still not convinced this game is worth your time though, all I can say is that it was made by Atlus, the same people that brought you one of the industry's newest cult classics: Odin Sphere.
Grading: On a Scale From 1-10, 10 Being the Best
Overall Gameplay: 10