In 2006, most of the game genres we know and love have already been established, the bar-setting games released and enjoyed. But once the bar has been set, and the parameters of what that type of game requires, the copy cat and imaginationless developers pump out enough games to create and instill cliches. And stagnation sets in.
But every once in awhile, a game comes around that revitalizes the gaming pool and reinvents what was once original and fresh. For console strategy RPGs (or S-RPGs), the first that comes to my mind, especially as the game that brought the genre to the forefront of gaming minds during the last generation was Final Fantasy Tactics for the PS1. Without a doubt, it was a genre defining game.
For the PS2, that game was, and still is, NIS and Atlus' Disgaea. There is a reason other than short print run as to why this game regularly goes for $70-$80 for complete copies on eBay (though people on here are far nicer with their prices).
Within the first 30 minutes of game time, you'll be thinking at least one thing: damn this game is demented, through and through. The game opens in the Netherworld (essentially Hell, ruled by demons) with Etna, vassal to the recently deceased Overlord, King Krischivskoy, attempting to wake his son, the prince Laharl, from his two years' deep sleep. What's weird about that? Well, she is using just about every weapon known to man with little to no initial success. After the fighting tutioral, Laharl, Etna and a group of fanny-pack equipped, exploding when thrown penguins called Prinnies are off to rob neighboring demons and squash out any opposition to Laharl. Not how RPGs normally start the day and it couldn't feel better.
As it should be, and to avoid any spoilers, the story never really dips outside of the obtuse and off-kilter. It does, however, begin to change into a what is best described as a pack of sour Fun Dip, taking the zany, sour story and dipping it into packets of sweet, sticky sugar (almost exclusively by Angel trainee Flonne). This story, no matter how hard it tries, has a huge heart and is really more of a story of love, friendship and devotion than one about demons being evil.
At times, the story can get a bit predictable with Laharl doing/saying something "bad" then Flonne "showing him the light," but it never siginificantly hurts the overral experience. That is because of the voice acting. Over 2/3 of the story text is voiced (why it wasn't all voiced is beyond me - though I imagine it was budget-related), which is the only way I am forgiving the slide-show and in-game story-telling. I played through with the English voice actors (you can switch between the English and Japanese voice actors) and they more than adequtately hold their own against their Japanese counterparts. They picked up and developed their character's speech tendencies, such as Etna's sly comments, Laharl's freak outs and Flonne's moments of awe, something that many video game voice actors neglect. The work put into the voice acting, and therefore the story-telling, really shows how much Atlus U.S.A. put into this game.
On the subject of adding things, Atlus U.S.A. also added music to the soundtrack, specifically a track by the now defunct punk band, Tsunami Bomb. They saw this as a positive addition, but after hearing the song, I can tell you that it was not. Though I did have to track the song down online, since I could not remember it anywhere in the game. The rest of the music is solid, but as the same songs loop over and over again, you begin to find their shortcomings. The main two being that the song list is too short, as are the songs. It felt as if the songs were just short bits, looped over and over again, and during long, near hour long battles or trips into the Item World, they become mute worthy. Then, when you join a new battle and the same song starts up, well, that mute button becomes necessary. This would be perfect for the 360, with a hard drive full of tunes to listen to until the story pops back up.
Though, with gameplay that I can only explain as obscenely deep, Atlus U.S.A. didn't need to put as much into this game as they did to make it a classic...nor does the addition of a crappy song hurt it. Disgaea takes the standard concepts in S-RPGs, being grid-based, turn-based, weapons and magic battles and mixes in some not-so-new though well-excuted ideas, some fresh ideas and some genre-altering elements to create a well-oiled, just familiar enough battle system.
Under the not-so-new-though-well-executed ideas umbrella are the Formation Attack system, Dynamic Battle System, and team attack...system. As you can tell, Atlus is big on giving everything a silly name to designate it as a system, except for the last one - it just felt lonely without sytem attached to it. Anyway, the Formation Attack System is a tag-team, simultaneous attack that can involve up to four characters and can quadruple the damage inflicted, be it on your enemies or allies. Pretty self-explanitary as to how and why you would want to use this sytem as often as possible.
The Dynamic Battle System is a flexible system that allows you to bring all your party members to every battle and you can mix and match as you like. Your party starts inside a home base panel and then you are allowed to bring a certain amount out throughout the battle, during any turn. You can bring everyone out at once, or bring a couple out to lure the enemies towards the base then unleash everyone out. If you want to swap someone out, all you have to do is take them back to your base and pick someone else. After using this system, you will really find it hard to go back to more rigid systems.
Team attacks allow you to get some free hits in when using regular attacks by up to three near-by allies. When you go to attack an enemy who is directly next to you, any ally who has already attacked and is directly next to the attack character, even if they cannot directly attack the enemy from their spot, can be tapped to throw in an extra attack. Who attacks is decided by a percentage shown before you chose your attack, the number based on the affinity level between the attacking and team-up characters.
Fresh ideas incorporated into this game include the Dark Assembly, item inhabitants, ability to pick up and throw things and the Geo Panel system.
The Dark Assembly is where your party members spend earned mana to take placement tests to increase your rank, create new characters and attempt to pass proposals. With the bill-passing system, you select a proposal you would like to attempt to pass, which range from adding new items to the store to improving character stats to unlocking secret levels, and ask the Dark Assembly to vote yes or no. And if your proposal is voted down, you can choose to beat a yes into those who disagree, which if done enough can also lead to a hidden ending! Dipolmcy, ho!
Inhabitants are essentially enemies living within items that add effects according to their title. These are randomly inserted into nearly every item found, bought and received. There are 25 different inhabitant types, raising item parameters such as attack, hit points, resistence provided along with types that raise the amount of experience and money gained from defeated foes. Inhabitants can be subdued and leveled up only in the Item World, and once subdued, they can be combined with others of the same title and moved about, so you can stack up inhabitants and easily beef up an item's stats. At first, this system is overwhelming, but spending time learning what each of the inhabitants does and how that can help you pays off in spades. If anything, at least just focus on acquiring and leveling up Statiacians, the experience raising inhabitant, and watch your characters level faster and more frequently.
Being able to pick up and throw characters, it sounds like a rather simple addition. But it ends up having a wider effect than an initial reaction would lead you to believe. At first, the most obvious way to use this ability is in the Item World, throwing your allies to parts of the map that are unaccessaible any other way. But as you progress through the game, the strategic possibilities really begin to open up. With Geo Panels, you can pick up the panels to null their effects as long as you hold onto the panel (though you take damage for every turn you still have it in hand) or you can throw the panel onto another color square to change the effects of that color. With enemies, you can throw them atop of Geo Panels to destory them in one blow or throw them onto each other to combine them into a stronger enemy (though this is not generally recommended for obvious reasons). With allies, you can throw them ahead to expand their attack or healing range, throw an ally out of the heat of a battle or throw an ally onto your home base square, killing everyone within (highly recommened if you want to unlock some of the hidden endings). And those are just some of the examples off the top of my head. The lack of a throwing attack, like a tag-team attack, is a bit of a disappointment though.
The Geo Panel system adds an entirely new dimension to Disgaea by taking your normal grid-based level and slapping flashing color squares on some of them (or, in some levels, all of them) which are controlled via Geo Panels on the map. These panels add or take away attributes for those who stand on the corresponding color until the panels are destoryed, moved or picked up. These panels can help with regen effects, extra attacks and increased defense. But they can also hurt, with damage effects, decreased attack power and silence. Regardless of the effect, both your team and the enemies can take advantage of these panels, making some levels a race for control of the right panels. But that is not all you can do. By destorying a Geo Panel on a colored square of a different color, all the squares take on the color of the panel. Anyone standing on a square that changes color takes damage. Through planning and Geo Panel maneuvering, you can take out all the colored squares in a level, dealing huge damage to everyone standing on a colored square while also pumping up your bonus gauge. Failure to learn how to maniuplate the Geo Panels will lead to a quick demise in this game.
Those ideas, though, fit more within the Disgaea (and more accurately Marl) game world itself than could be added to the S-RPG cannon. Ideas such as the ability to upgrade and personalize your items and transmitigation though, could and should be used within the S-RPG cannon because of their power to add and enhance most S-RPGs.
The Item World might be the biggest addition to the Disgaea world, making the game almost endless. Essentially, the Item World allows you to enter into every single item in the game, fight through mini-levels called floors, and level up the items and inhabitants within. While being completely optional, it ends up being utterly essential even to the casual player. Not only does this allow you to level up your items, but also all experience earned with the Item World count just like any other battle. Gain two levels with one stone, so to speak. I know that the Item World is not something that can be put into every S-RPG as is, but the idea of leveling up your items instead of just casting them aside when you buy better ones, has huge potential. If implemented effectively, as it is here, the game time is greatly increased as is a more personal touch to items.
Transmitigation is the other radical idea. This is where you take a character, switch their class to a higher one, then start all over at level one. Why would you want to do that, especially if you are a high level? By doing so, not only can you change to a more powerful class, transmitigated characters keep their weapon and spell levels, and depending on how much mana you spend, you can inherit up to 100% of stats earned beforehand. It only takes one transmitigation to realize how much stronger your characters become afterwards. Couple this with items stacked with Staticians and you'll be back up to your original level in no time, better than ever! The ability to transmitigate in any class-based game, regardless of genre, makes so much sense now. Just as the Item World personalized items, transmitigation personalizes characters, which is important here as created characters have no baring on the story at all and is often the case in nearly all games featuring a character creator.
I was hoping to crank this review out quickly, but as I was typing it out, I kept remembering things in the game I initially left out and had to go back and add them. This game is, as I first said, obscenely deep. There is so much in this game I know for a fact I did not experience it all or was able to capture it all in this essay-long review. But that is one of its biggest draws, that the game forces you to end your time with it instead of it wrapping up and you ending your stay with it. If you are going to spend $70-$80 on a game, the more time you can have fun with it, the better, and very few console games can boast what this game can.
Disgaea is an amazing game for fans of console S-RPGs, and if you enjoy anime and/or Japanese humor, then hot damn you are in luck! If you have a distaste for either of those, then don't let the hype bandwagon pull you in. Chances are very high you won't like this game, as there is nothing here to change your opinion of either. I know there are some of you out there that buy into hype even if it is something you don't normally like. This is a niche title, it pulls no punches in that regard, so save yourself the hassle and cost. For those who fall into the niche, if you haven't taken the ride, get on it now. You'll tell everyone at $70 that you underpaid.