Version tested: PSP
The pressure to reinvent is the curse of every one-time maverick. Find success in tearing up the rulebook with bold originality and it's only too easy to merely iterate on that first idea or innovation for the rest of your life. So the idea becomes a series, becomes a franchise, becomes an institution. And the young, brash innovator finds herself head of a new establishment, replacing that which she came to undermine.
So it is with Nippon Ichi, the diminutive Japanese developer who in 2003 reinvented the strategy RPG with Disgaea. The game's irreverent approach to both narrative and mechanics took apart the genre's stagnating, Chess-like elements and put them back together as something at once fresh and familiar.
And while Nippon Ichi's unconventional approach has continued to be expressed in new IP, its flagship Disgaea series has shifted only in subtle ways across its trilogy. Now, as the developer ports each title to handheld formats, it's that much harder to search out the nonconformist heartbeat that gave life to the first game.
All of which is not to say that a handheld version of this sequel is unwelcome. Few games suit portable play so well as Disgaea, which can be savoured equally in nibbles or gulps of time. And the ability to dip in and out of a particularly tricky stage with a flick of the on/off switch makes the journey through the game immediate and smooth, even it's a staccato rhythm.
Moreover, Nippon Ichi has lifted a number of the new character classes and systems found in the most recent PlayStation 3 title and reinserted them into this older game, changes that ensue this is undeniably the definitive version of Disgaea 2.
However, it's hard to shake a sense of re-release ennui. Disgaea games aren't taken on lightly and, for those who have plunged into the time-sapping depths of three distinct yet similar titles now, no amount of tweak and polish can freshen the formula. This isn't helped by the fact that Disgaea 2's story is the weakest of the trilogy, lacking the style and pizzazz of the first game, which remains the series highpoint. In both the first and third games, you play as an anti-hero, a likeable Netherworld dweller whose moral vacuity plays off the traditionally conscientious RPG plotlines to great comedic effect.
In Disgaea 2 you play as Adell, a typically upright Japanese RPG protagonist on a quest, not to save a princess from a castle, but to return her. Her father, the Evil Overlord Zenon, has turned Adell's town, which forms the hub of the game, into a netherworld and its inhabitants into monsters. Rozalin, the Dark Lord's daughter, summoned to the village by mistake, agrees to convince her father to reverse his spell, if Adell can return her home safely.
While the premise gently turns convention on its head, in the context of Nippon Ichi's irreverent world-building playing as a good guy simply isn't as fun as playing as a hapless demon. Numerous PSP-exclusive cameos from characters from the first game including Etna, Fallen Angle Flonne and, of course, Laharl only reveal how memorable the original cast is by comparison.
The plot isn't helped by a weak translation that fails to inspire as Atlus' sterling work in the first game did. All of the typos or awkward syntax from the PS2 game have carried over to this port, a curious oversight considering the amount of effort that has gone into recoding elements of the mechnics. There are still good lines to be found in the drama, but the humour evidently present in the Japanese original strains against its translation.
This is somewhat addressed by the PSP-exclusive chapters included here, which focus on Axel, a once-popular movie star with acute ADD, who is now host of a daytime television Travel programme. His standout four bonus chapters reveal just how much more comfortable the Disgaea team is with writing for a broken, flawed protagonist and both the humour and writing outstrips that found in the main body of the game.
Of course, the characters and story exist primarily to lead you into the game's deep and complex mechanics and, as ever, Disgaea approach to the strategy RPG is superlative. Battles play out on the type of gridded environments seen in Fire Emblem and Ogre Battle and charge you with defeating a team of opponents using your own handmade team of fighters. You take turns with the AI to move your team around the environments, casting spells, executing attacks and linking up into combos with adjacent friendly units.
Disgaea's grand innovation is to only deem a character's turn 'finished' when they attack. This makes it possible to move your characters back and forth around the map positioning them for team combo attacks (earning valuable experience points as they do so) before returning the to their starting position for their own 'turn'.
The result of this flexibility is that the means are always as important as the ends, and indeed often more so, and extracting every potential experience point from a map becomes both an obsession and something of an art form.
The strategy balloons as you create pupil/teacher relationships between your characters. When standing directly next to their teachers, pupil characters can share abilities, even if ones outside of their class. Use an ability enough and the pupil can learn it for himself, allowing you to, for example, teach a Ninja the 'Heal' spell and so on.
The flexibility of the system is dizzying, as its possible to tailor your squadron in microcosmic detail. Later in the game you can reincarnate characters back to level 1, improving their base stats and carrying over abilities from their previous incarnation. In this way your team fast becomes the sum of every decision you've ever made, their abilities and potential the direct result of your choices in battle.
The micromanagement extends to items and weaponry themselves, as, via the item world its possible to metaphorically 'enter' items - everything from swords to health-restoring chewing gum. Each item has a set number of stages within it, which must be worked through and beaten one by one. Each stage that you complete within the item levels it up by a factor of one.
Within items, new characters known as specialists can be found and recruited. Essentially stat modifiers, specialists can then be moved between items to upgrade your equipment; so a 'marksmen' found in a breastplate item, when recruited, can be moved into a gun to increase its accuracy, and so on.
The port is a solid one, although the short loading screen that fires every time you turn the PSP from a paused battle is an intrusion. The mechanics imported from Disgaea 3 are inserted tactfully and improve the game in subtle ways for experts, but for newcomers the prospect of yet more systems to become acquainted with will weary, not excite.
Nippon ichi's problem is that the first Disgaea was already a rich, often convoluted playpen for precision levelling and stat mastery. Each iteration since then has added new complexities that have, in reality, done little to improve the original's strong core.
That the amends have been accompanied by ever-weaker surrounding storylines means that, despite the on-paper improvements in this release, the first Disgaea remains Nippon Ichi's best. All the same, Disgaea 2 is a deep and flexible game and should it get its hooks in you will lose your mind to it. That fact alone begs the question: why reinvent?
8 / 10