Version tested: DS
Your reaction to this latest offering from the Disgaea series will depend on your previous exposure to Nippon Ichi's deliciously daft world. If you played the original Disgaea: Hour of Darkness on the PS2, or its 2006 PSP port, Afternoon of Darkness, you'll probably be saying "Oh, it's you again, you haven't changed much." Because, really, it hasn't. This is exactly the same as the PSP version in almost every respect with only a few minor changes - the loss of the Japanese audio track, for example - to accommodate the smaller memory of the DS cartridge.
However, if you've never played Disgaea before - entirely likely given the series is a quintessential example of a critically acclaimed Japanese cult that has sunk without trace in the west - your reaction will hopefully be, "Ooh, you look interesting, what do you do?"
What it does is strategic role-playing in the style of Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem and Tactics Ogre. Our hero is Laharl, a demon of the Netherworld who wakes from a two-year nap to learn his father, overlord of this hellish domain, has died. Various demons are now battling to fill the power vacuum and Laharl, outraged that people are squabbling over his birthright, sets off with brattish arrogance to secure his throne.
Unlike the free-roaming worlds of traditional JRPGs, the story unfolds in a series of standalone confrontations played out on a grid of squares. Each character can usually move and attack once per turn, or use an inventory item, or pick up and throw an ally, enemy or object.
The aim is to defeat all the enemies on the map, and as the game progresses this task becomes more and more complex, requiring a level of tactical thinking and forward planning that belies the game's playful presentation.
Adding an extra layer of brainwork are Geo Panels. These coloured squares offer various enhancements or bonuses to whoever stands on them, and checking the map beforehand for tactical advantages soon becomes essential. There may, for example, be a thin line of panels that grant additional attack strength, and a shrewd player would entrench their characters along that line and wait for the enemy to come to them.
Equally, you may need to evict enemies from GeoPanels that make them harder to defeat. You can do this by grabbing them and throwing them somewhere else, and throwing one enemy into another creates a hybrid character, tougher to beat but worth more XP for the trouble.
Geo Panels are powered by Geo Symbols, which add their benefits to whichever coloured panel they're sitting on. Symbols can be picked up and moved, allowing you to alter the bonus layout of the map, or destroyed, in which case the relevant Geo Panels also get destroyed, damaging whoever is standing on them.
On some maps, it's entirely possible to wipe out the enemy forces through cunning manipulation and destruction of Geo Symbols alone - racking up enormous combo scores in the process.
You can probably already see the intricate tapestry of overlapping effects that make Disgaea so beloved by its fans. It soon becomes clear that there are few areas of the game where an extra intriguing element hasn't been overlaid on top of the expected RPG mechanics. This depth doesn't just exist on the battlefield, but is laced through the game at every level.
To begin with, you're accompanied only by Etna, the character who waked Laharl from his sleep, and her Prinny Squad, a trio of truculent penguin warriors with a fondness for the word "dood". As the story progresses other characters drop in and out of the narrative, but you can also bolster your ranks by visiting the Dark Assembly, a demonic parliament housed in Laharl's castle, your gameplay hub.
You can petition the Assembly to create a new character from an ever-expanding list drawn from enemies you've encountered, or you can get them to level up a particular character. All requests cost Mana, accrued through combat, but the Assembly can turn down your requests if they don't think you deserve their help. If this happens you can force the issue by challenging the Assembly to a fight, where victory guarantees their support.
There's also Item World, in which you can voyage inside inventory items and clear them of monsters in order to improve their stats. The castle also contains a hospital, for healing your characters, and a store which allows you to stock up on the usual weapons, armour and status-effect items. Even before you've ventured too far into the story missions, there's already a vast array of ways to tweak the game world, so even though the story is linear it's unlikely that any two players will approach them in the exact same way.
The game is also designed for repeated play, looping round and starting again at the end, with all stats and items carried over from one playthrough to the next. Each story mission can also be replayed as many times as you'd like, and if you're deep into the game, such grinding can become essential. It's a deliberate design choice rather than a flaw, but it's only fair to warn grindophobes that this is a game where the tastiest rewards only come from hundreds of hours of dedication.
It's at this point that I start to wish we could have a branching review for those familiar with Disgaea and those new to the series. If you're one of the latter then consider this an enthusiastic endorsement - Disgaea is one of the smartest, richest and funniest games of its type for many years, and deserves to be experienced. This DS port is surprisingly faithful, cramming in all the essential features of the PSP version, as well as loads of speech.
The graphics haven't diminished in style, although the game does suffer slightly from being squeezed into the smaller DS screen. Your view can still only be rotated in crude quarterly increments, leading to confusion when characters and scenery are bunched up together, but it's an otherwise impressive technical translation.
For those who have followed the series through its various guises and sequels, however, there is some cause for concern. Back when we reviewed Disgaea 3 on the PS3, Simon concluded that it was "a sequel that makes some interesting changes to the way the journey plays out, but too few to the ultimate destination". Given that kernel of concern, the fact that this is now the third time the original game has been revisted does suggest that Nippon Ichi seems reluctant to let go of a successful template.
It's not as if Disgaea DS does much to take advantage of its new hardware, with the top screen only offering a basic map or character stats. It's handy for a quick reference, but other DS strategy titles have done more with the concept. The whole game can also be controlled with stylus, but the result is sloppy and imprecise. The additional storyline, Etna Mode, is carried over from the PSP and the most notable extras unique to the DS are unlikely to warrant a third purchase from fans: Nippon Ichi's recurring mascot, Pleniair, is unlockable as a playable character while completing the story mode allows you to add a sarcastic Prinny commentary on your next playthrough. Cute, but hardly revolutionary.
Multiplayer, too, feels like something of a half-measure. Playable only via a local connection, the two-player duels are certainly fun, but while you can use your squads from the story mode you gain no experience. Demon Gadgets are randomly placed objects that offer often ludicrous benefits to the player who discovers them. Call me a silly old fusspot, but I found these rogue elements produced a annoyingly unbalanced experience.
It seems churlish to consider these negatives as too important in the grand scheme of things though, and anyone who has yet to sample the joys of Disgaea can happily disregard them. The core game remains an absolute gem; a deep and immersive masterpiece of interlocking gameplay design. It's just a shame that having set such a wonderfully high standard back in 2003, the Disgaea series now seems to be more interested in reliving past glories than building on them.
8 / 10