Malik (5/18/04)

Disgaea (PS2)


When this great title first appeared, I dismissed it as another overly long and involved strategy game that probably lacked the content to back up the time commitment. Why would I assume so much? Because FFTA was a long and involved game with not a damned thing to back it up, and was highly prized by the vocal majority. I guess I over-generalized, or stereotyped, future strategy titles all because of FFTA (goes to show just how much I hated that title). 

In the end, however, I was feeling way too deprived of good RPGs, and decided that I would rather give Disgaea a shot than wait around for Tales of Symphonia. That was probably my best decision regarding strategy RPGs in a long time. 


In Disgaea, you play Laharl, the price of the Netherworld and sole heir of the late Overlord. As the game starts, one of your loyal vassals (at this time, you have a whole one of those) is trying to wake you from a long've been sleeping for the last 2 years, and thus missed the news of your father's demise. So, being a demon, you decide to do what comes naturally to must succeed the throne. At the same time, through-out the Netherworld, the other higher ranked demons are trying to secure the throne for themselves. So, you are in for a massive power struggle. 

Additionally, you have to try to secure the funding for your bid at Overlord. This means, in typical demon fashion, you need to loot and pillage. This comes in the form of looting and raiding your oppositions' homes and followers. 

So, with these two basic factors (money and power) on your mind, you start a quest to establish yourself as the best and strongest of all demons. However, with a little playing, some more key figures come into play in this war. These include the angel armies of Celestia (this game's equivalent to Heaven), the human armies of Earth, and some internal strife from the typical backstabbing of demons. That's the story in a nut-shell. 

Something as important to the story as the actual plot is the methods used to produce it. In Disgaea, silliness is key. Demons are typecast as greedy, backstabbing, monsters devoid of all compassion, with no end to their self-centered thoughts. Meanwhile, Angels are seen as either blinded by their anger applied to the annihilation of demons or blinded from reality by their immense sense of love and compassion. Last of all, the humans of Disgaea are seen as ignorant and power hungry, without enough common sense to ensure their own survival. Using these stereotypes, the plot is presented with a large level of humor as we watch an angel join Laharl's army. This angel, Flonne, gets talked (by herself) into joining Laharl to try to see if love and compassion can be found in the supposedly love-less demons. The banter between Laharl and Flonne is pure comedy on it's own; but then we have characters like Mid-Boss (Laharl decides to rename one of his first enemies Mid-Boss as a sign of what Lahalr thinks of his opposition), the constantly re-appearing boss who just doesn't know when to give up, who serves as the game's main running joke (besides Flonne's attempts to bring the love and cuteness out of Laharl). 

The final piece of comedy relief comes from the Prinnies. A Prinny is a human soul that committed a great sin in it's former life and is reborn in either Celestia or the Netherworld as a stuffed penguin suit. These Prinnies are the ultimate slacker vassals who will do almost no work and demand a high level of salary as they constantly call you "dood". When these Prinnies get involved in a conversation with Laharl and Flonne, the comedy hits a new peak for video games. 

Personally, one of my favorite plot devices is what occurs between chapters. The basic game is broken up into about a dozen (give or take...well, give...) chapters called Episodes. After each episode ends, the game will give a "preview" of what's on the next episode, as told (usually) by Etna (that one loyal vassal I mentioned earlier) in pure anime fashion. Etna will tell of things that (for the most part) simply don't happen in the next episode, as she makes herself sound like a typical anime heroine. Usually, these Next Episode intermissions will pay homage to a particular anime series or genre...for example, Etna will parody Mobile Suit Gundam, Pretty Sami, etc. 

However, don't get Disgaea wrong.  When it needs to get serious, it will with authority.  The serious times are few and far between, but they are as close to a tear jerker as I have ever seen in an RPG.

Game Play 

Well, I will glance the major mechanics of Disgaea. Pretty much, Disgaea plays just like Final Fantasy Tactics when in battle. You are presented with a large map broken into squares with various altitudes. You place your army onto certain squares on your first round, as the enemies are initiated on their starting squares. Then you move according to the move abilities of each unit, and attack (up close, or with a range if you have a gun/bow/spear), or cast a spell, or use a skill, or whatever, and setup all your actions for a round. When you end the turn, all your actions go off before the enemy units do the same thing. Typical strategy RPG controls on a grid...just like FFT (and the craptacular FFTA), Shining Force series, Arc the Lad series (except on a grid, so not like AtL:TotS), Front Mission series, etc. 

Now, where Disgaea proves different than all of these is with a few innovative features. It's these features that help to make the game very long for those who want to obsess (for well over 300 hours of play), and can be used briefly for those who want a shorter (50 or so hour) game. 

The most noticeable innovation in Disgaea is the "Geo Panels". When on a battle map, sometimes some colored squares will be present. If a Geo Symbol is located on a colored Geo Panel, then whatever affect the symbol dictates will be in effect on all panels of that color. The symbols are character sized, moveable units (but they don't move under their own ability) that have HP, defense, and magic resistance (thus, they can be destroyed). Multiple symbols can be in effect on the same colored panels. Effects from the symbols include damage every round, boosting the enemies stats (but not the player), increase experience or HL (money) from slaying an enemy (or player, if that's your thing), creating killer clones of player characters (exact clones...very dangerous thing), random warping to another affecting panel at the end of each round, boosting selected stats (like offense, defense, etc), regeneration, and no lifting (read on...). Also, if a symbol (the symbols have colors too) is on a panel of a different color and is destroyed, all of the color of panel affected by said symbol get changed to the symbols color, and damage is dealt to every tile of the panel's original color (you can use this to rack up some massive combos...especially if there are a few different colors of symbols and panels on the current map). Plus, some symbols are of no color, and if they are destroyed, all panels of the color said symbol is currently on are destroyed (the panels are removed for the rest of the battle). You are given additional bonuses for removing all geo panels from a map by using colorless symbols. Due to these panels and symbols, the maps can sometimes take on a sort of puzzle like mechanism (if the enemies are all boosted drastically, and the symbols are far from your start, how do you go about beating to enemies without killing all your characters due to the boosted enemies, in the process? The answer usually takes a lot of careful planning). 

Another fun feature is the bonus system. If you deal many hits to one enemy at a single time (for example, tell 5 people to attack before initiating the attack with the execute or end turn commands), a bonus meter will build. As the meter fills, you are given additional bonus items, HL, or experience at the end of a battle. Using the geo panels with this yields some rather impressive rewards (rare items/weapons, massive money gains, massive exp, etc). 

The last innovative feature that really adds to the game play is the lifting system. Each character (for the most part...certain rare ones can't) can "lift" another character (be it enemy, friend, or geo symbol...unless the no lifting geo symbol is in effect on the square of the target to be lifted) and toss them a given amount of tiles. This can be used to manipulate the geo symbols (including, if you throw an enemy at a geo symbol or vice versa, the symbol will be destroyed), strengthen enemies (if two enemies are stacked, their levels add up...this can gain some extra experience, provided you have the strength to kill the new uber-enemy), or strategically position both friends and foes. Last of all, the Prinnies, if thrown, act like if you feel like sacrificing a Prinnie or two, toss them at an enemy and enjoy the fireworks. 

With all these cool features, there has to be a sacrifice somewhere, right? Yes. The one this about Disgaea that didn't ruin the game, but sure annoys the crap out of me is the experience system. The only person who gets experience in a battle (unless you get a bonus of experience at the end of the battle) are those who deal the finishing blow to enemies. So, if three people attack an certain enemy, then only the last one, who dealt the death blow, will get experience for the fight. You get no experience for magic (at least towards your can improve the range and area of effect of a spell by constantly using it...but you don't get the stat boost of a level up unless it's an offensive spell that dealt the finishing blow to an enemy) or skills that don't actuall prove to be fatal. At least there's... 

...the ability to use support attacks is a nice feature to balance some of the experience problem. If there are friendly people surrounding (no diagonals, just directly surrounding) a character when they attack (only direct attacks for ranged ones), they might also get in on the action (at no cost of actions for the current turn). The chance of these extra players getting involved in a support attack depends on what weapon they are using and what weapon the initiating attacker is using. If the weapons match, or are at least not ranged, the odds go up of a support attack. Best of all, if all of these players (up to three support and one initiator per attack) are involved in the supportive death blow, they all get experience. It doesn't quite balance out the experience issue, but it does help, a little. However, whatever you can do, so can the enemy. So, you must remember to try to not allow any enemies to get into support attack positions, or you can find your army decimated in no time. 

A few last notes on the game play; There is one town in this game that you can upgrade the shops of by using the senate (keep reading...); You can have up to ten players in a battle; you can upgrade your items by entering random dungeons located inside each item (100 floors per random item dungeon, with harder enemies per you kill certain NPCs within an item, you can take their abilities from that item and put it onto another item to create better weapons and armors...but this takes a lot of time and effort); you can create hundreds of followers using mana and a little help from the senate (read on...). These extra players can be any base class to start, and as you play, new classes can be unlocked (by meeting criteria along the lines of; a level 10 brawler and a level 10 warrior of the same sex, someone with archery skill at level 3, etc...a lot like FFT); and current characters can be "transmigrated" to a new class, starting over at level 1, but keeping some of their old skills and stats to create uber-characters (this too takes a lot of time, so it's only really useful for the obsessed Disgaea fan); last of all is the Dark Senate... 

Which is basically how you get the world to progress as you progress the plot. Since there is only one town in the game, in which you do all your purchasing, character creation, healing, etc, you need some way to keep the merchants up to date on the best stuff that is not too expensive for your wallet. As you slay enemies, you earn a number of "mana" based on the level of the monster you took down. Then you can use this mana to either make a new character (the better the character starts, the more it will cost you in mana) or try to pass something through the senate. What sorts of things can you pass? You can make the shops sell more expensive items, you can make uber-smart characters (the idiots cost very little mana and require no permission to make, but the geniuses require a lot of man and permission from a passing vote in the senate), you can make cheaper items available from merchants (did you make the items too expensive? This will correct that), you can open hidden areas, or even try to force the senate to give you money (way too little money for the effort). 

To purpose a initiative in senate is as easy as having the mana points (and saving first), but to get it to pass is a whole different matter. You need to have enough influence for the vote to pass by a number [yes votes - no votes > mana cost for purposing the initiative]. Now the senators will have a set opinion of your army as the session begins. Usually half will hate you, and half will not give a shit either way. To correct this attitude problem, you will need to give bribes (you can't give money...rather you give items), which will influence the opinions of the senators. As they start liking you, it will carry over to future senate meetings. The only problem is that there are a hundred or so senators and only about 20 or less senators per session. Odds are, you will do ok with a little help from your inventory (aka bribes), but every once in a while, you might pull those 20 who really hate you. However, if your vote fails, and you feel like the use of your mana was less than respectable, you have a choice to make (besides re-loading the game). You can either give up (and there goes your mana...why didn't you just reload your save? That's why I said to save first...idiot), or you can try to pass the initiative by force. To do this, you must defeat, in a fight, all the senators who voted against you. Keep in mind, some senators will be well above level 100 (yes, I said can get four digits of levels in this game), and you can beat the game before you ever hit three digits. Hence, you need to make friends with high level senators (also, high levels senators who vote for you may influence the lower levels to help your cause). However, if you do pass an initiative by force, all those you defeated in combat will hate you in the future. It's a double edged sword passing an initiative by force. Also, if a friendly senator is hit by anything damaging (including from an evil senator), they will join the fight against you! 

So, long story short...that's the game play in a nut-shell. Overall, the mechanics are good, but the experience reward to only the actual slayer of an opponent is kinda lame (healers never level up that much without a lot of coaching...way too much coaching), and the fact that there's only one town sucks. However, the senate and supportive attacks can at least make up for the flaws a little. 

The only true issue that comes back to haunt the player near the end of the game (around episodes 12 through 14) is the vast time needed to level up to continue the game. I for one was able to survive almost all boss fights with 9/10 or better survival of my party without resorting to spending extra time leveling up on the side. This, however, ended with the final battle of episode 12. After that point, I had to extend my playing time greatly to prepare for each upcoming battle as the difficulty sky-rocketed. When taking in conjunction with how only the person/people who deal the death blow to an enemy actually gain should get the idea, unless your a FFX loving ass. 


Not much to really talk about here. While the graphics are nothing outstanding, they are definitely do-able for this game style. The graphics are almost a total throw back to FFT. The characters are slightly details, but not all that much in comparison to a game like Arc the Lad:TotS (I picked Arc 4 since it's the most graphically enhanced strategic RPG that I've seen). However, while the graphics are somewhat simplistic, they fit a strategic RPG perfectly. So, while many people can say that the graphics are the weak point of Disgaea, I would have to say the opposite. Considering how they fit the mood of the game, I say bravo. 

As for the cut scenes; they are all presented in an almost comic style. During cut-scenes, a large anime inspired visual of the talking character is shown with one level of emotion in a static image. As the emotions change in the dialogue, so does the single emotion being conveyed in the image. Very manga. Personally, I think this method works far better than FMV would have. 

As for the effects in battle; about the same as the rest of the visuals. Pretty simplistic, but it does the job perfectly. The spells are presented much like how FFT presented them, with a nice swirl or explosion type of effect with some bright and shiny lights. Nothing all that revolutionary, but if you're playing Disgaea, you are not looking for revolutionary; you're looking for fun game play and intriguing (yet humorous) story. 


The audio is pretty much typical of a strategy RPG. The music has a fantasy feel. It's not all that exciting, but it doesn't need to be. You don't play a strategy RPG for the audio aesthetics. However, the audio is a definite step up from the music of FFT...a big step... 

The voice acting, which is found in everything from cut-scenes to in battle, is actually pretty well done. The voices seem to fit the roles they were cast for. Emotions are also conveyed rather well by the voice actors, which is a lot better than something you'd get from...say...FFX. 

As for the audio effects...well, they are typical. I mean an explosion sounds like an explosion, fire sounds like the whoosh of flames, a gun sounds like a gun, blah, blah. 

To summarize the audio and visual at once; the job done was not cutting edge by any means, but the requirement was not for something cutting edge. The purpose of an RPG (not just a strategy one...this is something that Square has forgotten) is to present a story and some game play mechanics that best allow the player to interact with the world presented. The visuals and audio are merely extras. If someone is going to put enough emphasis on the aesthetics that the story and mechanics are overshadowed, then that is the only flaw an RPG can have in terms of aesthetics...well, that and having graphics so awful or misplaced (like the bright shiny world of Spira in what is supposed to be an apocalyptic FFX) that they distract from the plot. If that doesn't make sense, then go back to your precious Tidus and leave the good games to the true geeks. 


Disgaea brought me back into a genre that I thought SquareEnix had forever pushed me away from with their pile of shit known as FFTA; the strategy RPG. Disgaea does pretty much everything right from blending humor, fantasy (I freakin' hate reality as a main concept of a RPG...I play a game to escape reality...and I think I'm not alone in this), great game mechanics, a high level of customization, and a good blending of a straight forward (and relatively short at ~60 hours) experience with something that can be dissected into a much larger entity (that one can put more than 300 hours into) that is readily available for the more diehard strategy geeks. Almost everything was done to a level of perfection that is rarely seen in today's world of putting eye-candy first and game play and plot second. Besides the flaw of only giving experience to the person who actually kills the enemy, Disgaea is as close to prefect as I have ever seen in a strategy RPG. So, I would give Disgaea a 9.75/10 (if everyone got experience when they acted rather than only when they killed, it would have been a 10...this game is that damned good).

On a final note; for those ready to put in the time and effort, the endings are some of the best I've seen in a long time.  The multiple endings are pretty short, but they do in a matter of a few minutes what Square could never do in dozens of minutes.  Plus, you get the often neglected new game+ feature (start over with your characters from when you beat the game)...this is a major bonus for those who want to go for a normal game the first time and then retry for the hundreds of hours of hidden stuff after they get a breather.