Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (PS2) - Part 1

Disgaea title screen
Developer:Nippon Ichi|Release Date:2004 (EU)|Systems:PS2, PSP, DS

Today on Super Adventures I’m taking a look at Nippon Ichi's infamous tactical RPG Disgaea: Hour of Darkness... and I've got no idea why they called it that. I mean I get the 'Disgaea' bit (dis + gaea = bad Earth, more or less), but Hour of Darkness? More like Month of Darkness looking at howlongtobeat.com, for a completionist run anyway.

The Disgaea games have gotten a reputation for being a bit... grindy, to the point where people have their favourite grinding stages and advanced grinding strategies to maximise their grind. I'd hope that's not the only way to play this though, so for the sake of science I WILL NOT BE REPLAYING STAGES FOR EXTRA XP. For the first couple bosses anyway, assuming I can even get that far.

I should admit up front that I'm not the biggest fan of tactical RPG type games, mostly because they usually beat me up and kick sand in my face. I've enjoyed games with turn-based tactical combat like XCOM and Wasteland 2, but I find tactical RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics tend to be punishingly difficult. In fact I don’t even like the term 'tactical RPG', as the role-playing elements tend to be limited to 'your units' stats go up'.

On the other hand I should also admit that I've played Disgaea before and there's a good chance I'll remember how most of it works! So I might be a bit better informed than usual. Be prepared for words.

There'll be spoilers up to episode 2 I expect. I won't be ruining the ending(s) or anything. Except the fact that it has multiple endings, I just gave that away.



"King Krichevskoy, the mighty ruler of the Netherworld...

His long reign came to an abrupt end as the news of his death spread throughout the dark land.

Ambitious demons rose one after another to seize the opportunity, and thus began the age of turbulence and anarchy.

Two years later…"
The narrator has a great voice (I wish I could say "seize the opportunity like that"), but man I've learned to despise this narration. Disgaea's usually good at letting you skip cutscenes whether you've seen them before or not, but it's absolutely adamant that you WILL experience this opening every single time you begin a fresh game.

Every. Single. Time.

Cut to Krichevskoy's castle, where Etna has been having a hard time waking Prince Laharl up. At least she claims she was trying to wake him up, but there are other reasons to fire a gun at someone while they're asleep. He's a demon by the way, not a vampire (he just likes to nap in a coffin I guess).

When Laharl suddenly snapped awake on her, she deftly moved the subject of conversation away from the gun she had pointed to his forehead, explaining that she’s got big news to tell him: his father, King Krichevskoy, has died.

Two years ago.

It’s the 'sleeping for two years' part that Laharl doesn’t much like. Seems that the Netherworld has gone to hell during his absence, and with Etna as his semi-loyal vassal he's going to have to fight the competition to claim his rightful place as Overlord.

Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness (PSP)
Meanwhile in a handheld parallel universe, the plot takes a bit of a different turn when Etna accidentally pulls the trigger and removes the main character from the equation. She’s not too broken up over it though.

The game was ported to PSP and DS, and both ports come with this alternative bonus storyline where Etna takes over the starring role during the intro. The original voice actor wasn't available to record the extra lines though, so all of Etna's lines in the handheld versions have been rerecorded with the Etna's new actor from the sequels. Laharl's still voiced by Rita Repulsa either way.

Disgaea DS (DS)
The Nintendo DS version goes a step further and adds optional Prinny Commentary, which puts a penguin up on the top screen to riff on the cutscenes. Sacrifices had to be made though to fit the game on a cart though, so a lot of the dialogue is silent and the CD quality music has become DS quality music.

I've finally escaped the intro... and entered the circus by the sound of it. Here, listen to the theme yourself: YouTube link. It's definitely... distinctive.

Now that I've got direct control of Laharl's blurry little pixel sprite I'm free to run around his 3D castle, admiring the isometic visuals. The game might not be pushing the PlayStation 2 to its limits here but I like this the art style, I think it works fine.

Not that there's much castle here to explore though. There's the bedroom full of spent weapons too busted to pick up, a couple of rooms full of NPCs with a line or two each, and then this hall. This is the important area though as it contains the Rosen Queen shop, the Netherworld Hospital, the Item World Gateway Center, the Dark Assembly and the Dimensional Gate.

First I'm going shopping.

I can’t buy much with just 300 HL Laharl has in his shorts, but a Bulletproof Vest sounds nice.

You see Pop. 2/4 over on the right? That’s the population of specialists that live inside the item. A boring standard Bulletproof Vest will give 10 defence, but this one comes with a Teacher specialist which gives it 3 intelligence too! And later I'll be able to go on an expedition deep inside the vest to kidnap the Teacher and take him to a different item. Because it's that kind of game.

Intelligence isn't really Laharl's speciality, but if leave the shop and come back it'll reset the inventory and give me some new gear to browse. But I can't be bothered, so I'm going to put my vest on then go see where the Dimensional Gate can take me today.

A 'Skip Story' button, awesome. In this case it likely doubles as a skip tutorial button too, though I should probably run through the basics as it's been a while.

One thing I definitely remember from the first time I tried the game is my disappointment when I learned that this level select screen is the closest the game comes to an overworld. Laharl doesn't actually leave his castle through the front door, because his long winding lava moat bridge is as treacherous as it is tedious to cross, instead he just teleports to each fight instantly. So I'll be picking all my destinations from this menu.

And destination #1 is... a pleasant grassy meadow.

Laharl’s rusty due to his long nap, so Etna’s picked a nice spot where she can run through the basics of combat for him with the Prinny Squad she’s hired.

Prinnies are kind of like the moogles of the Disgaea universe, the mascot characters that show up in almost every game, and they even have the same kind of bat wings on their back. But they're awkward peg-legged penguin suits filled with the souls of dead thieves and murderers, so that's kind of different.

Oh by the way, Etna and Laharl may look like young teenagers with unusually pointy ears, but they're actually demons thousands of years old... which in demon years counts as still being a teenager. So really she's got no good excuse for that outfit.

Etna starts by showing how to bring a character out onto the field from that blue glowing Base Panel over there. There's no direct control here; the level is on a grid and I can order each character to move a certain number of squares each turn.

She moved Laharl over from the Base Panel to the middle of the enemies and set him to attack one of them. Choosing 'Execute' from that menu over there triggers all the attacks I've set up and then lets me carry on moving my other characters, but with only Laharl on the board there was nothing left to do afterwards but End Turn.

The three cloak...worm...things then got their turn, and decided to spend it ganging up on Laharl and beating him to death. R.I.P.

There’s no permadeath in Disgaea (thank fuck), but KO’d characters will usually need healing back at the Overlord's Castle before I can bring them out again in a battle. When Etna isn't killing them off deliberately to prove a point that is.

As soon as I got control I decided to show Etna how it’s really done… by doing the exact same thing. Well not exactly; I’ve decided to bring out a few friends out of the Base Panel to back Laharl up and boost his damage.

That box up there on the left shows who is standing adjacent to my selected character and the chances of them joining in with my attack on the glowing red ghost. Now can I select ‘Execute’ and pull the trigger on this move.

I only managed to drag Etna into the attack with Laharl, but their combined onslaught was enough to kill the creature in a single turn, giving both characters a share of the experience. Looked pretty good too.

I’m not done yet though, as that doesn’t count as an attack for Etna so I can still undo her movement and put her back in the Base Panel as if she'd never left. I’m going to cancel both her and the Prinny, then put them in front of the next monster for another team attack, and so on. Actually, I should put them behind the monster, as they deal more damage like that.

Only one enemy had survived my barrage of team attacks by the time I was out of characters to move, so I ended the turn, took my blows, and then on turn two I finished him off with a final three character team attack! I've shown a screenshot of their portraits sliding on screen before the attack though, because the Prinny's face makes me smile.

Oh right, that total damage counter reminds me that I can also chain attacks together triggered at the same time to form more damaging combos. Handy for when I want to unleash a onslaught of special attacks and magic on a tough target. The downside is that only the person who lands the killing blow gets the experience and if the guy dies too early there's no move refunds for the characters still waiting to get a hit in.

Look at all these words I'm coming out with. The game's only letting me use the basic move and attack commands so far, and I've already got things to consider.

Wow, 30 HL, that’s... an amazing bonus. I guess my combos weren't impressive enough to get the better rewards.

I could go straight through to the next level, but I'm going to run back to the Overlord's Castle first to spend my cash on getting my team some medical attention. Even getting injured has its benefits, as if I spend enough cash in the hospital they start giving me items as prizes. Good ones too!

The second tutorial is all about throwing characters, which is a feature you don’t see in every turn based tactics game. Or pretty much any that aren't made by Nippon Ichi really.

On its own throwing seems pretty straightforward. Any humanoid character can pick up anyone else, friend or antagonist, and lob them a certain number of squares in a horizontal or vertical line. The thrower loses the action half of their turn, the throwee doesn't. But Disgaea’s developers are lunatics so it's not quite that simple.

Throw an enemy onto another enemy and they merge to form a much tougher opponent with their levels (and remaining hit points) combined. Throw an enemy into the Base Panel and your reserve characters will fight to capture them off screen. Also Prinnies explode when thrown, which would be useful here if I wasn’t after my precious team attack XP. I need level ups! I need to hear that level up jingle!


LATER.


These rubbish tutorial enemies have gone and kicked Etna to within an inch of her life, so I’m switching to a new plan: BLADE RUSH.

Different weapon types come with different special move skills that are unlocked at certain levels of weapon mastery. The Blade Rush skill apparently comes free with level 0 swords though, so I get to inflict it upon these gentleman right now. Those blue squares show what gets hit, the yellow square has to be empty for him to pull the move off, and at only 8 SP per slash I can afford to do this three turns in a row if necessary.

Disgaea DS (DS)
The downside is that I'd have to watch it three times as well, as there's no way to turn off battle animations in the original PS2 game. The attacks all look great considering they're being acted out by fuzzy sprites, and they get really elaborate as the game goes on and more characters get involved, but eventually you're likely going to want to turn them off to speed the battles up. So that's one advantage that both the PSP and DS ports have going for them: a battle animations switch in the options.

One downside with the DS port though is that my Blade Rush takes place in a black featureless void instead of on the level. Good for GIFs though, keeps the filesize down!


A TUTORIAL LEVEL LATER.


This tutorial has taken me back home to the Overlord's Castle to show me how to get new units for my squad. Each character earns their own mana by slaying foes and I can spend Laharl's at the Dark Assembly to summon a pupil for him. Mana has nothing to do with the resource I burn up casting magic and pulling off special moves by the way, they've called that SP.

I've got already got a ton of classes and monsters to pick from here, but after Etna got thrashed on the second tutorial map I’m thinking I should get a Cleric on the team. The trouble with healers though is that they can’t earn experience by healing! Bit of an obvious flaw that.

But characters can learn skills from their pupils, so all I need to do is give my healer a Mage pupil to learn offensive spells from. Or… I could make a Mage who then makes a Cleric to learn cure from. I can't make decent characters without spending a bit of mana, and Mages will be able to accumulate that a lot faster for sure.

Either way there’s a real temptation here to learn the spells quickly through grinding on the tutorial stages (where it's relatively safe). Just a few replays is all it would take! But I promised I wouldn't do that.

I decided to create an ice magic wielding Blue Mage in the end. Here you go Syd, as the newest member of the team I've got no weapons left to give you, but you can have this Quasi-Power Belt I got as a level bonus. It'd give anyone else -1 defence, but you're so crap that your defence apparently can't get any worse.

Oh fine, I’ll buy her a brand new staff. Different classes have an affinity for different weapon types, learning weapon skills faster when they've equipped one they like. Mages like Syd suck with almost everything but staves, but that's fine as holding one boosts spell range. I always can swap to a bow mid-fight if she runs out of SP.

Aside from their weapon, each character can carry other three pieces of gear, and they're not that bothered about what it is. I could give someone three pairs of shoes, or two capes and a plastic nose, they don't care.


EPISODE 1: VYERS CASTLE, LEVEL 1.


Alright, my first proper level and… it’s in a grassy field again. Not that I'm complaining, it's just not what you'd expect from a Netherworld. The characters are dressed for the near unbearable heat of a rocky hellscape, not a mild day out in a meadow.

But what’s this here next to the start, an Enemy Boost x 3 Geo Symbol sitting on a small patch of red Geo Panels? What does the other side of the map look like?

Yeah I’m thinking that I’ll want to do something about this. All those monsters over there are getting the benefit of the Enemy Boost symbol just by standing on a red square, and means their stats have been tripled.

But if I send Laharl to pick the yellow Geo Symbol up, and Etna to throw the blue Geo Symbol in its place, all these red tiles will become a zone of ‘EXP + 50%’ instead. Handy when I’ve got a new Mage to level up.

Disgaea DS (DS)
The DS version comes with a map on the top screen which is actually really handy as enemies like to put themselves behind walls and pillars. Of course they're only hidden until I rotate the screen 90 degrees a couple of times, but it's nice to have a constant overview of the level.

So there's a unique advantage to the DS port. On the other hand it looks and sounds a little bit ass, relative to the other versions. None of them are going to be mistaken for The Witcher 3, but the DS port is the only one that feels constrained by the system it's on.


A FEW TURNS LATER.


Yeah, that’ll do it. Her spells can only hit a single square at the moment, but that square got moderately HIT. I guess he must have had an weakness to ice... hey maybe I should think ahead and check first next time!

She might be an icy Blue Mage, but it’s not impossible for her to learn other elemental spells too (although she won't cause as much damage when casting things out of her element). I just have to make a pupil with the magic type, put them standing next to each other in combat so that the new spell appears in her spell list, and then cast it over and over and over until it sticks. Laharl can then learn those spells from her in turn!

I'm feeling that temptation to grind again. Just a couple of trips to the practice level, that's all I need!


Click this link if you want to find out how long I last before I give in and start grinding: Part two.

Semi-Random Game Box