Disgaea: Hour of Darkness
PlayStation 2
Reviewed: 01/02/2005


Nippon Ichi and Atlus took a risk in bringing a game with the look and gameplay of Disgaea into North America, where the mainstream gamers have different tastes than their Japanese counterparts. It must have paid off, because a second printing of the US version was needed to meet the demand. Even now, over a year after the game’s release, a used copy sells for nearly the same price the new ones did. So what makes a game good enough to earn such treatment? Let’s find out.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is a strategy RPG that tells the story of a young demon named Laharl. As a prince who just woke up from a multi-year slumber, his quest is to protect his throne from others who have been trying to claim it. Along the way, he meets colorful cast members such as Etna, Flonne, and many more folks (some are even enemies that just won’t leave him alone) that form a varied group, helping to tell the story well. But that’s not all; the localization team did a fantastic job of keeping these characters lively, not losing anything in the Japanese translation in neither word nor mood. The story itself is far from exciting, but the cast makes the cutscenes entertaining. These things make the game fun to play, and it’s easy to spend hours on the game without even relizing how much time has passed.

Screen Shot
In-game humor

Of course, the fun and subsequent time-wasting are both helped by the sheer depth of Disgaea‘s gameplay. At almost any given time, the player has several options as to what to do next. One can play the next battle that will advance the storyline, or practice up by fighting previous enemies a second time. One can take a single character into an “exam” to improve their “rank,” or dive into the “item world” to fight enemies and improve the stats of a given item. This item world is, as the name indicates, a world that is inside of every item. By clearing all ten floors the enemies inside, players can improve the stat-raising properties of their equipment. This deep and nearly endless subquest, along with the ability to try to tweak the economy in Laharl’s world by appealing to the “Dark Congress” create a game so customizable, it could make your head spin. These also add a small bit of replay value.

As has been said in reviews of other strategy/tactical RPGs, the strength of such games lies primarily in the battle system and related gameplay aspects (some of which were covered above). Disgaea packs as good a system as any of its TRPG rivals. It starts, of course, with the same ideas that are common in most TRPGs–each character has individual stats, including movement range, which they will be using to move over a grid. Each charcter gets one action and one movement per turn, which can be taken in whichever order the player wants. So at first glance, Disgaea looks to be nothing special. But after only a few battles, the game’s individuality becomes undeniable. The first feature one will notice is the “Throw” command on the menu. This allows players to pick up either an ally or an enemy and launch them into a location more strategically fitting for their battle plan. Throwing enemies into each other and other obstacles will produce different results, adding alternate routes to victory (or defeat for that matter).

Another neat feature of the game’s combat is the combo system. Whenever a player character performs a regular attack, any ally currently placed on a tile directly to the right, left, or rear of the attacker has a chance of jumping in to assist in the attack. These chances are displayed in the form of percentages in a window that appears when “attack” is selected. Yet another twist in the battles are colored gems that appear on most battlefields. When these are present, the titles on the battlefield of the gem’s color grant a certain effect to the fighter standing on that title. Effects such as “defense plus 50%” are common. Destroying the stones will disable their effects, and in some cases, perform an attack to all who occupy titles of that color. Skills in Disgaea are learned based on the character’s type, and the weapon they’re using. Those skills can be leveled-up with more use to become even more powerful. So the decision of when to throw someone, when to use a skill, when to go for the combo, and so on makes the battles in Disgaea satisfying to all who even remotely enjoy strategy RPGs. The system is complex enough to reward the strategic thinkers, while easy enough to learn that it still appeals to casual gamers. The gameplay is phenominal.

Screen Shot
A gang-beating!?

Disgaea‘s technical specs don’t amount to much. The graphics feature isometric camera angles with 2D character sprites. The cutscenes use still-frame, anime-style drawings, an increasingly popular trend in games. Don’t misunderstand–these things are pleasant, but nothing out of the ordinary. In the audio department, the voice acting is well done. The game’s music features mostly unexciting, repetitive MIDIs, but the American version of the game features Tsunami Bomb’s “The Invasion From Within.” Including a punk song in an RPG deserves endless kudos.

Through enjoying all of this great gameplay and satisfying audio-visual performance, the gamers will see a unique story unfold. It’s nothing like, say, Final Fantasy Tactics involving serious faces and a no-nonsense attitude, but quite the opposite and reshreshingly entertaining. In between battles, seeing the wacky antics of Laharl, Etna, the Prinny gang and company often brings a smile to the face. It has just enough of a Japanese influence to stand out from the crowd, but not so much as to appear lame and tacky to the American gamer. The dialogue can get seriously funny. Disgaea is not the best in the plot department, but certainly is one of the most original.

To explain the details of all the systems at play, this review could go on for 20 more pages; but you already get the message, so that’s unnecessary. The game explains its systems and details very well, so at no point should one feel lost in Disgaea. With neat characters, an entertaining and lighthearted story, and outstanding gameplay, Disgaea set a new highmark in the tactical RPG sub-genre. Things like this made it RPGLand’s runner-up for RPG of the Year in 2003. It’s a true great.

-Heath Hindman

Score Breakdown
Out of 10
See our Review Criteria
Gameplay Legendary
Story Good
Graphics Below Average
Sound/Music Very Good
Replay Value Good
The Verdict: Great