Following a somewhat lengthy two-year nap, demon prince Laharl awakens to find that his father has died, and that in the absence of any leader, the Netherworld has quite literally gone to hell. Determined to take his rightful place as the Netherworld’s Overlord and impose his will on the denizens of the underworld, Laharl- as aided by his not-so-loyal vassal Etna, angelic assassin Flonne and a squad of demonic penguins known as Prinnies- sets out on a quest to take back the throne.
The central title of the Nippon Ichi SRPG clan, Disgaea may have spawned a sequel game (and associated manga), alongside an anime series so poor that it was only recently ousted by Shining Tears X Wind as the Worst Anime Ever, but what exactly does the game itself have to offer? The only way to properly find out was to erase all memories of that awful pizza in the face ‘joke’ from the anime and go back to where it all began.
Getting started with the game
Disgaea is divided into fourteen episodes of game play, each laid out in the same way- after some introductory cut scenes to set up the story, you progress through a series of maps (some with story before and after the battle) before defeating the boss of the episode, seeing some final scenes that wrap the story up and being treated to a humorous parody preview of what may or may not be coming next. Once the game is completed, the New Game+ option enables to go back around and take your levelled up characters straight into the next ‘cycle’ of the story, an essential move if you want to achieve the various different endings available.
Thankfully for those playing second time around, there is an option to skip pre-battle story scenes, but unfortunately, those after battles and at the beginning and end of episodes can be sat through (you can speed them up by repeatedly hammering X, but that’s about it). This, couple with the fact that it is all too easy to press the wrong button and thus not skip the pre-battle scenes at all, means that whilst this feature is welcome, it really should have been implemented better.
Throughout the game, your base will be at Overlord’s Castle, the only place where you can move around freely and attend to matters between maps. As well as talking to your vassals, there are a number of services you can avail yourself of, although unsurprisingly they generally come at a price.
- Dimensional Gatekeeper: This is your gateway to actually participating in any of the story- the Dimensional Gatekeeper opens up the maps you need to go to, letting you visit and revisit them as necessary.
- Netherworld Hospital: Battle can sometimes be taxing, but thankfully the Netherworld Hospital is there to heal all your wounds- for a price, of course. Sustain enough damage and they’ll even let you claim prizes, which are usually useful items.
- Item World: From swords to candy, inside every item exists a world not unlike a random dungeon, populated by monsters. Complete ten levels of the item world to increase the stats of an item, but if it all gets a bit too much, use the item Mr. Gency’s Exit to leave and pick up where you left off later. There’ll be more on the item world later on.
- Rosenqueen Shop: Run by the Rosenqueen family of Rhapsody, this shop has various weapons and items in stock, and while most of them are useless, you may turn up something worth buying.
- Dark Assembly: A collection of Netherworld Senators, the Dark Assembly covers various vital functions of the game. A character must be chosen to address the assembly, using the mana they build up in battle to pay for the creation of new characters, or to address the assembly themselves to suggest motions from unlocking more powerful items at the shop to opening up secret maps. When a proposal is made by a character, the assembly must vote on it, and if they are disinclined to approve of your suggestions, you may have to either bribe them or, at worst, persuade them by force in a full on battle. To increase your influence at the assembly, a character can fight a promotion exam alone against monster examiners- be warned, though, lose the exam and it’s game over.
Getting ready for battle
Naturally, before you go into battle, it is wise to create a few characters to support you, since in all honesty, there’s only so much Etna and three weak prinnies can do to further Laharl’s cause. Character classes are unlocked either as you encounter them in battle or by fulfilling specific requirements, and they come in two distinct types- humanoid and monster. Humanoids can equip the usual ranges of swords, staffs and bows, with different classes having different proficiencies in the various weapon types; monsters, however, can only equip special monster weapons, although anyone can equip up to three accessories to boost their stats.
Also available in battle is an item bag that holds around twenty items and can be filled with healing items or spare equipment (equipment can also be switched in battle). Extra items are stored in the warehouse, and can only be accessed in Overlord’s Castle.
Kicking some demon backside
With all that in mind, you’re probably itching to actually get into battle, and fortunately, Disgaea has a solid system to offer. As per most SRPGs, battle takes place on an isometric map, with a grid to determine movement and spell range. From your base panel, you can call out up to ten characters and move them around the field, or, if they haven’t done anything yet on a turn, you can send them back in and call other characters out in their place. Each turn, every character on the field can move and perform one other action once (either attacking, lifting and throwing, using an item or defending); once you’ve assigned them actions, hit the execute command and they’ll perform them in the order you specified. When you’re all done, end turn and the enemy will move.
Since most games execute a command as soon as you select it, the whole process of having to execute manually after inputting commands may initially seem a little awkward and counter-intuitive, but there actually is a purpose it- having several characters make consecutive attacks on a single enemy will increase the combo count, creating a chain attack that does more damage than the component attacks would do individually.
Also of use in racking up huge damage is the ability for characters standing next to each other to perform combo attacks- if you ask one of them to do a normal attack, then anyone standing next to them might well join in the fun (the chances of this happening depend on the relationship between characters). Not everyone is a good team player, but this can be a useful way to rack up more damage than you expected, whilst a strong character giving an assist to a weaker one can help the weak one gain more experience than they would do on their own.
One feature that truly sets the Disgaea world apart is the degree to which terrain is used- compared to its often half-hearted implementation in other games, terrain is truly important here. The relative heights of attacker and victim play a big role in how much damage an attack can manage (or indeed, even if an attack is possible at all); as you might imagine, cleaving in an enemy’s skull from above is far more effective than slashing up at their angles from below. Even this, however, is but a small feature compared to the game’s extensive use of so-called Geo Panels to imbue various areas of the field with different attributes. When a Geo Symbol is placed on a Geo Panel of a particular colour, every Geo Panel of that colour gains whatever boost or handicap that Geo Symbol provides, from increased attack and defence to the ability to randomly teleport around the battlefield each turn. The only way to get rid of this effect is to move the Geo Symbol to a different coloured panel, or to destroy it entirely. Destroying a Geo Symbol shouldn’t be done thoughtlessly, however, since it can cause all Geo Panels of the colour it is on to change to the colour of the destroyed symbol, setting off a chain reaction that damages anything standing on a panel that changes colour, but filling up the bonus gauge in the process (the bonus gauge, when filled at least once, provides extra items, money or experience at the end of battle).
As if that wasn’t enough to consider, Disgaea also introduces another innovation in the form of being able to lift and throw other characters- both enemy and ally. Building up huge stacks of characters can be useful for throwing someone across the field in a single turn, but throwing the enemy should not be discounted either. Throwing one enemy onto another will cause them to fuse into a more powerful enemy, whilst simply throwing one a few squares may be useful for getting them off a Geo Panel giving them a bonus, or to put them in place for another character to attack. Unfortunately, novel as this is, there are times when there is no choice but to employ throwing to even get to the enemy in the first place, and this necessity can make what should be a novelty into something more than a little tedious as you waste turns getting your allies into a position to throw each other around. It should also be noted that only humanoid types can lift and throw- monsters can only be thrown, and prinnies are unique in exploding when they hit the ground.
With all these things to consider, as well as the various options available in Overlord’s Castle, it may seem as if the game system isn’t the easiest to get into- and indeed, it will take a while to appreciate the value of everything the game has to offer. Thanks to some tricky map and Geo Panel layouts in certain story battles, learning to manipulate Geo Symbols and throwing is a necessity for getting through the game, but other aspects such as the Dark Assembly and Item World can practically be ignored in favour of brute forcing one’s way through the game with extensive levelling up. Even so, paying attention to these aspects does make the game more rewarding, and so it is up to the player as to how deep they wish to delve into the workings of Disgaea.
Unfortunately, whilst the game can thus provide enjoyment for everyone from the ‘pick up and play’ type to the most stat-obsessed number cruncher, there is one aspect in which it really needed finer tuning, and that is in character balance. There is no doubt that Laharl is a powerhouse, but all too often he becomes the linchpin upon which the success or failure of battle hangs, whilst other characters become increasingly weak and useless. The worst part is that the weaker a character it is, the harder it becomes to level them up, for unlike Phantom Brave, where a pathetic character can get EXP just for coming out and being slaughtered before they get a turn, Disgaea only awards EXP when an enemy is actually defeated- a nigh impossible task for a puny weakling. Unless you have enough time and patience to go back into lower level maps and train up your weaklings, you will inevitably see them falling behind.
More on the Item World
A vital part of the levelling up process, the Item World enables you to go inside an item and work your way through various levels as you would a random dungeon. The standard way to complete a level is to defeat all the monsters present, but for those looking to take a shortcut, getting to the dimensional gate will enable you to skip straight to the next floor- sometimes a necessity no matter how much it wounds your gaming pride. Of course, the penalty for skipping a floor is that the item won’t receive as much of a bonus when its stats are levelled up after ten levels, but it’s a handy option to have if you find yourself in a sticky situation.
And indeed, no matter how well prepared you are, the Item World can still throw some nasty surprises at you. Monsters and awkward Geo Panel arrangements are of course an issue, but the element that proves to be most annoying is quite often simply the map itself. The highly uneven terrain of the Item World can often make it hard to even see where your characters are (I once got stuck a trench that rendered the base panel and the characters I brought out invisible to all camera angles), whilst throwing across to other areas is often a tedious necessity and sometimes even impossible (in principle no Item World map is absolutely impossible to complete, but it may well require several turns of meticulous planning or simply be beyond the capabilities of your particular party).
The Item World is also one of the places where a third faction appears in battle- on some levels, a non-enemy, non-ally known as a ‘Specialist’ will appear. Although the enemy may well destroy the Specialist before you can, defeating it yourself will cause it to submit to you and imbue that item with a bonus- anything from raising its attack and defence to causing a weapon to inflict a status effect on anything it attacks.
An amusingly tongue-in-cheek tale, Disgaea makes a strong start with its tale of a demon prince trying to become King of the Netherworld (a refreshing change from a village boy becoming a destined hero), but sadly, it does lose steam a little towards the end with an arc about Earth attacking the Netherworld. Obvious parodies of stereotypes such as Captain Gordon, Defender of Earth may be mildly amusing, but the whole sci-fi setting of the Earth arc jars somewhat with the initial Netherworld stories.
Visually, Disgaea may seem a little dull and uniform in terms of maps, which are serviceable rather than innovative, but it at least makes up for it with some cute sprites and well done character designs- even if more than a few of the characters could use a visit from the Fashion Police.
Unsurprisingly, the music for the series is handled by Tenpei Sato, who brings his usual level of skill to weaving a soundtrack that complements the tone of the game and proves to be solid enough to listen to independently as well. Sadly, the European version lacks the option of the Japanese audio track, but the English dub is solid enough, if not as good as that of Phantom Brave (despite using many of the same voice actors).
A solid and enjoyable game, Disgaea should prove a worthwhile experience for both the occasional SRPG dabbler and the full-on fanatic thanks to the option of immersing oneself in as much or as little of the game system as one desires. There are some annoyances such as Item World maps and the imbalance in strength between Laharl and other characters, but happily this only detracts a little from the overall enjoyment of this unique and quirky game.
Extra- My Party
Laharl (Demon Prince): The only character actually able to hold his own in most situations, Laharl is the one thing standing between you and utter annihilation due to a party of generally weak characters. Ignore his annoying personality and focus on his killing power; take advantage of his natural affinity for swords and he’ll quickly build up a stock of special attacks for all occasions- however the enemy chooses to deploy, he’ll have an attack that can hit them.
A-team: Actually able to inflict some damage
The A-team are good for mopping up whatever Laharl leaves behind, but if the situation gets even slightly difficult, their base crappiness is revealed.
Mia (Brawler): Leader of the A-team, Mia is my second strongest warrior, although her nature as a close-range brawler means that she’s better suited to taking down single enemies than blasting apart groups. Her most satisfying special attack is King of Beasts, although it requires a clear space in which to enact it.
Kurtis (Rival): A latecomer to the party, Kurtis is a green prinny still in possession of most of the abilities he had when alive. Despite his high attack and defence stats, he somehow manages to not be outstanding in any particular department, and whilst he can deal out the damage in some situations, other times he is just a big green target.
Sakura (Ronin): Although she started out in the lower ranks, her position as a swordswoman made it imperative that she be levelled up in order to become a backup user of Laharl’s sword attacks. She may still only have her half her Overlord’s strength, but with her high HP and solid strength, she can often finish what Laharl starts.
Maderas (Demon Sire): For a long time after he joined, this story character was my second best warrior, but as time passed, his basic physical attack began lagging behind. His Chaos Fire special attack was useless from the outset, but the abilities he gains later on are useful in terms of both range and damage.
Thursday (Super Robot): One of the Defenders of Earth trio that joins in the game’s second half, Thursday’s stats aren’t all that impressive, but he has potential thanks to his special attacks and their useful range of attack. He needs work, but eventually could shine.
Bran (Scout): A gun-wielding scout, Bran’s attack can sometimes seem a bit low, but the fact that he can perform ranged attacks and specials makes him good for sniping the enemy from a distance. Although his bare chest classifies him as a male, he has a rather girlish voice.
Gar (Warrior): I named him Gar in the hopes that he would actually become tough and manly in battle, and whilst it didn’t work entirely, it seems to have helped this axe-wielder improve from his meagre beginnings. With a multi-hit Skull Splitter attack, Gar just scrapes into the A-team, and has been vital backup for Laharl on a couple of occasions.
B-team: Better than nothing
Van (Fighter): This spear-wielder used to be in the A-team, but after a poor performance she slowly slipped down the rankings, and is now only used in situations where closer range weapons won’t reach.
Helene (Cleric): A weakling in battle, but as one of the only two healers the time comes, her weak and ineffectual Mega Heal is sometimes called upon to bolster a warrior’s HP.
Etna (Vassal): Poor Etna, she used to be a worthy warrior, but now weakness is her watchword. Even her once useful Prinny Raid, Asteroid Drop and Sexy Beam (“Call me Queen”) attacks are now pathetic.
Gordon (Defender): He may be the Defender of Earth, but Gordon is sadly rather weak once he gets to the Netherworld- and it doesn’t help that his weapon’s strength depends on the HIT stat, whilst his specials depend on ATK. I keep persevering with him, but to little avail.
Nara (Rogue): After initially thinking this class was female until Nara cried “who the man?” in a male voice, he spent a lot of time on the bench and has only recently gained any strength whatsoever. His greatest use is his ability to throw other characters a massive six squares, enabling all but the furthest reaches of the item world to be accessed.
Hoggmeiser (Rich Demon): Another story character who was my second best when he first joined, Hoggmeiser has slowly but steadily depreciated in value, to the point where even his special attacks are puny. It’s a shame, really, as they were initially useful for hitting multiple enemies.
Akane (Red Mage): I know mages can be extremely powerful if handled correctly (just look at the enemy), but I’ve never been able to level mine up consistently. Akane is my best effort in this game so far, and whilst her fire attacks have potential, they aren’t significant enough to bring her into play in any important battles.
Jennifer (Sidekick): Another close range attacker like Mia, Jennifer is sadly rather weak, and even her unique special attacks are disappointing.
C-team: Completely useless
Flonne (Angel): Her Power of Love healing ability was handy at first, but her tendency to get killed on first hit combined with the difficulty of levelling her up soon relegated her to the back benches.
Ryuk (Dragon): He’s still on level three- need I say more?
Nayuki (Blue Mage): Since Akane specialises in fire magic, I felt I needed an ice specialist, but sadly Nayuki is far too weak and underused to even make it up to Akane’s level.
Kennel (Pvt Prinny): The strongest of the three prinnies you get at the beginning of the game, Kennel swiftly became weaker and more useless as time passed.
Exocet (Pvt Prinny): The middle member of the three starting prinnies, now absolutely useless.
Lambda (Pvt Prinny): Weakest and most pathetic of the three starting prinnies.
Helena (Warrior): Another sword user, efforts to make her worthy have largely failed.
Aria (Fighter): Only ever used once.
Della (Green Mage): An attempt to have all three types of starting mage, deleted after said plan was indefinitely delayed.
Lavie (Centurion): Never used.
Glor (Red Skull): Surplus to requirements thanks to Akane’s existence.
Jack (Pumpkin): I recruited him because I wanted to use the skills that pumpkins had so often used against me to deadly effect, but ultimately I decided to leave that project for another time.