It's Good To Be The Prince.

There was a substantial list of games I simply HAD to have when I finally got a Playstation2 thanks to the fact I usually wait until a system's been out about three years. Topping the 'dreaming' list of games that were probably going to be stupidly hard/expensive to find was Atlus/NIS's darkly cute 'strategy' RPG, Disgaea. And, what do you know, the day I finally caved in and bought my PS2, Disgaea was right there on the shelf. I snapped it up without really checking the price, suffice it to say it was probably better than what I could have gotten off of eBay these days. Of course, I ended up having to take the used PS2 back because it got read errors on EVERYTHING I put into it from music CD's to PS2 games, but that's getting off the point.

In a galaxy fairly far away, is(are) the Netherworld(s.) This bleak, monster-infested chunk of rock is ruled over by a supreme demon, the Overlord King Krichevskoy. However, one day he dies in a humiliating manner (he chokes to death on a Black Pretzel, as the US version put it to make reference to George W. Bush's then recent pretzel choking incident. I pray the localization of Disgaea 2 makes reference to an Overlord vassal shooting someone in the face.)

(Actually nevermind, Etna does that in the first five minutes of the first game.)

With the King dead, the demons of the Netherworld begin fighting over his kingdom since his son the Prince Laharl had disappeared mysteriously. When Laharl awakens from his two-year, poison-induced slumber, he must take back his birthright by beating the crap out of all who defy him. Along the way, he meets an Angel Trainee, Flonne, who was sent to kill his already-dead father and ends up tagging along bent on teaching Laharl the meaning of kindness, love, and other things that make him physically ill to hear about. The story takes a few twists, but retains a sense of humor even in the more dramatic later chapters as the Netherworld itself is threatened with invaders from Heaven and Earth.

Though it is a self contained storyline, the entire game in concept and execution is like one, big joke played at the expense of RPG cliches. The battle system rewards powergaming in the tongue-in-cheek manner of making it really easy to gain experience and level up once or twice in a good map, per character. The level cap of 9999 makes it one of the few games where you can be described as 'only' being level 100. The Item World, random dungeons completed INSIDE an item provides another powerleveling opportunity for characters AND equipment alike. You haven't really lived until you had a life or death struggle inside a stick of chewing gum. It also goes without saying that item descriptions in the game are also given the same dry wit as the rest of the proceedings. ("Bastard Sword- Nice guys can use it too.") And though the story is about love, ultimately, the game itself appeals to the more typical demonic family values of ganging up on the weak and pounding the shit out of people who don't agree with you.

The graphics aren't really much to write home about by PS2 standards, outside of the explosions and map rotation, there isn't much that looks like it couldn't have been attempted on the PS1. All the characters are hand drawn sprites on a 3-D, grid based map. Special attacks are extremely loud and flashy, which makes them all the more satisfying when a Winged Slayer kills nine enemies at once (or more disappointing when you barely scratch a boss with an attack that appears to slice the entire map in half. Takehito Harada makes his character design debut in this one, with dozens of stylish, lanky characters toeing the line between cute and freakish. His 'signature' character Plenair acts as your go between for the Dark Congress and appears in virtually every N1 game since. (She's most prominent on the artists homepage.) Aside from the main characters' distinctive looks, the most recognizable characters of Disgaea are the Prinnies, sort of zombie stuffed penguins possessed by the spirits of humans trying to work off their sins from their lifetime. They sum the game up perfectly in themselves; a potentially tragic background surrounded in a crudely stitched plushie body, and a tendency to just sit around stuffing their faces or teasing each other than actually help. The cut scenes are similarly basic, sliding portraits of the characters in and out of the screen as they speak against a still background, if not one using the sprites themselves. These scenes are almost entirely accompanied by voiceovers. (Yes, you can toggle between the English dub and Japanese language track, but the in-battle voices remain in English.) In addition there's a Tsunami Bomb song, Invasion from Within that plays at a few points if English mode is on, replacing original Japanese song numbers. By and by I think I prefer the English one, though I switch back to Japanese if I know a song is coming up. As far as the actual in-game music goes, it's got kind of a Halloween kind of vibe. More mellow than somber, with a few faster or harder tracks depending on the level. There are some annoyingly hard levels accompanied by basically elevator music, though.

Trimmings aside, the actual game is a simple one with a few added touches. For example, if an enemy's in your way or you can't reach someplace right away, you can have another fighter lift and lob them another few spaces ahead. This leads to a few times when you'll need to use the 'tower throw' tactic- one character lifts the one behind them, forming a huge stack, then each member of the 'tower' is thrown ahead, then they throw the person they're carrying, so on. Lifting and throwing also can help the power-leveling process, when you lift an enemy and throw it into another, their levels are added together (but don't do it on accident.) Maps are also often spiced up by GeoPanels, glowing tiles that more often than not impart special conditions onto whatever units stand on them. The Geo Panels attributes are governed by Geo Prisms, and by destroying those in just the right part of the map, you can start a chain reaction and clear the board of tiles, finishing with a powerful flash that damages all enemies. So what would just be a cartoony rendition of an FF Tactics game suddenly gains an extra puzzle element. The Scout classes can also use a Geo Change power to basically randomize the entire board's layout which is really only useful if you happen to be a Geo Panel savant. Also, characters will launch into combinations of up to 4 attacking at once, depending on their positions and affinity for each other (the likelihood of a combo is listed before you attack.) This is a good way to get your lower levels to catch up, by making them do combo's against higher level enemies.

If you're into replay value, then this game will milk itself for whatever you paid for it. There are dozens of races and classes and a skill system of Masters and Apprentices that allow you to teach pretty much anyone any skill as long as they have the time and Mana to spend creating followers for that character, then leveling up the followers enough to pass the skills on to their master. And yes, I realize how backwards that sounds. The system is pretty much essential if you want a Healer capable of much of anything, though since the game only awards XP through kills. Later NIS at least fixed this and let the healers be able to advance by doing their job. There's a few hidden bosses and characters to discover by playing through multiple times, including the ultimate boss Baal who returns as an even more ultimate Prinny after death.

Disgaea was a cult success, enough that they would make a second run of the game after a rather limited first. It also more or less assured the subsequent release of Nippon Ichi's previous game La Pucelle and follow-up, Phantom Brave to a slightly less enthusiastic response. As a result, I can find a dozen copies of PB for 18 bucks, while Disgaea runs about 40-60 bucks. Used. Afterwards, Makai Kingdom would return to the Netherworlds setting, but apparently had a somewhat limited run again, ending up fairly steep at most aftermarket places. (Though I did manage to get my copy of MK for 30 bucks in virtually mint condition at a FunCoLand.)

All I can really say is, if you see it, buy it or at least try it. It's a little rough out of the starting gate, but gets addictive fast once you start getting your rewards in the form of new techniques and access to higher classes. The real beauty of all this intricate stuff is how much of it is merely optional. You don't really HAVE to set foot in the Dark Senate, or go through the Item World (except for at the start of the second chapter when you need a level 10 sword in order to continure, as sort of a mandatory 'Try this out, you might like it!' subquest.) Disgaea is pretty much as deep or as shallow an experience as you want it to be, whether you REALLY want to get everyone to Level 9999 and slaughter Baal repeatedly, or just play through the story once or twice. And even if you can't find Disgaea, any of the Nippon Ichi series are worth playing, even if none of them have quite that all-encompassing charm. As an earlier game that saw later release here, La Pucelle has a more serious story and a battle system that can't help but feel unpolished next to its follow-up, Phantom Brave has several interesting ideas made irritating by the limited lifespans of your characters in action, and Makai Kingdom comes off dull and impersonal with its lack of playable story characters (and the fact that they pretty much count down to the end of the game between chapters.) For a break from your standard RPG, Disgaea is a must, and its siblings strong maybes.

Disgaea 2? Well, we'll have to wait until August to see, but I hear good things from people who imported it.


Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (PS2)
Nippon Ichi/Atlus
A.K.A.: Makai Senki Disgaea

In a nutshell: Before I knew how to play chess, I would just smack the pieces around on the board with each other. This is about the same thing. Imagine FF Tactics Advance with a sort of Tim Burtony quality and a battle system that allows you to wreak sweet, satsisfying acts of mass destruction.

Plus you play as the bad guy. That always kicks ass.