Disgaea: Hour of Darkness was a runaway hit when it first launched over a decade ago. I still remember having to wait for the local GameStop to get restocked before I could get my copy. Since that time, numerous sequels and spinoffs have come to all PlayStation platforms and each one (with the exception of those crazy Prinny-based action/platformers) presented players with a massive amount of depth. Enhanced by off-the-wall humor, ridiculously time-consuming mechanics such as transmigration, and seemingly endless grinding, these titles were a hardcore strategy fan’s dream come true.
Now, NIS America has delivered a true sequel to the title that started it all. Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness features upgraded visuals, a few appreciated tweaks, and once again, enough depth and content to truly boggle the mind. On a graphical level, those cutesy sprites have never looked better, there’s more color and detail in the combat environments, and the special effects are flashier than ever. Laharl and Co. are wonderfully drawn as always, and if you’re a big fan of quirky Japanese artistry and animation, this is for you. However, compared to other products on the market today, the visual presentation won’t be considered impressive.
The sound is anchored by an over-the-top assembly of voice actors that have a boatload of cheesy moxie. One could call it somewhat amateur-ish and some might even call it annoying, but these heavily stereotyped characters with really bizarre senses of humor are part of what makes Disgea so unique. The soundtrack is decent but there isn’t enough variety in the available tracks; more pieces should’ve been implemented to spice up those long, complex battles. The effects are great, though, and you’ll want to execute the most difficult – yet most rewarding – maneuvers so you’ll be treated to the pleasing sounds of a mammoth assault. Again, it’s all very quirky, from top to bottom, and long-time followers know what to expect.
Larhal, Etna and Flonne are back and it’s time to pick up where we left off back in 2003. Laharl has managed to obtain his much-treasured title of netherworld overlord but unfortunately, his problems are only just beginning. Some demons that were loyal to Laharl’s father flat-out refuse to follow the son, and they’re causing trouble. Then there’s Laharl’s previously unknown sister, Sicily, who has apparently mailed herself to the netherworld to take the throne away from her brother. Then, for some reason, the netherworld gets transformed into an Eden-like paradise and at the same time, Laharl gets turned into a girl. …yep, sounds like a Disgaea storyline.
There’s nothing dramatic or even remotely serious about this narrative, which is perfect for the franchise. It’s just plain silly throughout and that’s good, because we want the focus to remain squarely on the gameplay. And oh boy , do we get gameplay…lots and lots of it, to the point where you could spend the rest of your natural life grinding and leveling, building a nigh-on invincible demon army, all the while ignoring the majority of the plot-advancing missions. It doesn’t help that A Brighter Darkness is much more open right from the start, as there are multiple ways to power up your characters, abilities and equipment.
The combat also remains a pure turn-based affair (thankfully), as you will carefully maneuver your party members and select actions before turning the board over to the enemy. The addition of team-based attacks that can include up to four allies makes things much more interesting, and you can even throw allies, enemies and other objects if the situation calls for it. These features have been implemented in past Disgea titles, but they all weren’t included in Hour of Darkness . Other new additions include mounted attacks (the monster moves and takes damage while the human unleashes skills) and follow-up attacks that hinge on a character’s affinity statistic.
That character affinity system is based on how often characters interact with each other, on the field and off. So, if you spend time building a positive relationship with certain party members, those fighters will become even more potent in battle, provided they stick together. Just be careful not to get too close; allies can accidentally hurt other allies. Toss in countless items and equipment and tons of different enemies, and you’ve got an unbelievably robust set of content that will last you for months. Also, don’t forget that some levels feature puzzles that must be solved, in addition to enemies that must be vanquished.
Other systems have been retooled, including the Evility and skill-based systems. Evilities are now selected when you create a character, and so are the weapon and aptitude bonuses. This makes it feel a bit more like a traditional D&D RPG. It’s easy to spot the upgrades and enhancements if you’re an avid fan of the series, and that’s part of what makes this sequel so attractive. However, this sequel isn’t all it could’ve been due to a few small drawbacks that keep you from fully enjoying the experience. For example, the dialogue can feel tedious and even childish (there’s a fine line between charming and childish), and the story doesn’t really develop very quickly.
It’s also true that while we do have the Item World, we don’t have the Land of Carnage or the Chara World, and that’s a noticeable lacking. Maybe it doesn’t make much sense to complain, especially considering the sheer amount of content that is here, but don’t forget that we’re in a new era now. The franchise has come a long way in the past ten years, so all of that progress should’ve been reflected in this sequel. Yes, it’s a sequel to the original title, but why not utilize all the great stuff the developers created since that time? And I have to say, some of those characters are getting a bit…tiresome. Maybe they're just more irritating than I remember.
I’m also not a big fan of combining puzzle-solving mechanics with standard turn-based strategy gameplay. It remains somewhat awkward and largely unnecessary, and you’re usually just trying to get past the puzzle as quickly as possible so you can return to fighting. I don’t mind attempts at variety and I know they’ve used puzzle-like elements before (ala the Geo Panels) but personally, I’ve never liked them. When trying to solve them, I always felt the game was going through an identity crisis; oddly, the developers seemed to forget that we had plenty of content already. However, all this being said, I know some hardcore franchise fans who like this feature.
All in all, Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness is almost exactly what the fans will expect, with a few minor exceptions. There are a few appreciated tweaks and additions that counter the lack of the Land of Carnage or the Chara World, and the story is almost too wacky to understand. Then again, maybe we’re not really supposed to understand it; maybe we’re just supposed to laugh and shake our heads. But anyway, the emphasis is squarely on the gameplay and that’s what matters. It’s intricate, complex, rewarding, and always addictive. It keeps you coming back for more because you simply must power up just a little more. It’s the hook that makes it dangerous for me to play any Disgaea game, damnit.
The Good: Smooth, refined visuals. Great audio effects. Quirky and charming throughout. Worthwhile gameplay tweaks and additions. Huge amount of content. Hardcore strat fans can grind away to their heart’s content.
The Bad: Story is a little too silly. Puzzles mixed into this formula feels awkward. Some questionable balancing issues.
The Ugly: “Well, here I am, hooked on the Item World…again.”