Disgaea: Hour of Darkness


Source // Moby Games

Sometimes we let things slip. An item on the to-do list isn't seen as necessary right now, and so you put it off and let it go by, perhaps for many months. When it comes time to needing that thing you never got around to, and it's not there... it's not fun, is it? It's not useful, and it's your own fault.

My life recently got in the way of playing Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, which is funny because the slipping of time is a key plot point that gets this tactical RPG going.

Fun Times

Our introduction to Disgaea is one of humour. Etna has been trying to awaken Laharl using any means necessary for years now, before finally managing to do so through what looks like sheer dumb luck. The characters are voiced by anime industry professionals whose name and work I don't know without Googling, but let's just say that they deliver their lines well, as teenage demons or whatever these folks are. The lines themselves might not read brilliantly, but that's my personal opinion of the script more than anything.

In the two years since the King has died, chaos has taken his place, and Laharl is determined to put things right, making sure he sits atop the throne, lording over everything. A noble, heroic cause. We are playing as a demon looking thing here. I think we're the bad guys.

Whatever we are, we're speedy on our feet. Once I have control, I was flying around these isometric environments. The weapons were all used in various failed attempts to wake me up, and I sadly can't grab them to use for myself. We're left to explore and find out what this game is about.

The creatures I see are equally humourous, but a flash of a stat screen for them tells me that they can pack a punch. Hundreds of levels, tens of thousands of hit points... what will Disgaea have in store for us mere demon princes?

We're not allowed to do anything until we've been teleported to the tutorial, where we find out how this tactical RPG differs from the rest of them. It's not that it uses penguins as combatants, but yes, that is a stand out feature.

Disgaea is quite flexible in its turn structure. From a starting portal, you can bring out any of your party and move them as far as you want, up to their movement range. If that puts them in range of an attack, you can then assign them the attack command and pick a viable target.

They're now set and ready to attack whenever you decide to hit the execute option, which will trigger all the actions you've assigned up to that point, but it won't end your turn. If other party members can still move, you can tell them to move. If they can still attack, you can assign an attack, execute it whenever you want, and keep going.

Depending on your positioning, you might want to have groups attacking together to gang up on one opponent, or you might want to just test the waters, executing attacks one by one to see who you should focus your attacks on next turn. When you're done, you end your turn and wait for the opposition to respond.

But that's not all. Special actions, like picking someone up and throwing them, will increase the options you have available to you. You can send someone out as far as they can go, send someone else out to pick them up and throw them even further, then switch back to the first person to assign an attack to someone who was previously so far out of range that it was silly to think about, but is now just inches away from your sword.

Oh, and there are exploding penguins. So keep that strategy in mind too.

Finally - for the tutorial, at least - there are Geo Symbols and coloured floor tiles that introduce a bit of a puzzle element to the skirmishes. If an enemy finds themself on a tile that is affected by an attack or damage boost, you'll want to get them off that tile for an easier time. You can hope they move away, of course, but you can also pick up the symbols and chuck them to a different colour tile so that they now affect different parts of the map, or you can obliterate them, which will trigger a chain of attacks to each and every tile of that colour.

Work out the puzzle and one single attack can trigger so much destruction that the loss of one symbol results in the removal of another, which triggers more attacks that damage a third symbol, and that finishes off whatever is left standing and then the stage explodes in celebration. It looks something like this:

I don't expect every fight to be that easy, though.


I also didn't expect Disgaea to be about creating minions to use in battle, either. With Mana, which you get from... somewhere... you can purchase brawlers and clerics and thieves, and all sorts of other upstanding citizens of the netherworld to join your party and do they bidding. Sadly, we've not got the Mana for anyone useful right now, to the point where I literally have to reduce this brawlers' stats before welcoming them in.

I name her 'Why' because of this.

The hospital is all too happy for me to get Why smashed and broken as often as possible, though. While I need to pay to heal everyone, the more bust up they are, the more chance I have of winning some kind of prize. I don't think that's the way medical care ought to work, but it's something to keep in mind. Every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose.

Further Fun Times

As I head out into my first test beyond the tutorial, I find myself having a good time. My party is relatively weak, but when they attack in numbers I'm not too worried, and if you see an opportunity for some Geo Symbol smashing to make your lives easier, it's wise to take it.

At the minute, though, my time is mostly spent moving and attacking. I don't know what anything else does or where best to use it. Maybe there are more tutorials. Perhaps I should just see what happens if I select them.

Is that a gun? Of course it's a gun, Etna tried to wake me up with a mini-gun years ago. I guess there are guns in this game then. Nice. Penguins with guns, perhaps?

Further Frustrations

Feeling good after my first victory that's actually worth something, I proceed into someone's castle and decide to steal everything within. I'm not a fan of this art style, and the kid voices are getting to me a little, but it does at least look like they've done it all correctly.

What they've not done correctly - and arguments can be made to say 'What I've not done properly' as well - is reinforced the idea of returning to the base between fights. I'm thinking of Disgaea as a story that takes me from one scene to the next, like Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics, but it doesn't seem to be.

I spring out of the portal with half of my party, the other half being too deceased to fight right now, and most of the party members I have are the walking wounded.

Exploding penguins don't last too long, but using Geo Symbols to my advantage, I whittle my way, mostly single-handedly, through the pack. My reward for clearing the stage is entirely appropriate...

Glasses. So that I might read and understand the way the game works.

I retreat back home, heal everyone up, get a Muscle Brawn for my troubles and call it a day.

Final Word

What I need to do here is spend a fair bit of time at the base, equipping items and weapons, and finding out what else there is to know about the way Disgaea works. On the one hand, that sounds interesting, because Disgaea is interesting. It's different and more puzzling than other tactical RPGs. On the other hand, it seems like a lot of bookkeeping between fights, breaking up the story into disjointed battles.

I've never gotten too far into any tactical RPG. Actually, no, tell a lie, I've completed The Banner Saga, but that seems like a walk in the park compared to the meaty offerings of the late 1990s. Vast amounts of stats and buffs and situational gubbins tends to put me off unless I'm sold on the setting, or the story, or the characters.

I'm not sold on Disgaea's characters at all. They're cartoony kids pretending to be adults. The Penguins of the Prinny Squad are the best characters I've seen here so far, which is probably not a good thing.

I'm not too sold on the setting, either, but it's not bad. The levels themselves look a bit weird, floating in a void, but they're easy enough to read, and there are camera rotation buttons that'll allow you some sense of space. Isn't always useful, but it's better than nothing.

Of everything on display, I'm mostly sold on this strange little Geo Symbol thing, turning fights into puzzles. They don't always dominate the landscape, allowing you to destroy vast numbers of foes in a single hit, but they add something to think about. Do you try to make the most of them by using the ones that buff to your advantage, or do you destroy them early to deny the enemy that same buff, and damage them at the same time? Depending, of course, on whether they're standing on a space of the right colour or not.

But is that enough of a gameplay mechanic to get me to see past the setting and the characters, and to hopefully see some kind of story unfold? I'm not invested in the story yet because there doesn't seem to be one. Prince reclaiming the throne, yes. How? Where? Who opposes him? Whose castle are we raiding? Why? No, not you, Why...

I think Disgaea probably is worth playing, yes, but I'm not sure how much longer I will, simply because I'm not a massive fan of our two lead characters. Bit of an obstacle, that.

If you are a fan, though, check it out. See if you can stack your entire party on top of each other, for reasons...

Source // Moby Games

Fun Facts

Sprites were chosen instead of 3D character models because they allowed for more expressive movements, rather than stock animations.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, developed by Nippon Ichi Software, first released in 2003.
Version played: PlayStation 2, 2003, via emulation.