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Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness review

Disgaea: Laharl, Etna and Flonne
(Image source: Atlus.)

Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness is a 2007 Playstation Portable port of a 2003 Playstation 2 game but plays like it was designed for the PSP. Unlike most PS2-to-PSP ports, there’s little to complain about from a technical perspective and with enhancements in the form of an exclusive scenario and an ad-hoc mode, the PSP version is arguably the superior version.

Graphically, the game doesn’t push the PSP’s hardware but aurally, the game is a treat. I love Sato Tenpei‘s themes (The Anthem of the Braves puts a smile on my face, Sorrowful Angel wipes it off and Galaxy Wars fills me with grim determination) and the English voice-acting is fantastic. The option to switch to the original Japanese voices should provide some variety when you replay the game.

And you will want to replay the game because there’s a lot to love in Disgaea. This is particularly true if you’re an old school gamer with a love for turn-based strategy games. It may not quite reach the heights of classics like the Gollop brothers’ UFO: Enemy Unknown but this Japanese turn-based strategy RPG title scratched itches that went unscratched for a long time for me. I suspect, however, most old school gamers will never get past the super deformed character sprites or the 2D Japanese art style. Their loss.

Disgaea: Laharl, Flonne, Etna
(Image source: SCEA.)

Appropriately enough, Disgaea’s 14-episode storyline is all about looking past prejudice and finding goodness where it may not be evident. It begins as a tale of a demon prince’s quest to gain the throne of the hellish Netherworld and ends as a poignant tale about selfless sacrifice, redemption and reversal in heavenly Celestia.

That sounds very solemn but Disgaea is mainly a very goofy game. There’s metahumour at the expense of RPG and anime tropes, tongue-in-cheek takes on sentai and sci fi heroes of old but mostly the humour is of a decidedly absurd and lowbrow nature. The writing is not going to win any awards and certainly, no one is going to mistake this for a BioWare game. Yet, a curious thing occurred as I progressed through the main storyline. Though the characters were sometimes obnoxious and irritating, I came to care for them enough that I was touched by their fates at the end. No BioWare game has moved me as much.

Disgaea: battle
(Image source: SCEA.)

It may not seem immediately evident from screenshots but Disgaea is a serious turn-based strategy title. It’s relatively simple to get into but it’s designed to reward the thoughtful gamer. It’s not that hard to clear a level of baddies but you will have to consider your moves carefully if you want to earn those bonus rewards.

Each of the 14 episodes consists of four or five battles which each take about 20 to 30 minutes to complete. Once completed, you’re also allowed to replay battles either to try new tactics or level up characters.

I prefer to do my levelling in Item World, Disgaea’s quirky version of dungeon-running, because of the random nature of its levels and its more lucrative bonuses.

Battles, whether storyline-related or in the Item World, generally aren’t difficult as the AI is no more than competent. It’s ruthless about eliminating weaker characters but doesn’t make use of advanced tactics like throwing and has little sense of self-preservation.

The designers have compensated for this by providing the AI benefits in the form of Geo Symbols and Geo Panels but the AI is poor at exploiting those advantages. If a particular battle is proving frustrating, it’s simply a sign you need to spend an hour or two levelling up your characters.

Show me the way

The basic game mechanics are adequately documented in the manual, in-game help and tutorials but there’s a lot in the game that’s left for the player to discover. Theoretically, this ought to be great for players who enjoy exploring games on their own but in this case, some of these details are much too obscure.

I was committed to playing through the game without referring to the guides and though I gained a certain amount of smug satisfaction from knowing I had done it on my own, I was a little deflated to discover there was so much in the game I had missed out on.

For instance, Disgaea has multiple endings but at no point during the game is the player made aware of the prerequisites for these endings and players are unlikely to discover most on their own without referring to guides. I was more than a little disappointed to find I hadn’t managed to earn the “good” ending and only discovered the conditions for it from a guide after I had completed the game.

Hours of Darkness
Disgaea: Classes
(Image source: SCEA.)

If this is the sort of game you love, you’ll be delighted there’s a lot to love. The main storyline should take most gamers at least a month to complete. It took me about 63 hours to complete but I had to digress several times to level up my underpowered characters.

If this is the sort of game you really love, you’ll be delighted there’s a lot of replay value. The goal-oriented gamer will appreciate the extra scenarios, profession unlocks and the multiple endings, the materialistic gamer will appreciate all the loot and item modification, and the powergamer can look forward to “Level Up” ding after “Level Up” ding. I managed the complete the game with my strongest character at level 74 but the level cap is set at an astonishing 9999. I think that says a lot about the game and its designers’ sensibilities.

The flipside of that is the game also requires investments of time for trivial reasons. Customising music and increasing the difficulty aren’t simply a matter of changing an option as they require money and mana respectively and both have to be acquired through battles.

More annoyingly, the what-if Etna scenario exclusive to the PSP port requires completing the game with a strict set of conditions that include discovering two hidden buttons, locating a secret room and then performing a particular action in every episode of the storyline. I only discovered that when I referred to a user-created guide after I had beaten the game.

I really enjoyed the game but I am not thrilled about the prospect of replaying the game for 40-plus hours to unlock a scenario which might take an additional 40-plus hours to complete. It’s as if Nippon Ichi Software took seriously that hoary joke about the PSP lacking games worth playing.

Bottom line
Disgaea: Combos
(Image source: SCEA.)

Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness has proven to be the most fun I’ve had with a game this year and I fervently hope this title sells enough copies that Nippon Ichi Software does a PSP port of the sequel.

If you’re a PSP owner, get this game. It’s a great handheld gaming experience with satisfying gameplay offered in relatively short bursts.

If you’re a fan of strategic turn-based gaming, get this game. It’s a fine, quirky take on the genre with some strange mechanics that provide surprising depth.

If you’re a RPG fan, get this game. It’s a simple, funny, memorable and theologically subversive take on angels, demons and humans that spans heaven and hell with a tale that’s surprisingly touching.

Posted in Disgaea, Games, PSP, Reviews.