Disgaea: Hour of Darkness

K. Thor Jensen 1/15/2004 

Have you seen me?
I have been cleaning and remodeling my room. When I moved in, the walls were a faint lilac color - I just painted them a rich green that the Glidden people call "Precious Jasper." I bought a horizontal LACK shelf from Ikea, put it on on legs, and am using it to store a lot of my papers - being a cartoonist, I produce a lot of paper. I'm buying curtains next week to replace my shitty mini-blinds. I bought new sheets.

I wish I hadn't done any of this shit.

During all of this living-space upheaval, I lost or misplaced my Disgaea disk.

I haven't played Disgaea in two weeks. The time I would have spent playing this game has been replaced, in a very nearly 1:1 ratio, by furiously searching my room for the disk. I'm sure that once I find it (and I will find it), it'll be so mangled and scratched as to be unplayable, but I will find it. And I will buff and polish and pamper it and put it back into my machine. And then I'm going to pick up on my 190+ hour save file like nothing has happened.

Disgaea is great. It's the best strategy game I've ever played on a console. Final Fantasy: Tactics is second, but it's a close race.

There's not much to it - you fight battles. Between battles you can heal and buy and sell equipment, create characters, and petition the "Dark Congress," kind of the Senate of Hell, to change aspects of the game (make enemies harder, make the stores sell certain items, open secret areas, etc). You can replay any battle at any time. There's a little bit of static-screen dialogue in front of most battles, most VO-read, almost all of it pretty funny. There are jokes about horse penises.

It's a turn-based, isometric grid game. All your characters are sprites. You can have 10 units on the battlefield at any given time and some 200+ in reserve, but if you lose 10 units, the game is over. You can swap units in and out via a panel on every game board, which is nice - you're not stuck with a useless unit on-board if you don't need him, and it helps in raising up weaker units without exposing them to danger. It's whole-side turns - you move all your units, the opponent moves all theirs. I don't like this as much as initiative-based turns but certain aspects of Disgaea demand it - throwing, combo attacks, cancelling, geo chains, etc. Characters can be equpped with one weapon and 3 other pieces of equipment in any combination, all of which boost stats - the usual. Weapons increase in ability the more you use them, and as a nice perk, if a weapon gives you stat boosts, increasing mastery of that weapon type increases those boosts.

The combat itself is functionally simple - attack, use a skill, move. You can queue actions before executing - say, move a few characters and have them all attack, then move others. This can be used to do chain attacks - each additional attack on the same enemy (or group of enemies) grants a preogressive damage bonus. So there's rationale for committing resources, but you can also be punished - say the target dies before everybody executes their actions - the others in the chain are wasted. It's an interesting balance. Units adjacent to each other can also "combo" where they take part in an attack but this doesn't count towards their actions. You can move a unit and recall it endlessly, so you can place a combo-prone unit next to another that is attacking, execute the attack, get the combo, and then cancel the move and move the combo-prone unit again. After you move and take an action, however, you can no longer undo moves for that unit. So there's a lot you can do and none of it's realistic on a strategic level but as a meta-game "gaming the system" thing it's fun and cool and never exploitable enough to overpower you, just enough to make you think that it's intentional that you can do that.

Spells and skills are all pretty basic - damage, three elements, CIRCLE OF LOVE, the usual. Status effects (there are only 4) are given by weapons. Sleep and poison are the only good ones - the others (deprave and forget) are pretty worthless. All of the special skills just do damage, in various permutations.

Character classes are interesting - you create new characters like any strategy game, but once they reach a certain point you can transmigrate them to a new class, starting at level 1. They keep their skills at a certain level (it's more expensive to keep more skills) and can gain skills conversant with whatever class they are. Classes also gain stats at different rates, so it's wise to keep characters focused on certain jobs to make sure they have the stats that best support them. Transmigrating also takes into account stat gain from levles - if you transmigrate at level 100, you'll have a few bonus points in every stat at level 1, and since stat growth is based on yoru level 1 stats, this grows exponentially, making repeat transmigration a useful tactic for producing high-power characters.

The other big thing is the Item World. Every item in the game has random dungeons inside it. All items have a "rarity level" between 0 and 255. Lower numbers = rarer item. Every item can be anywhere from 0-255. Rarity of 10 and lower is "legendary" and 11-30 is "rare." Non-rare items have 30 random dungeons in it. Rares have 50. Legendaries have 100. As you clear these dungeons, the stats of the item increase. These can get absurdly high. Also, certain enemies in these dungeons are "specialists" which can also boost abilities - by killing them (before the enemy units do), you gain the ability to move them from item to item. There's a lot of potential for customization there as well.

Disgaea is rich on is obsessive levelbuilding customization, but it's all for a purpose - the game continually dangles carrots in front of you and the effort required to get at them grows exponentially - so you accomplish goals fairly easily in the beginning (and, to clarify, this is all endgame/aftergame stuff i'm talking about - the game's core narrative can be completed fairly easily without any real obsessive powerleveling or equipment-finding) but as you investigate the additional tasks you discover that they get inordinately hard and you really need to milk your characters for all they're worth to get the job done.

It's a fucking great game. I wish I could find it.

There's also the possiblity that my girlfriend confiscated it to get it out of my room so I'd stop playing it.

K. Thor Jensen