Last Rant on Videogames: Disgaea: Hour of Darkness

Something that we've not touched upon during the podcast much is the subject of game developers and publishers -- other than Nintendo, I suppose.  In general, my opinion on the subject is that they... exist.  Companies change out employees all the time, and I really feel that the quality of a work produced by a company is decided mostly upon the people creating that work.  The biggest reason we haven't talked about it, at least for me, is that I don't really have anything to say about it.

That said, I do have some bizarre allegiance to one particular publisher and will buy almost anything that I come across with their name on it.  That company is Atlus.  If you've never heard of this company, I'd be a little surprised, given the astonishing popularity of the latest games in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series.  Atlus, at least over half a decade ago, seemed to my still impressionable sensibilities, the company that would take games resulting from a combination of unorthodox design and quirky scripting that had been cast off by slightly more main stream publishers and give them a nice warm home.  With a turkey dinner.  I suppose it could have been tofurkey or something, depending on the game's tastes.

I have mentioned previously on the show that I went through a phase where my sole consumption of my free time was playing SNES games, usually with some random anime for background noise.  During my quest for games I hadn't yet played that also looked mildly interesting, and likely influenced by the obscene amount of anime I was watching, I started turning towards games released in Japan that never got an official translation.  At the time, on of the most intriguing games I found was the first in the Shin Megami Tensei series, or ShinTen as I've taken to calling it.  I've often described the series as Pokemon, but with demons.  Demons is a little vague, but it's much more succinct than saying basically every major entity from every major mythology and pile of folklore.

Sadly, I did not know Japanese at the time and couldn't find a decent translation, so I never beat the game, but the encounter had intrigued me.  I researched it a little, curious as to who had produced such a thing, and found the name Atlus.  This, combined with one of my friends ranting about how much he was enjoying a recently released game from the company, the eventual subject of this review, had me hooked.  Unfortunately, I'm rather miserly and therefore do not make a habit of buying new games, but I always keep an eye out for titles with their logo on them.  Not all of them have been good, but are at least interesting enough in concept to warrant existence.  I'm looking at you, Steambot Chronicles.

At any rate, Atlus generally picks its children well, and today's subject is not and exception, though one might say it's exceptional.  Because the subtitle is cumbersome, I'll be eschewing it in favor of referring to the game as simply "Disgaea."  The premise of the game, without too many spoilers, is that you guide the party of demons led by heir to the throne of the Netherworld, Prince Laharl, and his most trustedish vassal, Etna.  Additionally, they are visited by others, who, for a variety of reasons, join his quest to become Overlord of the Netherworld after his father died.  Most notably, he's accompanied by an angelic assassin name Flonne, who sticks around Laharl to see whether he can be swayed from his generally surly nature to something a little more loving.  As a side note, it turns out "the" may be the wrong article for referring to the particular Netherworld the plot takes place on.

People seem to like antiheroes, myself not being an exception, and Laharl is about as unheroic as it gets.  In fact, most of the prominent cast are downright villainous.  The plot generally centers around Laharal learning to love under Flonne's influence... or not, as the game has multiple endings.  This is all done with incredibly cheesy voice acting and a generally anime-esque art style.  The plot's not exactly the stuff of classics, and is fairly goofy, but the writers apparently knew this, as it's played off with very enjoyable camp.  There are some ridiculously lines, Etna's voice actress (in the English version, at least) delivers excellently, there are silly fantasies from Etna between each episode of the game parodying popular anime but are still enjoyable without that knowledge, and there's a slight amount of breaking the fourth wall.  The whole experience, while mildly awkwardly paced and not too deep, is rather enjoyable.  Also, there are prinnies.  Just... Google a prinny.  Dood!

Now that we've gotten the flimsy sheet of plot out of the way, let's talk about the mechanics of this game.  First, the real meat of the game, combat.  The game is a turn based, square grid strategy RPG.  Characters level up when they defeat enemies, learn special abilities to do so more effectively, and generally do all the things you get out of a stat-based RPG.  Characters are dispatched, one at a time and up to ten on the field, from a base panel.  You take turn issuing commands until either ten of your party (or all the members that you have) or the entirety of the opposing party are slain.  Commands are issued one at a time, then executed either at the end of a turn or when the "Execute" command is issued.  Characters will then proceed to do whatever you told them to do in the order in which you told them.  As a single enemy or group of enemies is attacked in succession, the amount of damage each subsequent attack does is increased.  A notable thing about the combat, which is rather amusing but degrades in usefulness after a while, is that if characters are stationed around another who is attacking normally in melee, without abilities of any sort, have a chance to join in on the attack for up to four characters beating the enemy simultaneously.  There are different animations for each number of attackers, so it's rather amusing to watch it happen.  As I mentioned, however, it gets much less useful when your characters get more powerful, as their attack skills tend to do more damage than the combined attacks and cannot provoke counter attacks.  Did I mention you have a chance to counter?  It's nothing active, but it discourages direct melee attacks if nothing else.

There are two character types.  The simpler of the two is the monster type.  Monsters can equip only one type of weapon, and cannot lift other characters and throw them around the maps as human types can.  Yeah, you can do that, and it's pretty useful.  The tradeoff is that monsters tend to get either outrageous stats or learn skills with unique attack areas, which can help during combat.  Personally, I tend to avoid them as they lack the versatility that human characters have.

Human characters, which includes most of the main characters, can come in a variety of flavors.  I'll explain how this works in a moment, and it's rather interesting.  Humans can equip a variety of weapons.  The most easily utilized weapon is the sword.  It has a variety of skills to be learned that can affect numerous areas, making it easy for a sword user to participate in combo attacks.  The axe focuses on doing higher damage to single enemies but has a lower chance to hit.  The spear tends to sit in the same power range as the sword, but allows a user to attack from up to two squares away.  As it's important here, a single square is only the directly adjacent one, not a diagonal.  The spear's special attacks generally do damage while moving the user around the map.  Bows allow the user to attack from a distance, and the special abilities focus, generally, on dealing status effects to opponents.  Guns have a longer range than bows and focus only on dealing damage.  Fist weapons, like gauntlets and whatnot, do decent damage and focus on dealing damage while moving opponents around the map.  Staff weapons are pretty much useless for direct combat, but are useful for other reasons I'll touch upon in a moment.

So, you'll notice I mentioned special abilities for each weapon category; I also said that characters learn new abilities as they level up.  Many characters learn abilities specific to them, like Laharl learning firey punch moves that attack the area around him.  In addition to gaining straight experience, human characters improve their proficiency with the category of their currently equipped weapon by beating upon enemies with them.  The special abilities of each category are unlocked by becoming good enough with the weapon, and are unrelated to the character's level.

The staff weapons are particularly tricky because of this.  They're absolutely useless for attacking, but a character using a staff has a lot of incentive for mastering its use.  Staffs do not grant abilities as the character becomes more proficient, however.  Some character classes can learn spells, which are incredibly useful due to the vast number of configurations they can be cast in.  Something I haven't mentioned yet, as it hasn't yet been relevant, is that every character has a weakness or resistance to each of three elements: wind, fire, and ice/water.  The symbol for ice is a water droplet, but almost everything that is that element is an ice spell.  I'd have to say it was more easily visually distinguished that way, but I'm just guessing.  Anywho, mastering a staff allows the caster to attack from further away, with reduced cost, and with greater power.  Pretty useful.  It's also worth mentioning that each individual spell can also be mastered by using it more.  The higher the level of proficiency with that spell a character is, the more shapes it can be cast in, in addition to conferring the same bonuses that mastering a staff offers.

So, there's a pile of stuff for each character to master.  Yay.  We've but scratched upon the surface of this game, however.  Another aspect of this game is character creation.  Before we get into the chewy filling of that tidbit, let's cover the effects of killing an enemy in combat.  As one would expect, experience is gained from doing so.  However, in a manner I find mildly irksome, only characters involved in the final attack on the enemy actually gain experience.  This means that if you perform a basic attack and manage to get four characters in on it, they will all gain experience.  However, if you set up a five attack combo with the intention of letting the last character in the sequence perform the finishing blow, you might accidentally strike down your foe with the wrong character.  It's mostly something to keep in mind, and makes quickly empowering smaller characters a chore if you don't think things through.  The second effect of killing an enemy is that you gain some Mana (which isn't what you use to activate abilities; those are Skill Points, or SP, in this game).  However, only the character that initiated the attack gets the Mana.  This means that even if you get four characters in on a single attack, only the one actually attacking gets the points.  As far as I can tell, the amount of Mana gained is equal to the level of the defeated enemy.

So, what's Mana good for?  Actually, a fairly wide variety of things, all focused around the next aspect of this game: the Dark Assembly.  Basically, it's Congress for demons.  In order to do anything that might potentially disrupt the order of demon society, a bill must be proposed to the assembly.  Proposing bills costs Mana.  Therefore, the strongest characters in your party are likely going to be the most politically active, which makes some sense in a society based on martial prowess.  The bills you can propose vary from gaining extra experience in the next battle, to opening optional maps, to extorting money from the senators.

Proposing a bill works as follows.  First, in order to propose most of the useful ones, you must be of a certain rank.  You increase your rank by engaging that single character in a test of might.  The higher rank you're trying for, the stronger the opponents you must overcome.  Makes sense.  Once you can propose the bill you want, you spend Mana to do so.  That Mana's gone now, and you can only regain it by slaying more foes, regardless of the outcome of the impending vote.  You're moved to the assembly chamber with the proposing character at a podium in front.  In the bleachers are a number of, as far as I can tell, random senators.  Once they come into existence, they stick around for the rest of the game.

Why does this matter?  You can bribe the senators to make them more favorable towards you.  Pretty awesome.  Moving your cursor over a senator displays their basic stats, including level, HP, SP, elemental weakness, and their current opinion of the proposed bill.  Higher level senators have a stronger voice when voting, so you should focus your bribery on the senators whose voices will matter most.  For each senator, each item in your current inventory is evaluated, randomly, from "Does Not Want" to "Must Have."  The former actively causes the senator to dislike you more, while the latter greatly increases their opinion of you.  You can go about bribing senators until you think the vote will go your way.  The effects of bribing carry over to new proposals, so even if you don't get this bill passed, they'll still be more favorable to any future bills you propose.  In this manner, you can eventually control the entire senate.  What if you take the vote, and senators you bribed didn't vote for you?  Smite the dissenters!  You have the option of attempting to pit your party against all the naysayers of your cause.  This can be dangerous, as some senators are of a level you will likely not reach even after multiple plays of this game.

One of the bills you may propose that does not require a vote, usually, is creating a character.  There are multiple classes you may create, each with different aptitudes for each stat and weapon category.  Additionally, you may create each of the monsters you have faced, provided you've defeated a sufficient horde of them.  Different human type classes are unlocked after surpassing some obstacle, which are hidden from the user.  Additionally, each class has multiple tiers, with the final tier being the epitome of perfection for the archetype.  The higher tiers, in addition to costing more, are generally unlocked by having a high enough level character from the previous tier.

Similar to creating a character, 100 Mana may be spent (you can cancel this until the final confirmation) to transmigrate the character.  If you've played too much DnD, you can probably already see how this may be exploited.  It is, in fact, possible to achieve a character knowing every skill in the game with mastery over every weapon.  For time concerns, this is impractical, and it's generally easier to focus on a single weapon, but it can be done.  However, each time a character is transmigrated, they lose a portion of the mastery.  The amount lost depends on the rank they are transmigrated with.  The rank also applies to creation, but since it is a new character, mastery isn't an issue.  The different ranks also come with more skill points to assign to the character's stats upon creation.  There is, therefore, large incentive to save up Mana for the highest rank of character.  This is a rather large amount, however, and for transmigration all the Mana must come from the character of interest.  A useful point of the transmigration process is that characters may build up their primary "base" stats over many reincarnations.  I did this with the main characters a few times, and, though I don't know whether there is a point in doing this with them, Laharl had colossal strength and was capable of easily dispatching foes several times his level.  The downside, and simultaneous upside, is that transmigrated characters start at level one (with crazy stats and equipment) but ostensibly gain levels faster.

Hopping back a track, I mentioned that it's necessary to bribe the Dark Assembly to help them see things your way.  Since their interest in your items is random, you can accomplish this with a pile of useless things.  You acquire quite a few over time, but the easiest way to do so is through use of the bonus gauge.  Each time an attack is performed in combat, the gauge rises.  The longer the chain of attacks, the more it will rise, up to level nine.  The gauge starts at level zero, and you will always get the level zero reward.  An important item about this is that in order to receive the rewards, all enemies must be vanquished.  This isn't important for plot combat, but it's important later, for reasons I'll keep obscure for now.

By far the easiest way to boost the gauge is through manipulation of the Geo system.  The system itself isn't too complicated, but can lead to some real head benders.  Basically, maps can have a variety of colored tiles.  By themselves, they do nothing.  However, there are also colored pyramids called Geo Symbols.  The symbols have certain effects, information on which may be easily gleaned by hovering the cursor over them.  When placed on a Geo Tile, all tiles of that color will be imbued with the effect of the symbol.  Symbol effects may stack, and I'm pretty sure there isn't a limit to it.  When a symbol is destroyed, all tiles that the symbol is on change to the color of the destroyed symbol, provided it was a different color than the tile.  Anything caught in the change will be damaged, or in the case of other symbols, destroyed.  Any destroyed symbols proceed to repeat the process.  Of mild interest is the Null color, which just destroys the tiles instead of changing the color.  If all the tiles are destroyed, as small explosion damages all enemies.  By chaining color changes, you can perform what I've taken to calling a Geo Combo.  Each subsequent color change is worth an additional point per tile changed.  The number of points at the end of the combo translate directly into bonus gauge increase, netting you valuable bribing materials or rare equipment.

While we're on the subject of acquiring goods, every item has stats like a character.  The stats increase a character's by that amount when equipped, or heal by that amount for restoratives.  The interesting thing here is that items are populated by specialists, who are listed in the item description.  Each specialist affects on stat by the amount listed.  A specialist of Gladiator type and power twenty, will increase a weapons attack by that amount.  Each weapon has a maximum population of these specialists, with special and legendary weapons having a higher capacity.

This on its own would be useless, however.

Enter the Item World.  You see, in the universe of Disgaea, each item contains its own world that may be explored.  In essence, there are one hundred floors in each item to explore, and each floor is randomly generated upon entering.  Because there aren't really any limits to this, you might not be able to reach the exit all the time, though I've never found a case where it's truly impossible.  Additionally, the most interesting Geo configurations occur in the item world, meaning traversing the interior of an item is the best way to acquire more.  On your way through the item, you may encounter the specialists, who act as third parties in combat.  Should you, and not the enemy, manage to defeat them, you may transfer them between items as you see fit once you exit the world.  Exiting the world can be somewhat trying, however.  You are only given the option to exit every tenth floor, and enemies get stronger as you descend.  However, the level zero bonus of every tenth floor is an item that allows you to exit on any floor and return to that floor later.  Additionally, every level you descend makes the item more powerful, giving strong incentive to brave the depths of your favorite weapon.

Actually traversing the Item World is different than story missions.  The level may be cleared, as normal, by defeating all foes.  Additionally, you can simply get one of your characters to a glowing panel and descend to the next floor.  The sole detriment to this method is that any bonus items you might have received for your actions on the floor are lost.  Using this method, however, with the application of some strategic lobbing of party members and a little luck, can allow you to traverse items that are far more powerful than your party.

In addition to the menagerie of things going on with the Dark Assembly and Item World, not to mention trying to train your characters to be demons of legend, there's also a hospital that you must spend your precious Hell (yeah, that's the name of your currency) to heal you characters between combats that don't end a chapter.  The hospital, while not a super important part of playing the game, is generally visited as second nature after a while.  It keeps track of how much HP and SP have been restored there, in addition to the number of times it has raised your dead.  Get enough in one of these categories, and you get a fabulous prize!  Fabulous may be generous, but you can occasionally get something useful out of the exchange, and you'll be visiting frequently.

All this comes together in a game unlike any I have ever played.  That said, I don't often play strategy RPGs, having mostly dabbled with early Fire Emblem games.  However, the multiple endings, endearing cheesiness, the nearly vital New Game+, enjoyable combat, and interesting randomly generated Geo puzzles make this game one of my favorites.  It is my earnest recommendation that, if you have never played Disgaea, or an Atlus game, that you give this one a shot.  There are quite a few games in the franchise, and my experience is that they get successively more ridiculous.  Coupled that with the fact that the developer, Nippon Ichi, is registered on Steam, this means that there is plenty of enjoyment to be obtained from this series and that it will hopefully be easily available in the near future.

I had intended to keep this one shorter, but there's just so much in this game, that it's hard to do.  It really plays more simply than it sounds, I promise.  Until next time, game fans!