Disgaea DS DS
Published by: Square Enix
Developed by: Nippon Ichi
My favourite game of 2004 was Disgaea: Hour of Darkness for the PlayStation 2. The game was my first taste of Nippon Ichi's wonderful blend of excellent tactical RPG game-play and their distinctive brand of humour. It's a game I've returned to many times since then and even now it's one of my preferred games to play when I have time on my hands. Since its release on the PlayStation 2 the game has also made its way to the PSP where it was called Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness. The game retained all the magic of the PlayStation 2 version and threw in some substantial extras such as a multiplayer battle mode and a 'what if scenario' called Etna Mode that became available once you'd completed the original game. Now the game has finally arrived on the DS but the result isn't impressive this time around.
For those who haven't played either of the previous versions of Disgaea a little explanation of the game's storyline is in order. The game is set in the Netherworld and the game begins with Prince Laharl being awoken from his extremely long slumber to be told that his father, King Krichevskoy died two years ago. With Laharl being out of the picture for so long after his father's death there have been quite a few who have had designs on becoming the new overlord of the Netherworld. With the help of Etna, a vassal of the late Krichevskoy, and a handful of unskilled assistants Laharl has to defeat these pretenders to the throne and install himself as the new overlord.
At its heart Disgaea DS is a brilliant grid-based and turn-based tactical strategy game but whilst these games are usually dry, occasionally dull affairs, Disgaea DS injects a lot of humour that help the game to appeal to those who are usually put off by games of this kind. It makes every attempt to brighten up the game-play ranging from humorous item descriptions to hilarious dialogue between battles. It's also rather humorous the way you can throw your own characters at your enemies (and use them as bombs in some cases) and you can even pick up and throw your enemies at your enemies. The humour is such that those who are normally disinterested with strategy RPGs will find themselves warming to the game.
The game begins in Laharl's castle and between battles, you'll return to the castle to heal up at the Netherworld Hospital and purchase weapons and other items from the Rosen Queen Company store. There are also many other things to do (which we'll talk about in a moment) but as any strategy RPG gamer knows the main focus of these games is the battles. If you've enjoyed other tactical RPGs you'll be completely bowled over with the battles in Disgaea DS and they take turn based battles to a whole new level. You can perform combo attacks (where different characters attack the same enemy on the same turn) and you can even perform team attacks. Team attacks are where the attacking character has allies close to them (and in a certain position) and as a result benefits from their assistance in battle. It's possible for up to 3 allies to assist a character in an attack. Only the character who initialises the attack will actually use up their turn. As we've already mentioned, you can instruct one of your characters to pick up another character. As well as employing certain characters as human missiles, this has the benefit of throwing the lifted character to a location they wouldn't be able to reach on that move. In fact it's even possible to have several characters piled high on top of each other and cover vast distances in one move. The combat itself is excellent and most of the special attacks are visually spectacular.
In battle you'll also have to make use of what's called Geo Tactics. Essentially in any given level you'll have different coloured Geo Panels that will subtly flash. When you place a Geo Symbol, which is a pyramid shaped object that offers a certain effect, onto these panels all units standing on those coloured panels will be affected by the effects of the Geo Symbol that's influencing the Geo Panels. However it gets even better because if you destroy the Geo Symbol in question, all of the Geo Panels it's influencing will be destroyed and any units who were standing on the panels will suffer damage as a result. There is actually much more to Geo Tactics and what I've described here is the basics. Essentially though Geo Tactics can be a good and a bad thing and making clever use of them can swing a battle that you probably shouldn't be able to win in your favour. They are a good addition to the battles adding variety and an extra level of strategy to the game.
Outside of the battles you'll have the ability to save the game, heal your characters, level up your items and address The Dark Assembly. Addressing The Dark Assembly allows you to create your own customised units, take rank promotion exams and present proposals to the Assembly. These proposals could be, for instance, triple experience on your next enemy kill. You're going to need a lot of influence with the Assembly's senators to succeed with certain proposals though and you can't propose anything in the early stages of the game. The character creation is rather impressive and you'll need to use a character's mana in order to pay for a character to be created. The character whose mana you use to create the new character will become the master of the new character. Mana is given when a character finishes off an enemy, so you have to be choosy who you pick to finish off an enemy if you need to amass your mana points. Nothing in Disgaea DS is mundane and even the item levelling is done in an unusual way. To level up an item you'll have to battle your way through that item's world (yes even the items have worlds in Disgaea DS) which, to cut a long story short, means that you'll have fight your way through 10 consecutive battles without no means of saving the game (unless you have an item known as Mr. Gency's Exit which allows you return to the castle and continue your progress at a later time) as you can't return to the castle. Bearing this in mind you'll want a strong bunch of units to attempt to level up an item.
Whilst the Nippon Ichi games have always had a certain charm, they have never been what you could call great looking games. Bearing this in mind then, it should come as no surprise to learn that Disgaea DS doesn't look too different from either the PS2 or PSP versions of the game. The sprites don't look quite as sharp however and there's definitely a lower resolution look to the various environments in the game. Still it's a decent looking DS game. There are also some advantages with Disgaea DS. The top screen is used to show an overview of the battlefield and this makes planning your special attacks much easier. It also helps to avoid the problems of navigating your cursor over maps that have a lot of height variation which could be problematic in the PS2 and PSP versions. As with the previous versions of the game, the camera can be turned in 90 degree increments. What you will notice however is some minor slowdown when performing certain special attacks. This is nothing problematic and if you wish you can turn off the animations, which really helps to speed up the flow of the battle.
As you might expect, Disgaea DS uses a stylus to control your character during a battle and, rather pleasingly, it works quite well. You can also use the stylus to zoom and rotate the camera as well as opening and using all of the menus, thanks to the icons that appear on the screen. Of course you can choose to ignore this touch screen control if you wish and simply use the directional pad and the buttons. Both methods of control work well.
In regards to its content, Disgaea DS is practically the same as the PSP version so you're getting the bonus Etna mode here too, which becomes available after completing the main game. In Etna mode the game begins in a similar fashion except it appears as though Etna kills Laharl instead of simply waking him up. Of course with Laharl out of the way, Etna becomes the lead character. There are still those who have designs on the dead King’s throne however, and Etna will have to deal with them. Etna mode isn't as long as the main game and plays out over four fairly short chapters but it's certainly a welcome bonus nevertheless. The game also allows you to take part in a multiplayer, wireless battle although each player will need a copy of the game. You can also unlock Prinny commentary and a collection of playable characters from other Nippon Ichi titles.
Disgaea DS is absolutely fine for deaf gamers. In fact most of the voice work has been removed from the DS version and a high percentage of the dialogue is text only. You'll always be aware of who is saying what in the main dialogue because character portraits are shown above the text. The game's cutscenes also display the character names too. The text can be read at your own speed as you need to either press the A button or tap the screen to move the dialogue forward. Any comments made by your characters during a battle (usually just a word or two when carrying out an action) isn't subtitled. All tutorial information is text only. The game also allows you to display the time on the top right of the screen and a battery icon will appear when your DS battery is running low.
If you haven't yet experienced the wacky first-class strategy RPG experience that is Disgaea and you own a DS, then Disgaea DS is simply a must own game. Of course if you've already experienced the PlayStation 2 version then a purchase may be a little more difficult to justify for the Etna mode and unlockable extras that Disgaea DS has. Then again, it's one of the most addictive games on the DS and having played the PlayStation 2 game a lot hasn't dulled my enjoyment of the game. Unless you've already experienced the PSP version, there's enough new content and replay value here to keep you busy for months and hopefully news of a handheld version of Disgaea 2.