The Disgaea series is one that I have already held at least a passing interest in, as it’s art style, humorous sensibilities, grind and growth centered gameplay, and generally playful tone all struck me as things I would love if I gave it a try. With the release of a PC port of the very first game, it seemed like there was no better time to get into the series and, um, I don’t really like it.
Disgaea PC Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PSP, Nintendo DS, Playstation 2
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Disgaea PC centers around Laharl, the son of the recently departed overlord of the Netherworld, who seeks to become an almighty figure much like his father. A goal he begins working towards from the very start of the game, and quickly assembles a jaunty crew while doing so, including his vassal Etna, a squad of Prinnies, the mascot characters of the series, and a lovey-dovey angel trainee by the name of Flonne. It is a fair, if a bit unconventional premise for the landscape where the game was originally released in, but is mostly made worthwhile by a level of humor, silliness, and general eccentricity sprinkled throughout the game.
The game adopts a more lighthearted tone, and is not above poking fun at itself, various tropes, and meandering around while indulging in what I affectionately call Anime style shenanigans. Characters are likable, bounce off each other well, and have just enough depth to remain interesting throughout the experience, with most of them also undergoing some sort of arc through the story. While that is all well and good, the story, well, it goes into some unexpected directions, and I’m not sure that I like them.
Following the halfway point of the game, the seventh of the 14 chapters, Laharl is made the Overlord of the Netherworld and in order to introduce a new threat, the Earth Defense Force. Yes, in a surprising turn of events, the Earth in Disgaea takes place in the far flung future, after Earth has been deemed overpopulated, resources are running slim, and humanity is searching for a new home. This change in premise is also met with the introduction of a trio of the most pulpy B-grade sci-fi characters I have ever seen in a Japanese developed game. While this section of the story still contains many of the same strengths as the prior half, its focus becomes a lot vaguer, and I stop being able to determine what exactly the developers wanted or were expecting from this story.
I also have some contentions with how the story ends, or to be more accurate, stops, without resolving everything they could, and instead placing a lot of importance on a one-off joke character that the game consistently brings back up for reasons that I could never quite determine. I know that I could uncover more, at least I hope I could, if I chose to indulge in the assortment of post-game content. However, after going through the game in about thirty hours or so, I really did not want to go back. Mostly because I found the gameplay to just be really boring.
Disgaea is a Strategy or Tactical RPG series that focuses on a variety of unique gameplay features, such as the ability to lift and throw characters, the passive Geo Symbol system, and many features related to character building. However, it is also a very unorthodox example of the genre as far as I can tell, seeing as how instead of strategy, it is more driven by grinding and numbers than anything else. Now, that itself is not a bad thing, as games with good gameplay systems can make grinding a very enjoyable, especially if it feels good to accumulate more power, and can easily be done through specialized grinding areas. Disgaea does not really do any of these things.
The core gameplay is rather plain aside from a handful of unique features stapled on, centering around approaching an enemy, attacking them with a regular attack or skill, defeating them, and healing up to repeat the process until the stage is clear. Except it is not really made clear to the player what exactly they are up against, what their safe zones are, how much damage an attack is going to do. To draw an example from the only SRPG series I am really familiar with, Fire Emblem allows players to perceive enemy movement patterns with a single button, and shows how much damage a character will deal before initiating combat. Disgaea does not really do that, and it makes it hard to devise a strategy more complicated than running up to an enemy and bashing them until they stop moving.
Except this is made more difficult due to the map design present in this game, which is often comprised of eccentrically constructed environments, presented in an often confusing isometric environment complete with hazards that can often put the player into a disadvantageous situation where enemies are given the high ground and the player needs to outmaneuver them, despite the fact that doing so is not very fun. It is a strategy game where I struggled to discover complicated or detailed strategies, and when the game does require strategy, it is often through irritating means.
Another thing worth noting about these maps are how few of them are genuinely effective for grinding, which is to say, I really did not encounter many maps that I felt were designed specifically for grinding. Which is a problem, because Disgaea is as intrinsically tied to grinding as it can reasonably get. In addition to having character levels, each character also has weapon proficiency levels, which raise as weapons are used, increase the power of weapon types when equipped, and give characters weapon based skills. Skills themselves also have levels, which increase their power, SP cost, and in the case of magic, increases their range and allows magic to be used multiple targets. Beyond that, all equipment can be leveled up by partaking in Item World, a rather irritating series of ten randomly generated dungeons that will raise the power of equipment substantially, yet take an absurdly long time to go through considering the meager reward.
Now, that itself is a lot of grinding to contend with, but the game actually takes it a step further with the Dark Assembly, a compilation of mechanics that allow the player to do so many things that, combined with the variety of mechanics I just mentioned, help make Disgaea one of the deepest and complicated RPGs that I have ever seen achieve this level of success. Characters can be reset back to level 1, with their skills, equipment, and a set percent of their stats all remaining. Pupils may be created for existing characters, which are represented through an extensive class system of various RPG archetypes, along with other classes that are unlocked gradually along the way. These pupils can give their mentor character unique skills by standing besides them in combat, can themselves may have other pupils, and can also be reset to level 1, but also as a different class entirely.
Characters may also participate in Promotion Exams to increase their influence in the Senate in order to be granted passive improvements, be permitted to purchase better goods from the shop, and unlock various extras. However, each Senator can be influenced to vote for what the player wants to pass by being bribed using items that they may or may not be interested in. Or at least I think that’s how it is supposed to work, because this game is one of those RPGs that explain their basic mechanics in detail, but simply gloss over the more complicated things. Should I be reseting my characters to level 1 for easier grinding? What character classes should I make my pupils be? What classes should I change these characters to, and when? How do I unlock certain classes? Is it ever viable to embark on the option to beat up the Senators that disagree with what you are trying to pass, because they can be absurdly strong?
All of these questions, combined with the difficulties that come with grinding, eventually led to me giving up on truly understanding this gameplay system, as I knew that, even if I spent countless hours trying to master this system, it would not make me happy. In fact, I found the game utterly boring because of all of this overbearing mechanical minutia that left me paralyzed with choice… and that’s before taking into consideration that nearly all equipment is randomly generated, and equipment can also be stolen from enemies if using a special item or character.
So, frustrated by the overbearing excess of mechanical minutia, I decided to give up on the pretense of playing this game fairly and downloaded a hex editor with the intention of changing the EXP values of characters and my currency amount. That did not work as well as I had hoped, so I sought a far simpler solution, and downloaded Cheat Engine in order to use its built-in hex editor in order to change EXP and currency values, bringing my characters up from level 16 to 32.. then 61… then 118. And bringing my currency up to an absurd amount. This allowed me to breeze through the game without grinding and, eventually, without even using pupils, instead choosing to go into battle with the full party of story specific characters the game gave me.
Now, you could accuse me of cheating which, yes, is what I did, but I only did so because I was do disinterested in the core gameplay that I did not want to drudge through its over-complexities any more than I needed to, or go about what seemed like some of the worst grinding methods I had seen in a game. Even when playing the Dragon Quest I, which is notorious for its grinding, I had more fun trickling my way towards the max level. Instead, I gave up on the prospect of using any characters other than the main ones and just boosted them up to level 100+, which was more than enough to breeze through the game. At least before the game goes nuts during the final chapter and its insane difficulty spike, and concluded with a level that takes away the designated healer and mage character.
Moving away from my numerous issues with the gameplay, Disgaea PC is also not a very good PC port. The game crashes whenever I try to change between the old and new maps, it crashes when I try to play it in fullscreen without a mod, and there were times when it crashed… just because. While porting over a decade old game can be quite difficult, especially when trying to include the content from various other releases, this is just inexcusable, and I am saying this after the game has been patched substantially. Plus, I constantly had V Sync problems regardless of whether or not the option was enabled, but I believe that was due to the mod I installed.
Also, and this is a very petty thing to bring up, I know, but I really have an issue with the way the game handles stage selection. When selecting a stage, the player can choose to either jump into the stage like normal, or skip the story segments before and after. Most games allow the player to skip past the story cutscenes at any given time during them, but not Disgaea, instead if you happen to go into a mission to grind, make sure you press the button to skip past the story scene. Also, make sure to both save and heal after each battle, despite the fact that the game immediately dumps the player right back to the stage select menu after a stage. Seeing as how healing is both manual and costs currency, and there is no auto save system in place, it is largely necessary to pace oneself this way, yet the game seemingly discourages this caution.
Moving on, Disgaea fares far better visually. Featuring simplistic yet solid tile based 3D environments, detailed and expressive character sprites, a lot of detailed combat effects, though they can be so elaborate that I disabled them after realizing that they could not be skipped, and character artwork that looks surprisingly good considering this is a remastered PS2 game. It is all balanced around an endearing art direction that has come to help define the franchise, and while it is evidently still trying to hone its style, the game has a very unique look to it.
Or, rather, the general character designs and character artwork have a unique look to them, while the sprites do leave something be be desired, as they do not capture the same look as the artwork, and feature questionable coloring. It’s almost like every character is covered in a dull bluish grey light, preventing the colorful nature of the cast from really shining, as it all feels a bit muddled. This was improved in later games, or at least it is based on looking at screenshots, but it still remains the case with Disgaea PC.
I’m also not a big fan of the isometric perspective, as it can make it very difficult to perceive certain things across the map, judge distance, and generally maintain one’s surroundings. Plus, the decision to only allow for camera directions in 90 degree intervals can make it difficult to get a good viewing angle, or downright impossible in same cases. This perspective combined with the eclectic design of the Item World dungeons actually gave me a headache at one point, which is unheard of for me while playing games. All because I could not see where my character was on a map, and could not mentally picture where I had to position my characters in order to defeat whatever foes impeded them.
I really want to like Disgaea PC. It is a silly and eccentric title with genuinely enjoyable writing, and a style all its own. However, the gameplay just kills all enthusiasm I had to investigate this series any further, as the needless excess of mechanics and grinding drove me to a level of disinterest and irritation that would have prevented me from ever going through the majority of the game without the use of a cheat device. It truly is a game that I played for the story, and where the gameplay just got in the way.