Disgaea DS review
Good SRPG With a Few Demons
I'd already heard a fair bit about Disgaea DS before I picked up the game. It has been praised for being a witty excellent take on the SRPG genre, with various gameplay features cited as defining factors that separate it from the crowd. So my expectations were put a bit high when I slipped the game card into the DS and turned the power on. My conclusion? It's good but not as great as I had hoped, as the game does have problems holding it back.
Graphically, the game makes extensive use of 2D sprites in 3D environments. Despite the small size the characters show a fair amount of detail that makes each one easily recognisable. With the wealth of classes comes as wealth of different appearances and wonderful designs, although it's worth noting that created characters always take up the same appearance based on their chosen class. More than just an aesthetic issue, this can actually become a little confusing when the enemy is using units of the same classes, as enemies don't appear onscreen any different to your own units outside of the map screen.
Speaking of which, the second screen is used very effectively in this game. Sometimes an object on the map might obscure your view, which is an issue in any isometric game. Not only does this game let you rotate the camera in 90 degree increments but the top screen also displays a map showing a grid, coloured squares and character placements. Allied and enemy units are also signified by different icons, letting you know if you're about to unleash your ultimate spell of destruction on your own partner.
Battle animations are very nice. Special attacks show some interesting actions, especially when using some of the higher level spells or some of the powerful special techs really do shine. You can also fiddle with display settings to turn these off if you so desire.
There's some pretty nice music tracks in the game, even if they are perhaps a little too simplified. They seem to run along the right kinds of themes though. If you're willing to part with some serious hard earned cash then you can even buy the songs from an ingame store and listen to them in the castle or replace the item world music with a chosen track.
The vocals aren't as good though. The voice acting itself is quite minimal, restricted to the "next episode" segments and simple voice bites used during battles. I also can't stand Laharl's voice, as it sounds too "playground kid". Granted he's supposed to be immature but it still sounds so wrong. Etna and Flonne have much more interesting vocals, so for these it's a shame we don't get to hear more.
The backstory itself works well enough but may not be that interesting by itself. Laharl wakes up after a several year nap to find that his old man has croaked and he's up for taking on the role as the new Overlord. There's a few twists and something about invasions and whatnot but these things aren't compelling plotlines.
Instead, Disgaea's storyline success comes entirely from its humour. You know you're in for some laughs when Etna's attempts at waking the prince involve guns and explosives. Flonne soon joins the group and her naivety just makes it better. In fact, every special character you come across contribute their own humour. The first boss you fight is immediately renamed Mid-boss by Laharl, which becomes a running joke throughout. It's stuff likes this that keeps it interesting and motivates the player to continue on, especially when it's not afraid to poke fun at everything.
Those are certainly less traditional alarm clocks.
You start the game with only a handful of characters possessing little in the way of talents. Special abilities are limited to no more than one and customising options are few. After playing a few battles your group earns mana, which can be used to create new recruits to join your team. You can pick from a variety of classes that increase as you play through the game, name them and then distribute bonus stat ups based on the mana used to create the character. Once you've built up a solid group you can start to get into the meat of the game.
Disgaea uses a party turn system, where one side carries out all their actions and then the other side does the same, and this continues until one side is wiped out. Each character can move based on their movement and jump stats and can also stack one other action on top, either before or after they move. The basic attack is free to use but the weakest offence option. As a way of stacking up the damage are group attacks. If a character attacks close range with allies in adjoining spaces then there is a chance of those allies jumping in on the attack for extra damage output. Think of it as a slightly more controlled variation of the classic RPG critical chances.
Characters will gain special skills as they level up. Most weapon types bestow their own skills when equipped, although spellcasters and monsters will also gain abilities based on their classes as they grow. Different attacks will have different SP costs, as well as different ranges and requirements. Most of the time I found the skill system fairly flawed, in that many of the skills just weren't worth much. Taking sword based skills as an example, I never seemed to use anything other than hurricane spin, since anything else either had awkward requirements or a ridiculous SP cost for what I wanted. This is true of many skill trees. No point using any Succubus skill past the first one since the rest are pretty ineffective at what they do. Only magic skill sets seemed to progress with any real meaning, as I would often switch around between different power levels of spells. More thought should have been put into these skills to encourage more widespread use.
Similarly, extra gain is something that should have been thought out better. When a character is created they become the student of the character that created them. In addition to providing slight stat boosts to their master they can also pass skills along to their master. Unfortunately this is restricted to spells, which are rarely useful on anyone other than spellcasters anyway. Not a bad feature but just lacking in much use.
You can carry up to 15 items at any given time, and characters can all dip into the pack to use healing goods to restore HP, SP or status. The fact that everyone has access to the same bag makes planning item strategy easier, and you can even command a unit to use an item on an adjacent unit.
You can pick up and throw objects, and by objects I refer to the geo symbols and other characters. This comes into play tactically as you can throw enemies away from your weaker units or throw your own characters closer to enemy units to launch earlier attacks.
Defend is the last action. This effectively drops your chance of counterattacking an enemy, but reduces the damage you take. Ideal if you need units to tank against strong enemies and will work into your battle approaches.
One way that Disgaea alters battles is the fact that attack commands do not execute immediately. Instead you can stack attack commands and then execute them all in a row. Setting up combo chains lets you rack up extra damage, as well as boost a bonus gauge that increases the chance of obtaining more better items as the end of battle reward. If a character was issued an attack command but the target dies before they get a chance then you can issue a new command, so there's no worry about screwing yourself over either. It's an interesting change of style that is welcome.
Maybe I shouldn't have rushed by fighter forward like that...
Enemies are probably less suicidal than other games. They won't all rush you at once unless all of them are able to attack your characters and typically you won't normally have anyone tanky enough to take extremely little damage from enemies outside of being at a much higher level. Bosses provide their own challenges usually with some powerful attacks and stats. Bear in mind that even the generic enemies can use group combos, attack stacking and the same kinds of special skills you can call upon.
The maps themselves are sometimes spiced up by the inclusion of geo symbols. These objects cause effects on all squares that are the same colour as the one it is resting on. These can be positive (boosted attack, 1 extra attack action, no damage taken) or negative (lose HP, reduced defence, enemy boost). Taking advantage of these effects can turn some battles around. In addition if you destroy a geo symbol you will cause all coloured squares to change to the colour of the symbol (assuming it wasn't the same), causing all characters on those squares to take damage too and seriously boosting the bonus gauge. These elements really add a whole layer of tactical thinking to proceedings, and checking the map for any strategic points will become second nature as you play. Sometimes you may even have to think beyond simple attacking approaches. When there's a geo symbol that boosts all the enemies you'll want to destroy it quickly, but how to do that when enemies are in the way?
So far so good, but the game has obvious lost points somewhere. Thing is, there's no single big problem here but rather a number of smaller issues that mount up.
Adding new units to your team is a huge pain in the backside. The problem is that any new created unit always starts at level 1, meaning you have to get them caught up to the rest of the team. This is also true if you reincarnate a character, who despite being slightly stronger is still going to be behind everyone else. I just didn't find the grinding worth it. This means that gaining new classes later on is not much of a reward as switching to them means taking on a level 1 character once again.
In fact, the Dark Assembly itself was an entirely bothersome chore. It was possible to submit proposals to a senate, who would vote on whether to pass it or not. By completing promotion battles and increasing rank you can submit better proposals. However, it is often necessary to bribe senate members to sway votes in your favour, which tends to come down to pure luck. One issue is that there is no pattern as to who will like what item, and while you will get onscreen indicators to show how you bag items will affect the chosen member it means you have to be lucky to bring in the right items in the first place. Even then, sometimes even senators loving you will still vote against you, almost negating the point. Some proposals will even be set totally against you, with the only option being to "persuade by force" by killing the senate members that oppose you. However, with their levels being so high you have to wonder why they bother giving you the option so early in the first place. Unfortunately, these proposals are the only way to get the shop to stock better items, which is ultimately all I ever bothered with in terms of senate vote processes as anything else wasn't worth the hassle.
The item world is something that doesn't manage to maintain pace. Unlike the Dark Assembly, this actually works well at first. Here you can literally enter an item and complete floors to level up the item to increase its stats. Maps are interesting with a healthy mix of enemies and geo symbols. The problem is the lack of variety. Every map is a bunch of generics with geo panels. The layouts are totally random as well meaning you might find enemies you can't even reach. There's also the fact of having to go through 10 floors at a time to make any serious levelling progress. After about 30 floors I grew bored and never looked back at it again, which made me thankful that I could safely ignore it and not suffer for it.
The Netherworld Hospital comes across as a poorly thought out feature. The idea is that you go here to restore health and special points and to revive fallen characters, and you can also gain prizes based on the amount healed. This is a terrible substitute to automatically healing the party after each battle. It's disruptive because I have to exit the gate screeen, walk over to the hospital, heal up, walk back to the gate and select the next destination. Why? For items that could easily have been put anywhere else? It's pointless and annoying.
Difficulty is very inconsistent. The game will quite happily jump across from easy to ridiculously difficult to medium to hard to very easy. Often you'll find this happening all in the same episode too. This can be really off putting.
Experience gain can be an issue as well. Units only gain experience when they score a kill, which leaves healers at a disadvantage as they lack physical attack power and don't learn attack spells normally. Extra gain can be used to bypass this (potentially the only time this feature has a practical use) but it's still a bother all the same.
The biggest problem lies in the save system. For reasons unknown, it is only possible to save the game while at the castle. Saving in battle is not an option, and for a handheld game this is unforgivable. Battles can go on for some time, especially when trekking through the item world, so this can lead to serious problems if you need to go do other things. Every other SRPG I've ever played offers a suspend save option during battles, so why not DIsgaea? Easily the biggest contributor to the lower score.
But enough of that. Disgaea is still a fairly good SRPG. The gameplay mechanics it brings across are interesting enough to warrant some attention, but its flaws just can't be ignored. The campaign mode itself is quite large, and then throw in the bonus Etna mode and the multiplayer battle system and you have a worthy game in your hands.
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