The Hour of Darkness Returns, Dood!
It’s hard to think of Japanese developer Nippon Ichi Software without associating it with Disgaea. The strategy RPG series put the company on the map, and its iconic penguin-like Prinnies have become synonymous with their brand. Disgaea 1 Complete, an HD remaster of the original PlayStation 2 title Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, is a return to the franchise’s roots. This rerelease hasn’t aged as well as its sequels, but it remains a solid unconventional take on the genre.
Here’s my Video Review for your viewing pleasure!
Disgaea’s most notable aspects are its lighthearted story and absurd characters. Throwing typical RPG tropes out the window, the game stars Laharl, a devious demon who wishes to be the Overlord of the Netherworld. It’s a refreshing change of pace to play as a protagonist who shudders at kindheartedness and has a maniacal laugh. Joining Laharl are his equally conniving vassal Etna and the angelic assassin Flonne, who strives to awaken the demon’s good side. The trio’s antagonistic dynamic is played for laughs, and their interactions with other characters are just as humorous. From Laharl renaming the first major enemy “Mid-Boss” to Etna shooting at off-brand Power Rangers who are too busy posing, the game is full of laugh out loud moments. The only low point was when the narrative shifted focus to a trio of space heroes, but I appreciated when all the plot pieces came together in heartfelt ways.
The HD visual overhaul represents the biggest change from the original. The character sprites look crisper and more detailed. Additionally, the text and user interface are cleaner. The soundtrack is an eclectic mix of wacky Halloween tunes and circus music, a surprisingly potent combo that elevates the lighthearted tone. The English voice actors’ cheesy performances are hit or miss, and higher-pitched characters sound particularly annoying, but thankfully there is a Japanese language option.
Otherwise, this package features the same tactical gameplay as the original. You move up to ten characters on grid-based maps and take turns with an opposing team, unleashing attacks and abilities. Location matters as while one character is attacking, nearby members will join the onslaught. By completely focusing your attacks on a single enemy within a turn, you’ll rack up combo point damage, which increases end-of-battle bonuses. The flashy, explosive special moves, which are all fun to watch, also require specific positioning.
Disgaea gains its own identity through its wilder gameplay deviations. One such example is stacking characters to form towers, then throwing each one across the battlefield to gain ground. It’s even possible to throw enemies into prime position for large area attacks. It looks ridiculous in practice, but it’s a clever way to inject the game’s wacky personality into actual strategy.
Progression is also bonkers. While there are standard level-up and equipment systems, other actions like improving shop inventory and activating upgrades requires the approval of a Dark Assembly; in other words, bizarre Netherworld politics. You must either persuade monstrous senators by force or bribe them with desirable items to approve your requested upgrades. Sometimes, it’s luck-dependent, which is frustrating, but some features are worth fighting for, including creating stronger characters from a set of available classes. Although the created units are generic, they play into a fascinating mentor/pupil system, in which characters learn abilities from each other, further increasing the potential for formulating perfect parties.
My favorite mechanic was the Geo Symbols, pyramidal objects that significantly alter the battlefield, granting buffs, debuffs, and other game-changing effects when placed on specially colored tiles. They transform simple grids into survival trials where you must avoid power-boosted enemies, or into puzzles where you must strategize how to win when every unit is invincible. These geographical challenges get difficult, but they also lead to some of the most stimulating stage design I’ve seen in the genre.
Speaking of difficulty, the game isn’t tough, and there is no permanent death. However, success relies heavily on grinding. Throughout 30 hours of playtime, about half of it was spent leveling up my characters whenever I hit a wall. It’s an unfortunate slog that ruins the campaign’s pacing, and you end up replaying levels repeatedly or entering the Item World, which consists of randomly generated dungeons based on your own items (strangely enough). Although there are benefits like increasing item potency, it quickly becomes tedious. For those who don’t mind the grind, Disgaea is known for ludicrously high damage amounts and a level cap that’s over 9000. Alongside a handful of harder postgame areas, the devoted can experience many hours of play, feeling super empowered by the end.
Disgaea 1 Complete includes all content from its previous versions, such as a special mode starring Etna and some unlockable characters. It adds a little meat, but there’s a missed opportunity for brand new bonus content. The package of extras also feels lacking compared to Disgaea 5 Complete, which had plenty of unlockables, gifts, and a “Cheat Shop” that let you break the game. Disgaea 1 understandably doesn’t feature all the bells and whistles from later entries such as the insane tower skills. As such, it’s an easier entry point for newcomers. That said, there’s little excuse to leave out some needed quality-of-life upgrades. If characters are targeting an enemy who died, they end up wasting their turn, and healers don’t receive experience for restoring health. Even the isometric camera angle is frustrating, and foreground elements often block portions of the map from view.
Overall, Disgaea 1 Complete is a fine HD remaster, and the Switch’s portability is a good fit, despite lack of touch screen support. Unique mechanics like tower stacking and Geo Symbols, as well as a comical storyline give the game its own identity. Though, I’d sooner recommend its more complex and feature-filled sequels as the limited bonus content and antiquated systems don’t necessarily justify its high retail price. Yes, it’s lengthy, but much of that time is spent grinding. All things considered, if you enjoy tactical games and can nab Disgaea 1 Complete at a worthwhile price, it’s a fun look at a true cult classic, dood.
Note: A review copy was used for this article.