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Disgaea: Hour of Darkness PlayStation 2

Published by KOEI Co. Ltd
Developed by
NIPPON ICHI SOFTWARE INC.
Released - Out Now
Price : £39.99

All too often these days games arrive on a tidal wave of hype only to be found wanting when they are released. Occasionally though a real gem, that is worth the price of the console just to play the game, sneaks onto the game store shelves with little fuss. If you're a fan of strategy RPG games (or tactical games as they are sometimes known) you'll already know about Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. The game has been a huge success in both Japan and the US and on the 28th May it arrived here in the UK. If you were impressed by the original Final Fantasy Tactics then be prepared to be completely amazed by Disgaea: Hour of Darkness as it has to be one of the finest strategy RPG games ever created.

The game is set in the Netherworld, a dark and evil place filled with demons, and the story begins two years after the death of King Krichevskoy, the ruler of the Netherworld. Whilst the King passed away, his son and heir to the throne, Prince Laharl, was asleep and only now, two years after the King's death has he awoken. As you can imagine with there being no one to immediately succeed the King, because of Laharl's exceedingly long snooze, many have had designs on the throne and Laharl awakens to find the kingdom in disarray and filled with enemies who have designs on the throne. With only his trusty sidekick, Etna, and a few other poorly skilled allies, Laharl must bring order to the Netherworld and claim the throne that is rightfully his.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness will be quite unlike anything else you've ever played. At it's heart it's a brilliant turn-based tactical strategy game but whilst these games are usually dry, occasionally dull affairs, Disgaea has so much charm and humour that it will appeal to those who are usually put off by games in this genre. It's makes every attempt to brighten up what is usually a rather dry genre. When purchasing weapons for instance you get a brief description of that weapon. For the Common Bow the description says that it's been 'made during an arts & crafts class' and for the Iron Lance it says that it's 'an average spear, popular among housewives.' These aren't really the kind of comments you'd expect to find in such an in depth game. 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. Some of the conversations are also rather comical. Such is the appeal of the game that even my children have become interested.

From looking at the screenshots you'd be forgiven for thinking the game is a clone of Final Fantasy Tactics but whilst initial impressions are that it's a similar game only a short play will make it quite clear that Disgaea is so much more. 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 enjoyed Final Fantasy Tactics or more recently Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (or any other game of this nature) then you'll be completely bowled over with the battles in Disgaea 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 an attack 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 colour Geo Panels that will 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 a lot 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 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 Assemblies 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 is mundane and even the item leveling 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) 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 as you can't return to the castle. Bearing this in mind you'll want a strong bunch of units to attempt leveling up an item.

You may have taken a look at the screenshots and thought that the game was fairly simplistic for a PlayStation 2 game. Whilst to a certain degree this is correct, there are plenty of great graphical effects in the game to easily compensate for it's initial simplistic appeal. The game is played from the classic isometric viewpoint and once again it works well in a tactical strategy game. The camera can be rotated in 90 degree increments and you can also zoom out if you need to. The only complaint I would make, and it is a small complaint, is that it can be awkward moving the cursor around on levels where there is a lot of height variation. The special magic attack effects are simply stunning and easily some of the most impressive in a game of this nature. Some of the magnificent combo attacks are also a sight to behold. What I really appreciated though was the pace of these special and combo attacks. Unlike some of the Final Fantasy games where you're sitting there for several minutes while the animations are carried out, Disgaea keeps everything fairly short and snappy and never fails to hold your interest. There aren't any cutscenes in the game as such and you'll have some great anime still images with the text displayed below them instead which works really well.

It would have been truly criminal if one of the greatest PlayStation 2 titles ever created had not been deaf gamer friendly but thankfully you have nothing to worry about with Disgaea. Virtually all dialogue in the game appears in text with the only exception being the comments that your characters will occasionally make during a battle. The conversations that take place outside of battle are all fully subtitled and you have to press the X button to move the conversations on. What is impressive with Disgaea though is how it makes every attempt to explain how to do things. Everything in the game has tutorial sections that can be accessed whenever you need them and these are all in text. The game manual maybe fairly short but it's fairly comprehensive and explains the various aspects of the gameplay.

To be completely honest we could go on about how good Disgaea: The Hour of Darkness is for days. It's not often that a game impresses us with its sheer playability and charm but that's exactly what Disgaea has done. It's one of those rare games that has the potential to lure gamers who wouldn't normally look at a strategy RPG game as well as delight those who've been fans of the genre for years. The game isn't perfect, the AI isn't as sharp as it could be in certain situations, but it's probably as near as you're going to get in the strategy RPG genre. Whilst reading up on Disgaea, I was very please to find that the developers have created a new game called La Pucelle Tactics which also looks very promising. Let's hope that this game also makes it to the UK because we are going to need something wonderful with which to follow Disgaea: Hour of Darkness.

Overall Game Rating: 9.5/10
What a game! Those of you who have been waiting for a game to surpass Final Fantasy Tactics, and those of you who enjoy strategy RPG games in general, should definitely rush out and pick up Disgaea: Hour of Darkness because there isn't any game out there quite like it. Even if you aren't usually into games from this genre I would give it a go because what we have here is one of the finest games you can buy for the PlayStation 2.

Deaf Gamers comment:
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is absolutely fine for deaf gamers.