"Disgaea” is a tactical RPG in which you play as the new overlord of the netherworld, Laharl, and his army as they go about their business.
The phrase “tactical RPG” is composed of two words. Never have I been more aware of this than now, and it’s all thanks to “Disgaea.”
Tactical RPGs tend to owe their inspiration to “Fire Emblem,” “Tactics Ogre” or “X-COM” — games that lean heavily on the “tactical” aspect, emphasizing what are essentially more complicated chess puzzles with character-building elements. The special quality of this school of tactics games lies in using traits of RPGs and permanent character death to give weight to strategic decisions — if Millicent the Marksman dies, we never see the end of their story, and all our progress in improving them is lost, so where we move them on the board now could affect gameplay up until the final stage.
“Disgaea,” on the other hand, fills an intriguing niche by rejecting this focus on consequence and long-term planning entirely. Tactical prowess is not the focus as much as raw power is — many of the boss battles will easily wipe out an under-leveled party almost regardless of approach, and the item world (itself a can of worms) generates levels literally at random. Deaths are inconsequential with the exceptions of ally kills, which only slightly change the ending.
The main cast is slowly introduced throughout the game with no recruitable enemy characters, so the player has to develop their units through the character creator and constantly optimize them through level-grinding and buying/improving equipment. Almost every aspect of gameplay can be controlled through the bizarre voting minigame that is the Dark Assembly — practically the polar opposite of the controlled challenges and branching of the “Fire Emblem” games.
As much as it wore on me throughout its 50-hour runtime, “Disgaea” has clear appeal: It’s incredibly free-form, with an absurd scope (24 worlds with an average of four maps apiece if we include the bonus stages unlockable through Dark Assembly bills and don’t count the item world stages, and that’s just scratching the surface of what’s actually there considering the multiple campaigns and new game plus runs), a deep character improvement system and dozens of bombastic attack animations to make decimating enemies that once kicked your teeth in all the more cathartic. It’s far more “RPG” than “tactical,” and that ends up working in a strange sort of way, whether you play games casually or obsessively; the game remains accessible, but can become as challenging as you want it to be.
As cringe-inducing as its plot is and as much of a slog as it can turn into (whole worlds are essentially overlong joke episodes), “Disgaea” is still an achievement.
Its soundtrack and visuals have an immutable flair, its wry sense of humor is so omnipresent that it reaches the item descriptions, and the variety of unlockable secrets, challenges and bonuses it offers gives it ridiculous replay value. I wouldn’t recommend playing through “Disgaea” in one contiguous span, but rather coming back to it every now and then and getting a little further each time, especially since the road to defeating the final boss requires a ludicrous amount of preparation (the item worlds are your friends here — it took me eight hours to get enough of a power boost). It may sound cliche, but outside of other Nippon Ichi projects, there simply isn’t anything quite like “Disgaea.”
The fact that there exists a game in which a gunman I named Mister No-Scleras can annihilate one of the Power Rangers by throwing an exploding demonic penguin at him — said penguin, of course, being named Toucan Sam — is something that makes me very, very happy, however long it might have taken me to get there. Just as it was marketed, the true selling point of “Disgaea” is its sheer campy audacity. Rest assured that you’re getting your money’s worth with “Disgaea,” especially in the later versions with quality-of-life improvements. Just remember to take a break every now and again.
Gaget is a student in Fairbanks public schools, and has developed a number of free games. He is a neutral game reviewer, and played through the PC version of “Disgaea” for this review.
IF YOU PLAY
Platform: PS2, PSP, DS, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, iOS, Android
Internet Usage (accounts for download size): 2 GB
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: 9/27/03 (PS2), 2/24/16 (PC)
Genre (if applicable): Tactical Role-Playing Game
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software