++Review: Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness

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Womp, womp!

Disgaea is an odd bird. Reviewing it is a lot like flipping a switch. You either hate it, and it literally has nothing for you; or you love it, and it does everything you want it to, and well. On a scale of one to ten, it’s either a one, or a ten. There is no in between. This means you can really only compare it against its predecessors (including other NIS games in the same vein, such as La Pucelle Tactics and Phantom Brave). Most times, games in this series innovate in the way of additional mechanics that build off of the previous entry, but largely tend not to stray too far from the established formula.

I suppose, in this way, Disgaea fans are a lot like comic book fans. They want new stories, new situations, and newer characters; but none of these are given much wiggle-room with regard to previously established canon (don’t argue, I know what I’m talking about… just go read the comments section of any Marvel movie announcement trailer on YouTube). The same is true for gameplay mechanics. The introduction of new play elements are welcome, so long as the geo-nodes, lift/throw, the item world, and Dark Assembly all remain intact. It’s a good thing, then, that NIS recognizes this.

I find myself in the precarious position of trying to straddle the line between switch-flipper, and proper video game reviewer. I’ll admit, I don’t ever buy in, whole-hog, to the Disgaea series, as some of the more difficult bosses require an incredible time investment that I simply don’t have the patience for; but I can absolutely appreciate the rock-solid Strategy RPG that is at its foundation, as well as the flawlessly localized humor.

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Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness (PS3)
Developer: NIS America
Publisher: NIS America
Release: 10/08/2013
MSRP: $49.99
Words: James Bacon

I have to be honest with everyone, right out of the gate. I didn’t finish the game before reviewing it… that is to say, I haven’t done EVERYTHING, but I have resolved the main plot. I know this is considered sacrilege in certain circles, but anyone familiar with the series will know that it’s virtually impossible to ‘finish’ a Disgaea game without a sizable time investment, and unfortunately, my review schedule didn’t allow for that. Couple that with the fact that Disgaea has always been about its strong humor and equally tight-yet-simple gameplay, and I can say with confidence that following the main story to its conclusion gave me ample time to wrap my head around both of those. Though, woefully, I have yet to really complete it (powering all of my items to max level, all of my characters to max level, defeating optional bosses, etc.), rest assured, this review is very fair. This game has been worth my time from the word ‘go.’

Also, thankfully, there’s not much to say about D2 that hasn’t already been said about previous games in the series. All of the familiar systems are here, from the battle mechanics, to the geo-nodes, to the item world, and beyond. They’re exactly as you remember them, and just as satisfying.

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The game begins with Laharl, Etna, and Flonne devising a way in which Laharl, the self proclaimed Overlord of the Netherworld, can make his loyal subjects aware that he is, in fact, the new Overlord, by right of strength, and because he’s the son of the previous Overlord, Krechevskoy… who still isn’t Russian. Initially, they decide on statues in his likeness placed everywhere (everywhere…) are the best way to make a statement, but once set, it attracts the attentions of one of Krechevskoy’s recently-out-of-work retainers… who immediately sets to destroying them. You see, he refuses to believe that Laharl has ‘what it takes’ to be an Overlord, and he can’t fill the possition as it calls for more than strength and a birthright claim. After giving him the what for with the business end of his sword, Laharl and his entourage retire to the castle where they discover Laharl’s sister Sicily… an angel. She contents Laharl’s rule, puts her hat into the ring for Overlordship, and promptly disappears. It is also revealed to the us the audience, but not the cast of characters, that something stinks in Denmark, when Grosso (said retainer) returns to his cadre, and discovers Celestia (Heaven to the Netherworld’s Hell) is up to something. What happens subsequently is a string of wonderfully irreverent, and hilarious events.

The humor of Disgaea… scratch that. The humor of NIS is on display in spades. Topics range from delusional self-image, to sex appeal, to bed-wetting, to jabs at Japanese pop culture (including Super Sentai, my favorite!), to you-name-it. As it is with all good comedy, nothing is sacred, and the jokes are genuinely funny, even when the topic at hand could be considered sophomoric, or simply downright immature. Other NIS titles have taken themselves a bit more seriously, but Disgaea, especially ‘Hour of Darkness (the original title),’ never has, and it’s always been to great effect. To this day, one of my favorite gags in any video game is the horse wiener level intro from the first game. Not only is it hilarious, but if you have a thief, and pickpocket the zombie, you get an item called ‘Horse Wiener’ that increases your ATK and HIT stats, and is only replaceable by end-game items. This tongue-in-cheekness is honed to a razor’s edge in D2, and shows that you don’t always have to be highbrow to get a laugh.

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The game is absolutely gorgeous. Takehito Harada’s designs make the Netherworld’s denizens pop with high color saturation and clean, bold lines, and after the series made the jump to high resolution last time (Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten), it’s become not only an expectation, but a gloriously welcome boost to the characters and locations. Plopping the original Disgaea ne’er-do-wells into this technological upgrade is a homecoming as much as a send-off. We get to see them crisply, while their story is resolved on current (previous?) hardware… except I’m pretty sure this set of antiheroes have a lot more to offer in possible future antics.

As previously mentioned, the game plays as you remember it. Battles are fought on a grid, and in true turn-based strategy style. Statistics such as ATK (attack) and INT (intelligence) determine battle proficiency, while more esoteric atributes govern party interactions – Likeability determines the frequency with which your characters will use support attacks and protect actions, and each character has an independent Likeability per every other character in your party; mounted skills vary depending upon the monster you’re piggy-backing on, as well as how high your Likeability stat is between the mounted and mounter; Evility, which behave a lot like Pokemon Natures in that they provide a static, passive effect that your character (and also enemies) can take advantage of ranging from global effects, like an increased chance to apply poison debuffs, to individualized effects, like all healing done by your character also increases DEF and RES for several turns.

But all of that is old hat. The major new mechanic in D2, and oh boy is it a doosey, is the Demon Dojo. Here, you select different bonuses your characters receive upon leveling up, and it’s percentage based. That means it is A.) compounded by previous level-ups, and B.) RIDICULOUSLY over-powered later in the game, when your heroes are gaining hundreds of stat points at a time. This allows for an extremely high degree of flexibility while planning your characters’ leveling tracks, but each bonus can only be given to one character at a time. For example, if Flonne is using the +5% SP bonus, no one else can. Different bonuses open up as you progress, and all of them are worthwhile.

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As can be gleaned from the statistic explanations above, hundreds of hours can be invested into this game, making the $49.99 price-point particularly pleasing. Tons of cameo DLC is planned, as is typical with NIS, making the replay value skyrocket. In fact, La Pucelle and Disgaea 2 DLC character DLC has already been officially revealed for the US, while Japanese DLC (and thus potential content for us here in the States) includes characters from Makai Kingdom, Disgaea 3, Disgaea 4, even characters from the unreleased Witch and the 100 Knights!

My last comment, as usual, will be about the sound and music. The tunes you’ll be listening to throughout your playthrough are appropriately themed, exemplifying characters, locations, teams, etc. Etna’ theme sounds like it should, while the Netherworld and Celestia are set to music most appropriate for their theme. Sound effects are decent, and the voice acting is superb. NIS have a stable of long-employed and extremely competent voice over artists who lead the industry in pitch perfect character portrayal.

Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness is typical. Typical battles, with typical mechanics. Typical voice acting, with typical character designs, and typical humor. As this series is typically excellent, you can look forward to playing through the main story, as well as gearing up through the item world, and challenging ridiculously difficult optional bosses for the satisfaction only NIS titles can bring.

Verdict – 8.5 (+Good): After stepping up the visuals in Disgaea 4, and finally bringing the series into the HD era of sprite resolution, it’s a wonderful treat to fall back in with Laharl, Etna, and (my favorite) Flonne (she’s even a Super Sentai fan!) for an Underworld romp that harkens back to the original PS2 release. The plot not only pushes these characters forward, but simultaneously helps you recall past exploits by mirroring (in part) the trio’s previous adventures. Everything you’d come to expect from a Disgaea title is exactly where it should be, and new systems additions (like the Monster Dojo) are right at home. Like every other entry in the series, if you don’t like it, you still won’t, but if you do like it, you’ll love D2.