Welcome to the world of Disgaea; where demons reign supreme and penguins explode.
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (IGN’s rating: 9.4/10)
Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten (IGN’s rating: 8.5/10)
If you’ve ever planned on picking up any of the four main Disgaea games, let me be the first to prepare you for what you would be in for. Disgaea is a charming little series created by Nippon Ichi with an essence all its own; each game plays out the way your typical Japanese Anime does. There are individual “episodes” to complete, and, before and after each one, many cutscenes ensue in which the characters exchange comedic dialogue (usually breaking the fourth wall in the process). Every Disgaea story is different — the sequels do not continue the storyline of the game preceeding it. This makes it possible for you to pick up any one of them and play it as if it were its own stand-alone.
The battle system is very Final Fantasy Tactics-esque, but there are a few unique qualities Disgaea posesses that make it stand out.
The first main feature that comes to mind is how you are completely capable of raising the levels and stats of your characters to ridiculous heights — like, I’m talking in the hundreds of thousands here. If you’ve ever wanted to just flat-out dominate enemies, this would be an excellent game to satisfy your thirst. Each title also offers hundreds of hours of gameplay, as well as the ability to individually create members of your team; you can choose from many unlockable classes — such as ronins, healers, warriors, androids, and beastmasters — and if you defeat enough monsters, you can even recruit some of them for yourself. Weapon assignments are up to you, though the game does explain which weapon each class learns the quickest. For example, the healer is best with her magic and would probably benefit if you focused on solely that, but if you want her to be more offensive, you can give her an axe and she will learn those skills instead. Of course, nothing says you can’t allow her to learn magic and give her an axe so you can kick ass with a crazy healer/killer hybrid; it’s entirely up to you.
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness was the game that started it all. It was released in August of 2003 on the PS2 and truly set the precedent for future Nippon Ichi titles. We, the players, were given access to the Netherworld and introduced to the Overlord’s infamous son, young Laharl; a comedic, malevolent boy whose only weakness is scantily-clad women. He has just awakened from a two-year coma to the news his father is deceased and the ever-so-shocking realization that, in Prince Laharl’s absence, there are demons lining up everywhere to claim the Overlord’s throne for themselves. Laharl is thrilled to fight each and every one of them so that he may prove his worth and build a reputation as official Overlord, but he soon finds himself involved in a much bigger issue regarding the fate of not only the Netherworld, but the human world and Celestia (the realm of angels) as well.
The first sequel, Cursed Memories, brought us up to the human world and gave us a predictable storyline with your stereotypical hero, and the third game in the series, Absence of Justice, is not even worth mentioning. But the FOURTH Disgaea, the final game in the franchise (dubbed A Promise Unforgotten), blew the other three games right out of the water.
When A Promise Unforgotten was first announced, I was hesitant on playing, let alone purchasing it, especially after I read a few descriptions on the internet that defined the two main characters as a vampire and werewolf. I didn’t want to believe Nippon Ichi was trying to jump on the vampire/werewolf bandwagon that seemed to suddenly be popping up everywhere. It was kind of a last-minute decision to reserve myself a copy, and the entire reason I even did it was so I had something to do in the evenings. I ultimately found, however, that I was extremely pleased and overall hooked within the first two hours of gameplay.
This time, we are introduced to a vampire named Valvatorez. Those who know of him recall his reputation as a relentless tyrant; but he has long since left that life behind. His memories reveal throughout the game that he has forbidden himself from ever drinking blood again; the reason being he had promised a young woman (named Artina) that he would not drink anyone’s blood until he was able to scare her. She died before he was able to fulfill his promise, and the one thing that Valvatorez values above all else is the fact that a promise should never be broken. By refusing to quench his thirst for blood, his powers become weak and he is demoted to one of the lowest positions in the Netherworld. One day, Valvatorez catches wind of the Netherworld’s corrupt government’s future plans, and suddenly is inspired to rise up and challenge the president’s integrity. Along the way, he meets many others who wish to confront the president for their own personal reasons, one of which is an angel who we ultimately discover is actually Artina.
It is extremely rare for me to say a sequel is better than the game that started the franchise, but A Promise Unforgotten is hands-down my favorite installment of Disgaea. It was released on the PS3 just last year, and the graphics — after having been virtually untouched since the very first Disgaea — had definately been updated; each sprite was beautifully rendered in HD and the settings were insanely clear and colorful. The soundtrack, having stayed true to the same styling as the previous Disgaea games, was catchy and fitting to each individual situation, and I was elated when I heard the voice actors. I felt that out of all four games, this cast did the best job capturing the perfect amount of emotion and personality without going too far over the edge.
The storyline was fantastic as well; a little more grown-up than the previous installments. As I mentioned earlier, Valvatorez is the leader of a minor uprising against the corrupt government. With A Promise Unforgotten’s characters on a journey for social reform, it’s safe to say it is appealing to a slightly older audience in a way the other three aren’t. The first three Disgaea games have plotlines where little thought is required when running through them; essentially, there is a sort of innocence about them and the way they present themselves. A Promise Unforgotten delves you deeper into a world where those in power are malfeasant and it’s up to the little guy to make things right. Of course, there is the side-plot regarding Valvatorez and his life-changing promise, but let me tell you now that though you may be thinking “Hey, Artina is in our party, Valvatorez will fulfill his promise and we can see Super-Tyrant-Vampire in action!”, that doesn’t happen. Probably the one disappointment of this game is though Valvatorez has every opportunity to send Artina to the depths of fear (I was thinking by bringing Valvatorez to the brink of death, Artina would be frightened of losing him, the promise would be fulfilled, and we’d go forth to the final battle with a badass tyrant in our party), it does not happen. But literally, that is the one and only disappointment in this game.
Though A Promise Unforgotten was a better version of everything I loved about Hour of Darkness, I will still acknowledge that Hour of Darkness was the first Nippon Ichi title that captured my heart. I didn’t even think anything was missing from it until the final installment came out; then I thought, “Ohhh, if only the first game was like this!” Regardless of how much adoration I harbor for A Promise Unforgotten, I’ll still pick up that captivating little PS2 game that started it all and watch Laharl slaughter demons with fondness, and I’ll even save right before the pivotal ending-changing moment occurs so I can witness each different outcome again. I’ll admit to loving them both, but Disgaea 4 has just a little bit more of my heart for obvious reasons.
Play them both and see for yourself whether you agree the fourth game is better or feel the first one simply cannot be beat. Either way, they are both equally worthy of many, many playthroughs.