Monday, August 3, 2020

Disgaea 1 Complete

Disgaea 1 Complete

Japanese videogame developer Nippon Ichi Software first dove into the roleplaying game genre with the Marl Kingdom titles, the first of which Atlus localized as Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure. Given the rather polarized reception for that particular game, N1 wouldn’t reemerge in North American markets until the English release of Makai Senki Disgaea, known initially outside Japan as Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, which would receive several ports to systems such as the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo Switch, the latest of which came to iOS devices as Disgaea 1 Complete, perhaps the definitive version of the game.

From the start, the player can choose to play as Laharl, Prince of the Netherworld, or one of his servants, Etna. The former wakes from a years-long slumber to discover that his father, King Krichevskoy, has died, and the Netherworld has plunged into chaos, with Etna having tried for a long time to wake the Prince, and he seeks to secure his patriarch’s throne from other contenders. In Etna Mode, she accidentally kills Laharl while trying to wake him and thus tries to affirm her succession as Queen of the Netherworld. Both stories are generally enjoyable, humorous, and well-developed, with multiple endings and the potential for variant events, although there are occasional clichés such as amnesia, and some ass-pulls later on. Regardless, the narrative is one of the game’s high points.

Lamentably, the localization effort felt fairly rushed at times, given things such as misspelled words during and after the ending credits, that vocal tracks with English versions in Hour of Darkness regress to their Japanese iterations, and so forth. Granted, most of the dialogue is alright and ably-translated, and the story is far more than coherent. Regardless, the translation team could have definitely put more thought into the English text.

Fortunately, solid gameplay backs the narrative experience, with among its many positive aspects being the total absence of random encounters, and tactical battles only occurring at the player’s will. Party maintenance occurs in Laharl’s palace, where he can walk around, talk to NPCs, check Etna’s secret room to view her diary entries, shop for consumable items and equipment, and, of course, engage in one of many story or side-battles. There are various battlegrounds that unlock as players advance through the central storyline, often one per episode but sometimes more, with cutscenes, mercifully skippable, usually preceding and following fights. The same rules apply in Etna Mode.

Battles occur on 3-D grid-based maps, the player able to withdraw up to ten characters from a base panel and move them. When close to enemies, they can attack with their equipped weapon, which, except in the case of monster-based classes, will cause the character’s proficiency with the armament type gradually increasing and leveling to unlock SP-consuming skills. Important story characters usually have special skills obtained with experience levels, with the termination of enemies resulting in the greatest point gain, although an improvement over prior versions of the first Disgaea is that magic-based classes now obtain experience through the use of healing and stat-boosting spells.

Also helpful for leveling weaker characters is that the player can have them stand on any of the three open sides of an attacker, with a certain chance the adjacent allies will perform a combo, and they share in experience gain, should the combination succeed. Characters also gain Mana that the player can use at the Netherworld Senate to create new characters (with the ally-creators able to learn abilities from their “pupils” in battle when standing alongside them, and this can be particularly useful for allowing classes such as healers to learn offensive spells from attack-magic-based characters for easier leveling).

Different humanoid classes have base incarnations and four or five advanced versions that have higher stats and proficiency with certain weapons. Leveling lower-level classes unlocks higher incarnations, and when the player wants to upgrade, they can “transmigrate” a character to that particular higher-level class, in which case their experience levels revert to zero, and the player gets a certain number of points depending upon how much Mana they have to distribute among initial stats. Monster classes exist as well that have different higher-level reskins, with the player unlocking them through killing the specific monster type in battle, with the more of one particular incarnation killed lowering base Mana cost.

In order for characters to be able to transmigrate, the player needs to get them up to three ranks, which involves the characters on their own fighting an enemy party. This can also unlock higher-Mana-costing proposals that the player can bring before the Netherworld Senate, with the player before a vote able to bribe Senators with items in their battle inventory. After a vote, the Senate either approves or denies a request, and in the latter instance, the player can either go back to Laharl’s castle, with the Mana used lost (and if the player will likely want to, they can reload a prior save before the vote), or attempt to force the proposal through by fighting the dissident Senators.

I was unable to take on the Senate to force through proposals in Laharl Mode, although I was eventually able to do so when I carried my stats to Etna Mode, which requires a tad more grinding. One bright spot that may appeal to those reluctant to try the game is the ability to unlock, through a Senate proposal, Cheat Mode, where the player can adjust the gains for battle rewards such as experience that can make grinding significantly easier (though this still doesn’t make the game necessarily a cakewalk). At the Senate, the player can also make enemies more powerful or weaker (with a fixed base level as to how weak they can be), and increase or decrease the quality of goods at the castle shops.

Buying items from the shops gradually increases their level, also contributing to the availability of higher-level consumables and equipment, and Laharl’s castle also has a hospital where the player can pay to fully restore characters dead or damaged from battle, which in turn occasionally provides players rewards such as powerful equipment. In battle, the player and the enemy have separate turn sessions, so there’s usually no question of who takes their turns when. Another bright spot, which the game’s sequels would implement, is a turbo mode to significantly reduce attack and ability animations, which in my experience shaved off well over a hundred hours of superfluous playtime to get through both quests.

If one of the player’s characters loses all HP, they disappear from the battlefield, with no chance to revive them except back in Laharl’s castle in between battles, and the number of units the player can have on the battleground consequentially decreases by one, with a Game Over and a trip back to Laharl’s castle the result of losing ten allies, with no experience in the battle preserved, an issue prevalent in most Japanese strategy RPGs. Thus, grinding is admittedly necessary to keep up with the enemy, and luckily, there are plenty of stages that make for good leveling grounds, namely those with Geo Panel tiles offering multiplied experience points.

On that point, many maps have colored Geo Panels with Geo Crystals providing various effects such as increased experience for enemies killed on the tiles, heightened attack or defense power for either the player’s characters and the enemy, or just the latter in some cases, adding a certain degree of strategy at times. The player’s units can also lift allies or enemies and toss them across the battlefield, with throwing one enemy onto another creating a new enemy with heightened levels and stats. The player can further destroy Geo Crystals of a color different from that on the tiles they’re sitting upon, which can potentially start a chain reaction with damaging color changes that increases the bonus gauge level.

One particular character class can alter the Geo Panel and Crystal makeup on the battlefield one time per map, which can definitely be useful in case the player falls short in increasing a bonus level a certain amount and they need an extra boost. Sparking chain reactions is especially useful in acquiring rare items in the Item World, where the player can delve into an item, with higher-level enemies and rewards the higher the floor number, players able to skip levels entirely via the portal to the next level or kill all enemies to acquire a floor’s prizes. The Item World can definitely be a good grinding locale, since a special consumable, Mr. Gency’s Exit, safeguards against wasted playtime there.

Ultimately, the game mechanics definitely serve the game well and are sure to please aficionados of the strategy RPG subgenre, although there are a few issues aside from the grinding such as the pickiness at points of elevation restrictions when executing certain skills, the lack of a forecast of how effective an attack will be before using it, the all-or-nothing reward mechanics of standard battle maps outside the Item World, and the gross unpredictability of the auto-battle mode. Regardless, I can say that despite not caring much for tactical RPGs, I oftentimes found the original Disgaea a joy to experience.

The rerelease is like prior incarnations linear, so there’s no getting lost or spending hours finding out how to advance. The menus are fairly easy to use as well, although given the potential for a large playable cast, auto-equip and equip-best commands would have been welcome, and there are other issues such as how the game only shows increased or decreased stats while changing equipment rather than old stats alongside new stats, not to mention the lack of a suspend save in areas such as story battles or the Item World. Overall, interaction isn’t game-breaking, but could have certainly been better.

Perhaps the best aspect of the original Disgaea is its aurals, mainly Nippon Ichi composer Tenpei Sato’s soundtrack, with the central series theme bringing to mind John Williams’ score to the Wizarding World franchise, and plenty of other catchy tunes such as the different castle themes for Laharl and Etna Mode. Other tracks such as Captain Gordon’s motif definitely evoke his disposition as a beloved superhero, and there are various vocal pieces throughout the game. The player also has a choice between English and Japanese voices, the former sounding good and fitting the comical nature of the game, although there are occasional weak performances. Regardless, the first game is an aural delight.

Although the developers “touched-up” the graphics of to be more artistically in line with the game’s successors, the results are mixed. For, most character sprites were replaced, and while in Hour and Afternoon of Darkness the main ones like Laharl faced eight directions, in Complete they only face diagonally. There are also inconsistences such as most winged characters not having visible wings with regards to their sprites, and the environments have blurry, sometimes pixilated texturing. The game certainly is far from an eyesore, but the touchups could have been far better.

Finally, given the turbo mode, playing through both storylines of the rerelease takes significantly shorter, a little over to days’ total, with a surprisingly-high amount of lasting appeal due to things such as being able to grind thousands of experience levels, the Item World, side content such as extra maps, in-game compendia with percentage-complete indicators, storyline variations, and alternate endings.

Overall, Disgaea 1 Complete for iOS devices is undoubtedly the definitive version, given the touch-ups to the game mechanics like the turbo mode and different means of acquiring experience for certain character classes, the well-developed storyline, the excellent aurals, and endless lasting appeal. Granted, it does have issues regarding the potential for its admittedly-dense mechanics to off-put some, the rushed translation, and the lackluster graphics. Despite its issues, those who truly enjoy strategy RPGs will likely appreciate the deep, engrossing mechanics, with Nippon Ichi proving itself to be among the prime producers of tactics games.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy digitally downloaded by the reviewer and played on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil.

The Good:
+Deep, engrossing mechanics.
+Funny, developed story.
+Excellent soundtrack and voicework.
+Plenty reasons to come back for more.

The Bad:
-Mechanics may be too dense for some.
-Control can be finnicky.
-Inconsistent translation quality.
-Visuals haven’t aged well.

The Bottom Line:
Sure to please strategy RPG aficionados.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: iOS
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 8.0/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 2+ Days

Overall: 7.5/10

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