Today we return to the Disgaea retrospective series. But didn’t I promise to start getting into specific games by now? Why am I hanging around a hot springs instead like a lazy asshole, writing an entirely different kind of post?
It’s because I felt I should more deeply explore some of the gameplay elements that make the series so uniquely appealing to obsessive-compulsives like me, which involves looking into the many distracting extra features of Disgaea. It also seems appropriate to explore these before getting more in-depth with the story and character elements and how they mesh with gameplay and game structure. I encourage the reader to think of this as less of a delay and more of a bonus, anyway, since this is all extra material. But just like the extra material in the Disgaea games, it’s all good fun. (Or, well, you’ll be the judge of that instead. Both in terms of how much fun these games seem to you and how good or bad my writing is. I hope you like way too many parentheticals containing stupid, rambling tangents. But if you didn’t, I’m sure you’d have stopped reading this site a long time ago.)
Once again, we start at the beginning with Disgaea 1, here represented in its remastered Disgaea 1 Complete PS4 version as before. Even in its original form, the first Disgaea had more to offer than its story-based maps. We’ve already briefly been over the potentially infinite Item World grind, which opens up to the player shortly after the game begins. It’s not quite right to call the Item World optional, though; the game does require you to complete at least ten levels in one item to progress past a certain point. This is simple to do, but it also acts as a hook to reel the player into more and more Item World adventures.
This is the Item World in its most basic form of the series, but it still contains those essential elements that make it fun to play. The size, enemy layout, and geography of these maps are pretty widely variable, sometimes defying gravity and logic, so you really don’t know what you’ll get next as you clear each one.
While this randomization makes the Item World more interesting and dynamic, I found the real addictive hook in the maps’ Geo Panel puzzles. These are colored panels on the game board that can create various effects, both good and bad, on any unit standing on them depending upon the colored pyramid-shaped Geo Symbol controlling them. On the story maps, these Geo Panels and Symbols are often set up specifically to give the player a challenge — for example, by making it impossible to enter a certain key area without running through a gauntlet of enemies, or by pumping up the enemies’ attack and defense in one area of the map. In the Item World, by contrast, the Geo Panels and Symbols are placed randomly just like the enemies are. This can make some maps very difficult to quickly complete through clearing out all the enemy units, especially if that damn Invincibility effect is active.
These effects and panels can also provide the player with fabulous prizes, however. When a Geo Symbol is destroyed on a Geo Panel of a different color than the Symbol, it will set off a chain reaction, changing each Panel of that color to the destroyed Symbol’s color. This reaction also destroys every other Symbol in the affected area, which causes the reaction to repeat in the color of each destroyed Symbol. The mechanics of it can be a bit confusing depending upon the layout of the map, but setting off a long chain of reactions is worth it because it means your bonus gauge shoots up, getting you money, EXP, and potentially rare items if you clear the map. I find it’s also extremely satisfying to score that massive reaction. Maybe it’s all the changing colors and sounds and lights going off triggering something in that old lizard part of my brain, the way a slot machine works.
If none of the above Item World stuff interests you, though, it’s no problem: the game has more to offer, most of it waiting to be unlocked in the Dark Assembly. Laharl might call himself the Overlord of the Netherworld, but his power isn’t absolute. He still has to deal with this parliament of demons and monsters to do things like stock the stores with higher-quality items. And if you want Laharl to invade Earth or take on any of the post-game bosses, you have to get the Dark Assembly’s approval by sponsoring a bill in the Assembly to put up to a vote. The many post-game and extra maps that can be unlocked through the Dark Assembly give the player a reason to spend time powerleveling Laharl and company — the most powerful boss in the game sits at level 6,000.
Sometimes the Assembly passes these bills easily, with little or no opposition. However, bills that become available later in the game often meet with stiff resistance. It costs mana to present a bill to the Assembly, mana that can typically only be gained through fighting and killing enemies, and if a bill is voted down that mana is lost (unless you cheat by doing a lot of saving and resetting, of course.) So what’s to be done? You can accept your defeat and give up — mana is easily recovered through combat, so it’s no big deal to lose a bit. You can also present the bill again and try to butter up the senators by bribing them with items out of your inventory. Or you can bend the Assembly to your will by beating them into submission in a battle upon the failure of the bill. The Dark Assembly itself can therefore become a boss if the player really wants to make it one.
So Disgaea 1 is already pretty loaded up with content to distract you from the main story for a while. However, later games in the series continued to pile more features on, eventually resulting 12 years later in the massive clusterfuck that is Disgaea 5.
Well, I just called Disgaea 5 a clusterfuck, but I meant that in an entirely positive way. I really like the latest entry in the Disgaea series, but there’s no denying the fact that it has a lot of extra features crammed into it, enough to distract you from the main story so much you might damn near forget the game had a main story to begin with.
Firstly, there’s the Item World, back and full of extra features: insanely difficult optional boss fights, chances to level the item more quickly by destroying or lifting certain objects on the map before clearing it, and bonus rooms between Item World stages that offer all kinds of crazy shit for lack of a better term. Even more optional boss fights, secret shops, hospitals, frustratingly difficult jumping puzzle mazes filled with treasure chests, a room full of cloned versions of your own units that you can fight, another room filled to the brim with enemy Prinnies, the hot springs pictured at the top of the page, and more. And of course the same Geo Effect system that was introduced in Disgaea 1. The Item World of Disgaea 5 is practically a separate game in itself.
A few of the Item World bonus rooms even offer the player a chance to gamble. The hot springs room, for example, lets you soak in the springs, resulting in a number of either positive or negative outcomes leading into the next room: you might start with a full bonus gauge, or you might start with restored or drained HP and SP. Far more potentially infuriating, however, is the fortune-telling room. This is a wooden ship with a foxy lady fortune teller (this isn’t me just referencing Jimi Hendrix for no reason — she’s a literal fox woman, one of the Nine-Tails monster-type demons you can recruit) who can give you anything from a great fortune to a lousy fortune, affecting the level of the item accordingly. So if you get the worst fortune, the item you’re working on can lose something like five levels, which may well be the number of levels you had to work up through to get to the fucking fortune teller in the first place.* There’s nothing quite so infuriating, at least when you’re playing through the Item World.
But the new Item World is only the beginning. Disgaea 5 both carries over features from previous sequels to the original and adds its own. Among those carried over are the request board, where you can take on jobs both easy and difficult for rewards of money, equipment, and items.
There’s also Chara World, a board game-style challenge playable by any single unit in your company that includes still more fabulous prizes and the opportunity for greater growth if the unit reaches the end goal in time. And the research center, where you can send squads of your units to distant planets to plunder them, capture residents as POWs, and unlock yet more boss fights. And when you get your POWs from these distant planets, what else should you do but interrogate them? The game thoughtfully provides an Interrogation Room option to turn enemy demons over to your side through coercion.
There are several other features in the game to sidetrack you, to the point that the hub world of Disgaea 5 feels more like a casino than the wartime base of operations it actually is. You and your demonic friends can put the war they’re fighting on hold for an eternity if you feel like it and go on a vacation of gambling, gaming, and rampaging.
And who are you taking along on your vacation? Just about whoever you feel like. Disgaea 1 was hardly lacking in units to recruit, but newer games added even more options.
I usually get a lot of use out of the story character units in these games, since some of them are naturally the first you use in battle and have some good unique skills. However, it’s a bit hard to get by just using them. Far from impossible, certainly, but the games offer a wide variety of generic units ordered by class that can be recruited early on. There are a whole lot of them, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, weapon proficiencies, growth stats, and special skills. Each class also has up to five advanced unit types with higher starting stats and better proficiencies and resistances that unlock as you level the more basic units. And the same is true of just about every monster unit you’ll encounter as an enemy — they can pretty much all be recruited as well, the only real differences being that they can only equip their own special sets of monster weapons and can’t pick up and throw other units.
So you can pretty much throw together any composition of units you like. If you want to put a sensibly balanced force into the field with tanky, close-combat units in the front and long-range attackers and mages in the back lines, you can do that. If you want to raise a brigade exclusively made of ultra-powerful mages who can bomb the shit out of everything on the map before the enemies get within ten panels of them, you can do that. If you want to give those mages swords, axes, and spears instead and command them to charge the enemy head on, the game won’t stop you from trying out such a foolish strategy. And if you want to field an army made entirely of pole-dancing succubi like the one above — that might take a bit longer, but it’s potentially feasible, and I salute you if that’s your plan.
Again, Disgaea 5 takes all this one step further. Not only can you recruit dozens upon dozens of humanoid and monster characters, but the game lets you choose from three different personalities for each, which come along with different voice samples during battle and unique responses when you talk to them while roaming around the central hub world.
It could perhaps be argued that all these extra features and games-within-games are a bit too much content shoved into a single game, especially considering just how much they can distract from the main story missions. There are a bunch of additional elements here I didn’t even bring up, not to mention all the extras also present in Disgaea 2, 3, and 4. There are some Item World events that I’m sure I haven’t seen yet, and I know for a fact there are post-game bosses in some of the Disgaea titles that I’ve never even tried to take on.
I don’t see any of that as a problem, however. How can I complain about extra content for the same price? And it is extra, after all: aside from one required dive into the Item World and the completion of a couple of request board missions, it’s usually entirely optional. You’re free to stick to the story maps using a basic setup of units and play the game straight through. But the option to take an extended Netherworld vacation is always there waiting for you if you so desire. Just try not to indulge too much when you do.
Well, that was certainly a huge god damn mess, looking back at what I just wrote. I wonder if anyone can follow it. I’m not sure I can myself. But maybe that’s appropriate considering the subject matter. Maybe there’s no other way to describe the strange chaos of the world of Disgaea than to do so chaotically yourself.
I hope that absolves me of all the writing sins I committed above. The next post in this series will be an in-depth look into one of the Disgaea games, and I actually mean it this time. In the meantime, try not to get so hammered you have to sleep on the sidewalk, though if you feel the need to do that, I can’t blame you. 𒀭
* There’s a way to get those levels back almost instantly, but I don’t want to give it away. See if you can find out for yourself.