Deep reads #2.4: The cost of revenge (Disgaea 5)

There are a few reasons why I’m jumping over three very worthy sequels to look at 2015’s Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance for this final Disgaea post. One is that I just really like Disgaea 5. Another is that I’ve played it recently and have it fresh in my mind, avoiding the need to go back and review much of the game’s content to write about it in a meaningful way.

However, the most important reason I decided to pick up D5 for a closer look is its strong contrast with the first game in terms of their characters and stories. Both include a lot of wacky, bizarre humor along with a fair dose of drama. Disgaea 5 turns that contrast between over-the-top humor and drama way up, however. It turns the contrast up so high that some people may accuse it of having a problem with wild and inappropriate tonal shifts.

Yeah, this girl might be wearing goofy-looking bunny ears and a bow tie but this is a serious scene, damn it.

I wouldn’t agree with that. Not so much, anyway. I do think Disgaea 5 lays on the drama thick, much thicker than Disgaea 1 did, and that it swings pretty quickly from light comedy to heavy drama and back. Part of this heavier drama stems from the fact that the villains in this story really are serious villains who do bad things, unlike D1‘s villains who were more malicious, incompetent assholes than actual threats. It can make it difficult to pour wacky comedy into this mix and have it work.

But Disgaea 5 does work. I have one issue with it, especially when I contrast it with Disgaea 1. But we’ll get to that stupid insignificant nitpick soon enough, and it really is insignificant. To the subject at hand now: what the hell is going on in this game?

The story of Disgaea 5 begins in the middle of a war. The opening scene takes place quite literally in the middle of it on a battlefield, where two armies of demons are standing off. If you were new to the series when you picked this game up, the phrase “demon armies fighting a battle” might conjure an image of Lord of the Rings-style masses of scary-looking orcs, but of course these armies are made of the same somewhat cartoony anime-ized units you’ve been able to recruit starting from D1. To add to that disconnect, the demon overlord acting as commander of the attacking army, Seraphina, is a young woman who’s dressed in the exact opposite of what would be appropriate for a battlefield — she rather looks like she’s ready to go out clubbing. She does have a pistol at her side, but that’s the only sign that she’s a combatant, and she doesn’t seem all that willing to do any fighting herself.

Seraphina’s soldiers (Prinnies, those same penguin-looking guys from Disgaea 1) are doing their best to attack the enemy, but they’re losing the fight badly. Just before the other side is about to break through their line and overrun them, however, a mysterious, very edgy-looking stranger shows up out of nowhere and sits down right in the middle of the battlefield. This guy then pulls out a bowl of food and starts eating. Seraphina asks him what he’s thinking having lunch so calmly between two fighting armies. Instead of giving her a straight answer, he finishes his meal and then kills the enemy’s entire company with his powerful techniques. Introducing himself as Killia, the stranger then starts to leave, off to find another battle.

Seraphina is extremely impressed with Killia’s talent at killing (perhaps that’s why he was named Killia?) So when he tries to take off, she holds him at gunpoint and tells him he’s now her servant. So much for doing good deeds for strangers. In his now-exhausted state he can’t resist her, so Killia reluctantly follows Seraphina back to her place, a “pocket Netherworld” that looks a lot like a space station-based combination shopping mall/casino. Seraphina tells Killia to make himself at home. And despite Killia’s eagerness to get away (and his annoyance with Seraphina’s constant insistence that he’s fallen in love with her, because why else would he have saved her life) he does just that, becoming the new general of Seraphina’s forces and letting her take a hands-off management role that suits her character better. Killia, for his part, shocks every other demon he meets with his politeness and his readiness to apologize when he feels he’s wronged or offended someone — a real oddity for a demon it seems, and especially for one so powerful.

Oh yeah, Seraphina also does that weird “oh-hohohoho” anime lady laugh. Get used to that.

It turns out that Killia’s sudden appearance was a very lucky thing. The chief of that enemy army, the self-proclaimed demon emperor Void Dark, is extremely powerful, both in terms of his personal power and the size of his forces. At the opening of Disgaea 5, this Void Dark is in the process of conquering all the various Netherworlds (there are multiple Netherworlds now that the game treats sort of like different planets, a difference from the early titles.) He also has no problem with killing his enemies on the spot, or even with killing his own men if they displease him. “Chief Secretary to Void Dark” may be the most dangerous job in this universe for how often he cycles through them, and I don’t mean they’re just laid off. Captured demon overlords are also at risk, since Void enjoys showing off how powerful he is by fighting them himself.

He seems to genuinely enjoy being an evil asshole. It’s nice to see a guy with such passion for his work.

Seraphina has been doing her best to fight this demonic Genghis Khan vampire-looking guy, but on her own she couldn’t do much. Now with Killia press-ganged into her army, she can effectively fight the jerk and start building a coalition of demon overlords against him. It helps that Killia seems to hate Void Dark for some reason that he won’t talk about. Killia’s hatred for Void Dark comes off as a lot more personal than everyone else’s, in fact, but Void is a bad guy after all, so it’s only natural. And hey, Killia keeps pulling out this flower encased in ice and talking to it in a bitter, remorseful way, referring to someone named “Lieze.” What could that mean? I’m sure it’s not important to the plot at all.

The story now follows Seraphina, Killia and their growing army as they travel around trying to liberate Netherworlds from Void Dark’s massive forces, who call themselves the Lost Army. In the course of freeing these worlds, your party enlists a bunch of other demon overlords. These include Red Magnus, a giant dude who’s extremely hotheaded and quick to jump to conclusions but also loyal to the death, Usalia, the orphaned bunny-eared daughter of the defeated king and queen of a rabbit-populated Netherworld, and Christo, a demon strategist who is suspiciously evasive about his background, claiming to be the overlord of a “certain giant Netherworld” (which the boneheaded Magnus mishears as a Netherworld named “Certain Giant” that must be populated by giants.) Rounding out the main cast is Zeroken, an annoyingly chatty kid who aspires to be a great martial artist and soon latches onto Killia as his “big bro” much to Killia’s irritation.

The crew all together, having a post-battle conference.

As our band of demon allies flies around the universe of Netherworlds, they begin to form a serious resistance to Void Dark’s empire. Void finally takes personal notice of these pests around the start of the mid-game and sends his two top generals, Bloodis and Majorita, to harass them. These two couldn’t look more different. Bloodis is a massively strong guy dressed in a full suit of armor who punches his opponents to death, while Majorita is just a kid, albeit a skilled necromancer who revives the corpses of her enemies to join her army in a horrific process she calls “kill and recycle.” These two pose the most serious threats to our cast of characters throughout most of the game.

Around the middle of the story, most of the characters’ big secrets and motivations for fighting are unfolded. They’re all seeking revenge of some kind: Seraphina for nearly being forced by her father into an arranged marriage with Void Dark because he’s too much of a coward to fight the guy, Magnus for the destruction of his Netherworld by the Lost Army, Usalia for Majorita killing her parents and turning them into enslaved zombie soldiers. Christo’s reasons for fighting are a bit different; there have been plenty of hints dropped by the mid-game that this sophisticated, learned demon overlord is really an angel in disguise pretending to be a demon to carry out surveillance, but he still has a bit of a personal grudge because he was temporarily booted from Celestia by his colleagues on suspicion of being Void’s spy.

Christo, just asking about what the team thinks about angels. He’s not an angel, though. No, just curious, that’s all.

The most serious dramatic material comes out of the story surrounding Zeroken and more critically Killia himself. Both were formerly students of Goldion, a famous warrior and martial artist. Zeroken is a defector from the Lost Army who treated Goldion’s wounds after the martial arts master was captured by Void and became his devoted follower. Killia was more of a formal student — not really a willing one, since he started his studies by getting soundly beaten by Goldion in combat back when Killia was the ruthless overlord of a Netherworld. Killia’s frequent flashbacks show that he really was quite an asshole back then, in contrast to the polite, considerate killing machine he is when we first meet him.

Yeah, that’s a lion tail she’s got too. Her father is full lion-man, so I have to guess this is a trait that passed down genetically.

It turns out that both his current kindness and sense of patience were instilled in him by Goldion and his daughter Liezerota, who more or less became Killia’s family. And then we remember that there’s this “Lieze” who Killia keeps mentioning and thinking about in asides, and it sounds from the context of these like she’s dead and he’s really upset about that. Well wouldn’t you know but Void Dark is the one who killed her. Not only that, but Void was Lieze’s brother and Goldion’s son, and he had a real hatred for this upstart punk Killia when he showed up at their house to study under his father. When Void finally loses his temper and attacks Killia, Lieze is in the way trying to make peace between them and ends up getting killed instead.

So now we’ve got the source of Killia’s hatred for Void — a very personal one. And it’s a strong impulse. Every so often during dialogue, time stops and we see Killia talking to himself in an aside, or rather to another version of himself, who tells Killia to “unleash” him, to stop holding him back. This shadowy version of Killia, apparently a part of his soul left over from when he was a terrible tyrant named Killidia, says a lot of ominous stuff about losing control and killing without restraint. The new, non-tyrannical Killia wants to avoid this because he’s afraid of accidentally hurting or killing his new allies and the residents of innocent worlds. But the impulse still seems to be strong.

As the endgame approaches, each of the characters in our main cast goes through a big self-revelation. Instead of giving in to their bitter feelings and desires for mere revenge, they realize that giving in to those feelings will only lead them to destruction. They instead come to trust in each other and band together as a sort of family. In doing so, the team decides to fight Void Dark not just to carry out their retribution but also to restore peace and begin the rebuilding process. Killia’s revelation is perhaps the most dramatic: in the third or fourth-to-last chapter, he has his final meeting with the “other” Killia, and instead of rejecting him as he has all this time, he accepts that other Killia as part of himself. Because he has now gained the ability to control himself, he can use all the old power he’s been suppressing without going berserk like he does in a couple of earlier chapters, which is nice.

Once all your characters have faced themselves and reached out to the truth all Persona 4 style, it’s time for them to come face to face with Void Dark. The crew have a final confrontation with Bloodis, and just as Killia and Zeroken suspected, he’s really Goldion, brainwashed by his own son to turn evil but brought to his senses by the pair during a previous battle, though he doesn’t tell them this until the very end in order to test their true strength. After their final fight, he concludes that they’re strong enough to defeat his “unworthy son” Void and then falls over dead, having sacrificed himself for just this purpose.

Here, in the game’s final act, we get to the bigger twist: that Liezerota is still alive, magically preserved by her brother Void, who’s been doing all this world-conquering just to suck enough power from them to bring her back to life. Void even sacrifices his remaining general, Majorita, after she’s defeated and left defenseless by the protagonist and company — Majorita, who mistakenly believed that Void was doing all this to create a utopia of peace for all demons under his rule, has her power stolen and is killed by her boss. She may have been powerful, but she wasn’t a very good judge of character.

Just before their final fight. For as much of an insane tyrant and a callous asshole as he is, Void still seems to care about his sister.

When the party breaks through his final defenses, Void is there at the top of his fortress waiting for them. After a typical final boss fight, though, Void asks his old adoptive brother/rival to help his sister before he dies. But of course, it won’t be that easy: there’s one more big fight in which his evil spirit possesses Lieze’s body and she has to be exorcised to get the good ending. And somehow, miraculously, the final absolute ultimate technique that Goldion taught Killia in their final fight works in expelling Void’s spirit from her and restoring Lieze to her normal alive self, just as Killia remembered her. Then the credits roll and there’s a “where are they now?” sequence describing the happy fates of all the rebel army crew before they inevitably get back together a few minutes later for the endless post-game grind.

Disgaea 5 is quite the ride. The main story takes us through a lot of up and downs. There’s death, destruction, and heartbreak, but also newly found friendship and even some love. D5 is pretty open about this part, in fact: the game doesn’t say it outright, but it’s implied that the feelings between Killia and Lieze aren’t just the familial kind of love. And in the good ending, the pair go back to their old home and seem to be about as close to married as most demons probably get, since they don’t seem too concerned with those kinds of legal formalities. This is a bit rough for Seraphina, who has obviously been pining after Killia for most of the game. She accepts the new situation pretty gracefully, though. Even when Lieze comes along with Killia to join the rest of the old rebel army crew in Seraphina’s base in the post-game.

And of course, some of the loose-ish ends left over after the end of the main story get tied up again in post-game story chapters that can be opened through the Dark Assembly, though you may have to beat the legislators up to get them to pass those bills. Fortunately, Disgaea 5 provides a cheat shop full of ways to manipulate your units’ growth and maps specially designed for powerleveling. Put on a podcast or something and get to it for a few hours and you should be okay.

No amount of powerleveling can help defuse this tension, though.

So that’s the story of Disgaea 5, or the bulk of it anyway. I found it hard to write about at first, and there’s still a lot I haven’t covered — each of its six-character central cast has their own side plots and dilemmas to work out. They all do happen to get worked out throughout the main story chapters as they fight alongside each other, contributing to the strong sense of camaraderie they have by the end. And without that, we wouldn’t get that classic tired old “power of friendship defeats evil” ending where Killia receives actual power from his companions he uses to beat the shit out of Void Dark.

I don’t really know how to feel about the ending, actually. On one hand, it all cleans up a little too nicely. It’s really convenient that Void just happened to have been keeping his sister in a perfectly preserved state so he could revive her, and also that Killia just happened to learn a technique from Goldion posing as Bloodis just before his death that could both defeat Void and then exorcise his soul from Lieze’s body without doing any harm to Lieze at all. It’s so damn convenient that it feels a little wrong. To be sure, that’s the best ending — there are less good endings in which Lieze and/or other characters don’t make it out alive.

However, you’re almost guaranteed to get this ending on your first playthrough, even if you have no idea what the necessary conditions for that ending are. Because to get a different, sadder ending, you need to have both 1) killed fifty allies in combat and 2) made the very obviously wrong decision to run away from the final battle against the possessed Lieze. And those probably aren’t conditions you’re going to fulfill by playing normally. Contrast this with Disgaea 1, which shuts you out of the best ending if you’ve so much as killed one ally during your playthrough. Accidentally killing one or two of your own units is surprisingly easy to do during a Disgaea playthrough; allies can easily get mixed up with enemies when you’re trying to wipe a map clean with wide-range attacks. Killing fifty allies, however, isn’t something you do by accident — not unless you play in a very reckless manner. Even then, the game will still let you choose the best ending if you want it. Feels a bit too generous, maybe.

But what the hell. They earned a happy ending, didn’t they?

On the other hand, I’m not sure I care too much. It’s admittedly very nice to not have to worry about avoiding ally kills, which is one of the only truly frustrating aspects of Disgaea 1, one that I’ve already complained about at length. And my first time around, I honestly expected that Lieze would end up dead or incapacitated somehow, so getting her back alive was both a pleasant and a genuine surprise. In any case, not everyone comes out of the story unscathed — Goldion is dead, and so are Usalia’s parents, and as far as I know there’s no way to get any of them back unless there’s some extra DLC or post-game stuff I haven’t seen.

There even might be some sympathy to show to the game’s villains, because they had understandable motives, though motives that made them do unspeakable things. Majorita was a war orphan who believed Void Dark wanted to create a utopia of peace controlled by an iron fist and obeyed him fanatically for that reason. And Void himself really just wanted to revive his sister, which is understandable. Never mind the fact that Lieze is a nice girl who disapproves of the mass murder and tyranny Void has committed for her sake. He didn’t think that far ahead, I guess.

In the end, though, while the villains are completely consumed and finally destroyed by their desires, our heroes manage to master theirs. They start out seeking revenge, but they end up finding each other and fighting for each other and for all their worlds. Even when they realize Christo is an angel, one of their natural enemies as demons, they just kind of pretend not to notice because he’s both an essential part of the crew and a friend.

Christo still wears those fake horns, though. You have to keep up appearances I guess.

This sort of stuff isn’t anything original as far as JRPG plots go, but it is nice to watch our protagonists grow as the story progresses. And it’s pretty heartwarming in parts. I know Disgaea is just supposed to be goofy and irreverent and all that, and it is, but as with Disgaea 1 there’s a bit more to it than some players might expect at first. In fact, the story to Disgaea 5 is really worthy of an old classical opera — it’s got all the necessary drama, conflict, betrayals, a love triangle, a few dirty jokes to mix things up, elaborate costumes, and a pretty operatic-sounding opening theme sung by Killia’s voice actor. If anyone reading this is planning on turning a PS4 strategy RPG into an opera, I think this is the one you should pick. I don’t need any compensation for the idea when it turns into a smash hit and revives the opera scene, though it would be nice.

One of several fights against Majorita. Not sure how you’d stage a scene like this, maybe use some strings to hang her from the ceiling.

Still, for me, the real appeal of Disgaea 5 isn’t so much in the story (I still think Disgaea 1 has the best plot and main cast; you can read all my rambling nonsense about that here) but in just how much entertaining content it throws at you. It provides a truly massive post-game section and a bunch of side features, some of which I got into in part 2 of this series. It also contains a ton of banter between characters from chapter to chapter that you can run through when you’re back at headquarters. Most of these are pretty light and comedic, some taking the form of skits involving the main cast, and they do a great job at breaking up the war drama plot you get when you play through the story maps. Granted, not every joke hits (Seraphina pulling her pistol out and non-lethally shooting Red Magnus and Zeroken for making fun of her gets old after the second or third time, and it happens about twenty million fucking times in this game) but a lot of them do, and even when they don’t, these characters have plenty of charm and chemistry anyway.

This one really takes more explaining than I care to do here

The Disgaea series looks like it might really be finished now, at least in the form we’ve known it. Publisher/developer Nippon Ichi Software is supposedly not doing well financially, Disgaea 5 came out five years ago, and there’s no hint of a Disgaea 6 beyond some talk and the outline of a basic plot. Fans are still holding out hope despite the troubles at NIS, though. I hope it isn’t the case, but at the very least if Disgaea 5 turns out to be the last Disgaea game, it would stand as proof that the series didn’t end because it ran out of creative steam. There are still a lot of great ideas here: fun, interesting characters, new gameplay mechanics, and enough extra content to occupy your time for weeks or months if you’re the addictive type. Considering the times we’re living in as I write this post, an addictive game that keeps you stuck indoors isn’t such a bad thing, is it?

In the spirit of Disgaea, then, I’d like to end this series of posts by throwing out some of the more weird/amusing stuff I came across while playing D5. You can consider this an appendix to this post, or sort of a post-game equivalent to it. A post-post? Never mind, I’ll just get on with it.

You have the option of wandering around Seraphina’s base from Chapter 1 on and talking to its residents in between battles. Some of them are just the generic grunt warriors and other units you recruit, but others are NPCs with set names and personalities who always hang around their same general areas so you can track them down easily. This Prinny is one of my favorites. He’s pretty much a lazy, useless load who wants nothing more than for the war to end so he can get wasted again. If I’m represented by any character in this game, it’s this guy. There’s a reason I use a Prinny as my avatar now after all.

These undead maids are pretty fun too. Not sure where the idea of a zombified maid came from, but they are devoted to their masters and mistresses despite not always being great at doing typical maid things. This particular one is Seraphina’s head maid. At the beginning of the game, she hates Killia because she suspects him of trying to put the moves on her mistress. By the end of the game, however, she seems to be falling in love with Killia herself. Better to just keep well away from her, really. He’s got Lieze anyway (see just below, she’s standing right there overhearing this weird conversation. Maybe that’s what the ! above her head is about.)

If you like demon catgirls better than zombie maids, you can talk to this nekomata, one of the many recruitable units that will be cluttering Seraphina’s pocket Netherworld by the end of the game. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any way to take her up on this offer.

And hey, remember Etna from Disgaea 1? She, Flonne, and Laharl are back and also recruitable through one of the many DLC missions that come free with the Disgaea 5 Complete package, along with Laharl’s little sister Sicily from D1‘s direct sequel. And Etna is just as demanding as ever. Not sure I’d ever want her for a boss.

The Item World in Disgaea 5 is full of strange pocket dimensions to discover. Some are obviously helpful to the player, like hospitals and secret item shops selling rare products. Others are seemingly not helpful at all, like this carrot patch. If you don’t know what to do in a situation like this, you can either leave and continue playing through the Item World or keep talking to one of the NPCs until they get pissed off and start a fight. In this case “eat a carrot” means “let’s fight” I guess, because you end up fighting a squad of rabbit soldiers in this one. You do get a little bonus in your item’s stats for beating them, though.

Here’s another seemingly pointless level in the Item World: a bar. There is a special item you can get here, and of course you can also start a fight if you bother one of the NPCs in here enough. There’s also this succubus patron, but once again, there’s no way to take her up on her offer. Well, the game is rated T after all, so what do you expect.

But really, who needs that succubus when you can just spam Tera Heal? In addition to all its side attractions, Disgaea 5 features a lot of skills for characters to learn. Both generic and unique skills involve animation sequences that you’ll definitely want to turn off after a few battles because they make combat three times longer than it needs to be. However, some of them are really nice. Like the animation for Tera Heal, the most powerful generic healing spell in the game, in which your lucky warrior(s) get a visit from some kind of goddess of healing who patches up their wounds with the power of being huge and almost half-naked. Kind of reminds me of those Great Fairies from the Zelda games, though I like Tera Heal lady a lot better.

Okay, I’ll stop being a pervert for a few minutes and talk about something I like other than fanservice: music. If you talk to this moth guy back at headquarters, you can access a large library of data and info related to the game, including a music room. These have been a standard in Disgaea games for a long time. And this music room is worth visiting, because the soundtrack to D5 is really good. I’ve already posted a link to the game’s OP, but the regular stage and cutscene tracks are great as well, my favorite being the sort of Latin jazz-sounding Night Scoop. Tenpei Sato is an excellent composer, and I’m sorry I haven’t even mentioned his work up until now. Though I have to admit that I got really fucking sick of constantly hearing Moving On play in the background in the pocket Netherworld. It’s a nice, chilled-out relaxing sort of song, but it does get old, and it has vocals that are weirdly out of tune. Thankfully, you can replace it as the base song with any of the other tracks in the library.

Finally, here’s best girl Pleinair, fan favorite and the personal mascot of series character designer/artist Takehito Harada. She shows up in every Disgaea game, though she never has a role in the plot or even very much to say, assuming she says anything at all. She is recruitable, though, and she has some excellent skills. It’s to be expected, since she’s sort of the teacher’s pet (artist’s pet?) of the series.

***

And now my Disgaea post series is finally done, after three months and a lot of words. I hope I’ve done justice to one of my very favorite game series. I’m still not sure I really have as far as Disgaea 5 is concerned, but at some point you just have to publish what you’ve got. You can expect something completely different next time. Until then — I sometimes say “stay safe”, but I really mean it this time. Consider getting one of these Disgaea games and just play through the Item World until life returns to normal. 𒀭

Deep reads #2.3: The power of love (Disgaea 1)

Almost every time I’ve read a review of a game from the Disgaea series on one of the mainstream game review sites, I think the reviewer felt obligated to mention how crazy and over the top the story/characters/humor in the game are, either at or near the beginning of the review. As if to say “yeah, I know these ultra-powerful demons and angels look cartoonish and silly and all, I know” and almost apologizing for that before going on to mainly praise the game.  This doesn’t seem too different from the “guilty pleasure” disclaimers you’ll see people post at the beginning of reviews for works that are traditionally considered embarrassing to like too much.  I know I’ve seen people attach similar disclaimers to reviews of otherwise critically acclaimed movies, stuff put out by Marvel and the like.  Hell, I know for a fact I’ve done this myself with a few games right here on this site.

So you’d be justified in calling me a hypocrite if I say that I don’t like seeing these disclaimers, simply upon the principle that if you like something, you should like it without shame (that’s a belief it took me a while to finally reach, but I have.)1  That’s especially true of the Disgaea series for me.  Because under all the slapstick antics, the the over-the-top expressions, and the planet-destroying sword and magic attacks, the Disgaea games have substance and a real heart to them.  And while the series would make a lot of mechanical upgrades throughout its decade-plus run, the best example of this heart is still in Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, the PS2 original, and its several ports and remasters.  (Actual disclaimer: All the screenshots here are from Disgaea 1 Complete, the PS4 remaster, but it’s essentially the same game for story/character purposes at least.  Also, I don’t feel like digging my PS2 out of the box it’s in.  I’m moving again soon, you know how it is.)

Also: massive spoilers ahead.  I spoil the whole damn plot to this game below, so fair warning as usual.

Fighting a dragon in the tundra, just another day in the Netherworld

In my first post in this series, I covered how ridiculous and wacky the characters and stories in Disgaea can feel, at least at first. That tradition started with Disgaea 1.  The game opens with a text crawl and narration explaining that the Overlord of the Netherworld, King Krichevskoy, has died, leaving his only child Laharl the heir to his throne.  Laharl, however, went for a nap two years ago and hasn’t woken up since.  In the course of his sleep, the Netherworld has gone to hell, with petty demon lords rising up and taking control of their own pieces of it.  This is where Disgaea 1 begins: with Etna, one of Laharl’s few remaining loyal vassals, trying to wake him up by hitting him in the face with various weapons and power tools.  Finally, when she’s about to try shooting him, Laharl wakes up and wonders what the hell all the noise is about and why Etna is pointing a gun at his head.  Maybe we should call Etna questionably loyal.

Not trying to kill you, I promise

Once Laharl learns that his father is dead, he immediately declares himself the new overlord by right of birth and sets off to rule over his realm.  Except it’s been without a ruler for two years, and vassals who were formerly loyal to Laharl’s dad because of his strength and influence don’t have any regard for his kid.  So Laharl decides that he’ll need to beat some sense into his subjects to get them back into line. The only help he’ll have with that at first is Etna and her squad of Prinnies, a set of penguin-esque monster characters that contain the souls of sinful humans put to work in the Netherworld until they can pay off their moral debt balance and reincarnate.

One of Laharl’s vassals giving him valuable advice.  I wish I could tell you we get to take this talking dragon with us to battle, but these lazy NPCs just hang around the castle all day while we do the fighting.

Unfortunately, the Prinnies aren’t terribly useful at first.  Being monster characters, they can’t equip regular weapons like swords and spears, and they’re not especially impressive in any one stat.  As Laharl starts to plunder the estates of nearby petty demon lords, however, he makes money that he can use to recruit new demons into his army, including a growing set of specialized character types like Mages, Archers, Thieves, Ninjas, and Healers, each with their own special sets of skills and weapon proficiencies.

Just as there’s a Netherworld populated by demons, there’s a heaven-like land called Celestia populated by angels.  And at around the same time Laharl begins his quest to consolidate power, the head of the angels, Seraph Lamington, decides to send one of his trainee angels down to the Netherworld to assassinate King Krichevskoy.

Pictured: probably not your ideal candidate for the open assassin position.

Wait, what?  Yes.  At first, it might seem that Celestia has some bad intel, but we eventually come to learn that Lamington has some ulterior motives and is sending Flonne down to this hellish land for another purpose entirely that he isn’t telling her about.  Because 1) he already knows Krichevskoy is dead, and 2) from the one scene we’ve seen her in at this point, Flonne comes off as the exact opposite type you’d want to carry out an assassination: cheerful, kind, and a little naive.  This is made clear shortly afterward when Flonne somehow makes it down to the Netherworld, arrives at Laharl’s castle, accidentally runs into him while doing her best ninja impression… and politely introduces herself as an assassin.

Flonne then remembers she’s on a secret mission and runs away, but not before deliberately bowing and saying goodbye, seemingly not realizing who she’d been talking to. Laharl is so flustered by what the hell just happened that she gets the start on him; however, despite her ninja skills and serious magic abilities, an angel like her can’t get far in the Netherworld. Laharl and Etna fight through a bunch of angelic monster summons, finally manage to corner and capture Flonne, and find out what she’s up to.  But when Laharl tells Flonne that the old Overlord, his father, is already dead, Flonne bursts into tears.

This understandably weirds Laharl the fuck out considering the fact that he’s talking to his dad’s intended assassin. Flonne asks Laharl why he doesn’t seem sad about his father’s death, and he replies that it’s only natural, because love isn’t something demons feel. She can’t bring herself to believe this, however, and decides to join Laharl and Etna for a while to discover whether the Netherworld’s demons truly can’t feel love. Laharl lets her tag along, reasoning that he’ll have fun shocking her with the kinds of horrors she’d never witness in Celestia.  Meanwhile, Etna wonders out loud what the hell Laharl is thinking by letting an angel into his court.

The mid-game follows this trio as they work to claim the overlordship of the Netherworld for Laharl. Along the way, they run into a lot of other strange characters, including a money-loving pig demon, a Dracula-esque vampire lord, a team of ineffective, understaffed Power Ranger/Super Sentai ripoffs, and a Buck Rogers 50’s serial-style dashing hero from Earth.  The crew must defeat all these characters and more in battle, and in many cases these defeated enemies are converted into allies and join Laharl’s party, often completely without his consent.

Laharl’s vassals gather to take him down. Thankfully, these ones are just a bunch of basic grunts.

By the game’s final act, Laharl has defeated his demonic foes and claimed his throne, but he and his crew then have to ward off a joint human/angel invasion of the Netherworld led by General Turner, the military ruler of Earth, and Seraph Lamington’s hotheaded lieutenant Archangel Vulcanus.  At the end of this war, assuming the player achieves the best ending, Laharl establishes himself as the new overlord, and everyone is happy except for the assholes who instigated the Netherworld invasion in the first place.

Assholes like Vulcanus, here trying out for the role of YHVH in the next Shin Megami Tensei game.

So maybe you’re thinking sure, that sounds kind of silly.  And it is in parts.  Disgaea 1 features plenty of buffoonish characters, slapstick antics, and dirty jokes.  However, buried under the surface is a story about coming of age and coping with loss — about a kid who rejects the concept of love not because he’s a demon, but because it’s the only way he thinks he can deal with losing the person closest to him.

The first hint of this seriousness comes when Laharl has to decide how to handle one of his father’s old vassals, the money-grubbing Hoggmeiser, a pig demon who “says” dollar signs at the end of his sentences in the same way some characters end theirs with hearts. Laharl is all set to kill this disloyal vassal, but when Hoggmeiser’s young son stands between them and refuses to move, the prince decides to let his enemy off the hook.  He even leaves the family enough money to get by without starving. Laharl still loots most of Hoggmeiser’s stuff, but this act of mercy is enough to give Flonne hope that Laharl does have some love in him.

I know I’ve used this screenshot before, but it sums up Etna so well

A few chapters later, Etna intentionally leads Laharl into a trap set by another one of his dad’s former vassals, the above-mentioned Dracula-esque demon lord Maderas.2  Not for no reason, either: Maderas is blackmailing Etna in exchange for the return of her memories that he somehow stole from her, straight out of her brain. In true villain fashion, Maderas decides to have the whole lot of them killed once has has them surrounded, including Etna.  But Etna has already outsmarted him by paying off the Prinnies he sent to spy on her, and the team wipes the floor with him and his demons (assuming you beat them in a boss fight, of course — these parts are entirely up to the player’s skill.)

After the fight, Laharl naturally asks Etna what the hell she’s about. Etna admits that she betrayed Laharl at first, but says she really intended to use Laharl as bait to get back at and defeat Maderas, which is supposed to make her original betrayal okay somehow. Anyone would expect this self-proclaimed Overlord of the Netherworld to show no mercy in a case like this.  However, after freaking out at Etna a bit, Laharl laughs it off, saying he would expect no less of such a devious demon.  Flonne is surprised to see this mercy on Laharl’s part and decides that demons might have love for each other they show in ways other beings don’t.  Laharl clearly feels some kind of bond with Etna — not one of love in the way we’d normally understand it, but there’s some kind of affection there even if Laharl would never admit to or even recognize it.

This is where things start to get a bit heavy

Even the sarcastic, cynical Etna seems to genuinely care for Laharl in her own way.  Despite being his vassal, she treats him like a kid, albeit one she cares about, a bit like an older sister might a younger brother.  This semi-sibling relationship is strengthened by the fact that Laharl’s father took Etna in as an orphan.  She has a lot of reverence for Krichevskoy, going so far as to ask Laharl if she can steal a portrait of his father from the wall of one of his other vassals to keep for herself.  While she does go hard on Laharl most of the time, she also says she’d like him to become the kind of ruler his father was — powerful but fair-minded.  She also says she’ll kill him and take his place as Overlord if he fails to do so, and the game gives us no reason not to believe her.  But there’s still a kind of caring there.

This brings us to Vyers.  This guy is initially presented as a joke character, an extremely vain upstart demon lord who has nicknamed himself the “Dark Adonis.”  Vyers is the very first enemy that Laharl pursues, mostly for the purpose of getting some loot to build his army up.  He puts on a lot of airs when they meet face to face, but Laharl and Etna aren’t impressed and give Vyers a different name that they think suits his character better.  Since he’s not even important enough to be a final boss, they call him “Mid-Boss”, and in the first of many, many meta-jokes in the series, Vyers’ name in the game’s dialogue box (and his profile, stats page, and everywhere else) immediately changes to “Mid-Boss.”

Mid-Boss after taking yet another beating from Laharl and company

Mid-Boss refuses to leave the party alone, showing up a few more times throughout the game to challenge Laharl and his vassals to a fight.  However, despite appearances, he isn’t just some buffoonish fop who keeps annoying Laharl for no reason.  Now and then, the game cuts away from the Netherworld to see how things are playing out in Celestia between the serene Lamington and his eternally pissed-off and aggressive subordinate Vulcanus.  When Vulcanus isn’t around, Lamington has private conversations with a hidden figure who happens to sound a lot like Mid-Boss.  Players who are paying attention the few times Krichevskoy’s portrait comes up on screen might also notice a resemblance between him and Mid-Boss.  The game doesn’t spell it out until the late game, but it’s heavily implied by the end that Mid-Boss is Laharl’s father in disguise, revived for a short time by Lamington so he can watch over his son long enough to ensure he’ll be all right on his own.

Laharl’s long-deceased mother is also present and watching over him, though again, the game doesn’t hint at this fact for a while.  There’s one Prinny in Etna’s squad of servants that’s different from the rest in almost every way: demeanor, voice, style of speech, and even color.  All the other Prinnies we meet are lazy and prone to partying and getting drunk when they’re not on the job, and they use that now-iconic “dood” interjection at the ends of almost all their sentences.  By contrast, this “Big Sis Prinny” is diligent and responsible, and she seems to have to consciously remind herself to add in that “dood” interjection.3  She even helps Flonne out early on during her stay in the Netherworld by giving her a potion to help her survive the hellish environment.  As Etna points out, the Prinnies in the Netherworld generally house the souls of the worse sort of sinners and so aren’t usually inclined to be too helpful to others, but we already know Big Sis Prinny is different from her colleagues.

Just as planned?

If you’re used to these kinds of twists, you might have predicted that this unusual Prinny carries the soul of Laharl’s mother.  Laharl only discovers this Prinny’s true identity in his efforts to stop some of the Prinnies working in his castle from reincarnating and leaving his service without his permission.  Laharl and his crew pursue them and even fight a group of death-god demons to prevent them from being sent to their next lives.  After beating them, however, Laharl is persuaded to let them go by Big Sis Prinny, who’s also in line for reincarnation.  This particular Prinny, it turns out, was sent to the Netherworld as a punishment for suicide.

At this point, it becomes clear that she’s Laharl’s mother, though she doesn’t come out and say it directly.  A few chapters earlier, Etna related to Flonne the story of how Laharl suffered from a terminal disease when he was a child.  No doctor could cure him, but the Queen knew of a sure way to save him: by sacrificing the life of someone who loved him, he could recover.  She therefore took her own life to save his.  The cure worked, but at an obviously great price, both to Laharl and his father.  It’s implied, then, that this is why Laharl is so down on love — he blames love for his mother’s death.  Of course, there’s a massive irony here: in saying that he doesn’t believe in love because it took her from him, Laharl is admitting that he loved his mother.  Otherwise, he naturally would not have cared about her dying to save him.

To the game’s credit, it doesn’t take this chance to write in a tearful, heart-string-pulling reunion.  Laharl’s mother says she has no right to face her son after everything that’s happened.  She only asks Flonne and Etna to take care of Laharl before her soul is transported, leaving the empty shell of her Prinny form crumpled on the ground.  Laharl, meanwhile, seems to have quietly absorbed all this and tells his crew that they’re headed back to his castle, leaving the rest of the Prinnies to reincarnate in peace.

Laharl’s arc comes to an end in the final chapter, when he and his vassals are about to face up against that allied human/angel invasion force.  In the course of helping to defeat both the massive spacecraft fleet of General Turner and the angelic forces of the archangel Vulcanus, Flonne ends up injuring humans and fellow angels — two of the most serious sins an angel can commit.  And when Flonne decides to go back to Celestia to seek out Lamington and ask him about the invasion, Laharl, Etna, and their crew of newly conquered human allies come along, resulting in her leading a sort of informal counter-invasion.  Not that Flonne intended for it to be taken that way, but she’s not given the warmest welcome when she returns home.

I could write a separate post about how angels are usually arrogant assholes in JRPGs and how that contrasts with the view we have of them in the West.

So our heroes are required to fight a bunch of battles once again on their way to meet the Seraph.  When they finally reach Lamington and find Vulcanus at his side, Flonne explains herself to him and delivers her account of the Netherworld’s invasion.  Lamington realizes Vulcanus has been conniving behind his back all this time trying to purposely start a war between their two worlds, and he fucks his disloyal lieutenant up by turning him into a flower.  However, Lamington also tells Flonne that she must be punished for her own sins and turns her into a flower as well — if not exactly killing her, then putting an end to her existence as a sentient being.

Despite his insistence throughout almost the entire game that he doesn’t care about Flonne and finds her completely irritating, Laharl completely loses it at this point and proclaims that he will kill the Seraph for what he’s done.

Yeah, the fun’s over now

What happens next depends upon the ending you’re locked into. In the course of the final fight with Lamington (PROTIP: you should have a thief in your party to steal his equipped item Testament; it’s good) Laharl gets the upper hand and defeats the Seraph. However, despite his anger, Laharl concludes that killing Lamington won’t help bring back Flonne. He instead prepares to give his own life to revive her, repeating the sacrifice his own mother performed to save his life when he was a child.

If you’ve achieved the best ending, Mid-Boss shows up at this point to stop Laharl. He explains that he and Lamington had been secretly working together to make peace between Celestia and the Netherworld by sending Flonne down as a sort of envoy in disguise.  Apparently direct negotiations would not have worked, so this backdoor approach had to be taken instead.  Even Flonne had no idea that this was her true role — her natural kindness more or less acted on its own, something that Lamington had been counting on.

Mid-Boss then tells Laharl his self-sacrifice isn’t necessary and revives Flonne himself, but not as an angel. Flonne instead returns as a fallen angel, a special class of demon. He says this was Flonne’s true punishment for fighting against humans and angels.  Not that it seems like much of a punishment.  Flonne ends up looking a little demonic, with a pair of bat wings, a tail, those pointy demon ears, and red eyes instead of blue.  Otherwise, she’s exactly the same old Flonne as she was before.  Mainly because she still doesn’t shut up about love and kindness, much to Laharl’s current and future annoyance.

I like the new look better myself

Lamington, despite being passed out for most of this final scene, is all right, and when he gets up he makes a peace deal with Laharl, just the thing that he and Laharl’s father had been planning for behind the scenes.  Laharl’s father, meanwhile, uses up the rest of his borrowed reincarnation power and finally disappears, joining his wife in the afterlife.  And Laharl and Etna return to the Netherworld along with Flonne, who’s now a permanent resident at Laharl’s castle.  Laharl establishes himself as Overlord, Flonne continues to try to teach demons about love with probably very mixed results, and Etna does… whatever it is Etna does.

Part of it probably involves her making fun of Laharl for acting like he doesn’t care about Flonne, as in this scene where she’s doing a mocking imitation of him (it works better if you’re listening to the voice-over.)

So despite how it looks on the surface, Disgaea 1 does have some pretty heavy emotional moments, with Laharl coming to terms with the death of his mother and nearly sacrificing himself for Flonne’s sake.  It’s easy to imagine how a different game might play up the melodrama, but Disgaea does a good job at keeping it measured, even when Laharl is going berserk near the very end of the game.  It’s only when Flonne is turned into a flower that Laharl loses control in that dramatic scene, but by this point the drama is earned because their relationship has been pretty well established.  Even if Laharl still won’t admit it, it’s pretty obvious well before this point that he cares about Flonne, even with all her irritating talk about love.

And when Captain Gordon, Jennifer, and their retro-sci-fi robot Thursday are thrown into the mix and fight/make friends with/join Laharl’s party, they don’t take away at all from this aspect of the story even though they’re coming in straight from a 50s sci-fi serial, a style that you wouldn’t think would mesh at all with the game up until that point. Gordon is a buffoon of a space captain sent by General Turner to the Netherworld as an unwitting tool to open the way for an invasion from Earth — he’s sort of a Zap Brannigan from Futurama, only a lot more noble and less of a selfish jerk, standing against Turner when his true intentions are revealed.  In fact, his far smarter and more competent assistant Jennifer has her own drama dealing with the fact that General Turner, her adoptive father, is an asshole who only cares about using her for her genius mind.  (The fact that Jennifer always wears a bikini and nothing else isn’t even a distraction from this dramatic character development.  Okay, maybe just slightly, but not too much.)

I think Jennifer is probably a reference to an old sci-fi serial character too, but I have no idea.  Maybe Nippon Ichi just wanted a busty blonde somewhere in their game.

Disgaea 1 also tries to incorporate its gameplay mechanics into the plot.  As you play through the regular missions and move the story along, you may very well accidentally kill an ally.  This is surprisingly easy to do, especially once you start to unlock attacks with wide areas of effect, and it’s all the more likely to occur if you take breaks from the main game to dive into the Item World.  At first, this doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  A unit that gets knocked down to 0 HP during a battle isn’t killed forever, after all — all it takes to bring it back is the right price paid to the Netherworld Hospital.

However, killing even one ally means that you lock yourself out of the best ending, in which both Laharl and Flonne survive unscathed.  The ally kill count can be tracked by checking the game stats with the male healer standing in one of the corners of Laharl’s castle, but it can only be reset by starting a new game cycle.  There are thankfully ways to do this without playing through and completing the game’s final chapter, but most players will likely do exactly that and be left with a bittersweet ending on their first playthrough in which Laharl goes through with his sacrifice and revives Flonne, ending his own life in the process (well sort of — as we’ve seen, death isn’t a totally permanent state in the world of Disgaea, and this ending concludes with Flonne and Etna talking about a new Prinny at the castle who has antennae sticking out of his head that look just like Laharl’s.)  Other, significantly harsher endings can be achieved by really going nuts and killing loads of your allies early on in the game.

I do like the fact that there are multiple endings to Disgaea 1.  It fits well with the game’s central themes of love and sacrifice that Laharl is made to actually carry his sacrifice out in one of the more common endings.  The one-ally-death mechanic is a little harsh, though.  Even when you’re actively trying to avoid causing ally kills, one or two always seem to occur in the course of a typical game.  It’s easy to remedy the situation by saving often, cycling those saves, and checking the ally kill count with that male healer NPC on a regular basis, but this does add some extra work to the game that some players might get frustrated with.

No, I’m not mistaken, this is indeed the male healer

And I wouldn’t really be able to blame them.  Later games in the series eased up on this criterion for getting the best ending, requiring an ally kill count that would take serious negligence or total callousness towards ally units on the player’s part to achieve.  This works better in a thematic sense as well — if the idea was that Laharl could only achieve the best ending for himself by proving himself a good ruler and not harming any of his allies, it seems unreasonable to punish him for screwing up a single time.  It doesn’t even have to be Laharl who screws up, in fact.  Even if he’s is killed by one of his allies, the player is locked out of the best ending.

Still, this effort to link the player’s in-game conduct to the ending is admirable.  It’s not exactly innovative; plot-driven RPGs and visual novels had been doing it for a long time by this point, but usually by way of more straightforward player choice through branching dialogue options or decisions to be made at key points.  The bad endings of Disgaea 1, by contrast, are generally unexpected and really hit you in the face as a consequence when they happen.  The game is essentially set up to lock you out of the best ending your first play through, since killing allied characters seems so consequence-free at first.  So unless you’re using a guide to play, it’s more than likely you’ll rub out a few of your allies by accident and think nothing of it.

Linking this game mechanic to the ending you get also might serve to show that the love Flonne keeps going on about isn’t strictly familial love, the kind that Laharl claims he never felt for his father.  The love she talks about is a broader kind, including the bonds between friends, and even the bonds that should exist (but rarely do) between a boss and his subordinates.  Even the extremely unromantic Etna pushes Laharl to show this kind of love to his subjects so that, rather than ruling over them through brute force, he can gain their respect the way his father did.  Realizing this kind of love exists within him is part of Laharl’s arc throughout the game, to the point that by the end of the game he manages to show mercy even to a mortal enemy.

And of course there’s an element of romantic love in Disgaea 1 as well, namely between Laharl’s parents.  Because both these characters are technically sort of dead at this point, all of this romance occurs before the events of the game, but there are some hints dropped throughout that suggest Laharl’s father and mother were very much in love.  You might even read an implied future relationship into whatever it is Laharl and Flonne have going, since they pretty much shack up together at the end of the game.  Well, so does Etna, but I can’t see Etna settling down with anyone.  Anyone who tried getting with her would most likely end up on the wrong end of her spear.

If you’re looking for a game that places the main characters into a straightforward romance, check out Disgaea 2. No, not involving the talking frog, but rather the human warrior Adell here and the demon princess Rozalin on the right. There’s a bit of that commoner/nobility romance novel appeal in this game too. An old angle, but it still works.

While this emphasis on the power of love works as a theme, I think the storytelling in Disgaea 1 ultimately succeeds because it implements that theme in an interesting and effective way.  In a typical JRPG, you’d play as the hero, probably a human, entering a Netherworld to fight its demon overlord, and you’d probably end up drawing from your friendships and the power of love in that sense to gain the strength to defeat him.  In Disgaea 1, by contrast, you’re playing as the demon overlord and fighting/recruiting the heroes sent to vanquish you.  This in itself is turning the usual RPG setup on its head, but it does so still again by depicting the demon overlord and his minions as not typically evil.  They think they’re supposed to be uncaring and unloving and try their best to act that way, but the game slowly reveals that these demons are a lot more complicated than even they realize.  Meanwhile, while Lamington and Flonne talk about love and peace and all that good stuff, most of the angels we meet in Disgaea 1 are almost robotic in their obedience to Vulcanus, who even the top demons of the Netherworld think is an evil bastard.

By the end of the game, both demons and angels come off as a mixed bunch — driven by the same emotions of love, caring, greed, and ambition.  They really just come off as overpowered, more extreme versions of humans.  Maybe that’s the main gist of the game: that despite our preconceived notions about what we’re “supposed” to be, we’re not all that different from each other.

In the end, maybe Disgaea is just another JRPG about how the power of friendship defeats evil. But it does so in a unique and interesting way, and that’s why I like it. 𒀭

***

If you were wondering why it took so long for me to post this, I guess it’s pretty obvious by now.  I try not to make these too long, but the show/game-specific deep dives that get into plot specifics are hard to edit down too much.  And I’ve still got one more to go.  Next time, we’ll finish out the series with a look at Disgaea 5, seeing how the series evolved over twelve years and examining some of the weird quirks that make that game unique in its own right.  Until then.

=

1 Here’s a meta question for you: was this opening itself the kind of disclaimer I was just saying I didn’t like?  Am I still a hypocrite?  Think about it.

2 I don’t know the English-language voice actor who plays Maderas, but he does a good Bela Lugosi impression.

3 After all this time playing Disgaea games, I still don’t know where “dood” came from.  I think it was the localization team’s best attempt at translating the Japanese sentence-ender the Prinnies use, which is something like -ssu.  It might be related to “ossu”, which is a very casual greeting that fits with the Prinnies’ kind of sloppy, lazy attitudes.

Deep reads #2.2: Nippon Ichi’s Netherworld Vacation

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.)

The main hub of Laharl’s castle in Disgaea 1 Complete.

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.

Flonne gets the MVP title with the killing blow on the very first Item King taken out.

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.

Occasionally you’ll see a map like this, but they are definitely the exception. I gave this poor lone mushroom demon a break and walked to the exit panel.

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.

A geo chain reaction going off.

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.

Good luck passing this bill.  Just as in real life, it’s hard to get money out of legislators, especially when you have no real reason to do it other than wanting more money.

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.

Every Disgaea has its own version of the Dark Assembly. Pictured here, the Strategy Assembly in Disgaea 5. You know you can bribe Sen. Corrupt without her raising any ethics complaints.

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.

An optional surprise Item World boss that I am avoiding because like hell I can beat him at my level.

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.

Killia, the protagonist of Disgaea 5, after failing the jumping puzzle maze room in one of D5’s Item Worlds. It’s not his fault, it’s mine. Thankfully, there’s an exit back to the Item World proper down here.

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.

It makes me mad enough to want to rob a bank, which is also something you can do in the Disgaea 5 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.

At least they’re honest about their dishonesty.

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.

No real surprise that demons don’t have their own Geneva Conventions to keep them in line.

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.

The unit recruitment screen in Disgaea 3. The Archer unit is one of my favorites throughout the series. Sorry for robbing that bank earlier, Archer.

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.

Yes, this is a real attack skill you can use in a Disgaea game.  It still got a T rating, too.  Maybe the ESRB isn’t as uptight as I thought?

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.

This mage has us all figured out.

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.

Oh, to have those good old days back.

***

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.

Deep reads #2.1: Why I like Disgaea

Since it’s still pretty much the new year at this point, I thought I’d defy the natural way of things and start it out with a retrospective series.  It certainly could not be more obvious that I’m a fan of Nippon Ichi’s Disgaea series, but I’ve never fully dedicated more than a couple of posts to the subject over the last 6+ years.  Today that changes.  In this post, I’ll be covering it at the proverbial bird’s-eye view, going over some of the general themes, aesthetics, and gameplay mechanics.  I’ll also be going over why I think you should try Disgaea out, even if it looks too strange or like too much of a time sink at first glance.  (Well, it can be a time sink, but we’ll get to that.)  And if you’re already a fan, well — you’re in the choir I’m preaching to, so just sit back and enjoy the sermon.

What the flying fuck are all these numbers about?  And why is this well-endowed lady called an “Item King”? I’ll answer the second question, but you’re on your own with the stats.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness came out in 2003 on the PS2, following Nippon Ichi’s first major strategy RPG titles in the Marl Kingdom series, The Puppet Princess of Marl Kingdom and La Pucelle.  Those two preceding games both received NA localizations, but they never got much attention here in the US.  Perhaps because they were games about cute girls in frilly dresses fighting demons and witches, and the niche western audience for games like that didn’t really exist at the time, or at least not on the scale that it does today.  Marl Kingdom even went through a bit of a rebranding when it came West to the American PSX, with the title Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure and a cover that ensured no boy in the prime Playstation-player age range would be brave enough to buy it, assuming they might have even had an interest in it (and remember, this was well before the days of Amazon Prime, so that was pretty much the only choice unless you bought from a catalog and waited the two or three weeks it took to ship.)1

Once 13 year-old me gets to the “her one true love” part on the back he’s quickly shoving it back into the stack on the shelf.

Disgaea was a bit different.  This game established a new series with a different look and feel. The gameplay mechanics were improved and streamlined, the fantasy Renaissance European setting was replaced with a strange, alien Netherworld, and the villagers and demon hunters in frilly dresses are replaced with demon lords and monsters beating each other over the heads for supremacy and fighting against invading groups of angels from the heavenly Celestia and humans from Earth. While the Marl Kingdom series also featured demons and otherworldly settings, the focus in those games was mainly on the human characters. With Disgaea, the focus shifted more towards the demonic perspective.

A battle in the original Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (2003).  The basic gameplay is an isometric grid/turn-based system similar to that of Final Fantasy Tactics and the Fire Emblem series, with a lot of gameplay twists and differences.

All these changes must have played well in the western market, because Disgaea: Hour of Darkness succeeded over here where the Marl Kingdom games didn’t so much.  It wasn’t a massive seller, exactly — it was still very much a niche title — but for a niche title, it really took, because we ended up getting every sequel in the Disgaea series ported and localized, along with most of the expanded and handheld versions and subsequent spinoff games, all the way up to Disgaea 5, the latest game in the series.2

I’m not a gaming historian or an industry analyst, so I can’t explain with any authority the reasons that this series took with the gaming audience, or at least with the niche audience it aimed for.  I can only speak to my own experience with it and try to extrapolate from my personal impressions (i.e. completely bullshit.)  So that’s what I’ll do.  I’ve boiled the reasons for why I think Disgaea is so damn great down to three categories:

1) Flexible structure and gameplay

Laharl, Prince of the Netherworld and villainous protagonist of Disgaea 1, comes up with an evil scheme.

RPGs don’t usually have a whole lot of replayability, at least relative to most other kinds of games.  You play through the main story, max out at least some of your characters while hoping the holy gods of RNG are good to them (see the Fire Emblem series for some real nerve-wracking dice rolls with stat increases), and then aside from a second playthrough or some DLC you’re probably done.

That’s not the case with Disgaea.  While each successive Disgaea title would add more and more gameplay elements, mechanics, bells and whistles, the series started out stuffed full of things to do beyond simply playing through the main scenario.  This ensured that obsessive players would be able to spend hundreds of hours and more on a single playthrough, many of those hours spent trying to beat post-game boss characters and level up weapons while grinding their characters up to level 9999 and using the reincarnation mechanic to make them even stronger.

An Item World map in the remastered Disgaea 1 Complete. This one is full of near-death copies of the same cloned enemy that can be easily killed for EXP.

Much of this time is invariably spent in the Item World, a more or less randomly generated set of maps contained “inside”3 every weapon and piece of equipment in the game numbering 30, 60, or 100 depending upon the item’s rarity. I say more or less because the Item World maps do follow certain geographical rules: they can only be so large, and the exit panel is always on the same piece of land as the home base panel. The result is a massive tower of successively harder levels in every single item in the game waiting for the player to master.  While single-use items’ worlds are rather pointless to enter, weapons and equipment can have their stats greatly increased through Item World leveling, especially if the player defeats the boss at the end of every tenth level (hence the “Item King” in the top image, the final boss of a common 30-level item.  Yes, female units can be kings too.  Quite a progressive message, isn’t it?)

It’s hard to express just how addictive the Item World can be. The concept on its own — an endless set of randomized maps to complete — might sound a bit boring, but the execution is designed to draw the player in.  Aside from the obsessive leveling of weapons and equipment, the Item World offers chances to bulk up the characters themselves by clearing each map of enemies.  However, the games also give the player the choice of clearing each map by simply sending one of his units to the exit panel.  This is often possible to achieve within one turn by building a great Tower of Babel of units and throwing each one, unit by unit, in a path that ends when the final one is thrown into the goal. In this way, the player can choose to quickly level the item or take a more leisurely approach while building his party’s levels and skills.

The top of my character tower, ready to be thrown into the goal. That Nekomata on top looks terrified.

And of course, there are the notoriously powerful post-game bosses to take on.  A Disgaea game can typically be beaten pretty easily with a team of at least a few units at around level 70 to 80, a range achieved naturally through playing the story maps.  However, the character level cap is 9999 for a reason.  Optional boss fights that take place entirely outside the main story often feature enemies from the several-hundred to several-thousand level range.  Even if many players never reach them, these bosses are entertaining challenges for those who are sucked into the vortex that is a round of post-game Disgaea.

Best of all, at least from my perspective, the games don’t try to hold your hand and guide you at all, aside from some optional  tutorials to help new players get the basics down.  The Disgaea games do feature shortcuts that the player can use to get through the game more quickly, including maps that are specifically designed for the purpose of powerleveling, but they leave it up to the player to figure all that out.  In a time when games were starting to not only hold the player’s hand but forcefully take it and not let go, this was a very nice change of pace.

For example, sometimes a crew of Ninja Pirates will sail up and you just have to deal with it. From Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories (PS2, 2006).

At the same time, the Disgaea series isn’t exactly a punishingly difficult one to play through.  Most characters learn pretty powerful skills after gaining just a few weapon proficiency levels, and the games downright encourage the player to use these skills to try crazy shit on new maps because of the relative lack of consequences for failure.  This was a major change from the tactical RPGs I’d played up until then, which featured pretty realistic hand-to-hand and ranged combat (realistic aside from the use of magic, I guess, but even those are just another kind of ranged weapon in such games.) For me, it was mainly a change from Fire Emblem and its old strict permadeath rule. In the world of Disgaea, characters that get knocked down to zero HP are simply sent home to recover, so there’s no real risk involved in throwing one into a mass of enemies as a sacrifice or a distraction. While I don’t have a problem with Fire Emblem-style permadeath (and I love some of the battlefield death monologues, as aggravating as it is to lose a character and have to restart) I also like the freedom that Disgaea gives the player to mess around with unorthodox tactics.

2) Colorful characters

Both literally and figuratively.  A lot of the look and feel of Disgaea can be attributed to artist Takehito Harada, who has a very distinctive style, the kind that you can identify immediately when you see it.  It’s all cartoonish, bright, strangely colored hair and eyes and sometimes exaggerated features on a diverse mix of demons, angels, monsters, and plain old humans. The same idea applies to the characters’ personalities, which are also sometimes over the top, and in the case of the demons especially can seem a bit twisted when compared to the angelic and human characters.

No. 1 Delinquent Raspberyl and her ninja/samurai crew in the high school-themed Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice (PS3, 2008). Demons are supposed to be callous assholes, so being a nice demon who loves peace and has good manners makes Raspberyl a dangerous delinquent in the Netherworld.

You might think this would result in characters that are jammed full of “attitude” to the point that they’re annoying.  Think a character like Bubsy, that failed 90s platformer mascot who was so wacky and lighthearted all the time that he refused to shut his god damn mouth during stages, constantly spewing bad puns.  While there might be a few Disgaea characters that seem to approach this point, I find most characters in the series to be some mix of endearing and entertaining, and even the ones that come off as overly idiotic or buffoonish are sometimes putting on an act and have some kind of agenda that the player isn’t let in on right away.  A few Disgaea characters do have that annoying “sentence-ending vocal tic” thing going on that probably flows better in the original Japanese than it does in English, though.  I don’t have a problem with the Prinnies’ signature “dood” exclamation, but with other characters it just sounds weird.

I like Usalia, but I hate her god damn fucking constant plip-ing. Is that supposed to be a sound rabbits make? I don’t care, it’s still annoying.  From Disgaea 5 (PS4, 2015).

It’s easy to forget now with all the changes to the genre and the landscape as a whole, but back in the 90s, JRPGs tended to be deadly serious.  Some series threw humor into the mix (see the infamous Wall Market section of Final Fantasy 7 that absolutely won’t and can’t be replicated in the remake today) but in general, when these games decided the fun was over, everything became dark as a meteor hurtled towards the planet, or an evil lord reigned over an oppressed country while holding the magical crystals needed to restore balance to the world, or whatever apocalyptic thing happened to be occurring that our heroes needed to fix.

While the Disgaea games do get dramatic at times, by contrast, there’s a much stronger current of humor flowing through them than through most other JRPGs.  Even when the chips are down and our heroes are in a dire situation, they manage to keep things pretty light while staying in character with some wordplay, which occasionally gets dirty, and even some dumb slapstick.

Seraphina’s entirely non-lethal gun from Disgaea 5 is pretty much a slapstick comedy device.

This seems to be the aspect of Disgaea critics cite when they call these games “juvenile”.  It’s pretty easy to see some silly, exaggerated facial expressions and some slapsticky comedy routines and write the series off on those grounds.  However, I think that approach is much too surface-level.  The Disgaea games feature characters with more depth than they might seem to have at first glance. And it usually becomes clear throughout the course of the game’s story that they’re not fighting whatever conflict they happen to be involved in just for the sake of fighting, even if they often claim that’s exactly what they’re doing — there’s always something more going on that the game will address, leading to the heavier dramatic material.

Etna gives Flonne a warning early on in Disgaea 1.  Despite all the levity in this series, things do get serious sometimes.

I’ll save specific examples for my more in-depth posts.  For now, I’ll leave it at this: it’s far easier to write characters that are trying to be profound and serious all the time but fall flat because they’re actually shallow than it is to write characters that goof off and fuck around with slapstick and dumb comedy bits but are also substantial and interesting. That’s to say that some writers get the style down well enough while completely missing the substance. In my opinion, Disgaea has both: a unique style and plenty of substance. The quality of the writing isn’t uniform throughout the series, but the better games have some truly memorable and excellent characters, and even the lesser games are pretty good on that count.

3) Everything takes place in the same multidimensional universe

Or would that be a multiverse?  I guess it would.  I don’t like that term very much, though.  Feels like it’s overused.

Part of the Disgaea 3 central cast drops in on Disgaea 5. I don’t even remember the context of this scene, why that one guy is buried neck-deep in the sand, or what the hell Mao is yelling about.

Whatever you want to call it, the Disgaea games and even other Nippon Ichi-made spinoffs all seem to take place in the same general realm of existence, even if that realm contains many different dimensions that just happen to intersect in weird ways sometimes.  The only direct sequel in the series is Disgaea D2, which continues the story of the original Disgaea. The rest exist in their own more or less separate settings, with their own casts of characters and stories.  However, the post-story sections of each game are full of bosses who are characters from previous games that can be recruited once beaten.  Even Disgaea: Hour of Darkness back in 2003 featured the characters Marjoly and Priere from the older Marl Kingdom series.  And Priere is eternally popular, with her latest appearance in the Disgaea 5 post-game boss battle roster.

Well, I can think of a couple of reasons why Priere is a fan favorite…

These intergame crossovers aren’t restricted to the post-game, however.  Two of the leads from Disgaea 1, Etna and Flonne, play central parts in the stories of Disgaea 2 and 4 respectively, so these characters are clearly all hanging out in the same uni/multiverse.  But why do I consider this a positive?  Because it means that the series can bring back popular characters like Etna and Flonne without breaking its own rules relating to setting, time, and continuity.  How can you break rules that don’t exist in the first place?  That’s an attitude I like, and it’s a big part of why I like Disgaea and Nippon Ichi’s work in general. It’s all about having a good time, even if the stories get a bit heavy and emotional sometimes.

***

And now I plan to dive deep into a couple of my favorite games in the series.  If I haven’t yet convinced the skeptical reader that this series is worth exploring at least a bit, I hope the following posts will be more persuasive.  Though unlike this one, these upcoming pieces will probably be full of spoilers.  If you don’t care about that, though, I hope you’ll look forward to reading the latest obsessive, overlong analyses I’ve been working on about the games I play to escape from this pointless, bitter grind that we call life. No, being more positive wasn’t one of my resolutions this year, in case you were wondering. I’m not even bothering to pretend this year. Anyway, until next time! 𒀭

 

1 Not that many boys would have been comfortable buying a game called The Puppet Princess of Marl Kingdom either, now that I think about it.  I wouldn’t have been at the time, but I was a real dumbass then.

2 Yeah, I’m saying “latest” instead of “last.”  I know Nippon Ichi is in dire financial straits, at least last I heard. But even if the company dissolves in the course of a bankruptcy proceeding (I don’t know anything about Japanese law, much less Japanese corporate bankruptcy law, so I’m just guessing it’s not too different from our system over here) the Disgaea IP seems like it would be too valuable to just leave sitting around.  What form the series would take if it left Nippon Ichi’s hands is a different question.

3 The implications of entering a separate world “inside” an item is so weird and abstract that from what I can tell, none of the games even try to address it.  It’s just another one of those aspects of the series’ mechanics that you can’t worry about too much.

Disgaea revisited: A review of Disgaea 1 Complete

Well shit. I should write at least one review of a game I played this year before it ends. So here you go: Disgaea 1 Complete for the PS4.

Yes, Disgaea is back on the PS4 (and the Switch, which I don’t own yet much to my chagrin.) I wrote about the 2003 original a few years back, and being a big Disgaea fan I had to check out this remake. The first Disgaea game lacks all the frills and bells and whistles of its sequels, but it still has the best cast and the best story out of all of them. It introduces the Netherworld, an underworld ruled until recently by the late King Krichevskoy, and now under the (sort-of) control of his young son, the demon prince Laharl. Laharl spends the game trying to consolidate his control with the help of his vassal the backstabby, mischievous demon girl Etna and her squad of press-ganged Prinnies, penguin-like creatures who are inhabited by the souls of sinful deceased humans. Meanwhile, Laharl has to dodge assassination attempts by would-be usurpers (and by the innocent angel girl/assassin Flonne, the third main character in the cast.)

If you’ve played Disgaea, you already know more or less what this game is like: isometric tactical RPG action, a plot with a lot of weird humor and references to sci-fi series like Buck Rogers and Super Sentai (or Power Rangers if you’re a westerner.) And a lot of power-grinding. You don’t really have to grind to beat the game proper and get one of the several endings, but everyone who’s played any of the Disgaea games knows that the real meat is in the post-game – the Item World and the unlockable extra bosses that require stupid amounts of grinding. I no longer have time to perform stupid amounts of grinding, working in the field I do, but thankfully there are ways to efficiently power-grind if you want to beat all the optional post-game bosses.  If I want to beat level 4,000 Tyrant Overlord Baal, it’s still going to be a month or two.  I might pass on it this time.

Leading ladies Flonne and Etna. The character portraits in D1 Complete were mostly preserved from the original game, and they look good in HD.

Is there anything special about Disgaea 1 Complete, aside from its being in HD? Sure – if you haven’t played the PSP or DS versions of the game, at least. Extras from the PSP’s Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness and Disgaea DS are included in this remake, meaning you can play the game with Etna as the protagonist instead of Laharl in Etna mode, recruit Pleinair, the ultra-powerful demon girl who hangs around as a silent NPC in every Disgaea game, and fight new extra bosses like Adell and Rozalin, the hero and heroine of Disgaea 2. Also notable are the new designs of certain classes to line up with their counterparts in newer Disgaea games. The original Disgaea: Hour of Darkness featured some character designs that had already been completely redone by Disgaea 2, and as a result the Mage, Skull, and Archer units have received an update. The most extreme change in the cosmetic category is the Clergy, a male healer unit – he was already androgynous in his original form, but now he’s gone full trap, pigtails and all. I guess NIS is trying to appeal to a certain demographic who’s into that sort of thing.

Aside from extras and cosmetic differences, though, there doesn’t seem to be anything new in Disgaea 1 Complete.  The Item World (a randomized dungeon that lets you level up items and equipment) is still its old bare-bones self, lacking all the new features that would be added in later titles.  No new classes, either, apparently.  There’s nothing wrong with that – it just means that if you’ve played the original and at least one of the handheld ports, D1C doesn’t add much aside from a new coat of paint, and that’s something to consider if you can only buy one game this month/season.

The D1C Item World. Occasionally you get a ridiculously easy level like this one, just like in the original Disgaea.

If you’re a big NIS/Disgaea fanatic like I am, Disgaea 1 Complete is probably worth getting, if only to relive a true classic 15 years later.  If you’ve never played the PS2 Disgaea or either of its handheld ports, however, D1C gets an unconditional recommendation.  This really is the definitive version of Disgaea, and it’s still a great game 15 years on, even after the release of Disgaea 5 a few years ago.  It might lack all those bells and whistles, but it’s worth the time you’ll put into it.  Unless you decide to go after Tyrant Overlord Baal.  That’s on you.

Rating: 7 if this is your first go-around in Disgaea 1, 5 if it isn’t.

Oh yeah, Merry Christmas.  I hope nobody got too drunk and went on a political rant at your Christmas office party or dinner.  That’s why I always limit my drinking around family and work colleagues.

Six great video game tracks

Music is a major aspect of a game. A soundtrack that fits well with the action of the game really helps its flow. Some game series are even defined by their soundtracks: pretty much everyone, even my mother who doesn’t know the first thing about video games, knows the Super Mario Bros. main theme, and other prime series from my (and possibly your) childhood like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man are known for their amazing background music.

Here are some pieces taken from game soundtracks that I think are especially good.

1) Shin Megami Tensei III – Normal Battle (Town)

If you’re a regular reader, you know I’m a big Shin Megami Tensei fan, and SMT3 is just about my favorite game in the series. And Shoji Meguro, the soundtrack-writer for many of the Shin Megami Tensei titles, is one of my favorite game composers ever. His work displays a lot of diversity, from the weirdly jazz-poppy music of Persona 3 and 4 to the hard rock of Digital Devil Saga. SMT3’s soundtrack is sort of a mix of hard rock and jazz elements, and this piece is one of my favorites of the bunch.

2) NieR – Gods Bound By Rules

Time for honesty here: I have not played NieR. From what I can tell, it’s made by Square-Enix, it’s an actiony sort of game, and it is highly controversial, with some people swearing by it and other people swearing at it. It was a commerical flop, but that’s not the measure of a game’s quality, is it?

Despite not having played NieR, I have heard its whole soundtrack, and it’s really good. Very symphonic in that old Square-Enix Final Fantasy tradition, with an extremely talented female singer accompanying the music. This track really conveys the feel of a boss fight well, I think. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a boss theme. In any case, you should really listen to it. It sets an “epic” mood without feeling overbearing (like, say, playing a famous public domain piece like “O Fortuna“. Yeah, it’s great, but seriously stop using this piece, it’s so amazingly overused.)

3) Umineko no Naku Koro ni – Final Answer

Unlike the last entry, I have played Umineko – all 80 hours of it. One of the things that kept me playing/reading was the excellent soundtrack. It’s no mistake that Umineko is called a “sound novel” – the original game had no voice acting but a great set of pieces by dozens of artists that perfectly fit the mood of each scene. I don’t think there’s a bad piece in the bunch, really. “Final Answer” is an especially great one, but the Umineko soundtrack is consistently good – I could have just as easily picked 20 or 30 other songs.

4) Makai Kingdom – Rushing Out of the Land of the Demons

NIS games tend to have really good OSTs that set a cartoonish mood consistent with their goofy, sometimes weird humor. Despite being one of their lesser-known titles, Makai Kingdom has an especially good soundtrack, and “Rushing Out of the Land of the Demons” is my favorite in the track list. This piece really gets down both the frantic pace of a battle scene and the strangely relaxed attitude of the typical NIS game. Does that make sense? I just wrote that sentence and I don’t know if it makes sense. Anyway, this is a great song.

5) Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors – Digital Root

When I heard the Zero Escape series was not going to have an ending because of poor sales, I was thrown into despair. I had just finished 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward and was dying to know how the bizarrely twisted story would end. I guess we’ll never know now. But at least we’ll have the really nice evocative sort-of-ambient soundtrack of 999 to listen to. “Digital Root” and most of the other pieces in the 999 OST perfectly complement and feed into the sense of tension that lasts through the game.

6) Touhou Project (Perfect Cherry Blossom) – Doll Judgment

I don’t think I’ve ever let on that I’m a Touhou fan, so I’ll do it now: I’m a huge Touhou fan. I’ve been playing the Touhou Project games for several years now. I know all the characters. I’ve even read some of the official comics (which have totally nonsensical plots.) If you’re unfamiliar with Touhou Project, it is a vertical scrolling shooter series begun and maintained by ZUN, one man who creates all the games on his own. The events of the many Touhou games (now up to 15? 17? I’m honestly not sure) take place in Gensokyo, a magically separated part of Japan that is still stuck in the 19th century for some reason and is inhabited by youkai – traditional demons and mythical beasts (all taking the form of girls, of course, because Japan) who live alongside a bunch of scared out of their wits humans in a village. The main characters are a shrine maiden and a witch who can fly and shoot lasers and fight said youkai. ZUN’s creation has spawned a massive community of fans and fanworks.

The funny thing about ZUN is that he seems to be a better composer than a game designer. Every one of the Touhou games features a really catchy and driving soundtrack. Fans have seized upon this aspect of Touhou and produce mountains of albums based on ZUN’s music. In fact, “Doll Judgment”, while it’s really a good piece, just as easily could have been a different piece from a different Touhou game – there are way too many to choose from.

Retrospective: Disgaea

disgaea-10

I’m a big fan of Nippon Ichi Software. Their approach to the strategy RPG is unique, and their games have a light comedic quality that’s a real breath of fresh air in a genre that is choked with seriousness and end-of-the-world scenarios and angst-filled heroes (SRPGs as a whole aren’t as guilty of this sort of thing as more typical turn-based JRPG titles are, but they’ve got their fair share of DRAMA.)

NIS, a Japanese developer (if you couldn’t tell from their name – “Japan’s Best” I think it means?) started out getting notoriety with the release of Marl Kingdom for the Playstation. I’ve never played Marl Kingdom, but it is apparently an RPG about a teenage girl in a fairytale land with a puppet girl as her best friend and is full of Disneyesque musical numbers. For a reason that is totally impossible to understand, this game was stamped with the title Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure and imported to the US, where I’m pretty sure 98% of Playstation owners at the time were teenage boys who wouldn’t be caught dead with such a game in their Playstations (well, I know because I was one of them.) So the game flopped Stateside. NIS followed up with the SRPG La Pucelle Tactics for the PS2, which I have played, and it really tones down the pure unadulterated cheese of Marl Kingdom. You play as a tomboy nun-in-training who’s also a member of an elite demon-hunting team. So that’s different right there.

Prier, the protagonist of La Pucelle Tactics

Prier, the protagonist of La Pucelle Tactics

It’s still a pretty obscure game here, but La Pucelle must have been a relative success in the States, because big-time developer and publisher Atlus took a chance on 2003’s Disgaea and published it in the US. And Disgaea was definitely a hit – it would become the first title in a long line of sequels, spinoffs and ports to portable systems.

So what is Disgaea exactly? For the novice, imagine an SRPG – say a Fire Emblem or Shining Force game – with soldier and mage sort of characters moving around on a grid and attacking each other. Now replace these soldiers and mages with demons and monsters that have 500,000 HP, 300,000 MP and attacks that can bring down meteors and giant lasers upon their opponents. Every turn. Also, exploding penguins. That’s Disgaea.

Step 1: Become the Overlord of the Netherworld.  Step 2: Laugh menacingly inside your huge castle.

Step 1: Become the Overlord of the Netherworld. Step 2: Laugh menacingly inside your huge castle.

Disgaea tells the story of Laharl, the son of the king of the Netherworld, who unbeknownst to him has been dead for two years (because Laharl has been taking a two-year nap, you see.) Laharl, who now believes himself to have inherited the title of Overlord from his dead father, decides to show all his new vassals that he means business. Sadly for him, nobody seems to accept this kid as their new king, so he’ll have to use some force to get his subjects to obey him.

Laharl doesn't get much respect initially, no.

Laharl doesn’t get much respect initially, no.

Even worse, an angelic assassin has been sent from Celestia to kill him. Fortunately for Laharl, she’s new to the job and doesn’t really know what she’s doing (see top of page.) Together with his “loyal” vassal, Etna, the three of them end up having wacky Netherworld antics together. Or something. It’s definitely a nice story, and in 2003 Disgaea stood out for its humor where most other games in the genre were deadly serious. Juvenile jokes are mixed up with references to the Power Rangers (or old sentai shows if you’re from Japan) and 50s sci-fi serial Buck Rogers-type stuff. It’s a weird mix, to be sure, and it could be dismissed as a lot of pointless goofiness, but I think it works.

A pretty basic Disgaea battle

A pretty basic Disgaea battle

Gameplay-wise, as good for its time as La Pucelle was, Disgaea outdid it in every category. Disgaea is more or less divided into two parts: the initial game, which covers the main story, and the post-game, which is totally optional and can potentially go on forever if you let it. The core of the gameplay should be familiar to anyone who’s touched an SRPG before. You have your units and move them around on a map divided into squares on a big diagonal grid. The object of each map is usually to kill all the enemy units, though there are also maps where the goal is to reach a particular space on the map.

Disgaea has a lot more to offer than its regular missions, though – specifically two innovations that have become a staple of the series. The Dark Assembly (or the Dark Senate) is the first. Here, you can choose one of your characters to present a “bill” to an assembly of other demons who will vote on it. Subjects for debate include opening up new post-game areas, getting triple exp on the next map played, and even extorting money from the senators. If your bill fails, you even have the option of forcing it through – by beating up all the nay-voting senators in the assembly.

Like this, but with more swords and magic spells.

The second innovation in Disgaea is the Item World. The Item World is a truly devilish gameplay element. It allows you to level up any item in the game by playing through a succession of maps “inside” that item (it’s weird, I know.) Most items contain 30 levels, but some have 60 and some 100. Each level is designed to be beatable but is otherwise more or less randomly generated. The Item World is infuriatingly addictive and may well comprise the part of Disgaea you spend the most time playing.

An actual Item World level.  They're usually not this easy, believe me.

An actual Item World level. They’re usually not this easy, believe me.

Together with the ability to create new units from dozens of different character types and classes that can fight alongside the story characters, Disgaea offered an insane amount of customization and depth when it came out. I played the hell out of it and loved every minute, and that’s why I’m now an NIS fanboy. Not the proudest of badges to wear, but I will wear it all the same.

Disgaea has spawned three sequels featuring different casts and stories (Disgaea 2, 3 and 4), a direct sequel featuring the original cast (Disgaea D2), a bunch of SRPG spinoffs with different stories and different gameplay mechanics (Makai Kingdom, Phantom Brave, Soul Nomad and the World Eaters), a couple of stupidly difficult PSP platformers (Prinny 1 and 2), a weird visual novel sort of thing (Disgaea Infinite), a sort of crappy looking anime adaptation, and a truckload of portable system ports for the PSP, the Vita, and the DS (basically one for every Disgaea game and then some.) It also inspired this cross-stitch of one of its main characters, Etna:

To be honest, later Disgaea games have really improved on the old formula, especially the third one; Disgaea 3 is a great title that I like about as much as the original. Still, the original is the original and should get some respect. The original Disgaea is currently out in its PS2 original and as a port to the DS and the PSP. Of the two ports, the PSP one is definitely better, though the DS port has a couple of extras that fans might like (like the opportunity to get fan favorite silent girl Pleinair as a playable character.)

Pleinair doesn't talk.   That's her thing.  She has a sentient stuffed rabbit toy that sometimes talks for her.  No, I don't get it.

Pleinair doesn’t talk. That’s her thing. She has a sentient stuffed rabbit toy that sometimes talks for her. No, I don’t get it.

So if you’re unemployed and need something to do between searching for jobs, or you’re in solitary confinement for life and somehow get to have a PSP or Vita in your cell with you, I highly recommend Disgaea. I’d also recommend Disgaea 3, which is just as good cast-wise and has tons more content (and also looks prettier, being a PS3 game.) You can’t really go wrong with either one. The only danger involved is that you’ll become an NIS fanboy/girl, which is not really a fate I can recommend. Well, better than being a brony, I guess.