Reviewed: September 20, 2006
Released: August 29, 2006
It's back! After an absence of several years, possibly the most beloved world in the history of tactical RPGs (though this may change after FFXII puts Ivalice front and center again) is making a comeback in the form of a direct sequel to the original surprise cult hit, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. Though not centered around Laharl and his exploits in the name of power and greed, don't expect the immature Overlord, or his troublesome vassal Etna, to be absent from the action. The same wicked sense of humor, many of the same gameplay mechanics, and even a lot of the same music are all evident in Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories.
The main question about this game is definitely not whether fans of the original will enjoy it--they will. Rather, the question is whether or not it can stand on its own as the newest member of the storied library of Nippon Ichi Software tactical RPGs, which includes such classics as the seminal Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure for the PS1, as well as the overlooked and innovative gem, Phantom Brave. Loyal vassals, future Prinnies (you know who you are) and newcomers alike will be picking this game up. Will it be fun for all of them?
Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories follows the adventures of a young man named Adell, the last human being in the world who remains untainted by the curse of a powerful demon, Overlord Zenon, that is slowly transforming all the other humans into demons. For those of you imagining a setting resembling The Omega Man or 28 Days Later, it's important to understand that "demon" here is used in the loosest sense, more as a euphemism for "non-human being" than as a descriptor of a fiery dark hellbeast.
In Disgaea 2, the main difference between humans and demons is that demons tend to show unnatural or bestial physical aspects (such as glowing red eyes, horns, wings or--in one case--a pumpkin face on a man's chest that won't stop talking about the female anatomy), and that the transforming humans lose their conscience and memories, hence the subtitle of the game.
Adell is out to defeat Overlord Zenon, and at the beginning of the game his mother (halfway to becoming a demon herself) helps him to summon Zenon so that he can fight and lift the curse. Unfortunately for Adell, the summoning accidentally grabs Overlord Zenon's extremely sheltered daughter Rozalin instead. Rozalin is bound to Adell by the rites of summoning, at least until he and Overlord Zenon have their final showdown, so she is forced to come along as well on his journey, fully intending to trip him up every step of the way. But not all is as it seems....
Despite the serious-sounding nature of the game's basic plot, one of Disgaea 2's biggest strengths is its sense of humor. Even sharper than in the under appreciated Makai Kingdom, Disgaea 2 is bursting at the seams with in-jokes, cultural references and enough black humor to make the Addams Family die laughing. A casual disregard for life permeates the demon world, which apparently runs the show everywhere and is much more the universal norm than "regular" worlds seem to be.
For instance, the summoning ritual that Adell's mother invokes in their failed attempt to summon Zenon involves a sacrifice of life force--so she donkey-punches her husband and two younger children down into the sacrificial pit, telling them that since they are demons, the years drained out of their life spans would only have gone to waste anyway. Similarly, the family complains about their plight, but is not so much scared as grumpy about it. Yes, Laharl and Etna (as well as other characters) make appearances, and of course, prinnies explode left and right throughout the game. Those of you for whom the greatest draw to the original Disgaea was its sense of humor will not be disappointed.
For the twelve of you who have never played Disgaea, La Pucelle Tactics or any other of Nippon Ichi Software's excellent tactical RPGs, here's a quick rundown. As the main character, you meet, interact with and gather to your side various allies in small story sequences, while filling out your ranks at a home base by creating/summoning/binding (whatever the term du jour is) more generic characters selected from an ever-expanding roster of classes and races.
The bulk of the game takes place on to-scale battle maps, which enemy and ally characters traverse using a grid system. Depending on a character's relative proximity to another character, they will then be able to execute attacks, combination attacks, healing magic, various items and so forth. Each character is allowed one move and one action per turn, and up to ten player characters can be on the board at any one time.
Everything is turn-based so it's up to you to decide when and where to move your characters, how to position them relative to each other and what sort of general strategy you wish to follow. On the enemy's turn, enemy characters are afforded the same options as yours, making it important to plan ahead.
The formula in Disgaea 2 has changed very little from that of its predecessor. In fact, it is so similar that it's an apparent throwback to an earlier play style than the last two games in the series, Makai Kingdom and Phantom Brave. Do not expect to see many chances being taken with new mechanics or dimensions of play; only a bit of polish here and a few additions there set this game's technical mechanics apart from Disgaea at all.
Considering that many fans of the series have never stopped griping that the systems of later games were too different from and/or just not as good as Disgaea's (though I personally think this is untrue), NIS has made a wise decision from a fandom standpoint. If the game were not billed as a direct sequel, I might have a problem with its nearly identical mechanics from a critical standpoint, but speaking as simply a gamer, it's hard to complain when the experience never gets old.
A few things have been streamlined here and there, but all the systems that Disgaea fans learned to use, abuse, conquer and love are pretty much still in place. There's still a Dark Assembly of demon "senators," whose permission must be gained to do lots of things, like creating new character types and adding variety to shop inventories. This time around, there are no real subsystems to speak of. Every option simply uses mana, which is a form of currency accrued on characters as they fight in battles, or involves persuading the senate to see things your way.
As before, the mostly-corrupt senators can be bribed with seemingly random items--or you can whip out a pile of solid gold to sway a particularly picky member. The few senators that refuse to accept bribes can be knocked out with a "gift" of chloroform, and if all else fails (and you're of a considerably high level), you can still "persuade" the senate to agree to your requests via brute force.
Battles return to the old system of a geometric grid, a reversal of the trend towards more organic battle maps seen in recent installments of the series. Each character has movement points, which determine how many spaces in a turn they can move, and items can be equipped to increase this number. Characters also have height limits, both to their movement and their attacks. This makes experimenting with many different types of characters important to getting the most out of the game.
The creatable classes start out small and expand rather quickly as you progress through the game. Any defeated monster becomes available to create (for a fee of mana which increases depending on how strong the character's starting stats--and resultant stat growth--will be), and though monsters have limited equipment options, they often make up for the deficiency with useful special abilities or an unusually high movement, jump or attack range.
Humanoid characters are tougher to recruit, especially if you are not good at bending the Dark Assembly to your will, since most new types of human fighters you can create must first be approved by the senate. Once you have them though, their versatility in battle often proves invaluable. As before, human-equipped weapons teach new battle skills as they are learned, allowing human characters more options in regards to how they fight.
One of the other big things that veteran players will find familiar is the Item World, which is a random dungeon generated "inside of" an item. Any and every item has an Item World inside of it, and fighting through levels in the Item World allow you to level that item up, increasing its statistics considerably. But more importantly than that, almost all of the rare and highly desirable items in the game, as well as all sorts of unique shops and special bonuses, can only be found at random within the Item Worlds. It's also a good way to level your characters up for a tough fight in the main storyline, and early on it's handy for swelling your ranks, as monsters defeated within the Item World can be created just as if they were defeated on a regular map.
By getting items called Subpoenas (after a story event), players will also be able to fight their way down partway through the levels of the Subpoena's Item World in order to stand trial for various crimes before a Dark Court of Prinnies. The crimes range through almost every offense imaginable, from the unsurprising ("too many murders") to the silly ("your existence"). Unlike in our world, however, felonies are a badge of honor in the Demon World, allowing felon characters more leverage over the senate and options in the Dark Assembly, as well as granting a few other bonuses.
Regardless of which character is served a subpoena, any character can enter the Court. Provided they still meet the requirements for the crime that the intended character was accused of, they can receive the felony in his or her place. However, if, for example, a level 1 character is sent to stand trial for having too high a level, he may be found innocent, granting no reward whatsoever.
A new addition is the occasional appearance of pirates inside an Item World. Appearing mostly at random any time during a battle, the pirates are usually few in number but abnormally high in level, especially their leader, whose level can range to over 100 levels above that of the regular enemies or more. Though extremely difficult to fight and defeat, doing so will net you a piece of Treasure Map. These pieces, aside from giving some of the best stat bonuses in the game when equipped, also make it more likely that pirates of the same type will drop by later on, looking to get them back.
However, running for the exit portal and simply advancing to the next level of an item dungeon is also often a valid strategy for dealing with these guys--they can be so tough that they're impossible to hit, making escape the only option. As the Item World dungeons are billed as completely random, I found this addition fun and interesting, as frustrating as it could sometimes be.
Getting back to the main story yields a fun tale with completely predictable characters, but enough plot twists to keep things interesting. Also, in the spirit of humor that defines both Disgaea games, heroic and villainous conventions are often mocked and exposed for their silliness, even as they are used as plot devices in the game itself. At one point, Rozalin asks Adell why he thinks he has any hope of defeating Overlord Zenon, known as the "God of All Overlords" because of his slaughter of 1000 other Overlords in the past. Adell responds, complete with dramatic music that he knows there must be something special about him because he is the only person who hasn't been affected by Zenon's curse.
At this point, the music stops and changes to something quite a bit sillier, as Rozalin incredulously berates Adell for throwing his whole life into a silly assumption that might not even be true. We as gamers are invited to realize the overt silliness of the premise, which has driven more games than this one that some people are just "chosen." The result is a good laugh and a big amount of respect for a game that has the guts to point out its own weaknesses, and the polish to be good anyway.
Okay, so I promised some people I'd quit harping on about NIS's insistence upon using crappy, outdated sprite graphics for their games. A promise is a promise... I guess. With that out of the way, I do have to say that for sprites, NIS has outdone themselves in terms of smoothness and animation variety with Disgaea 2. More than with any other game in their history, the designers have managed to keep jagged edges to a minimum, even on close-in zoom shots, and the special effects, though by no means spectacular for a late-gen PS2 game, are a marked improvement over previous games in the series, even becoming fun to see on occasion.
The character design of Disgaea 2 is solidly in the middle of the road. Adell and Rozalin aren't particularly memorable in their appearances, but at least they don't look stupid. Overlord Zenon doesn't look very imposing at all, which is too bad, since if there is any one character in the game who is meant to be taken seriously, he's the one. And most of the other character models are also-rans resurrected from past games in the series.
Veterans will instantly recognize the standard sprites for Fighters, Archers, Priests and so forth. Similarly, there are very few enemy designs that won't be familiar to fans of NIS's other tactics games. Probably the best-designed characters in the game are actually Adell's parents, who look silly and well put together all at once, and seem to have been designed around their personalities to some extent.
A lot of the music in Disgaea 2, including the shop theme and the theme from the Dark Court, is recycled from other games in the series note for note. While this is fine and possibly a treat for fans, I would like to have heard more original songs in the score. For example, though I am an avowed fan of every game in this series, I have never liked the shopping music in particular, and frankly I'm kind of getting sick of listening to it.
As a direct sequel to an older game, I can let it partway off the hook for re-using old music, but not completely. The new tracks are actually pretty good--a bit above the norm for a NIS game. It is fun to hear the eclectic mix of styles used in many of the compositions, and most of it seems to be at least a decent fit to whatever situation it accompanies.
As always, Disgaea 2 allows players to hear all the voice acting in the original Japanese as well as American English. As usual, the option is a godsend thanks to choppy American voice acting that ranges from the pretty good (Adell) to the pretty bad (Tink, a later companion). At least in Japanese, to us gaijin, it *sounds* like the actors know what they're doing. At any rate, the inflections seem to match up better with the dialog in Japanese than in the American voice tracks.
Sound effects are just kind of there, although it's always fun to hear all the little exclamations and utterances from characters as they move about the field and engage in combat. Overall, Disgaea 2's soundtrack is decent and it's voice options are excellent.
Fans of NIS tactical RPGs don't need to read this part, but for the rest of you, here's the scoop: to get all the enjoyment you can get out of Disgaea 2 will take you hundreds of hours. The secret behind all the games in this series is that they aren't really about winning the final battle--they're about all the extras. Even after the main story is finished there are still many hours' worth of things to do, see and conquer.
From manipulating the senate to finding hidden bosses and even reincarnating yourself at level 1 in order to boost your stats later down the line on your quest to level 9,999, there are tons of things to do and see in Disgaea 2 beyond the obvious. Assuming you like strategy games and are down with the dark sense of humor that pervades this one, you're in for quite a long-lasting treat indeed.
Is the sequel to 2003's Disgaea: Hour of Darkness a great step forward in the history of video games? Hell no. Is it still one of the best games to come out this year? Definitely. If you're still kicking yourself for missing out on the original the first time around, I highly recommend snatching up a copy of Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories as soon as possible, before they all disappear into the recesses of entertainment centers everywhere, never to be seen on the secondary market due to their high replayability and innate entertainment value.
Like America's own Blizzard Entertainment, Nippon Ichi Software is a developer that takes what other people first thought of and makes it so polished, so addictive and so fun that there's no way any fan of the tactical RPG genre won't enjoy what they have to offer. Though I am hopeful that future installments in the series will continue to push the envelope with new innovations and mechanics, I am happy to say that Disgaea 2, as traditional as it is, is nonetheless a great success as a game and a must-buy for old fans and first-timers alike.