Saturday, December 28, 2013

GOT 'IM - Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness

Taking a break from my Ys binge (plenty more of those later) to review the latest Disgaea game, Disgaea D2.  Mostly. 

I'm going to keep this one short-ish.  This Disgaea game is a lot like the other Disgaea games, so I'll be focusing on its differences from past Disgaea titles.


The first Disgaea was one of the games I was most interested in playing when I first bought a PS2 (in late 2004).  Reviewers called it a crazy, anarchic take on strategy RPGs and a must-play for fans of Final Fantasy Tactics, both of which sounded awesome.  Well, those reviewers were right.   I was extremely impressed when I first played Disgaea 1 in college, and put even more time into it when I bought the PSP version a few years later.  I didn't like Disgaea 2's story or new classes as much, but it made some impressive expansions to the endgame and was a strong tale in its own right.  Disgaea 3 felt like a step back, with subpar visuals for the PS3 and a few fundamental changes to the skill, class, and endgame systems that I didn't always enjoy.  Disgaea 4 brought it back, streamlining and improving the changes made in D3 while crafting the best cast in the entire series and an amazing selection of endgame challenges and optional DLC.  Disgaea 4 was one of my favorite games of 2011, and it's a tough choice between D1 and D4 in identifying my favorite Disgaea game.  So enough of that, let's talk about Disgaea D2

The Skinny

Disgaea D2 (Disgaea Dimension 2 in Japan) is just like Disgaea 1 through 4, a strategy RPG organized into episodes with several individual maps in each episode.  DD2 (what it shall be called henceforth) is unusual in that it once again stars Laharl, Etna, and Flonne - the trio of main characters from the original Disgaea.  Laharl is struggling to establish himself as the new Overlord of the Netherworld, and has to deal with insurrectionists, a plague of heavenly Celestian flowers, and a young angel claiming to be his sister before the rest of the Netherworld's demons will accept him. 

Old Stuff

The basics to combat in DD2 are essentially the same as they've always been.  It's an isometric grid similar to Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics, with 10 characters useable at a time.  Combat is conducted in phases with actions executed either in the middle or end of turn, with consecutive attacks leading to bonus damage and rewards.  Regular attacks and abilities are often completely fucking insane, with their mini-cutscenes often resulting in the destruction of entire landscapes, planets, or stars.  Characters can level up to level 9,999, then reincarnate and level up again, or level up items to level 200 (by going through an item world dungeon), or level up skills to 99.  Basically, everything levels up.  Many Disgaea mainstay monsters, skills, and classes have made a return.  Disgaea is also a series well-known for its ludicrous anime references and offbeat humor, both of which DD2 has in spades. 

New Stuff

This might seem more like "old stuff," but hear me out.  They get rid of the inflated skill-learning and character-diving from D3 and D4 in favor of simpler, easier skill-learning from D1 and D2.  Each character has a weapon level again, and Books are added as a new magic-centric weapon with summoning skills.  Skills are passed from character to character EXTREMELY easily by assigning mentor/pupil relationships and having the pupil character use the skill five times.  As you unlock new classes, you can upgrade a character's class within a class tree by paying a small fee.  No more reincarnating just to go from a tier-1 warrior to a tier-2 warrior.  There are a few new classes in DD2, including a female Armor Knight and a male Celestial Host.  A few others, like the Sea Serpent monster class, make a triumphant return after being absent for a few games in a row.  Speaking of monster classes, humanoid characters can ride monster characters to combine abilities and use special dual skills, leveling both characters simultaneously.  And it goes without saying, but there are a few new skills, spells, and weapons in the game.  Because of course there are. 

The customization of characters is also expanded a little and easier in general.  You can choose voice samples, innate abilities, and color combinations (within a reasonable selection) for any character by just going into a menu.  No searching for a rare Paint Shop in the item world.  The Dark Assembly (a voting board that you can bribe, fight, or otherwise influence to pass Netherworld laws) is still around, but to do simple things like increase enemy levels, EXP earned, or other global effects can be done in a simple Cheat Shop menu.  Basically, DD2 makes executing a bunch of Disgaea's tricks and treats WAY simpler.  It's easier than ever to gain levels into the thousands and start enjoying DD2's endgame at a high character level. 

The Story

The story centers on the bratty demon prince Laharl, his sarcastic vassal Etna, and his ditzy angel friend Flonne once again, after the original trio had been relegated to endgame-secret-character status since Disgaea 2.  As I mentioned earlier, Laharl is trying to legitimize himself as the Overlord, but has run into interference from others, including a group of his father's former vassals (a trio of Disgaea weirdos if there ever was one), an angel claiming to be Laharl's sister, a demon claiming to be Etna's brother, and a team of angels investigating a series of disappearances.  Seraph Lamington and Hoggmeiser from Disgaea 1 make surprise appearances, but mostly it's eight episodes of weirdness each focusing on a particular group of enemies.

I enjoyed hanging with the original group again (although the core casts in Disgaea games are consistently good), but it was a little disappointing that the action is contained to eight medium-sized episodes and a relatively simple plot.  I enjoyed a few of the new characters (particularly Barbara, the Armor Knight who takes every command extremely literally), but in general this feels like a smaller, shallower game than the rest of the series.  It's not bad, and I did enjoy parts, but

The Good

The simplification of certain combat systems is hit or miss, but I enjoyed almost all of the changes. I could easily have my characters pass skills between one another, allowing my Magic Knights to pick up advanced elemental magic learned by my Mages and Skulls and for any character to learn advanced weapon skills at the pace of my strongest user of each weapon.  It's also fun choosing character color and voice samples without resorting to Item World hunts and randomness.  Item World stuff is still crazy, with reverse pirating and whatnot, but I rarely get that deep into Disgaea games.  I still enjoy building up an army of characters, raising them to insane levels, and seeing just how over-the-top everything gets.  DD2 does that, but it's probably not the first game I'd recommend in the series. 

The Bad

I mentioned being disappointed by the plot; even worse, I'm surprised that they dug into Laharl's and Etna's pasts in a meaningful way without a cameo from Vyers or Krichevskoy himself (a major character in Disgaea 1 and Laharl's father, respectively, who are likely the same person).  It seems like a missed opportunity.  The rest of the plot was okay, but the final boss reveal and story payoff never really felt earned and a few plot twists seemed cheap.  WHY exactly did we need a magical girl version of Flonne or a gender-swapped version of Laharl?  There was an entire episode whose plot was "Flonne transforms into a magical girl to find the missing angels, so let's revisit maps from the seven previous episodes."  Uh, no thanks.  And let's never speak of the Netherworld Idol chapter.  Please. 

On top of that story bullshit, there are fewer character classes in DD2 than in any Disgaea game since the original!  I would have liked to see Heavy Knights (staples since Disgaea 2), male Samurai (ditto), Bouncers (exclusive to Disgaea 4, but awesome), Professors (also Disgaea 4, and a perfect choice for a Book-using class), or Majin (in every single Disgaea game except for DD2).  I haven't indulged DD2's endgame very much, but I've heard that parts of it (Dark Sun stages, post-game recruited characters) are reduced or only available via DLC.  Short plot, small cast, simplified mechanics.  At times, DD2 seemed, well, half-assed.

And for better or for worse, DD2 has all the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors.  Unless you unashamedly exploit its quirks in skill and level systems (which I do recommend), these games have a steep difficulty curve that's only remedied by some level of grinding.  Disgaea maps do require strategy, but often it's more about exploiting very specific Geo Panel gimmicks and gaining enough levels to overpower the field.  That appeals to me at some level, but certainly not to everyone, or even most gamers. 
Sight & Sound

Visually DD2 looks as good as Disgaea 4, which is to say the sprites are huge and gorgeous and everything that they should be.  The environments look good, but there aren't very many of them compared to prior Disgaea games.  The home base castle is nice, but I miss the ability to swap it for any map in the game.  That was a really cool bit in Disgaea 4. And I have to say, all Disgaea games are extremely reliant on an anime aesthetic with super-deformed characters and a large number of anime design stereotypes.  Some people can't stand that look, but I enjoy it, or at least have gotten used to it.  The music is another strong outing by the very underrated Tenpei Sato, and the inclusion of several Disgaea 1 tracks is a nice touch of nostalgia, but it's probably not his best soundtrack (that honor, in my opinion, goes to Disgaea 2).  The new voiced songs are good, and the majority of the map tracks are decent or at least not annoying. 

The Verdict

Disgaea D2 is worth trying if you already love Disgaea and want some more, but to a series newcomer or someone with more refined strategy gaming tastes, I'd recommend almost any other game in the series first.  DD2's reliance on a return to older, more familiar mechanics and some degree of prior fandom doesn't always work in its favor.  But even if DD2 is the worst of the five "core" Disgaea games, I hope that parts of it are implemented into the inevitable Disgaea 5. 

Games Beaten: 2013 Edition
1. Persona 4
2. Pokemon White Version 2
3. 10,000,000
4. Persona 4 Arena
5. Persona 3 FES: The Journey (NG+)
6. Hexyz Force
7. Persona 4 (NG+)
8. Psychonauts
9. Tales of Vesperia
10. Guacamelee!
11. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
12. Final Fantasy VI Advance
13. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4
14. inFamous 2 Evil Finish
15. Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis
16. Torchlight II (Classist)
17. Donkey Kong Country Returns
18. DuckTales Remastered
19. Ys vs. Sora no Kiseki: Alternative Saga
20. Diablo III
21. Ys: The Oath in Felghana
22. Ancient Ys Vanished: Omen
23. Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness
24. Ancient Ys Vanished: The Final Chapter
25. Ys Origin

Targets: 6/13


Well, I said I'd make it short and I was totally wrong.  I'll try and make tomorrow's review (Ys II) a little shorter than this one.  I'm in the middle of playing Metroid Prime, and the plan is to try and finish it tomorrow.  Then it's writing one review per day until New Year's. 

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