Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days Review

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Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days [PSP]
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Strategy RPG
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: NIS
Release Date: September 8, 2009

I’ve played a lot of games from NIS America in the past few months, and I’m pleased to say that each one I’ve reviewed has been better than the last. From the mediocre Cross Edge I moved on to the excellent Mana Khemia 2: Alchemists of Al Revis (Steven also praised Phantom Brave), and I’ve now arrived at Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days for the PSP. I can happily admit that it’s the best of the bunch to date.

Dark Hero Days is a remake of 2006’s PS2 classic, Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories. So, is this iteration three years too late? Not at all. In fact, it’s a perfect addition to the Playstation Portable library. If you own the original game then you’re best off sticking with it unless you’ve got the money to spare, but if you’re a PSP owner looking for a great value game that’ll give you hours upon hours of fun, look no further.

The story in Dark Hero Days is hysterically funny. I’m amazed that more developers haven’t attempted to copycat the Disgaea style of storytelling since the first game’s debut, because it truly is excellent. Basically, the game throws you into a narrative about a group of sarcastic heroes and anti-heroes who are on a quest to satisfy their selfless or selfish intentions (depending on the character, as well as their feelings at a particular moment in time).

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Dark Hero Days features the same main story as its PS2 counterpart. Overlord Zenon has succeeded in turning all of the world’s people into demons, barring a lone human named Adell. At the beginning of the game, Adell and his comrades are trying to summon Overlord Zenon (humorously at the expense of his friends, who are being used as sacrificial tributes), but when the attempt goes wrong, they end up with his daughter Rozalin instead. Rozalin happens to be rather whiny and self-absorbed, and compliments the sarcastic and hard-headed Adell rather well. Bound by the rites of summoning, the two set out together on a quest to locate Zenon with conflicting objectives and a bitter outlook on their forced partnership. A crazy story unfolds as they run into all sorts of demon friends and foes, all of them rather eccentric and a handful of them downright bizarre. The true pleasure of the story is in the witty, edgy brand of humour that permeates the dialogue. It’s pure gold, and though your mum may not find some of the more mature humour all that funny, I enjoyed every line.

I’ve never been a regular player of turn-based strategy games, but on occasion I do indulge and usually find myself dangerously hooked. Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem are among the games that have kept me up late at night and prevented me from getting my work done in a timely manner over the years, and Dark Hero Days has the honour of joining that brief but infamous list. If you’re familiar with the turn-based battles carried out on grids in strategy RPGs but haven’t played a game in the Disgaea series, you have another thing coming for you.

Disgaea titles take the general complexity of their genre and ramp it up the wall. In addition to the staggering variety of equipment, the weaknesses and strengths of each class type and attack type, the importance of positioning your characters in strategic places on the map, and other typical strategy RPG factors, a multitude of further nuances are introduced. For instance, you can throw both teammates and enemies to open up the tactics of a match, so perhaps you’ll want to toss an enemy in front of a friend to take advantage of the fact that your characters’ attacks are stronger if they don’t use their allotted move during the turn. Maybe you’ll take advantage of the game’s “Geo Panels” (coloured areas of the map that affect the status of the characters standing on them) in order to mount a high-powered assault, or maybe you’ll try to lure the enemy out of their strong spots to increase your odds. Hell, maybe you’ll even destroy a certain “Geo Symbol” (physical artifacts that power the Geo Panels) to damage anyone standing on its respective Geo Panel, completely changing the playing field in the process. Instead of going on and on, I’ll wrap up the entire battle system in three words: complicated but rewarding.

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Dark Hero Days is fairly straightforward outside of battle. From an overarching world hub you go about your different missions in typical strategy-RPG form. However, the world is governed by an organization called the “Dark Assembly” that has a profound impact on gameplay. They’re essentially a legislative branch of government that can be influenced by the player. That said, you’re able to propose bills to them that will aid you in your adventure should they be approved. The more beneficial the bill, the more difficult it is to get that precious stamp of approval. Of course, you can always bribe Assembly members to help you out if you have the proper leverage.

Dark Hero Days isn’t intended for casual gamers. Not at all. In fact, it’s tailored specifically for the hardcore, a fact that’s even lauded in the game’s marketing efforts. The level of strategy required to emerge victorious in battles significantly increases as the game progresses and, regardless of your skill level, a ton of level grinding becomes mandatory routine as soon as you get past the opening tutorials and the first handful of missions. There’s no doubt about it: this is a love letter to the dedicated strategy RPG fans of the world. That said, I’ve come to favour shorter, easier games in the past few years (partly due to time constraints), and I was still eager to sink my teeth into Dark Hero Days. As long as you’re in for a challenge and a time sink, I think that anyone can get into this game.

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Should you choose to enlist in the Disgaea universe, the control interface is quite user-friendly. At face level, that is. The depth beneath the surface is not. Endless menus and number crunching await those who wish to truly enjoy and excel at the game. It’s not a design flaw, it’s simply how the game is meant to be played. The complex gameplay necessitates complex options. My only real complaint about the controls is partially a graphical concern, and it’s with regard to the camera. Fixed viewpoints without environmental transparency aren’t doing anyone a favour. Yes, you can rotate the camera to view the environment from four different directions, but in areas with a lot of buildings or trees this can still be problematic. A free-roaming camera, an interchangeable overhead perspective, or better use of transparency are all viable options for the development team if they wish to improve the game in this regard.

Disgaea 3 got a lot of flack when it came out for the PS3 because the visuals were a generation behind in the eyes of many critics. I won’t be saying the same thing about this port of Disgaea 2 because, graphically, it’s a perfect fit for the PSP. Apart from the camera issue I mentioned above, everything is rendered nicely and the glitches are few and far between. The game has a quasi-3D look going on for it, wherein two-dimensional sprites are laid overtop 3D environments. If you’ve played any game from NIS in the past the past decade, there’s a very good chance it looks a lot like this. It’s just about time for some artistic reinvention, but the style holds up nicely on Sony’s portable. You’ve simply got to love the colourful, manga-style sprites and character profiles. Same goes for the sound design. It’s cheery and upbeat, but also commands a level of depth that reflects the dialogue. As is customary in games localized by NIS America, the Japanese voice work is included as an option for your listening pleasure.

If you already own Disgaea 2 on the Playstation 2, you’re probably wondering what makes purchasing this remake worthwhile. The truth is, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re seriously hardcore. Then again, if you’re still reading this, chances are that you’re pretty hardcore. In addition to portability, Dark Hero Days’ main addition is a story extension featuring Axel. If you know who Axel is and find yourself intrigued by the idea of brand new story segments, it’s becoming even more likely that you owe it to yourself to get this game. Also, the Magichange ability from Disgaea 3 has been retrofitted into Dark Hero Days so that monster allies can be transformed into weapons. It’s a nice touch, and I found it quite satisfying. There are a few other minor inclusions (such as new playable characters), but those are the big two.

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The ultimate question: do the few add-ons make the game worth purchasing all over again? It’s your call, but if you haven’t experienced Disgaea 2 before then you simply must purchase this game. Multiple endings, hidden secrets, and endless “item worlds” (there are entire worlds within each item!) flesh out the experience well beyond other games in the genre, and give you unparalleled hours of gameplay for a comparably modest asking price. Due to the complexity of Dark Hero Days I’ve been forced to give you a fairly general overview of the game, but if you have any questions please ask and I can provide an answer for you. But most importantly, go out there and buy this instant classic!

Story: 9/10
Gameplay: 9.5/10
Controls: 8.5/10
Graphics: 8/10
Sound: 8/10
Replay: 10/10

Final Score (not an average): 8.7/10

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