Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness Review

Disgaea D2 BoxDisgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness (Available only on PlayStation 3)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Strategy/RPG
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Release Date: October 8th, 2013

Parent Talk: Disgaea is filled with character archetypes and comedy tropes that should resonate with any anime fan, though the sexual innuendos and more offbeat humor may make some jokes too crude for children. Most of the humor is taken from clever wordplay and (sometimes groan-inducing) puns, making it great for the anime lover in the family.

Plays Like: If you’ve played previous entries into the main Disgaea line, you should have an understanding of how this game works. D2 is a direct sequel to the first game in the series, though it does take into account the tweaks of the later entries (not counting the Prinny-focused action games or the visual novel PSP game). Basically, the game is a series of battles that occur on a chessboard-like environment. There are no places to explore or towns to visit; you simply power up your characters, watch cutscenes, and then play the next map. It sounds simple but it’s so incredibly deep and complex it would take hundreds and hundreds of hours to see all the game has to offer.

Review Basis: Completed the game once, currently on a second play-through.

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I never expected Disgaea to become the recognizable fan-favorite franchise it’s become today. When the first game, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, came out for the PlayStation 2 back in 2004, I expected it would become a beloved cult-favorite, destined to be lost to time and then home on many “Best of PS2” and “Games We Wish Had Sequels” list. I was certainly wrong. The lovable, offbeat (and admittedly bizarre) comedy, great characters, and dizzyingly deep combat and character customization not only made it a hit, but led to sequels, spin-offs, merchandise, an anime series, manga, and much more. Disgaea has become so popular that the Prinny, the hilarious penguin-like demons featured in the games, have basically become the de facto mascot of Nippon Ichi Software. Still, after all this time and all of the sequels, ports, and spinoffs, I’m amazed it’s taken this long to make a true-to-form sequel to the original game. D2 features the cast of the first game, back in action after nearly a decade. Laharl, Flonne, and Etna are without a doubt the most popular characters the franchise has to offer, so it’s great to see them return.

Even if you’ve only played the original game, you can dive into this one quite comfortably. All of the core entries in the series are turn-based strategy RPGs akin to Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem. If you haven’t played a game in the series before, you may be completely unable to follow the plot, but it’s still a fun ride. There are no towns to visit or vast fields to explore; instead, it’s all about character customization, grinding, and battles. Characters move on a map laid out like a chessboard, attacking enemies with a variety of magic, weapons, and skills. What makes the series so compelling though, is the sheer depth it has to offer. In addition to the main characters, each of which with their own special skills, you can create a number of other characters and develop them in a myriad of ways. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Great: An intricately laid out game. The basic flow of the game goes like this: 1) Watch a cutscene introducing the chapter. 2) Battle on a map. 3) Access new map. 4) Repeat a few times. 5) Fight boss. 6) End cutscene. It sounds simple, but the combat and character building is what makes the game so interesting. There are tons of possible character types you can create, including: Warrior, Skull, Witch, Healer, Thief, Gunner, Ninja, Samurai, Brawler, Archer, Magic Knight, Shaman, and much more, including monsters. When a character is created, he or she is set at a certain proficiency level, such as Good-for-Nothing, Incompetent, Skilled, and Genius.

Higher proficiency levels take more mana, which you get from winning battles and performing actions, but ensure the characters will have better growth. You can also promote characters to better class types once they are unlocked. You can also choose to reincarnate characters at level 1, to improve their stat growth patterns. That’s not including the smorgasbord of options available to you via the Dark Assembly courtroom. You can recruit special characters by fighting them in special missions and then maintain their growth with meticulous detail. Not only do characters level up, but they also can gain proficiency in different weapon types and gain experience in specific skills. That’s still not all of it.

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The Good:

+ A brilliant cast of characters. Laharl, Flonne, and Etna are some of the best characters that the series has to offer and I’d make the argument that they are some of the most memorable RPG characters of all time. Laharl is the son of the previous Overlord, King Krichevskoy. In the first game, the story was all about Laharl rising up to become the Overlord himself, and find out what happened to his mother along the way. He also befriends an angel named Flonne. And then we have a series of offbeat jokes, references to Super Sentai hero action shows, references to anime, nonsensical character dialog and humor, terrible puns, and more. It’s wonderful. The characters are back in full force and are just as lovable as ever.

The voice work, both in English and Japanese, is just spot on and captures the spirit of these characters perfectly. Case in point: the beginning of the game opens with Laharl riding a meteor that crashes into a flower garden that Flonne is tending to. Laharl laughs maniacally as it crashes into the ground. When Flonne says she’s angry, Laharl just comments that he’s the Overlord so it’s ok. Sicily, one of the new characters central to the story, fits in well with the cast. The plot of this game is about a group of schemers threatening to overthrow Laharl as the Overlord, the mysterious Sicily who claims to be Laharl’s younger sister, and the potential war between Celestia and the Netherworld.

+ A fun, nonsensical world. What makes the Disgaea series so lovable is the quirky sense of humor. It’s difficult to tread the line between groan-worthy and hilarious, but the game manages to do so well most of the time. It tends to be mostly juvenile, but there are some hilarious moments, especially all of the weapon descriptions. Puns abound! Like the original game though, it still balances out with a narrative that has weighty overtones. Most of the game is about accepting your family and reconnecting with lost loved ones. Laharl paints himself as a ruthless villain, but he actually cares deeply about his family. It’s that juxtaposition that makes the game interesting.

+ Character Maker is more intricate than before. This time around, you can choose between three different personality types for the character, which will change that unit’s passive bonus (called “evility” in this game), voice, and other characteristics.

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+ The Master/Apprentice system allows you to develop characters in the way you want. Do you want your spellcaster to learn some healing spells? Then have him serve as an apprentice to a healer!

+ The Demon Dojo also lets you develop your characters in the way you see fit. When you start, only certain sections of the dojo are open. For example, you can raise your characters’ HP or SP by making them train in the corresponding sections of the dojo. That way, when they level up, they will gain extra bonuses to those areas. By using the Dojo more often, you get new areas to train in (which gives you new opportunities for character growth) and more character slots per each spot in the Dojo.

+ The Cheat Shop allows you to fine-tune your preferences even further. Do you desperately need more mana, but you have more money than you know what to do with? Then adjust the settings so that you receive more mana at the cost of less money! You can even make the game harder by disabling certain features, like team combination attacks.

+ Geo Panels, team combination attacks, likability, and more!  Very few of the battles in this game are cut and dry. Not only do you have to account for your enemies’ attack patterns and movements, but you have to consider whether they will attempt to do a team attack on you, if the Geo Panel effects work to your favor or against you, and more. For example, you may have one section that gives you a boost to experience points—but enemies have higher damage output. Do you risk getting hurt for the sake of more experience? Or do you just destroy the Geo Panel? Or do you throw it to another part of the map to change what section the effects correspond to? Furthermore, you also have to consider how well your teammates get along. If you frequently pair units up together, they will like each other more. This means they will engage in team combination attacks more frequently. Or, if you’re on the receiving end of damage, an ally might step in and brace the attack for you if he or she likes you enough.

+ The Item World. If all of that wasn’t enough—skills, character classes, Geo Panels, and more—you can also level up your items and make them more potent! You see, each item basically hosts a dungeon. Different items have a different number of floors and guardians. If you can defeat the guardians and get to lower floors, you can power up your items. You can get all the way to level 9999!

+ Intricate balance and management. All of these mechanics are deep and profound, but the game carefully treads between spoon-feeding you details and ignoring it completely. The result is a game that manages to quickly instruct the player in a simple, unobtrusive way. For example, learning how to throw and stack characters is crucial to completing certain maps. The game teaches you the mechanic early on and encourages you to experiment.

+ Previous characters return in DLC. Fuka and Desco, two characters from Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten, are currently available to download, and more will be coming, some of which from games outside of the Disgaea series. For example, Gig (one of my personal favorites) from the game Soul Nomad and the World Eaters is slated to be a DLC character.

+ The HD sprites, character designs, and colorful presentation all look great. While the field graphics are nothing special, and the castle hub is somewhat plain, the character designs are really what stand out. The series is not particularly well-known for offering more advanced visuals, say as in a game like Ni No Kuni, but the colorful presentation and characters are packed with charm and personality. Unfortunately, unlike Disgaea 4, there is no option to toggle between the old-style sprites and new HD sprites, though it’s not much of a loss. There is a free DLC pack that allows you to use the original designs/outfits for the main characters though.

+ Great audio. Both the English and Japanese voice tracks are available, and both are great. When playing in English, some of the grunts and in-battle dialog isn’t translated, but the main performances are great and are in keeping with the character. The music is fun to listen to, and fans of the original game may recognize several tracks.

+ Extra missions. If you take the time to visit the Dark Assembly between missions, you may notice special options available to Laharl. If you successful convince the senators to vote in your favor, you’ll have access to new areas. These bonus missions don’t just let you battle on a new map; they also have special story cutscenes and allow you to recruit a bonus character to your party.

+ Multiple endings and New Game +. Playing through the game once takes dedication and patience. Completing the game multiple times offers extra incentive for the truly hardcore. Also, if you complete the game, you can carry over your party, gear, and levels, so that you can raise your characters to even greater levels.

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The Bad:

-The plot and characters are difficult to follow and care about it if you are not invested in the series. Laharl, Etna, and Flonne aren’t given much introduction in this game, so the expectation is that you are familiar with the world of Disgaea from the get-go. On the other hand, longtime fans might appreciate the fact that the game doesn’t waste time re-introducing the cast or treading over known territory. Also, because the original game is available on PSN, there isn’t much of a reason not to dive in.

-The adventure isn’t quite as memorable as the first. Sicily is a lovable character and I did genuinely enjoy the new story, but the story doesn’t quite live up to the original. It’s probably one of the weakest parts of the game. The story and gameplay are both great, but just not as great as the first. It tends to retread familiar ground. Even with the new gameplay tweaks, people who have played previous entries may already feel as though they’ve played this one before. Still, that should be taken in context—it’s still a wonderful game, one most certainly worth playing, just not as excellent as the first game. Trying to top the first game would be like capturing lightning in a bottle.  While this sequel plays it safe, it still manages to be fun and charming.

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The Lowdown:

If you like strategy RPGs, niche Japanese games, or games with a bizarre comedic style, Disgaea D2 is perfect for you. If you’re feeling burned out by lengthy strategy RPGs or simply don’t wish to invest that much into a game, this adventure might be a hard sell. But this entry sits comfortably alongside its contemporaries as one of the better strategy RPGs available.

Score: 8.5/10

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