I didn't play Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories when it was initially released for the PlayStation 2 in 2006; I rather early on bought a next-gen console, so I could play LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga, and henceforth stopped buying PS2 games. Hence I was very eager to finally get a chance to play the second installment of Nippon Ichi's most popular franchise; though released on the PSN store in North America, the rest of the world weren't lucky enough to have the same option.
Now, almost 11 years after its original Japanese release, NIS America brings PC gamers the opportunity to enjoy the second title one of the most successful JRPGs of all time; Disgaea has spawned both an anime and a manga from its humble beginnings as a single video game. Generally, it's the other way around (with the obvious exception of Pokémon), and more often than not, the resulting spin-offs aren't too great. But before I start rambling about disappointing Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragonball and Avatar titles, I'll talk about what you're actually here for- probably. Unless you're here for some delightful British witticisms. I'll try and provide some of those along the way.
Disgaea 2 PC is available on Steam at a base price of £14.99, with 10% off for a limited time.
The game takes place in a universe known only as "The Netherworld"; specifically, on the planet Veldime. You control Adell; a human who has a personal vendetta against an Overlord named Zenon, who is gradually turning everyone in the realm into a demon. Understandably, Adell is not too happy about that; he is the only remaining human in his hometown of Holt- even his family have been demonised, and I'd be pretty PO'd if that happened to my parents and siblings. Even though I have no siblings. I can empathise, guys.
The opening shows Adell's mother (rather appropriately called "mom") attempting to summon Zenon, so that Adell can fight him in one-to-one combat; this results in an explosion from which Zenon's kept daughter, Rozalin, appears instead. As a result of the ritual she is bound to him, and is reluctantly forced into leading Adell to Zenon's mansion in person, the hard way; walking. Ugh.
Along the way, you meet other characters who will join you in your voyage, including Rozalin's servant, Tink, who isn't mad keen on the fact that he's been turned into a frog, and hence wants revenge against Zenon too. Your brother Taro and sister Hanako also tag along, and a few others show up as the story progresses.
The game by default includes all the content previously released as extras for both Cursed Memories and its 2009 PSP remake, Dark Hero Days. This means many other characters can join your adventure from the beginning of the game, as your sister experiments with summoning rituals in her attempts to become a master summoner. These additional characters include a mute celebrity, an in-Universe video game character, a phantom whose spirit is attached to a plunger, and even a future version of herself.
It's an interesting storyline, and has some great laugh-out-loud moments; the game is extremely self-aware, often breaking the fourth wall and pastiching both itself and Japanese culture in general; Hanako jokes that she will grow a significant bust when she ages, Taro postulates that Adell must be the only remaining human simply because he's the main character, while one of the townsfolk, Bridget, clearly mocks the tendency for anime characters to be misconstrued as the wrong gender.
The comedy prevalent in the dialogue is subtle enough that it adds another layer to the charm of the game, without becoming too slapstick or farcical; I'd be willing to bet my life's savings (which are rather limited anyway) that even those disinterested in the game itself will find cause to laugh while listening to the interactions between the characters.
When I first started the game, I had to sit through fifteen minutes of dialogue and cutscenes; at first, I thought it was going to turn out like Beyond: Two Souls or Hatoful Boyfriend; simply pressing buttons and occasionally making a decision. Eventually, though, I was finally able to control Adell, and got my chance to voluntarily talk to everybody in the village, who are all stood doing absolutely nothing, as is the favourite pastime of most RPG NPCs.
Gameplay progresses largely through combat; the game is divided into chapters, with each chapter containing multiple battles interspersed with fully voiced cutscenes. Win a battle, unlock the next one. Rinse and repeat. Each battle can be repeated multiple times in an attempt to earn better rewards or just more experience; I've found it's easier to get larger bonuses with a higher number or more powerful enemies than simple penguins with wings, whose main attack is actually saying "dood" in the most irritating voice penguinly possible; their flurry of sword blows are actually pretty useless, but they are highly successful at making you want to grab one of their weapons and use them to lop off your ears like Vincent Van Gogh.
The hub of Disgaea 2 is Holt Town, to which the player is returned after most battles. Holt town includes pretty much everything a player wants- and more. Stores for weapons, armour and even music; more on that later. There isn't really much exploration involved in Disgaea 2; it's very linear; Holt Town is one of the few opportunities for a peaceful stroll, and the only opportunity to save the game- there is no autosave. I say "peaceful"; as peaceful as wandering around a town populated by demons with the edges of the town stopping abruptly, with every chance of Adell falling off into a big black abyss, can be (I've checked, and Disgaea 2 is definitely not set in the Discworld).
One of the features available in Holt Town is the Dark Assembly; this gives you the chance to alter the game in many ways. You may create custom characters, with a choice of classes including thieves, mages, and warriors, created by spending mana that the player has earned through slaying enemies; in the beginning, characters have relatively low mana, so only weak characters can be created.
Honestly, though, I found that the additional characters that Hanako can summon are a class above those you can create, certainly in the early game, making this feature of the Dark Assembly all but redundant. It's a nice touch, though, and certainly, players in search of more of a challenge would do well to utilise this feature.
The Assembly also works as a sort of courtroom; mana works as currency, and a player may use that mana to attempt to pass bills, such as creating a new character or tripling XP. After selecting a bill randomly generated senators will vote on it; just like real life, senators may be bribed into voting in favour; though some will take offence to this, and as a result, their disposition towards you will decrease. Later on, there is the opportunity for Adell to attempt to become a senator, which makes passing the bills somewhat easier.
It's a very interesting mechanic which can change the shape of the game in subtle ways, making your journey easier or harder, depending on your choices and success in the Assembly.
Also present is the Item World, which must be entered at least once in the story mode, but is used to level up your gear by progressing through generated levels, passing through portals and defeating bosses along the way. While it's probably possible to get a significant way through the game without using it, especially with the additional characters, I'd advise against neglecting this section; if anything, it provides a nice change from the otherwise linear story mode.
It's seriously difficult to approach a JRPG without either Final Fantasy or an installment of the Tales series knocking on the door in the back of my mind (I assume that's where my memory escapes from when I'm not paying attention), however Disgaea does a pretty good job of dispelling any comparisons, with the exception of Final Fantasy Tactics for the original PlayStation. The combat mechanics are actually more reminiscent of a western turn-based strategy game like Blood Bowl, one of the many video games set in Games Workshop's Warhammer universe. Indeed, both Blood Bowl and Tactics have a very similar dynamic to the Disgaea franchise; combat is largely turn-based, and this installment is no exception- why should it be? There are spaces on the battlefield in which you can place a character in battle (up to a maximum of 10, though sometimes that can honestly be too many), and each character has their own varying movement speeds and areas of effect for their attacks and abilities- think of it almost like a giant, irregular chessboard, but more exciting, because it's not chess.
On your turn, you delegate what each of the characters is going to do individually; you can move each of them once, and then attack a target if they're in range (or, if you're particularly idiotic, your teammates), use an effect (such as heal), or lift and throw things. This is an ability only humans can use (sorry, Tink!), and can lead to some interesting strategies; your teammates can be thrown so they can cover more distance (something that would have been helpful for me to realise much earlier on), monsters can be hurled away (forcing them to waste movement on their turn), marooning them on islands, or even merging them together in some bizarre trauma-induced polymerisation.
Its most common use, however, is to move devices known as geo symbols; these are objects that alter the terrain of the battlefield in both beneficial and detrimental ways, such as adding bonus experience for defeating an enemy while standing on a geo panel, or bolstering those enemies' statistics (that's bad, if you haven't guessed).
Throwing geo symbols onto panels of a different colour, for example, a red symbol onto a blue panel, and then destroying that symbol by attacking it, leads to the panels changing colour, which alters their effect. However, instead of creating orange, as you might expect from adding red to blue, you would create one hell of an explosion, which damages anyone stood on a panel. It's advisable to keep as many of your team off said panels if you're planning on reenacting a Michael Bay action sequence.
Team combos can occur when multiple characters are stood adjacent to each other; these come in the form of team attacks, chains, or tower attacks, in which characters attack an enemy that has become involuntarily airborne (i.e. you've picked them up). Utilising these tactics can maximise damage dealt to your opponents, hopefully defeating them before they have the chance to counter. Sometimes, a combat participant may riposte, causing damage to their attacker; this can be followed by a counter-counter. In fact, depending on play style and the power of your enemies, there may end up being more counters than a game of tiddlywinks.
You can easily play the master architect of every encounter, but just surrounding an enemy with multiple characters can often lead to combos accidentally, without any cunning or forethought; this means that new players are at no disadvantage, as they can learn the mechanics of combat while progressing through the game- there is ample time to do so, considering Disgaea 2 is largely fighting and cutscenes.
While it may initially appear intimidating, you should quickly learn the mechanics of combat; it's very easy to become overwhelmed with stats and different abilities early on, and certainly bringing out too many allies on such a small map can just result in a confusing clusterf**k in which you can easily lose track of what everybody's doing; but once you get the hang of it, your concentration can turn to developing the best strategies to maximise your effectiveness and the bonuses you can obtain from battle.
Graphics and Audio
Upon loading Disgaea 2, you are immediately greeted with a warning telling you to keep a safe distance from the TV; not-at-all-subtly combining safety guidelines with story. This immediately leads into a title sequence which could easily be ripped straight from an anime. In a sense, that's what Disgaea is; I can easily picture the story of this game in television form; Nippon Ichi has already proven they can do this with Makai Senki Disgaea, an adaptation of first game Hour of Darkness.
Like most opening sequences, it comes complete with a catchy theme and stunning but slightly confusing visual sequences, potentially hinting at what might be to come (I won't spoil anything further in this review). This title sequence, however, is merely a straight clone of the one from Cursed Memories and Dark Hero Days; it's even presented in 4:3, in stark contrast to the rest of the game.
The actual game is played from an isometric viewpoint, strongly reminiscent of games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing; indeed, it's important to remember this was originally produced in around the same era, and there have been no major stylistic alterations since its debut on the PlayStation 2.
In my opinion, the graphics are Disgaea's biggest pitfall (besides those surrounding Holt Town). With the exception of cutscenes, which consist of text and character portrait overlays, everything in the game; from buildings to weapons to people; are sprites. This means, for the most part, that everything appears grainy or blurry; more PlayStation or Game Boy Advance standard, but true to the original version. While I understand that this is essentially a port of an eleven year old console game, attempting to maintain the charm of the original game, in today's era it seems a little outmoded. It's not trying to be a 2D platformer like Terraria or Shovel Knight; games which capture the quintessential charm of retro games; hence its deliberate decision to maintain the original 3D rendering of sprites just feels, to me, wrong. If they were really going to stick with the nostalgia vibe, then their decision to upscale everything into HD 16:9 seems a little pointless. Though that is just my opinion, which is equally as pointless.
What's worse is that it's inconsistent. In the Summoning Experiments section, half of the objects that Hanako throws into the pot like a prepubescent witch from Macbeth are crystal clear 3D objects, a stark contrast to everything else in the game, from the characters to the terrain. It just comes across as an attempt at turning a PS2 game into a natively high definition game, but the higher resolution just makes the sprites look older and less polished than later installments of the franchise; what was considered acceptable for the PlayStation 2 era is generally no longer acceptable by today's standard, when gamers, especially on PC, demand high quality 60 FPS games (the exception being those deliberately designed to be pixel-based).
The nature of its appearance does, however, mean that the game runs smoothly; there is no real animation involved; sprites just change their shape in reaction to what they're saying or hearing. Often this comes across as if they're sneezing, yawning, or opera singing; none of which they're actually doing. Unless Disgaea 2 is one big musical; but the voice acting suggests otherwise.
I acknowledge Nippon Ichi's conscious decision to retain the same graphics as the PlayStation 2 era; it just raises the question to me, why has it taken so long to come to the PC? Square Enix have been taking time adapting all time classic Final Fantasy VII with modern day graphics, after their straight PC port was, frankly, crap; yet Nippon Ichi has done little to change the appearance of Disgaea 2. It seems to me as if most of the work they've done is in making the game playable with keyboard and mouse; the game is still just as playable with a controller, though, as it was originally designed.
It is important however to clarify that the graphics in no way detract from the fun of the game. Disgaea 2 is mostly story-driven, so you should not make the purchase judged on graphical appearance alone; as I have made the mistake of doing myself in the past. It might look more Citroen Picasso than Pablo Picasso, but don't let that stop you from picking it up.
The story cutscenes are all fully voiced in English, and the voice acting is actually quite good, for an English dub. The actors are expressive and charismatic, and although there are often awkward pauses in between dialogue, as the camera clunkily shifts and a sprite's pose is changed, the cast does an alright job in realising the characters. Of course, an anime dub is rarely better than the original (one exception that springs to mind is the brilliant Hetalia- "Heil Jesus in Deutschland!" being a hilarious dub exclusive). Unfortunately, however, there is no choice to hear the original Japanese voices with translation in the English language release; at least, not that I have found. So considering you're forced into hearing a dub, and that this is a video game subject to less censorship than many animes, the experience is not that bad; I've certainly heard worse.
Almost every minute of the game is accompanied by a musical score; whilst none are as memorable as the opening theme, each piece creates a good atmosphere fitting to the situation; suspense in battle, humour in conversation, or an air of intimidation, in cutscenes involving Overlord Zenon and other assorted evil people. Whilst perhaps not as iconic as some soundtracks like Final Fantasy and Pokémon, Disgaea 2 has a nonetheless enjoyable and good quality instrumental soundtrack to add to the milieu.
The aforementioned Music Shop allows you to select particular tracks that you've heard whilst playing, and play them instead of the default soundtrack. This is a nice touch that means if you find a particular piece of music enjoyable, you can choose to listen to it in other places, too- if it doesn't drive you too insane. Honestly, I haven't come across any one track which I've found disagreeable and wanted to substitute to for another, nor any standout track which I prefer above the others; with the exception of the title song, which would quickly become annoying if it was the only thing I heard throughout the game. The music has been sculpted in every instance so it matches a particular tone, and having a bouncy tune in the middle of a difficult boss fight would simply ruin the moment and reduce the immersion.
Disgaea 2 is definitely an enjoyable experience if you're into story-driven games or JRPGs in general. However, there is very little (if any) in the way of open-world exploration, so if you're expecting something along the lines of Final Fantasy, you'll be disappointed. Equally, if you're not into combat or turn-based strategies, you should probably give it a miss; it's essentially all that the gameplay consists of.
While I seem to be ruling out a lot of people and insinuating that the game is niche, I actually think it's just the opposite; the story is much more interesting than many Western titles, and it's sprinkled with humour which will connect with both anime/JRPG fans and the uninitiated alike. Often, I found myself wanting to speed through the combat as quickly as possible (to the detriment of strategy and progress), just so that I could see what happens next.
Disgaea 2 PC has a perfectly acceptable reduced price tag of £14.99; had it been a full-price game, I would have found its appearance, personally, unacceptable, but its retail price places it amongst numerous indie titles and older games. It's definitely worth a purchase if you like JRPGs and even turn-based strategies, and obviously, if you've liked other titles in the series, then it's a no-brainer. As a port, it's very good and runs smoothly (though for me, every time I quit the game, it decided to stop responding; whilst irritating, that's the point of quitting anyway).
However, if you've played Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories or Dark Hero Days, and still own it, I'd suggest waiting until you find this version cheap, perhaps in the Steam Summer Sale; as far as I can tell, there's no brand-new content added exclusively for the PC version. which means that buying it again would simply be a nostalgia trip. In the meantime, I advise you dust down your old PS2 or PSP and play that instead; but If you no longer own those and miss playing it, then Nippon Ichi have produced the perfect solution, for new and returning gamers alike.
|+ Entertaining story||– Nothing new- it's just a port|
|+ In depth combat and RPG elements||– Linear gameplay|
|+ Lots to do||– Outdated graphics may be a put-off for some|
|+ Good soundtrack|