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The Strategy RPG genre ( or “Franchise Name + Tactics” as we know it outside of Japan) has been around for a very long time. Making a surprising home on consoles as opposed to PCs, simple games like Nintendo Wars evolved into easy licensed cash-ins for properties such as Tenchi Muyo or the early Robot Wars titles and complex stat machines like Front Mission or the much beloved Final Fantasy Tactics.
Regardless of the developer, setting, license, or style, SRPGs generally share more in common than titles in nearly any other genre. Taking a low level view of a traditional RPG combat sequence, you control a group of characters and move them through a play field where concerns such as cover, facing relative to the enemy, and position can be manipulated to influence the outcome of the battle. Your characters level up in a traditional sense and you use resources won in combat to arm your little troupe. Generally an RPG where the world exploration element is swapped out for a more complex combat system. Heroes vs Villains fodder, great for the masses.
And then there is Disgaea, the game series where all of the SRPG tropes are at once both relevant and true but also completely ignored and broken for the sake of ignoring and breaking them.
Developer Nippon Ichi Software (NIS) had always had a leaning towards wacky or irreverent games and developed a decent enough following in Japan to keep the lights on in their offices. Their first hit (and first significant game released overseas) was Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure for the Playstation. This game showcased NIS’ growing interest in bending the SRPG genre with non-traditional elements. A later release in the genre, La Pucelle Tactics became a large hit and began establishing the “Netherworld” concept and setting that the developer would become famous for.
Both of these games were incremental steps towards a title that the developer would release in 2002 for the then-new Playstation 2. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness was a tongue-in-cheek rejection of every SRPG trope that had ever defined the genre. With a cast of protagonists that are morally objectionable at best, a game system that openly invites the player to play in a way that would constitute cheating in any other game, and a character progression system that pays no attention to difficulty scaling whatsoever, Disgaea stood out enough that it became both the flagship franchise for NIS and influenced a genre that (in the West at least) was awaiting a Final Fantasy Tactics sequel that was never going to be made.
It would be impossible to explain the nuance of the series’ gameplay in a couple of paragraphs, even were we to focus on just one title in the series but we can sum up the ways the series deviates from the SRPG genre.
In any given battle, either a statically defined battle that a player encounters during the main story or a procedurally generated combat in the series’ many side modes, a Disgaea combat revolves around two concepts – over power your enemy and use/avoid environmental influences from geoprisms that cause portions of the map to have effects as mundane as lowering a characters defense or as wacky as cloning that character and creating a new enemy every turn.
How the player deals with this is entirely up to them – in Disgaea, there is no ‘wrong’ way to build your team. You can power-level your characters in the game’s re-playable story levels or risk trips to Item World where you battle randomly generated levels hoping to get rare items and power up weapons or armor. You can build an army around themes or concepts, create friendly versions of monsters to fill out your ranks. Unless you are determined to min/max the game, it is entirely up to you how to proceed.
Tactics in battle are uniquely Disgaea. You are able to throw enemies and characters around the map to take advantage of terrain or extend a characters movement. You can move characters into positions to help another character during their attack and then cancel those movements and start over with every character that has not taken an action. You can force enemies to level up to make a combat worth your time. You can even come back to ‘unbeatable’ story battles later on in the game when you are stronger (levels top out at 9999!) to actually win the fight and force different outcomes. This Disgaea series revels in being as nonconformist as possible and the only thing that limits a player will be their imagination and if their characters have any business being on a given map at a given time.
Usually the Together Retro group focuses on a given game in a series. This month, we will try something a little different. As each title in the Disgaea series (with one exception) focuses on a different protagonist and story, Together Retro is going to focus on the series as a whole with participants choosing the title that interests them the most for the platform they prefer.
Disagea: Hour of Darkness
The original game is available for the Playstation 2 on disc or Playstation 3 as a download. Enhanced versions are available digitally on the PSP (and by extension the PS Vita and PS Vita TV). A somewhat reduced version f the game was released on the Nintendo DS. It was also released last year on Steam.
The first game is great choice for any players looking to get to know the series’ setting or be introduced to the iconic cast of characters the title featured. In terms of its gameplay systems, the first Disgaea introduced important features such as character lifting, item world, and ridiculous level caps but is arguably the most traditional of the entire series.
Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories
The second title is available for all the platforms the first is on, with the exception of the Nintendo DS. Once again, the original game is on the Playstation 2 and other platform releases were enhanced with more content.
The sequel that proved the series is not a one-off. Disgaea 2 has a much more friendly UI and several complicated environmental systems such as moving geoprisms, the Dark Sun, and Item World Pirates. Cursed Memories can be played as a standalone title but there are story elements from Hour of Darkness that can inject a lot of humor into the title for players familiar with the original.
Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice
The 3rd title is available on the PS3, both as a standalone title and as part of an excellently priced collection. An enhanced version of Disgaea 3 was released on the PS Vita with additional content and DLC.
Disgaea 3 moves away some from the ‘Universe as a whole is on the line’ concept and focuses more on interpersonal relationships between a son and his father. Inspection of familial bonds is pretty ridiculous when the characters are demons proud of their evil nature but you don’t get to pick your family, right? Disgaea 3 introduces systems where characters are able to effectively fuse (as opposed to just attacking together) and has a larger emphasis on team work.
Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten
Disgaea 4 is available on all the platforms Disgaea 3 is available on.
A Promise Unforgotten is essentially the 3rd title’s systems plus a politically themed story-line. Disagea 4 is most well known for its protagonist Valvatorez, a Vampire leading a coup against the government of his Netherworld. Notable additions to Disgaea 4 are an online mode where you can send your army out to ‘battle’ with other players and a map creation tool.
Disgaea D2 is available on the Playstation 3.
A return to the original Disgaea cast with a theme of reclaiming lost power. The game’s systems are evolutions of the original title’s so it is a great choice for any players who already went through the original title but strayed away from the series.
Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance
Disgaea 5 is available on the Playstation 4 and the most current release in the series.
The theme of Disgaea 5 is vengeance. Whereas the previous Disgaea titles acknowledged the existence of other Netherworlds than the one the title took place in, interaction with other demon realms was largely regulated to side-quests and ‘What-if?’ battles. In Disgaea 5, multiple Netherworld Overlords rise up against a supreme overlord marking the first time that the story in a Disgaea title involved team work between established Netherworld Leaders.
As you begin to game the system, break the rules, and do whatever it takes to over power your enemies and send them to hell (you’re a demon, after all), let everyone know what you think of the series or if you have any questions on how best to get through these monster games in the forum.