I know I said that I’d review Super Mario 3D World today, and that reviewing an older, more niche game isn’t exactly going to win me an audience, but I have stronger feelings for this game. Now that I often only have one slot a week, I have to be more selective with reviews. Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness is a direct follow up to the original Disgaea game released on the PS2. All of the other numbered Disgaea games followed a completely cast (or semi-completely in Disgaea 2’s case). D2 brings back Prince Laharl as the main character along with his friends Etna and Flonne. Despite only headlining the original game, these characters have proven to be more pervasive throughout the series than any other (who even cares about Adell?). While Disgaea D2 brings major improvements to the franchise, it also fails to justify its existence, which is troubling to say the least.
Gameplay has always been the Disgaea series’ main selling point so I’ll start there. Disgaea is a grid-based strategy RPG in the same vein as Ogre Tactics and Final Fantasy Tactics. You are able to deploy units from your base, move them about the map and select enemies to attack during your turn. When you’ve finished moving your team, the enemy has their chance to take a crack at you. Outside of combat, you create new units, customize equipment and abilities, and generally make your old units better. Levels are acquired by various means, often killing enemies or healing allies, but sometimes as rewards for completing stages. As you get stronger, you’ll learn weapon skills based on the weapon you have equipped. Each skill has its own level, which increases with use as well as having unique costs, area of effects, and strength. It’s easier to grasp when playing than through description.
This all sounds basic, and, for newcomers, it can be. However, Disgaea is a hardcore series for a reason and there is enough depth in its combat and levelling system to keep people busy for years. Returning from older games are weapon skill levels. Now, as you use the same weapon type, you’ll gain levels which unlocks more weapon skills as well as tagging a 3% stat bonus from using that weapon per level. As the level caps out at 255 and it takes a huge time investment to bring your characters to level 21 without shortcuts, this can take awhile. On top of this, each character has a special ability called an Evility. Unlike previous games, Evilities in D2 are almost all game-changers. For example, Laharl’s default Evility gives him a 10% stat boost per kill on any given map. Non-story characters give you the choice of three different Evilities upon creation. For example, a Witch has an Evility that reduces SP costs of spells by 50%, one which gives her a 10% SP recovery per turn, and one that turns her into a quasi-blood mage who uses HP to cast spells when her SP is inadequate. Since their introduction into the series, most Evilities have been useless or niche. D2 is the first game where the vast majority are incredibly powerful, which makes toying around with character creation even more interesting.
A major new addition to D2 is how they handle monsters. In the original game, monsters were useless, while humanoid characters reigned supreme. This was due several factors, chiefly because monsters don’t have weapon proficiency and thus lose the massive stat bonus. They fixed this issue by giving monsters a stat boost based on level so that it’s comparable to humanoid characters with good proficiency. In previous Disgaea games, starting with Disgaea 3, you could turn a monster into a weapon for use by a character. This has been removed, and good riddance. Magichange, as it was called, was next to useless for all parts of the game. In its place, humanoid characters can now ride monsters. The human can cast spells or attack regularly, while being given the extra buffer of the monster’s health points, new combination moves, and the monster’s movement stat. This can be useful right out of the gate by combining human mages with tanky, or fast-moving monsters.
The largest change to D2, though, is how streamlined the game is. Due note, most of this paragraph will be meaningless if you’ve never played the series. For you, just trust me that the game is more accessible than previous games. In fact, it is easily the most accessible game in the series. Early on, you gain access to a cheat shop, which allows you to set values for certain gains such as EXP, as well as fiddle around with other settings. You only have so many points, however, so for higher experience gains you may end up cutting into the amount of money you get from clearing stages. The cheat shop is also where you can adjust enemy strength, which means no more wasting time in the assembly endlessly passing enemy strength and weakness bills. The item world, which is the bread and butter of the post game, has also been greatly improved. Now, you will be given an exit item every time you enter, so players will no longer need to farm item generals for them. Innocents can be removed from items and placed in an innocent warehouse, and the size of the item world can be altered to facilitate quick runs. Speaking of warehouses, there is no longer a limit to how many items you can carry and everything is organized into categories in your inventory. These are just a few of many of the major convenient changes, which make the game far more enjoyable. Due to these changes, you’ll go from level 1 weakling with a pot shield to a level 9999 god with a level 999 (yeah there’s a new level cap for items) sword even Baal would fear faster than ever. None of the fun of grinding has been removed. The only things stripped down were the annoying parts.
Some new stuff doesn’t work as well. Friendship levels now exist between characters. These are increased by doing things such as healing one another, and are decreased by, say, killing your allies. The higher the level, the more likely the character is able to protect his friend from a blow (only if they used the defend command while standing next to them) or initiating a combo attack. There are a few other advantages, but I can’t see the friendship meter living past this game. It’s too boring, too vestigial to really make any kind of noticeable impact. While there are some fun uses like an Armour Knight Evility, which lets them protect allies no matter where they are on the map, most of the time, it’s a wasted bit of complexity like half of Disgaea 4’s map system.
That’s the gameplay and it’s all very good. Actually, it’s probably one of the best systems in a Disgaea game. Now we get to my problem with the whole affair – the story. Why would you bring back the original characters when you have absolutely nothing new to say about them? The premise is that Laharl isn’t being recognized as Overlord. He sets out to rectify this great injustice, eventually stumbling upon a possible threat from Celestia. The story, to put it plainly, is bad. Laharl becoming Overlord wasn’t even a big enough plot point to last more than the first several chapters of the much longer first game, and the threat from Celestia is both a rehash from the original, and also never really becomes even remotely interesting.
This shouldn’t be a problem. Disgaea isn’t about a solid story. It’s driven by humour and satire, something it usually does quite well. However, there’s nothing new here. The only significant new cast member is Laharl’s alleged sister, Sicily. This leads to an endless amount of “big brother” jokes, which are almost entirely lost on a western audience. For those that even understand the satire, it’s still bad because Disgaea 4 drilled it into the ground with Fuka and Desco’s relationship. Once again, there is literally nothing new in this game. The dynamic between Laharl, Flonne, and Etna is still as great as it always was, but nothing changes. In the original, Laharl learns to love (grudgingly), Etna goes from wanting to kill Laharl to respecting him, and Flonne matures from being a stupid love freak to just being a love freak. In this game, they begin exactly the same as they end. I realize that these are established mascots for the series now, but why make a game if you have zero good ideas for a story to tell. And it isn’t hard. Even good Disgaea stories aren’t exactly Shakespeare.
The worst part of the whole thing is that there are good characters here, and even good jokes. However, as Disgaea often does, it goes too far into what it’s supposed to be satirizing and comes up being just absurd. There is plenty of room for new characters, but, aside from Sicily, there’s nothing until the post game. It’s insane that one chapter would feature an idol character (rife for parody) with a unique name and story, only to have her turn out to be a generic archer with no impact on the story outside of that one chapter (best chapter in the game though). The original game had new characters coming from beginning to end and each one was interesting. If D2 had taken the time to focus the story tightly on the main trio, I would understand, but, with nothing new added on that part, the decision to restrict the cast is mind boggling.
What we’re left with is a really polished game with mechanics that should make every Disgaea fan swoon. There’s a lot to love here. The trio of characters is just as loveable and fun as they ever were, and the game is often legitimately funny. Unfortunately, there is no reason for this game to exist. The story doesn’t do anything or go anywhere. I, and many people, love these characters and would like to see them again, but there’s no point unless the writers are motivated by something more than “we can, so we should”. As such, I’m conflicted. I wanted these characters back and the game itself is top notch, but the story leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I believe this conflict is reflected appropriately in the score.
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer