The fledgling review section isn’t complete without an example of a positive review. Fortunately a relevant milestone has come up. I recently passed over 256 hours on my primary Disgaea DS save slot. It doesn’t get that far along unless I’m giving it a 🙂 verdict.
So what makes Disgaea worth that much time? That’s probably as long as it would take for me to write a game like Disgaea in QML 😛 . From my perspective, Disgaea mastered the crux of what makes a computer RPG fun. Unlike table top RPGs this isn’t the actual role-playing (Disgaea has an amusing story, but it is necessarily fed to you). This is the magical numbers of munchkin land – character scaling. There are multiple ways to increase the power of your party and it’s easy to always find a challenging opponent. Disgaea is a game where you just keep watching your numbers go up and up and up – the character stats, not just the hours played indicator. Since it’s a strategy game, it makes it even easier because with a basic grasp of strategy and a lot of distance calculations, you can easily win battles against stronger foes for a perception of rapid XP gain. This combination of the the player and character strengths overcoming great obstacles (to gain great XP) makes it even better.
Let me elaborate a bit here on the vast array of scaling options available; half of the brilliance of Disgaea is just combining them all while still managing to present a coherent whole. Characters level up from experience, and gain stat bonuses from better gear, that much is pretty standard for the genre. Disgaea takes it even further, because the reincarnation system allows you to gain even more stats if you earn the same levels a second time. Serious number crunchers have to earn the maximum amount of reincarnation levels the game chooses to remember, and only then start levelling up towards the top. Not to mention that you can create and add arbitrary characters to your party until a limit of around 25-30, all of whom need to be levelled to be effective. Good thing it’s a strategy game, or else there would be no point to having such a versatile party. The strategic aspect, plus the 10 active characters per level limit, means that there’s plenty of reasons to grow the party to that size.
Items too are have even more scaling – as items can also level up! With such a large party that’s a lot of gear to maintain and level. But the way it happens leads to another key ingredient in the game: the prodcedurally generated item world levels. It would not be enough reason to scale up your party so much if you just kept playing through the story again and again. You can actually make the story levels harder through an interesting in-game mechanic to face higher level monsters, but the story levels would still get boring after a while. So if you’re a hard-core numbers fan, the item world is perfect for you. Not only do you get to finely calibrate the level of monsters to face, but you’re levelling up your items while you play the game on a randomly generated map. It’s almost like if you were awarded bonus XP for skirmish mode games. All this great PC scaling combines with random maps and the NPC scaling to always give you a good game even as your numbers climb to the tens, then the hundreds, then the thousands! My numbers are currently in the ten thousands, but there are plenty of bonus bosses too powerful for me to face still.
Solid mechanics are a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a good game. The ambiance and setting has to be good as well, or at least zany enough for you not to think about it deeply (see Super Smash Bros Brawl). Disgaea does a surprisingly good job here as well, although I may just be a sucker for the old school style – it was released in 2008. It’s nice walking around in your castle instead of just navigating menus in order to deal with shops, launching missions, the jukebox, and the dark assembly. The dark assembly gets old fast though as you keep throwing chocolate at them until they love you (like children perhaps?), and you still have a lot of votes where it’s a 50-50 chance. But at least it’s a plausible in-game explanation for the vast variety of things you can do through that menu; scaling monster level, scaling shop level, creating new characters, and unlocking the most dangerous areas.
Perhaps the ambiance passes muster, but what about the story? I liked the story, even if it was somewhat simplistic, because it’s a good take on the classic good vs evil story in that it does a good job at challenging moral preconceptions. It starts out looking like a basic demons vs angels, but as the characters grow they begin to approach an understanding of good and evil which isn’t just due to their creature type. It even teaches demons how to love (platonically, despite the occasional mind in the gutter joke). Even better than the passable moral of the story is that the implementation has some really great comedy aspects to it. Not only is the story dialogue often amusing, especially with Prinny commentary, but there are other hilarious additions. I especially like the non-sequitur episode previews. First a barrel of laughs, then even more funny when one that’s just as wacky ends up being accurate. The first time I played that chapter, I was truly thrown off-guard.
There is one more aspect which I liked, and it’s actually the one that caused me to pick the game back up this month. Disgaea is one of those rare games where you don’t feel the PC/NPC divide. I’m specifically referring to the sense that PC characters are usually superior to NPCs in terms of game mechanics, often you don’t feel like you really deserve a victory because PCs can drink potions, or cast extra spells, or have a pet dragon on the side (see Armored Princess). NPCs rarely give the impression that they are your equals, but this extra level of challenge is needed in order for the victory to be meaningful. After a while computer controlled enemies always seem feeble because you can out-think them, but that’s merely a limitation of the current algorithms and processing power. It’s a limitation of the game design if the PC feels that merely being a PC makes them undefeatable compared to all the NPC characters. In Disgaea, virtually your entire party and your entire opposition is drawn from the same set of classes with exactly the same rules. True they don’t drink potions, and they rarely have decent equipment, but you could play that way too if you weren’t using your superior strategy to compensate for a few hundred levels of XP difference. The point is that it feels balanced, so your victories mean something more than that you spent a few more minutes in the game (although you did that too, and the clock in the corner helps remind you if you forget 😉 ).
Well I think the introduction hinted that I have very little negative to say about this game. I haven’t even tried the multiplayer, because it sounds like it’ll just be whoever spent more time on the game (and thus pointless) – this means I can discount the multiplayer entirely in my review as I’m reviewing only the single player experience. The multiple endings are, as usual, pretty annoying to try and figure out on your own but that’s what wikis are for. The graphics are aged but still fully serviceable, so I’ll hold the requirement for particles until the remake. And the main story is fairly short, at least compared to a Final Fantasy game. But the great scaling and replayability means that it’s not a problem to play the story over and over again. One obvious criticism would be that after the 100th time you get bored of the spiffy over-the-top attack animations, but it’s a good enough game to allow you to turn them off once you reach that point! Score one for configurability.