Dis Guy Walks Into A Bar...

My co-writer and I have somewhat different approaches towards games of questionable value. He approaches gaming a bit like a “catch and release” fisherman, constantly buying the newest games on a whim, playing them for a couple of days, and then selling them on eBay in a week if they don’t work out. I, on the other hand, agonize over each and every purchase, determined to hold on to my hard-earned cash to the last second.

This has its downsides. One of them is that I hardly ever sell games. If the game is good that’s fine, but I even put the bad games on the shelf, lovingly enclosed in their pristine cases, so that I can enjoy not ever playing them again. It’s a bit of a sickness.

However, my buying pattern has its upsides, too. My co-blogger doesn’t just buy too many games, he actually buys them twice. So every so often I get a free game. It’s charity, like that given to a beggar scratching at the back door of Marie Antoinette’s pastry chef.

Last week, he bought Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness for the PSP, so I got his copy of the PS2 version of the game, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. It has taken over my life, and invaded my dreams. Perhaps by writing about it a bit I can get it out of my head.

I initially approached Disgaea based on my first impression: as a lighter, stupider version of Fire Emblem. “I’ll play the first ten missions and give it back to him,” I thought.

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Laharl and Victim

](http://www.atlus.com/dis/screenshots/19disgaea.jpg)

Disgaea seemed quite trivial. The lead character, Laharl – a juvenile demon prince trying to claim the throne – was likeable enough, but the game mechanics themselves weren’t comfortable. I didn’t like the way the characters felt like they moved on invisible roller skates, the “geo effects” system seemed trivial and too easy to abuse, and there was something fundamentally odd about the input method in the game. You could cancel characters movements after they participated in an attack, which rubbed my Panzer General-trained self the wrong way. It all just seemed shoddy. By the time I reached the “boss” at the end of the first chapter, I was ready to throw in the towel. My characters were all too weak, and the thought of grinding them all through the earlier maps in that chapter just seemed monotonous in the extreme. However, just as I was about to give up I had three separate epiphanies in close succession.

First, I realized the limit for the number of characters one can create (and bring with you) is incredibly large. You can generate over a hundred characters, and bring any ten with you on to any map. I had been playing with just 5 characters total.

Second, I realized that the odd “cancel movement” behavior allows you to have characters who can run out, join in a joint attack (gaining some experience in the process), and then return to the loving bosom of the perfectly safe “base tile.”

Lastly, I realized that the “main campaign” of the game is a complete sideshow, and all of the fun is concentrated in the so-called “Item World” which is the Being John Malcovich dimension that exists inside every object in the universe. It seems that inside every object in the universe (such as swords, shoes, and little bits of fluff) are monsters, and teachers, and valuable items. Fighting your way through the Item World makes the object you’re inside of more powerful. In more prosaic terms, the “Item World” is a potentially unlimited set of random maps. It’s where you will probably spend most of your time while playing Disgaea.

Regarding this last point, this is completely backwards from the way most games of this sort are structured. Typically, lots of care and thoughtful level design goes into the main campaign, and the random battles are for the freaks who just can’t get enough. In Disgaea, it’s the reverse: the “formal” levels are pretty flat, but the random levels range from “sort of boring” to “completely and gleefully insane.” This mostly has do with the “geo effects” system and how the game awards bonus points.

A huge color chain in Disgaea 2

It’s like this: sometimes, some of the squares on a map will be brightly colored. There are pyramids which grant special powers or penalties to anyone standing on a square of that color. Furthermore, if you destroy a pyramid when it is on a different color, it changes all squares of that color into the pyramid’s color, dealing damage in the process. So perhaps you have a red pyramid on a yellow square. You smash the red pyramid. All of the yellow squares turn red. Across the board, there was a blue pyramid on a yellow square. When that square turns red, it blows up the blue pyramid, which then causes all the now-red squares to turn blue.

Essentially, it’s a sort of platonic implementation of a Rube Goldberg machine. That may sound contradictory, but when you see it in action, you’ll agree.

If you can manage to chain together a number of these explosions, you accrue a ridiculous amount of bonus points. Some of the bonus points lead to experience point awards, which are given generously to any of your characters who are on the map when you kill the last enemy.

That last paragraph is key. Consider that the typical “grind loop” in an RPG looks like this: recruit a new, sucky character. Throw him into battle. Watch him die. Resurrect him. Throw him into battle again. Watch him die. Resurrect him. Repeat this until your spirit is crushed and you want to fly to Japan to stab someone in the neck. Eventually, your loser character gets lucky and reaches level 2, and now only dies 90% of the time, instead of 95% of the time. In Disgaea, the most effective levelling strategy for your weak characters is to make sure they don’t fight. Rather, you send out your most powerful character and have him kill everyone except one enemy. Then you bring out your weaklings, keeping them far away from the remaining enemy. Finally, you set off a chain reaction of fireworks, accruing bonus points and (often) killing the one remaining enemy. The end result is that your weak characters gain experience points for standing around picking their noses.

Some call this insanity. I call it brilliant. It transforms the nature of the level grind from an exercise in careful balancing to a full-on heedless plunge to find the toughest level that your best character can take on by himself (or, if you’re feeling frisky, with one or two assistants). It also means that you spend your time playing only levels that have that ineffable puzzle nature. Occasionally, I encounter a level without any geo effects. I typically stroll off of those levels without even bothering to kill a single enemy. After all, I’m playing a Demon Prince. Why bother? What’s in it for me?

The odd thing about the Item World, from my perspective, is that the game does its level best to downplay it. “Oh, yeah, and this other thing is over here. You can do it if you want. But, really, don’t worry about it.”

After a solid week of playing through the item world every night, all of my dreams featured colored squares which gave the various dream figures different magic powers.

However brilliant the core conceit, if you’re playing on the PS2 you should anticipate at least one problem: the game was designed by savants, but they were idiot savants, because it has an utterly retarded save system that doesn’t support save anywhere. On the PSP you at least have instant suspend to partially shield you from this idiocy. No such luck for us poor PS2 players.

Gripes about the retarded save system notwithstanding, Disgaea has completely knocked Fire Emblem off my “what I’m playing at the moment” list. I’ve even played more than 10 missions.

And the best part, of course, is that I didn’t even have to pay for the game. Now I just need to convince psu that he likes the Disgaea games as much as Madden. Then I’ll get a new free Disgaea game every year.