Set in the Netherworld where all things demonic and treacherous are celebrated, Disgaea is a game where you control Prince Laharl and a ragtag collection of misfits, hired help and explosive penguins. Waking from a two-year nap Laharl discovers his father is dead and other demons are moving to claim his crown. He decides to get proactive by beating up as many demons as he can through the art of grid-based strategy and flashy attacks.
It’s a quirky setup for a strategy RPG, but one that’s worked incredibly well since 2003 on consoles. It’s only now that it’s made the leap to Steam. The port is based on the PSP’s Afternoon of Darkness rather than the PS2 original so it comes with a few tweaks and the hidden Etna Mode, where Etna accidentally kills Laharl at the start and tries to take his place. It also comes with a full suite of launch problems, including huge FPS drops, screen tearing and crashes.
Yet it’s the other choices the dev team have made that really let the game down. Depth of field and other options that rely on blurring are a bad fit for Disgaea’s small but well formed character models, while the lack of even basic resolution options feels like a massive oversight.
The new map textures are the one thing that feels like an actual upgrade. All the menus have been remade to be clearer to read, but even that is let down by a terrible and distracting choice of font. You can switch to the old menus if you wish, but as they also use old and blurred character portraits it’s a choice between which style you find least offensive.
It’s a shame. A tactical strategy RPG like Disgaea is an excellent fit for PC. Clicking through positions and attack menus with a mouse is a great idea – but here it feels rushed and inaccurate. Also, why do I have to select individual letters to name a character instead of just being able to type?
If you’ve got the patience to put up with all this you’ll find a surprisingly deep strategy game full of likeable characters and funny writing. Clearing a map of its zombies and ghosts takes a fair bit of thought – positioning your team to chain attacks is the key, but with foes scattered across the map at different heights that’s easier said than done. Throw in Geo panels – obelisks that affect coloured tiles with various stat boosts and hindrances – and each stage becomes more a puzzle than a fight. You can be clever about who you pick for your team, who you attack first and how you throw people to cover greater distances, but if that’s not your style you can also overpower any foe through grinding previous stages.
I picked the grinding path to victory, and not once did it feel like a chore. Part of the series’ appeal is that you can overlevel any character into a monster capable of unspeakable things, and you can even dive into your own weapons to make them stronger through an ‘Item World’. Every stage with an item is randomised, so when you’re done with the story there’s still an endless number of stages to play.
Not filling the expectations
You meet various allies on your travels, but the Dark Assembly is where you want to do your recruiting for the most useful classes. You find healers, archers, mages, etc, to do your bidding by spending mana earned from the people you’ve already murdered. You can also use that mana to petition senators within the Assembly to do stuff such as provide the item shops with more stock or extort them for funding. The more powerful a character is the more influence they have – just like a real government.
When I first played Disgaea on PS2 I lost over 200 hours to it because I kept finding new corners to explore, its intricate systems and endless levelling pulling me in ever deeper, but the PC version has left me cold. I can’t go ten minutes without being distracted by a bug or inaccurate clicking so I’m never being drawn in. The frustration the port causes makes it hard to want to put the effort in. It makes me feel guilty; there’s a great game here just waiting to be played, but this version of Disgaea is not worth the stress.