Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness PSP Review

At first glance you’d be forgiven for calling it just another SRPG. The genre principles are all present and correct: two tacticians, human or AI, take turns to move their forces around a chessboard map, healing allies and picking fights as appropriate till one side is entirely destroyed and the map is ‘completed’, whereupon a narrative interlude occurs and a new map becomes available. There are several different classes of unit, from run-of-the-mill warriors or healers to rogues and knights, and these units grow stronger, tougher and more capable as they rack up kills and experience points. On the graphical front, the game retains the timeless isometric look with large, detailed 2D sprites and a clean, colourful 3D gameworld.

Nothing then, on the face of it, to prod the game out of the shadow of near-simultaneous PSP re-release Final Fantasy Tactics. But once you peel the cellophane away from the tale of upstart demon Laharl, out to reclaim his birthright as hellspawn CEO after napping through his father’s death, it becomes clear that Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness is very much an Underworld unto itself.

The deliciously twisted narrative tone is an obvious first point of departure. Where Final Fantasy Tactics is so ornately, unrelentingly po-faced every word feels worthy of a dying emperor, Disgaea boils over with surreal set pieces and amoral gags. Among the abnormal entities to flock to your unholy banner are homicidal exploding penguins, possessed tree stumps and a wayward angel with poorly disguised ninja aspirations. The odd punchline flies through the fourth wall, as when Laharl contemptuously renames a rival demon ‘Mid-boss’. The game isn’t quite as hilarious as is sometimes maintained by devotees (particularly if you plump for the optional English voice-acting, which soon had me grinding my teeth) but in the context of its brethren it’s practically Eddie Izzard.

All of which is highly appropriate, as you begin to realise that any notion of ‘balancing’ or ‘fair play’ has gone right out the window and been stamped flat by a passing elephant. Disgaea is as unscrupulous as its protagonist: the game wants you to cheat, to pick at the loopholes in the tactical matrix. One way in which you might do so is by having your units lift and throw each other and their enemies around the map, whether to cover more ground, access otherwise unreachable areas or simply in order to get some especially obstinate hell fiend out of your face. Chucking one foe into another creates a powerful, experience-point-heavy variety, and is thus an essential stratagem for speed levelling.

The command flow is likewise open to exploitation. During a turn, a character can be repositioned indefinitely within his or her prescribed movement area providing no actions are executed. Initially this appears to offer little more than the opportunity to change your mind should you, for example, put a healer on the frontline; but when you factor in the possibility of combos where allied characters stand adjacent to one another, you realise that you can sneak in additional blows at no extra turn cost by clumping units together to maximise combo potential, launching an attack with one, and then whipping the supporting acts back to their starting points.

The game’s take on character creation is similarly warped. While reclining in your fortress between battles, you can submit proposals to your Dark Assembly in order to conjure new minions or unlock special items. The more powerful of these have to be approved by vote, but like any good tyrant you can bribe prominent demons or smack the heaven out of them should they fail to toe the line. Once you reach a certain level, the Dark Assembly also grants you the ability to transfer characters between classes and hence pool class abilities, allowing you to field monstrous hybrid units who massively prejudice the odds in your favour.

Also accessible by way of the hub fortress is the Item World, on which much of the game’s considerable longevity rests. Each of the objects in your possession- be it a worm, soft drink or machine gun- is host to an entire universe in miniature, complete with its own denizens, battle maps and hidden rewards. By completing maps and defeating ‘Specialist’ demons within these item worlds, Laharl and co can enhance their equipment more or less ad infinitum, transforming bargain basement goods into apocalyptic tools of destruction.

Terrain management is hardly new to the genre, but Disgaea again brings something new to the table in the Geo system. Most maps are patterned with luminous coloured floor squares known as Geo Panels, and all squares of a particular colour can be endowed with special qualities (e.g. the ability to confer a defence boost) if a coloured Geo Stone is placed on one of their number. On a basic level you’ll want to position your soldiers on Geo Panels with positive attributes while trying to manoeuvre your enemies onto those that have a detrimental effect, but seasoned evildoers will go one further and relocate Geo Stones at whim, stacking attributes on one colour to provide truly outrageous advantages. I recall managing to dump ‘Clone’, ‘Attack +50’ and ‘Invulnerability’ conferring stones on purple Panels during one battle, and the map was soon filled with indestructible replica Laharls busily hacking away at friend and foe alike. Fly my pretties, fly!

If a Geo Stone is destroyed while resting on a Panel of a different colour, all the associated Panels will change colour in an explosive reaction, damaging anything caught in the blast and netting massive bonus points which translate to money, experience and items at the end of each match. If another Geo Stone is destroyed in the process it will spark a counter-reaction. True masters of the ungodly will carefully arrange the Geo Stones so as to terminate them all in one fell swoop via chain reactions, but be warned: the diabolical cackling which tends to result may disturb nearby relations.

It should be emphasised that much of the above, jaw-dropping strategic depth is optional. And ultimately this is where Disgaea pulls ahead of its illustrious predecessor. Superbly judged and majestically implemented though it may be, Final Fantasy Tactics rewards only the most rigorous of strategists; Disgaea by contrast caters to every taste while, miraculously, never feeling the least bit diluted. As one of Laharl’s attendants remarks, less patient or cerebral players can steam through the storyline without paying much heed to the nitty-gritty, but eggheads are free to linger over the more esoteric elements for utmost tactical benefit. That the designers have also managed to distort so many balancing principles in the name of freeform mayhem while somehow preserving the game’s integrity (i.e. lack thereof) is a feat of Monica-Bellucci-esque proportions.

Moreover Afternoon of Darkness is a far more accomplished port than Square Enix’s mildly disappointing effort, with wafer-thin loading times, a crisper resolution and none of the slowdown that riddles the other title. While veterans of the PS2 originals will find the core gameplay identical, the inclusion of a whole new story campaign revolving around Laharl’s vassal Etna is a major plus, and there’s Ad Hoc multiplayer for those of us who still have something like a social life. On the minus side, the camera could use some work, with the rotating isometric perspective occasionally struggling to make out characters surrounded by elevated terrain.

This microscopic chink in the armour aside, Afternoon of Darkness is the definitive edition of one of the most inventive and devilishly engrossing forms of escapism ever to escape Japan. So whether you’re a dyed-in-the-wool strategist, genre newcomer or bitter detractor, kindly get down the shops this instant and buy the ruddy thing. I won’t tell you twice.