What Is Disgaea? A Beginner's Guide To Tactical Role-Playing Bliss

Years after everyone has caught all the latest Pokemon and the credits roll on Ellen Page, people will still be playing tone of this week's more low-profile release — Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness. What is Disgaea, you ask? Let me explain.

If you're unfamiliar with Nippon Ichi Software's ten-year-old PlayStation-centric series, don't feel too bad. It caters to a very specific sort of gamer. The type of gamer with a mind for strategy, an eye for anime art, a healthy sense of humor and much more free time than the average player. The sort of player who'll spend weeks, months, or even years on getting their favorite characters from level 1 to level 9,999. The series might look goofy, but it's serious business.

It's also rather unforgiving to newcomers, which is where this guide comes in.

Let's do this. What is Disgaea?

It says it right in the headline — tactical role-playing bliss. Take your average tactical role-playing game, multiply it by bliss, and you've got Disgaea.

Helpful. Maybe start with what a tactical role-playing game is.

A tactical role-playing game is like a traditional turn-based role-playing game, only with much more to do than press a single button over and over again.

Like what?

Pressing the direction pad or analog stick, for one. Instead of your party lining up and facing off against an enemy on the other side of the screen, a tactical RPG scatters everybody across a map and makes them move into range of their target before swinging swords or casting spells.

So it's like a Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics?

Sure, it's along those same lines, only it's not quite as casual or limited.

Casual? Limited? But...

Don't get me wrong. The Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem series are wonderful examples of the sub-genre. It's just that Disgaea games are so much deeper and more complex. They're built for hardcore fans of the tactical RPG, who want nothing more than to play the same game over and over again until they either max out their characters or die.

Seriously? You're saying people spend years playing Disgaea?

I am saying that the first game, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness came out in 2003, and I personally know people who are still playing it on a regular basis.

Why so long?

Because there is so much to do. The main story of any given Disgaea title lasts maybe 20-40 hours average, depending on how many characters you create and how much time you spend grinding through previously run scenarios to level those characters up. The New Game+ features allows players to continue playing, perhaps aiming for an alternate ending. There are multiple characters and monster-types to unlock and level. There's the Item World, where players can enter their equipment and battle through a series of randomly-generated levels in order to strengthen said equipment. The Dark Assembly allows players to petition and battle in order to create new troops and introduce new laws and ordinances to the world.

There are, as I mentioned previously, 9,999 levels to raise.

That seems like an awful lot of work.

It is. I'm getting a little sleepy just thinking about it. I've played five of these now (including tomorrow's release), and I've resigned myself to the fact that there will never be enough time for me to fully complete each one.

Then why keep playing?

Because Nippon Ichi Software makes an incredibly compelling tactical RPG. The developer began with fresh concepts — the ability to pick-up and throw your allies across the playfield, destructible Geo-Panel crystals that grant heroes and villains resting on similarly-colored areas special advantages or disadvantages. Then NIS spent the next ten years piling on new features — monster mounting to help lower level characters, a dojo to help characters earn additional stats when leveling, character apprenticeship — there's always some new feature to explore.

The series has consistently featured excellent music, the gorgeous 2D art of Takehito Harada, and an outstanding sense of humor.

Disgaea is a funny series?

A funny series set in a demonic netherworld, no less. The first game in the series, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, tells the story of Laharl, son of the former Overlord, as he embarks on a quest to seize power in the wake of his father's death. His most loyal subject is a female demon named Etna (I'm a bit of a fan), who wouldn't mind killing him and becoming Overlord herself, but somehow manages to stand by her demon. Early on in their journey, this happens.

Consistently breaking the fourth wall, self-referential humor, clever dialogue and the occasional visit from a Power Ranger-ish superhero team are just a few of the reasons fans keep coming back.

What's the main reason fans keep coming back?

Prinnies.

What's a Prinny, dood?

What Is Disgaea? A Beginner's Guide To Tactical Role-Playing Bliss

Awww, they're so cute!

Aren't they? They're stitched-together vessels for the souls of murderers, thieves and other unsavory criminals, condemned to an afterlife of servitude for their transgressions. When you throw them, they explode.

They also say "dood" a lot, so there's that.

Oh.

Yeah. They're pretty amazing. So much so they starred in two spin-off games Prinny: Can I Really Be The Hero? and Prinny 2: Dawn of Operation Panties, Dood! for the PSP. They regularly appear in all of Nippon Ichi Software's games, and have become a sort of mascot for the company.

So, um. How many games are in the series?

In the main series, counting the latest release, there are five games.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (PS2, DS as Disgaea DS, PSP as Afternoon of Darkness)

Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories (PS2, PS P as Dark Hero Days)

Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice (PS3, Vita as Absence of Detention)

Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten (PS3)

Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness (PS3)

What's the deal with that last one's name?

Disgaea D2 features a different numbering convention because it's an official continuation of the original game, featuring the unholy trio of Laharl, Etna, and the fallen-ish angel, Flonne. It's a homecoming for the series.

Disgaea 2-4 focused on other characters in other netherworlds. While many of the themes were the same (fish-out-of-water heroes mingling with anti-heroes) none of the characters in those games caught on quite as well as the big three. Perhaps that had something to do with them being the main characters of the anime and manga series that spun-off from the games.

Do I need to play all the games in order to "get" the series?

No. Oh god no. At this point I'm not sure any of us has the remaining lifespan to play all five titles from the main series to completion before nature takes its course.

Pick up a portable copy of the first game, Hour of Darkness, or maybe catch the anime series — it's not 100 percent faithful, but it'll give you a good introduction to the characters and tone of the series.

Once that's done, the only thing you'll be missing out on by jumping right into Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness is an appreciation for how far the series has come over the past decade.

But you've played them all?

Yes! well, to an extent.

Okay, I play them for the story and then set them on the shelf, vowing to go back and max out everything but never getting around to it. I will be buried with these games. they'll use the case inserts to form my Prinny suit.

Don't make my mistake. Cut off all ties with significant others, pick up a copy of Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness for the PlayStation 3, and hide from the world until you are done.

Was that a review?

As close as we're going to get.