When I first played Disgaea: Hour of Darkness on the PS2, I bought it not having any idea what I was getting into, but I’m extremely glad I did, as I was introduced to one of the most deep, chaotic, intricate Strategy RPG’s going. The series has had its ups and downs since then, but Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance has shown me within the 10 hours I’ve spent with it so far that the wonderfully quirky Netherworld and it’s inhabitants still have a lot to offer to those seeking something to really sink their teeth into!
Ever since Hour of Darkness, Disgaea can be extremely convoluted to the uninitiated, with an absolute ton of features like the series-old Dark Assembly, which allows you to appeal to a senate to unlock various different features, character creation (which for SRPG’s is still somewhat rare), the Magichange mechanic returning from Disgaea 3: Abscence of Justice, which allows characters to equip other characters (bear with me here) by transforming them into weapons, the Item World, which has you diving into a randomly generated world within your items to make them more efficient, and a LOT of exp/stat grinding. In other games, this would sound like a total headache, but in Disgaea, the grinding is half the beauty. This game BEGS to be exploited at every corner. It wants you to find a way of breaking your characters in half and make you feel ridiculously powerful, if you’re willing to find the little niches that allow you to do so. And even when you do manage to get that powerful, there will always be something that can smash your entire team in one shot, meaning you’ll want to be stronger than that guy, repeating the cycle.
RPG’s are sold primarily on their story and their characters, and Disgaea isn’t one that takes itself particularly seriously for better or worse. I usually prefer a more mature tone in my games’ stories, but Disgaea’s characters make up for this in more ways than one. Returning characters like the ever-lovable Prinnies (If anyone could find me a plush Prinny, I’d be eternally grateful!) still retain their charm over a decade after their debut, while new characters like Killia and Christo are equally mysterious and multi-faceted. However, the main female lead, Seraphina finds herself trying too hard to be like the first games sidekick; Etna, but ends up just being extremely irritating and shallow, with what seems to be very little to her character, but who knows, perhaps in the latter half of the game, she comes into her own? Another thing to bear in mind with the Disgaea games, if the aesthetic of the game cover doesn’t give this away already, is that the game is very, very anime-styled. Which means that characters will comment on sexual themes jovially, do random things before setting off into battle like sitting down for a curry before fighting and insert words into sentences that might make sense in Japanese, but don’t so much in English. Some people reading this will probably think of it as a delight, whereas others may want to explore other SRPG’s if the idea of comedic anime style puts them off.
The English voice acting could also have done with a bit of work, as it’s fairly wooden in places, and would it kill you to animate your cutscene sprites a little more, NIS? It’s been over 10 years! That said, the in-game graphics, while not technically advanced, retain a lot of charm, particularly in the heat of battle, with particle effects and a ton of sprites going haywire during certain attack animations, and the sound design is extremely palatable, blending perfectly with the anime aesthetic and giving real punch to the various attacks you pull off throughout the game.
An interesting, albeit small addition to D5 is the ability to create maps with the purpose of allowing your friends online to challenge them and beat them, while you beat theirs. This isn’t something I’m particularly wowed by, though it may prove interesting to people who absolutely must have online features in their games.
The previously mentioned Item World provides a great deal of longevity to all of the Disgaea games, though in previous entries I never felt a need to go into it too often as I always thought of it as a distraction rather than a necessity (though this is coming from someone who tends to play through the story for most Disgaea games and not venture too heavily into the post-game, of which there is plenty!). Though this time around it feels far more accessible and rewarding due to random events that occur throughout the item world that can level your characters up much faster or bestow you with additional items you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. This was dabbled with from Disgaea 3 onwards, but it hasn’t felt as fleshed out as it does here.
One of the more interesting facets to the Disgaea gameplay is the use of Geo Panels while fighting your opponents. Geo Panels grant a puzzle-like element to the battlefield by having colour-coded floor panels and blocks that give effects to all panels that share a colour with the block on top of that colour. Destroying that block changes all panels of the colour it was sat on to the colour of the block you destroyed, granting bonus items to those who can chain colour-changes together or wipe the board of Geo Panels completely. This mechanic is tried and tested from the original, but I’m glad to see they haven’t strayed too far from this intuitive, thoughtful mechanic with Disgaea 5.
With more mechanics and tweaks added to an already winning formula, Disgaea 5 is a fantastically addictive time-sink that rewards players for finding ways to cheat the system; something many games try to stop you from doing. the graphics could use another update, with still sprites telling the story and character sprites that could use a bit of extra detail, but the sheer joy of throwing an exploding penguin on peg-legs is still present after 10 years of Disgaea games, and I can’t imagine it’s going to go away anytime soon!