Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days Review

By D.F. Smith - Posted Sep 08, 2009

Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days is, the in most literal sense, a portable version of Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories, the 2006 PS2 cult hit. As we've discovered many times over the last couple of years, simply chopping the top and bottom off a console game's graphics -- or grabbing at both ends and stretching them the other way -- does not suddenly make it fun to play on the go.

The Pros
  • Looks great on a small screen
  • Paced for short, quick game sessions
  • Layer after layer of depth
The Cons
  • Way more to learn than most players ever will
  • English script could have been better

Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days is, the in most literal sense, a portable version of Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories, the 2006 PS2 cult hit. As we’ve discovered many times over the last couple of years, simply chopping the top and bottom off a console game’s graphics -- or grabbing at both ends and stretching them the other way -- does not suddenly make it fun to play on the go.

Disgaea 2That said, Dark Hero Days happens to work surprisingly well on the PSP. More than anything, it has the pacing of a good portable game, which a lot of console strategy sims don’t. You can play it for five minutes or five hours at a stretch, or any amount of time in between, and probably find a way to have some fun and make some progress no matter what.

Of course, it’s still emphatically Disgaea, a game made for people who habitually level their RPG characters all the way to 99. Casual players will still have fun with it – especially if they’ve never encountered the series’ famously twisted sense of humor – but it’ll take some real dedication to find out how deep this particular rabbit hole goes.
   
Welcome to Hell

After Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle put the modern turn-based-strategy RPG genre on the map, it built a fairly loyal following of gamers who liked, for lack of a better word, to try and “break” those games. The idea was to find every hidden loophole and exploit in the equipment and character development systems, thus building armies more powerful than anything the games’ designers had ever intended to be possible.

Nippon Ichi Software created Disgaea to give those people a whole lot to break. 99 isn’t much of a level cap – might as well make it 9999. The game’s battlefields are strewn with traps and switches and variable terrain effects. Though the story revolves around a few important key characters, it’s possible to build, tweak, and toss aside as many cannon-fodder soldiers as you care to create. Every single piece of equipment has its own set of statistics, and the utterly mad can delve into randomly-generated “Item World” dungeons in order to separately build up each bit of gear.

Dark Hero Days’s gameplay isn’t markedly different from the original, but it added a few extra layers of depth to fool around with, plus the PSP version has some valuable extra features on top of that, like new weapon skills, new character classes, and more single-player combat scenarios to fight through. There’s also a speed option that lets you set the combat animations and special effects to play out lightning-quick -- once again, it’s important for a portable game to waste as little time as possible.

One important thing all these games have in common, though, is that you don’t have to play them like a deranged obsessive if you don’t care to. Extremely capable players will win tons of bonus items at the end of every battle if they learn all the ways of exploiting the system. Ordinary players can still rack up victories and progress through the story -- finding out how to break the game is just more rewarding (and more fun).

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Are We Dead, Or Is This Ohio?

That story, unfortunately, isn’t as effective as the first game’s tale. Partly that’s because it has an actual hero, instead of Disgaea’s bloody-minded prince Laharl. Adell, the main character in this sequel, is more or less a standard-brand fantasy protagonist on a mission to wipe out an evil demon overlord.

Disgaea 2The joke is that he’s the only hero left in the Netherworld -- everyone around him is cheerfully soulless and amoral -- and up to a point, it’s fun to watch him bounce off the supporting cast. Beyond that point, though, the setting and its characters aren’t as fun or fresh as they were the first time we discovered them. It’s still fun to wander across this goofy world where good is evil and evil is good, but not so much as when it was totally unfamiliar ground.

Although the English script doesn’t hurt matters, it doesn’t help much either. Going independent and localizing its own games might have been a good long-term business decision for Nippon Ichi. Nevertheless, their shop hasn’t yet produced a game with the same kind of snap to its English adaptation as Atlus USA’s version of the original Disgaea. That game never missed a chance to go as far as possible over the top. Dark Hero Days does alright in the gallows humor department, but it never seems like it’s as grim, mean, sharp, and funny as it could have been.

Give the Place a Little Color

Back on the plus side, it’s as fun to look at as Nippon Ichi’s games have always been. The PSP screen was made for their brand of big, brightly-colored sprite characters, the 3D battlegrounds have plenty of detail as well, and the cutscenes look right in a widescreen aspect ratio (which is to say that they haven’t just been cropped or stretched to fit). There’s a catchy soundtrack backing it all up, too, with a comic-spooky Danny Elfman sort of character that suits the game’s personality to a tee.

The strategy die-hards -- for which this game was made, of course -- may not even take time to notice. They’ll be busy setting off on the long march to level 9999. There’s plenty in Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days for the rest of us, though, even if it’s not quite all that it could have been. Stacked up against the other portable strategy games out there, it’s just about the deepest and densest around. Plus, you don’t have to get all the way to level 9999 to get more than your money’s worth out of it.