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Turn-based gaming goodness finally makes it onto the DS; four years late is better than never...
Laharl, Etna, and their minions of Prinnies return to the double screens of the DS. Although the third title in the series recently made an appearance on the PlayStation3, the DS version is a port of the four-year old PS2 original, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, making it an ideal entry point for anybody who missed out on the critically acclaimed series.
A turn-based tactical RPG, Disgaea's qualities are excruciating hard to discover at first. In fact Disgaea does its very best to put you off before it's even properly started; "uncompromising" and "frustrating" would serve as good descriptions should Laharl's attempts to regain the demon throne ever find its way into the English dictionary. You have been warned. Aspects such as the need to save frequently and baffling end credits rolling during defeat at the hands of the first "mid-boss", before starting the entire process (tutorials included) all over again, are infuriating to say the least and quickly drum home the point that Disgaea won't guide you by the hand.
But those with a steely perseverance will soon discover the joys that Disgaea offers. It's essentially a game of tactics and strategy. Characters move around the grid-based environment and launch into an attack, which counts as a turn, before switching over and allowing the opponent to do likewise. It sounds simple enough, but Disgaea hides a near bottomless amount of depth which is gradually revealed with extended play. Strategies such as the importance of lifting allies, and forming a multi-tiered totem pole of party members, before throwing them across the battlefield to overcome the limitations of turn based movement become increasingly significant; as does the role of positioning your characters to build up combo attacks and team based bonuses. It's much more than just moving characters around and selecting which type of attack to target an enemy.
Further tactical options are presented with the appearance of Geo Symbols and Panels. Dependant upon colour, destroying the correct symbols while the enemy are on similarly coloured squares is the key to setting off destructive chain reactions and in turn gaining the biggest bonuses from the stage. It's just a further example of the many levels of depth to be mastered in Disgaea. Delving into an item in the Item World and descending through the levels to boost its experience is one of the most rewarding takes on the classic looting system, while creating additional characters to enlist to the party is implemented perfectly and creates a compelling sense of loyal minions serving their master. Even after six hours of gameplay you only feel as though you're beginning to scratch at the surface, when further aspects such as summoning the Dark Council in an attempt to bribe your way for extra favours come into play.
Despite Disgaea's uncompromising stance, its humour and wide cast of likeable characters does much to encourage you through the early few hours of frustration and uncertainty. Perhaps the only downside comes from the fact that it's a port of a four-year old game, which makes very little attempt to take advantage of the format. Yes, the extras to be found on the PSP version make an appearance and NiS has done a good job of implementing stylus controls, but it's ultimately still an old game trying to appeal to a niche audience that would have likely already played Disgaea and its subsequent sequels.
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