Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, originally a critically-hailed PlayStation2 title released back in 2003, comes now to the PlayStation Portable (PSP) with all the original goodness intact, plus some added features that make this new handheld incarnation arguably superior to the original console game.
A faithful-but-expanded "port," Afternoon of Darkness (clever: an "Afternoon" is longer than an "Hour of...", get it?) tells the story of ill-tempered boy-demon Laharl, awakened from a two-year slumber to discover that A) his demon Overlord father has died in the interim, and B) the whole of the Netherworld is in chaos as every demon-with-an-ambition clambers for possession of the throne.
From the outset, players take control of Laharl -- as well as the demon-girl Etna, who woke him up -- and start out on a combat-heavy adventure to kick all the right butts of the Netherworld back into their proper subservient places. As an aside, there is a commercially-available Disgaea anime series on DVD, in which it's actually a ditzy, lovable angelic assassin who first wakes Laharl; she also appears in the game, along with other weird and memorable characters from the series.
Anyway, Afternoon of Darkness starts off in the safety of Laharl's lair, which acts as a hub to the game's lengthy succession of turn-based battles. Within its walls can be found: An initial tutorial (optional); an item/weaponry shop (one wonders what kind of demon-prince has to pay
for equipment in his own castle); a hospital that can fix up battle-party members between engagements (and, in fact, offers "customer incentives" to its patients -- the more care your party requires as a result of injuries, the greater rewards you'll get!); a Dark Assembly (a sort of infernal council, whereby players can create, name, upgrade and even "re-class" a mind-numbing array of character types); and of course, a gateway to the rest of the Netherworld and the battles waiting there.
Combat is mechanically typical of the turn-based fantasy genre, but there are lots of interlocking options that can make for very complex (and sometimes just plain odd) strategy. Arranging attacking characters with friendlies adjacent to them allows for extra-damage team attacks, for example, which can further be chained with other "cells" of friendlies (hitting the same target) for exponential damage. If the enemy is just a little too far away for the bulk of your force to reach them in a single turn, it's possible to leap-frog your way there by grabbing and throwing one of your own fighters
to the front lines where they can then attack, provided they haven't already done so that turn.
Such, uh, "buddy chucking" is just one of the game's many weird-anime touches. Players can also throw their "Prinnies" (cute and more-or-less disposable penguin-like creatures who appear in many NIS games and pepper their dialogue with the word "dood") at or toward the enemy, at which point said Prinnies explode on impact
. Woot! It's a tactic of desperation (or just plain bloodymindedness, depending on your disposition), but it does have its uses. Hope you didn't spend too much time and effort naming your poor little ranks of Prinny soldiers.
Afternoon of Darkness' complexity starts taking the turn into crazy-town with the Geo Panels and Geo Symbols -- differently-colored squares and nodes that are found on the battlefield and can, used in different combinations, profoundly affect the outcome of any given battle: Panels (map-squares) of different colors can enhance offensive and defensive stats for units standing on them, and Symbols destroyed in battle can cause panels of other colors to change instantaneously -- all over the engagement area, all at once
With skillful use, you can cause widespread chain-reactions even before the real fighting starts, radically tipping the balance of power. And to make things even more complicated, it's possible to pick up and throw Geo Symbols (onto differently-colored panels) in just the same way you can throw friendly -- or enemy -- combatants. This is what the military calls "shaping the battlefield." It is not actually necessary for less-hardcore gamers to master these complex, interweaving schemes to play or enjoy the game, but as the battles get bigger and hairier, it certainly helps.
All the while, it's still a cute and often funny experience, with superbly-localized comedic dialogue (whose voice-acting can be toggled between English and Japanese, a great touch). Afternoon of Darkness also features an ad hoc multiplayer mode and a new combat feature called Geo Cubes (which can change battle conditions at any given moment, making it at least possible for a less-skilled player to take on even a hardened Disgaea veteran).
This new PSP incarnation also introduces the exclusive "Etna mode," an alternate game with an opening sequence that assumes that Etna, in attempting to wake Laharl at the outset of the game, actually ends up killing
him instead. The ensuing game and storyline become hers, with harder battles.
Flaws are minor, but they're there: The most obvious one is the camera, which can be rotated, but not elevated at all. Accordingly, certain walls or other variations in elevation can get in the way of your view of the battlefield. A larger, more unfortunate sore point is that some of the numbers and text in stat-windows is eye-killingly small; it won't prevent you from playing the game, but it's a surprising, clumsy oversight in a package of this overall quality.
Flaws notwithstanding, Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness is a great PSP title; an improvement on its predecessor, superbly-presented, accessible (in an overwhelming kind of way) to newcomers, and ultimately deep enough for the nerdiest otaku