IGN Review of Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness
In 2003, NIS and Atlus introduced Disgaea: Hour of Darkness onto the PS2. The title was packed with a ton of sarcastic humor, an incredible amount of depth and replayability, and a starling amount of tactical complexity. The result was an instant classic that became extremely rare to find in stores, but spawned a number of equally engaging strategy RPGs from the small developer. Now, one sequel, one system and four years later, NIS America is re-releasing their superb strategy game on the PSP in the form of Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness. Filled with new features, a new game mode and even a new storyline, this title is an incredible package for any strategy RPG fan.
Essentially a port of the original game on the PS2, Afternoon of Darkness is the story of Laharl, a demon lord who is awakened by his vassal Etna after a two year long "nap." Unfortunately for him, much of the Netherworld has fallen into chaos ever since his father, King Krichevskoy, the Overlord of the Netherworld, died. As a result, every demon, devil and spiritual being has decided to stake a claim to the King's title. Incensed at the idea that anyone else would lay a claim to his birthright, the Prince sets out to reclaim what's rightfully his. What follows is a large adventure across a number of episodes which introduces a wide cast of hilarious characters, including an angel dedicated to love that's sent on an assassination mission, a space traveler, his sidekick and their robot.
Like the original game and many of NIS America's strategy RPGs that followed, gameplay is based around a two phase system of planning and preparing for a mission, where much of the story plays out, and actual battle sequences itself. The Preparation phase takes place at Laharl's castle, which is a hub location that you'll return to between fights to purchase and sell items, heal your damage and further level up your characters. Here, players get their initial taste at the depth of Disgaea, as every feature that you can take advantage of during the planning stage has multiple levels within it for players to explore. For example, the more you use merchants, the higher your party's personal level grows, which provides you with stronger and more useful items. You can use the included Item World to further strengthen equipment either purchased or acquired in battle to make them more effective for your characters. The hospital actually rewards you for getting injured in battle and healed with their services, giving away different objects every now and then based on the amount of pain you've taken. Even creating new party members has a subsection associated with it known as the Dark Assembly, where you can make proposals that can affect just about every aspect of the game.
However, what makes this depth so great is that much of the exploration is flexible to the whims of the player; if you're solely looking to scratch the surface and continue along the game, you can with minimal investment of time. On the other hand, if you sink a ton of time into manipulating the systems in the game, you gain so much more depth. One of the best ways of illustrating this is with the various character classes - each character in the game has a specific class they belong to, with their own skills that they can additionally acquire based on the weapons they use. If you're simply looking to move your way through the story, you can, but you gain much more if you try to master weapons and strengthen your skills, continually improving your abilities until you max out the potential for that specific class. At that point, you can choose to remain as that kind of character and merely gain additional levels, or reincarnate that character via Transmigration, keeping their old skills and abilities while returning to level 1 in a new class. When you realize that there are more than 120 different classes that you can acquire over the course of the game, you'll find tons to do with your party members.
Of course, once you get past preparing for battle, you'll select a specific mission and shift to the combat phase. Fights play out in a turn based, chess like system of moving your characters across a battlefield to attack different monsters. Scattered across the field are a number of different colored areas known as Geo Panels, which bestow different effects onto any creature that happen to move onto that location. These can be beneficial or harmful to the individual depending upon the object that powers them, known as a Geo Symbol. For example, you may gain extra attacks per turn, lose strength on your strikes or even find yourself restricted from casting spells. What turns this system on its head is the ability to change the colors of the areas affected by the symbols, or even destroy them altogether. Depending on how you choose to manipulate the Geo Panels and Geo Symbols, you can even use them as a tactic in battle, causing a chain reaction and huge explosion that damages anyone standing on specific squares on the battlefield.
That may sound rather extreme, but Afternoon of Darkness stays true to its PS2 roots by holding onto the concept of throwing tough battles at you from the get go, which may require power leveling by returning to previously beaten areas, or the employment of a couple of unorthodox tactics to survive fights. As a result, instead of fighting one on one or even two on one, you'll discover that the most effective strategies are by positioning your allies so you can perform team attacks and combos, ramping up damage on enemies. By placing friends next to the player attacking a target, you can perform much stronger attacks and even get those characters to chime in during a blow (even if it's not their turn to attack). What's more, if you follow this strike up by another attack on the same monster, you can start a combo, which increases the damage leveled on the target.
For the most part, if you've played the original or heard of Disgaea before, nothing that I've mentioned is anything particularly new. In fact, much of the complexity that is the strength of the Disgaea franchise is also a double edged sword which can sometimes push newcomers away, and that hasn't really changed in the introduction of Afternoon of Darkness. In some ways, the game is still very much for the hardcore strategy RPG fan. However, what distinguishes Afternoon of Darkness from a simple port is that the game does include a number of changes for the PSP version. First of all, Afternoon of Darkness includes a multiplayer mode for people to put their parties up against each other and test the strength of their various characters. It's a great way to see whether you're creating a stronger squad than your friends.
However, even if you're a beginner going up against a seasoned Disgaea player, don't fear. Multiplayer battles include an additional battle feature known as Geo Cubes, which can potentially level the playing field. Many of these can provide you with different tactical advantages, such as strengthening your skills for that fight, summoning creatures or boosting your defense. Since you have the option to determine when you want to use these items, this becomes a battle tactic as well as a statistical advantage against enemies. On the other hand, players can also use the multiplayer functionality of Afternoon of Darkness to trade different items between each other, gaining new equipment that can be used in their personal games. Strangely, you don't actually lose any items by trading, so it's more of a collection feature for friends than anything. The lone downside with the multiplayer aspect is that it's solely ad hoc only. This game would've been phenomenal with an infrastructure feature to set you up against other Disgaea fans across the country. Unfortunately, that's not to be.
Apart from including new characters, such as Adell and Rozalin from Disgaea 2, or Overlord Zetta from Makai Kingdom, the other major adjustment that's been made to Afternoon of Darkness is the inclusion of Etna Mode. This takes a different approach to the story: what if Etna killed Laharl instead of waking him up, choosing to become the new Overlord herself? This alternate take provides a lot of different info from Etna's perspective as she attempts to defeat every other demon in the Netherworld, and should definitely appeal to hardcore fans. However, be warned: Etna mode is somewhat more difficult than the standard story, and you may find yourself power leveling a bit more with Beauty Queen Etna in this mode than the normal story because the fights are harder.
However, even with the inclusion of multiplayer and a new story mode, you'd expect that some of the problems that cropped up with the first title would have been addressed for this game. You might even think that some of the elements that worked well in Disgaea 2 that fixed some of the issues from the first title, such as shops and hospitals in the Item World, would be included. No such luck. At least using the analog nub to place your party members works well. In fact, it works much better than the directional pad, which is pretty crappy within the game. Unfortunately, what haven't been fixed, which is a serious flaw, are the shoddy camera controls, which is still extremely poor. Even though you can rotate the board ninety degrees, you can't raise or lower the camera angle, which makes it hard to see where some monsters are, particularly with stages that have varying heights of environmental levels. As a result, you can inadvertently walk into an ambush and not even know it.
What has seamlessly transferred over in Afternoon of Darkness are the visuals of the title, which look excellent on the PSP's screen. While text can be somewhat difficult to read, particularly some of the classifications on the stat screen, the style of Disgaea beautifully comes through. What's more, it seems like the slowdown that would sometimes crop up during large combos, giant explosions of Geo Panels or certain special attacks has been completely eliminated. The lone downside to some of the visuals is the fact that some Geo Panels (primarily in the Item World) will have their color disappear, making it somewhat difficult to tell whether your party members are safe from damage during panel combos until it's too late.
Sound, however, is truly excellent. While the entire game doesn't feature voice acting throughout every cutscene or mission intro (most likely due to the space limitations of the UMD), the dialogue that is included is fantastic. Full of sarcasm, jokes and other engaging lines, this is an excellent title. This is simply bolstered by the option to buy or listen to various selections from the soundtrack at Laharl's castle, which are full of pieces influenced by a wide number of musical styles. Regardless of whether you play the original or Etna Mode as you go through the game, you'll be pleased with the aural aspects of the game.
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