It's no secret that Nippon Ichi's Disgaea: Hour of Darkness
was one of our favorite games last year, and as it turns out, it was one of our readers' preferred titles as well. A nominee in several of our 2003 Game of the Year categories, Disgaea
not only walked away with several critical and consumer accolades before all was said and done, it also managed to bring some heavy attention to a quirky sect of small but ambitious titles. Magic Pengel
, and Warship Gunner
all took great strides in bringing levity and originality to a season rife with sequels and rehashes, but none of them captured our imaginations as successfully as Laharl's quest through the sarcastic underworld of the Marl Kingdom.
But with Nippon Ichi's follow-up Phantom Brave still several months away from seeing its stateside release, small-time publisher Mastiff hopes to capitalize on Disgaea's underdog popularity by releasing a Nippon Ichi-developed strategy/RPG of its own. Known more officially as La Pucelle: Tactics, this chronologically older cousin of Hour of Darkness not only helps fill the void left behind by the completion of Atlus' effort, it also manages to bring a couple of new elements to the table as well. Though technically, Disgaea took its inspiration from this game and not the other way around.
Chronology arguments aside, La Pucelle still enters the PlayStation 2 universe in an interesting position. Because while it's definitely going to be riding the wave of post-Disgaea popularity, it's also going to be subject to a tougher level of scrutiny and raised expectations than that that came before it. With Hour of Darkness such an incredibly accepted runaway surprise, gamers are going to be expecting that same kind of experience all over again. And in many ways they're going to get it too; but on that same token, that similarity could also be La Pucelle's ultimate disadvantage.
Luckily there are fewer similarities between La Pucelle and Disgaea in terms of its storyline. While the last game told the legend of a demon prince and his pursuit of a fallen crown, this adventure spins an entirely different yarn for more interesting results. Granted, there's definitely a demon-heavy thematic going on from the moment you start the game, but this time around your players are fighting on the side of good rather than evil. In fact, the title La Pucelle itself refers to a special operations teams formed by the Church to specifically to fight the forces of darkness. Your job as an up and coming warrior of La Pucelle is to travel the land and purify it of all its evil.
Simple as that may sound, the plotline is actually a lot more compelling than that of Disgaea's and turns out to be much darker, scarier, and more mature. At first you won't even suspect it either -- especially with the initial lighthearted introduction of the game's lead character Prier (whom Disgaea fans will no doubt recognize from her brief appearance in Hour of Darkness), her brother Culotte, and their teacher Alouette. Before long, however, things begin to get disturbingly out of hand; and yet somehow maintain that same biting sarcasm and humor that made the last game as compelling as it was. But overall, La Pucelle trumps it in terms of pacing, story twists, and general characterization; and for a genre that's typically lighter on story than it's more traditional RPG cousins, that's definitely a welcome approach.
Of course, the game's most promising element is its deep tactical strategy and multitude of battle techniques. Just like Disgaea, your number of options here are huge -- with each character possessing a massive amount of variables that dictate their performance in combat. At its most basic, your attributes, special skills, and magical powers are the three main pillars in which your characters are built; in addition to a bunch of modifiers given through equipment and items. Unlike Hour of Darkness, however, there's a more balanced approach to offense and defense and a less aggressive favoritism towards leveling up your characters into end all/be all bad asses.
The reason for this more acceptable balance in combat is two-fold. For starters, you can still capture monsters and add them to your party (this is very important to your continued success, by the way), but it won't work in the same manner that it did in Hour of Darkness; Because rather than forcing the player to pick up an enemy and throw them into a spawn portal, La Pucelle dictates that must convince the creature to join you instead. To do so, players must waste turns by using a tactic known as "purification" before killing them. Not only is the technique not guaranteed to work by any means; it also leaves you open to an attack by said monster (and his buddies) at the same time. Naturally, you'll want to build strong defensive characters and use smart protection techniques to account for capture attempts; a factor that wasn't quite as important in Disgaea as was steam-rolling ahead and taking out your foes with super attacks.
On that same token, the game is also more gentle in how it deals with players' abilities to pull off team-specific combinations and counter attacks. In fact, in La Pucelle, gamers will likely never miss a group maneuver or counter attack at all -- as the system just won't allow it. And though that does feel a little cheap for we, the more experienced players, it's also a necessity -- as most battles end up being drawn out for much longer than you'd first expect. This extended battle time is mainly because of the Dark Portals that litter the battlefield.
Similar to the Geo Panels from Hour of Darkness, the Dark Portals can be used strategically to create powerful chain attacks or grab extra hits on enemies; but they can also continue to spawn new enemies unless completely destroyed before the mission objective is met. Unless you make it a priority to take these portals out and use them to your advantage, some fights can go on for hours -- especially in the later stages. In a way, it's a much better system than the more straightforward approach that Disgaea took, but relatively speaking, it also makes a mastery of chain attacks infinitely more important than they are in the sequel; making a good portion of latter levels heavily dependent on just the manipulation of the Portals. It would have been a lot more rewarding had there been a more open way to getting past these predicaments. Even so, the level of strategy in La Pucelle is still quite engaging and could definitely end up being more appealing to flashier, less aggressive players in comparison to Disgaea. It's really rather preferential.
Unfortunately since La Pucelle was developed before Disgaea, it doesn't offer anywhere near as many goodies as the follow-up does. In fact, not only is the game smaller in size and length, the ability to travel into individual item worlds, being able to choose from dozens of different character classes, and the ability to utilize quasi-3D movement in towns are all completely missing from Mastiff's version of the Marl Kingdom.
But that doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of depth to La Pucelle, because there is. The merchant system, for instance, is a kind of mini-game itself -- with the ability to become better at haggling for prices. Captured monsters in your army can be trained and disciplined to become devastating fighting machines or travel into the Dark World to fetch you items and armor; while more advanced players can earn the ability to purify boss monsters, earn multiple endings, and discover bonus areas. Make no mistake about it, La Pucelle is very, very good; it just isn't as polished.
Disgaea wasn't exactly known for its groundbreaking visuals, and La Pucelle is pretty much in the same boat. Though it was developed before Hour of Darkness, the differences between the two titles are minimal. Though La Pucelle does lack some of the more spectacular special moves and magic spells, and appears to be a little more simplistic in terms of animation. Furthermore, townships and other non-battle areas are definitely less detailed with battle sequences looking more like Princess Maker than Final Fantasy Tactics.
From a stylistic standpoint, however, La Pucelle looks great and has plenty of personality conveyed through character portraits and clothing designs. Additionally, the grid-based environments are a little more varied and colorful when compared to Atlus' sequel and the characters are far more interesting looking. Surely the game won't win any awards in this respect, but at least they get the job done.
Musically, La Pucelle runs circles around Hour of Darkness with practically every track; as not only are each and every one of them more passionate and dramatic, they're more complicated technically as well. Yet despite this melodic superiority, the game is also very subtle in its approach and never overwhelms a situation with its score. It was a good decision and is a strong sign of quality audio direction.
Vocally, Mastiff has done a much better job at translating La Pucelle in comparison to the Atlus conversion of Disgaea as well. As not only are the actors more professional and believable, they sound much clearer too. But for purists that want nothing to do with the American voice-overs, they can have their way and listen to the original Japanese audio track as well -- which is a feature we always appreciate.
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