Most console role-playing games these days appeal primarily to those who've already been playing these types of games for years. By offering a twist on the genre's conventional turn-based combat or a twist on the genre's conventional hero-saves-the-world storyline, recent RPGs such as Xenosaga and Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits are well suited for fans, but probably aren't doing much to help new players get into this style of gaming. But so what? There's something to be said for games that are expressly intended for experienced players. Which means there's something to be said for Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. At a time when most game publishers are desperately trying to expand their audience, sometimes by severely dumbing down their games or including tutorials so simple they border on being patronizing, along comes Atlus with Disgaea, a game that's exclusively for hard-core fans of RPGs, and strategy RPGs in particular. If you have no interest in games such as Final Fantasy Tactics or Atlus' own Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis, then Disgaea is not for you. But if you are a fan of these types of games, then consider Disgaea one great big thank-you card for your ongoing support.
Apparently, turn-based tactical battles are commonplace in the netherworld.
Disgaea greatly resembles other strategy RPGs. Its isometric perspective, 3D battlefields, and nice-looking 2D characters are clearly reminiscent of most other games of this type, and on first impression, so is the game's turn-based combat system. However, you'll soon realize that this game actually plays very differently.
Even the premise of the game is much different from your typical RPG. The hero of the story, such as he is, is Laharl, crown prince of the netherworld, demon, and spoiled brat. He awakens from a long slumber one day to find that his father is dead and that the netherworld needs a new overlord. The choice is obvious to Laharl, so he sets off to take control of the netherworld by force, with his not-so-trusty vassal Etna in tow. Disgaea's storyline, which unfolds using a combination of 2D artwork, text, and voice-overs, is overflowing with absurdly goofy Japanese humor, some of which is actually really funny. This sense of humor pervades the entire game--Disgaea doesn't take itself the least bit seriously, and the anything-goes philosophy expressed by Laharl, Etna, and the other demons of the netherworld actually manifests itself in the game design and the characters' personalities.
Disgaea is structured as a series of chapters, each containing a sequence of battles. In between these battles, you're free to engage in a number of other types of combat-oriented activities and subquests. You can also replay any battles you've previously won, and spend as much time as you want leveling up your characters, acquiring better equipment, and so forth. In fact, you'll find that Disgaea is in many ways the obsessive RPG fan's dream game. Spend enough time with this game, and your characters' experience levels won't just climb into the hundreds, but into the thousands. If you're the sort who likes to develop ridiculously overpowered characters in your RPGs--that is, if you're the sort for whom finishing the storyline in a game like this doesn't mean you're finished playing--then Disgaea is your game. Several dozen hours are needed just to finish the main quest, but far greater challenges (and a number of different endings) await those prepared to devote even more time.
There are tons of different character classes to be unlocked, and you can use monsters in your party as well.
The gameplay itself is, in a word, weird. But here are some more words to better justify that. This is the netherworld, so conventional rules of engagement apparently don't apply. You can deploy as many as 10 different characters in a single battle, which feels like a lot. Characters can attack with ranged or melee weapons, use special abilities, and cast spells--standard stuff for a strategy RPG. But they can also take part in combo attacks, pick up and throw one another or their enemies, and more. Disgaea uses a pure turn-based system. You always move first, and once everyone in your squad has acted, then your enemies get to go, then back to you, and so on. The turn-based system has some idiosyncrasies that could be considered bugs in a game that weren't so wacky. For instance, combo attacks may occur when an attacking character has allies adjacent to him or her. So, one strategy is to always have three characters (the maximum) placed adjacent to your attacking character, in order to maximize the chances of a combo. And, once the attack has been executed, you simply "take back" the moves of the adjacent characters, returning them to their original positions--they don't lose their action for the round by taking part in a combo. Using this trick, you can potentially turn every single attack in a round into a big combo.
That may sound really unbalancing, but the truth is, Disgaea isn't about fair fights. The game practically defies you to do your worst to upset the odds and turn the tables in your favor. Combat in Disgaea isn't terribly strategic in the traditional sense. You don't need to worry about such things as your characters' initiative relative to their foes, there are only three types of elemental magic and corresponding resistances, and with the right equipment, you don't need to worry about running out of spell points. Also, the enemy AI is pretty bad--enemies routinely ignore your most threatening warriors to go for your weakest ones, and sometimes they won't even move until you get close enough.
But there's a grander strategy to the game, whereby you'll constantly be trying to find the path of least resistance when it comes to leveling up all your characters as quickly as possible. For example, you'll find that the main purpose of combo attacks isn't to inflict more damage, but rather to help weak characters quickly gain experience points. Even if a character deals no damage to the foe as part of a combo, if the foe is defeated by that combo, all the characters involved in the attack earn experience--possibly a whole lot, such as if a wimpy first-level character takes part in the trouncing of a 100th-level bad guy.