Gaming Review: Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories

Disgaea 2 was released in North America for the PlayStation 2 in 2006. Its predecessor was published by Atlus, three years prior, but since then, Nippon Ichi Software had established a forward camp stateside, and so it was NIS America that handled localization and publishing on the sophomore game of what’s become their flagship RPG series.

Previous to 2003, this developer would probably have been best known for Rhapsody, their critically well-received and very cute musical RPG (the only one of the series to be released outside of Japan). But with four titles in the main Disgaea series thus far, multiple re-releases of most of them (Disgaea 2 has itself been ported to the PSP in an enhanced version prior to this PlayStation Network port of the PS2 original), plus several spin-offs (the Prinny side-scrollers, for example), this wonderfully weird developer is gaining some real traction here.

As well they should. The gameplay in this title is unusual and deep, following the best tactical RPG tradition while putting some unique spins on it; the story is wacky, but not without an emotional core that allows for some real player engagement. The localization is top-notch. The voice actors are great, and I can’t find any fault with the translation.

The story involves a young man, Adell, who is the last human being in his world, the rest having been turned into demons by the Overlord’s curse. Set in one of many Netherworlds in interconnected dimensions, our hero’s goal is to defeat the all-powerful demon and turn everyone back to normal. To this end, he ends up kidnapping/escorting the Overlord’s daughter, who leads him grudgingly to her father while plotting to kill Adell, though her feelings towards him become more complex, over time.

The whole world has something of the feel of InuYasha, with a bit of Rama 1/2 thrown in for good measure. The characters are frequently morally ambiguous, though not irredeemable, and the whole thing is light-hearted and cartoony enough that what might otherwise be considered black humour is fairly innocent. Jokey things, like explicitly referring to an enemy’s in-game stats (I think Etna was at level 10, 000), push at the fourth-wall without puncturing it.

The gameplay is almost entirely comprised of battle tactics. There are a finite number of battles in the game, each a carefully orchestrated puzzle with multiple solutions. There is no world map and there are no dungeons, thus, no random battles. So this game is essentially chapter-based, and thus very linear (though the player can replay any previous battle at any time for bonus points, prizes, and cash).

At first I missed the world map. The inability to explore freely seemed both constraining, and to take away from the sense of a larger world that our story takes place in. Over time, though, it didn’t bother me much. The break from repetitive random battles, at least, is a plus to me.

In-between battles, the player’s party is (usually) in the main character’s hometown. This is the hub through which every other aspect of the game is accessed. There are a few NPCs wandering about who will simply chat with you, but almost everybody else has a specific function.

There’s the tutorial guy, there’s the item shop guy, the armor guy, the hospital (like an inn, you pay them money to heal your party), and there’s the travel guide, to whom you speak when you’re ready to go to the next level.

There are also two interesting side-quests that the player can dump, potentially, much more time into than the main game itself. The Item World allows one to literally jump into their own items, fighting their way through one randomly-created level after another, with the aim of powering up the item itself.

These levels are randomly generated each time you enter, and sometimes are not actually beatable (i.e., sheer cliffs or large gaps might prevent your party from either reaching the enemies they need to defeat, or the exit to the next level), which means you should never play the Item World without taking with you an emergency exit pass.

The other potential time-sucker is the Dark Assembly. All kinds of character upgrades can be done there. Mana earned in battles (which is tied to each individual character and is non-transferable) can be spent on reincarnation, allowing the same character to be reborn at level 1, but with a higher base potential, or even as a better character class (of which several can be unlocked). Mana can also be used to create new characters.

Depending on what you want to do at the Dark Assembly, you may need to win a vote from the senators there (all monsters), by bribery or brute force. It’s all very complicated and, for the purposes of the main game, not necessary, but there’s plenty of opportunity for party customization if you want to sink in the time.

In fact, you can generally get by without supplementary characters at all. Over the course of the game, enough actual story characters will join your party, that the addition of additional character classes isn’t strictly necessary, though it might be helpful.

The core of this game is still the battles themselves. You can take out up to ten characters per fight, and they don’t need to be decided in advance. The battlefield is grid-based, but includes a height dimension. Depending on weapons and attacks, your characters can damage one or more enemies at various distances. Enemies can also be reached via a lift and throw option that the stronger characters can manage.

It’s possible to stack up all ten characters on top of each other, like a totem pole, and to rapidly move characters across the field of battle in a single turn, via repeated lifts and throws. This can be critical when beating an enemy to the punch, or taking a key position early, can wildly change the tide of battle.

Enemies, too, can be lifted and thrown, perhaps directly into the path of another character’s area attack. And piggy-backing characters can also combo attack a single enemy, reaching further and hitting harder, while combination attacks also occur in other formations, with flanking characters jumping in to help a main attacker, offering free hits that don’t actually count as their own turn.

I haven’t even talked about geo effects, about which there is too much to say here.

Everything in the game, from weapons to special attacks to character types, is so customizable, no two people will set up their party or fight a battle in quite the same way. Perhaps it’s a little too customizable: since characters level up by defeating enemies and successfully performing actions, it’s possible to power up your party unevenly and hurt your long-term fighting power as a result.

But on the whole, this game is well-realized, polished, and simply fun to play. Though the depth is there, if you just want to complete the main game, Disgaea 2 can be tackled in a (relatively) casual fashion, which means I can recommend it for hardcore and more casual RPGers alike.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories on Blogcritics.

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