They say the devil has the best tunes and after spending time entrenched in Disgaea DS we're inclined to agree.
You see, rather than slavishly follow the typical Japanese role-playing blueprint and place you in the shoes of a whiter-than-white protagonist, Nippon Ichi's game sees you assume the role of a mischievous demon-prince whose only similarity with the archetypal RPG hero is his distinct sense of justice, or in this case injustice.
The character in question is Laharl, who awakens from a two-year slumber to find that his father – the king of the netherworld, no less – has long since shaken off his mortal (or should that be immortal?) coil and as a result the kingdom of darkness has been plunged into even more chaos and anarchy than usual as various demons vie for the throne.
Not being one to take such affront quietly, the strong-willed Laharl sets out to reclaim his birthright and kick a few wayward imps into touch along the way.
Disgaea DS is actually a remake of the PlayStation 2 title, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, which first thrilled strategy fans back in 2003. (This was also the case with the PSP's Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness; which gained a rare 10/10 Pocket Gamer review back in 2007). Considering the disparity in technical power between the two formats Nippon Ichi has done an exemplary job of squeezing the experience into Nintendo's popular portable.
Of course it helps that the PS2 version wasn't the most visually opulent game, but Disgaea DS still succeeds in looking appealing. The characters are 2D sprites overlaid on a 3D gameworld and while they have a tendency to look a little pixelated at times, they're highly expressive and exhibit bags of character, which is handy as the game relies so much on its humour to entertain.
Indeed, Disgaea DS displays an almost worrying penchant for quirky dialogue and zany gags, and to be brutally honest the English voice-acting often borders on the embarrassing, but fans will argue it's all part of the charm (those same fans may be perturbed to learn that the Japanese voiceover option present in both PS2 and PSP versions is sadly absent here, down to the obvious limitations of the DS cartridge format).
Visual and audio trappings aside, one thing that the entire Disgaea series is famed for is incredible depth. Indeed the myriad possible strategies open to you is almost stupefying.
Granted, similar games such as Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions and Tactics Ogre might dazzle and bewilder with reams of stats and upgrade systems so multifaceted they probably have their own Haynes instruction manual, but Disgaea DS prefers to combine its depth with a surprising amount of freedom during your quest.
One notable aspect that sets it apart is the unique Geo-panel system. Some levels contain Geo Symbols which have an effect radius that changes the colour of adjacent panels. These panels then affect units that happen to step onto them, including your own. All of this status-based malarkey means many levels essentially become massive puzzles which you have to approach in a methodical manner in order to conquer effectively.
The numerous upgrade systems, item creation modes and unit manufacture options are so incredibly complicated that if we were to investigate them in-depth during the course of this review, we'd be forlornly tapping the keyboard for the next few days; suffice to say, if you like your RPGs to have more layers than an onion then once you get stuck into Disgaea DS you'll sport a grin wider than a Cheshire Cat's.
Of course, it could be argued that if you take your strategy RPGs that seriously there's a good chance you've already experienced Disgaea in one of its previous iterations, and to be fair there's very little in this DS version in terms of new content.
The tacked-on touchscreen control method is better than some of the dubious retro-fitted interfaces we've seen on the DS, but pad and buttons input wins out every time, offering you a far superior degree of control.
The wireless multiplayer mode is a bonus, but if you've previously dabbled with the PSP version then you'll already be familiar with the drill; the only advantage is it's likely to be marginally easier to track down someone with a DS and Disgaea DS than it will be to locate a PSP owner and a copy of the game. Online play via the internet would have been a major improvement but sadly it's not been implemented.
Still, we're splitting hairs. Despite some shortcomings of this DS version compared to PSP incarnation, Disgaea retains its near-legendary brilliance, and with any luck will succeed in reaching an even wider audience thanks to the astonishing popularity of Nintendo's hardware.