Like caviar or NASCAR, despite their popularity Japanese RPGs have always been an acquired taste - particularly strategy variants.
Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days is no different. A 'sequel' to the phenomenal Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, it's yet another prime example of a hardcore game that would have most casual players running for the hills. But, as with its predecessor, you'd be foolish to judge this book by its cover because, given the chance, you won't want to put it down.
In true strategy RPG fashion, turn-based, tactically demanding battles coupled with character growth and progression form the basis of the game, while a comical story that doesn't take itself too seriously helps to immerse you in the fantasy world on offer.Early evening of darkness
And what a charming, engaging world it is. As a brave and proud member of Veldime, you must travel across it, looking to face off evil against overlord Zenon and defeat him to free your fellow residents from their cursed existence as demons.
From a gameplay perspective, things have retained the core elements from Afternoon of Darkness, and the grid-structured arenas you fight in combined with the turn-based system help nurture some excellent, tactical gameplay.
As well as the more obvious Attack, Defend, and Special options, you can also throw both your characters and enemies, combine attacks for more damage, and a whole lot more.
While that in itself doesn't sound massively strategic, Geo Symbols (little pyramids with bonuses, essentially) appear on many of the arenas to further complicate proceedings - the bonus applying to all the matching coloured squares the symbol resides on.
This bonus normally extends to a significant boost in a character's attack or healing capacity, which is great news if you're the one benefiting from it but considerably less appealing if your party of characters is on the receiving end.
Adding yet more complexity, Geo Symbols can be moved to change which coloured panels get the bonus, and they can also be destroyed, causing damage to you and your enemies in the resulting chain of destruction. You do get better bonuses, though, should you create a large enough combo.
The best example of how strategy can come into play is when you start encountering Invincible panels. More often than not, enemies will use them to make your life difficult. However, a cunning throw can knock them away from the safety of the panel and into the arms of all your offensive power.
Based on the above few paragraphs, you'd be forgiven for thinking he whole system is quite complex, but don't let that put you off - it really doesn't take long to work out. Some of the later arenas littered with Geo Symbols do require some forward thinking, but it never feels like a chore and you shouldn't ever get stuck for long.Narrative larks
We could go on about other facets of the general game mechanics, like the ability to turn Monsters into weapons, combination attacks, and the vast array of magic on offer, but we won't because it would take up too much internet space.
Let's just say that, like previous Disgaea titles, Dark Hero Days is easy to learn but hard to master. Yet, critically, it remains enjoyable throughout because each battle is organic - a variety of play styles can be used to vanquish your opponents.
And it isn't just the strategic play that keeps you interested. Before and after every battle is a cut-scene, and while these aren't particularly exciting to look at the dialogue contains genuine laugh-out-loud moments while pushing the narrative forward nicely, albeit predictably.
Tink, the French flying frog, is a particular favourite - his dual personality, sarcastic wit, and French accent causes many a chuckle.
Hardcore RPG fans will no doubt be happy to know you can listen to all the excellent dialogue in its original Japanese flavour, but the localisation is easily strong enough not to bother and, as with previous titles in the series, this is a real stand-out feature.
As well the great script and voice acting, RPG fiends can also rejoice in what really matters: the longevity. For those who have ever felt restricted by a level cap, the 9,999 limit should be more than ample, and it isn't just characters that get to enjoy vast level-ups. That would be restrictive, after all.
So jumping into any item or piece of equipment via the Item World means you can level them up, too. All you have to do is defeat each arena's monsters, or get a character to the Next Level portal and voilà - the item levels-up and its bonuses are boosted, providing you can make it out alive. (Weaknesses are also accentuated, mind you.)
This portion of the game adds an insane amount of content to the already bulging supply, and should help eat up hours of your life purely because of the huge number of items that can be improved, and the different worlds each item presents.More than meets the eye
If, for some reason, that doesn't sound like enough, you can also subdue enemies to use them in your party, and level them up like any other character.
Each one has unique strengths that can benefit your team, and there are six different versions of each. For instance, a Prinny can come in a Colonel, Captain, or General form, as well as three others, each later incarnation stronger than the last.
Then there's the Dark Council, a place where new rules can be passed, such as More Expensive Equipment or Stronger Enemies (it's also where characters can be created).
Persuading the members of the Dark Council is a great mini-game, which breaks up the main adventure nicely and stops you burning out from constant battling. Essentially, you have to sober up, bribe, defeat, or wake-up each council member in the hope that they'll support you and give you a vote.
It's just one facet on top of an extensive list of features and the wealth of gameplay that's on offer to those with the time - like all great RPGs, once hooked you can say goodbye to your social life until the demon is laid to rest.
That said, Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days is not without its share of flaws. For one, Adell and Rozalin, the two main characters, are rather stereotypical and not as interesting as their equivalents in other Disgaea games. Both are still likeable, but they come across as unoriginal, especially when you compare them with the rest of the characters they meet along the way.
And while it makes a change to play the good guys for the sake of differentiation from the other games in the series, it just doesn't feel as exciting.
Sometimes you're left wondering why Axel's (a Dark Hero has-been) side quest - included here as a bonus feature - wasn't incorporated into the main story. His attempt to become famous again is more interesting than the rather tired 'save the day and lift the curse from the Overlord Zenon' affair.
Also, the graphics are a little underwhelming and not a lot has changed from the game's first incarnation (Disgaea 2 first appeared on PlayStation 2 in 2006). Okay, in an RPG gameplay is king, and in fairness high-level moves and magic casting includes some very cool sprite animations, but a little boost in the general visual department wouldn't have gone amiss considering the age of the PS2 original.A cut above the rest
Speaking of which, Dark Hero Days doesn't offer a great deal of new content over the PS2 outing aside from Axel's missions and the Magichange system (taken from the Disgaea 3 home console release), so if you've already played it to death the merit of a repurchase is debatable.
But for those who haven't, or for returning players keen on a trip down memory lane, the all-consuming mix of entertaining narrative, charismatic characters, and constant improvement of your party remains unchanged, ensuring you succumb to the game's irresistible charm.Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days will steal your free time, slash it up with a katana, set it alight with fiery magic, and taunt you with the remnants. But you won't care because using your brain has never been this fun.