It would be interesting to see what other suggestions for Disgaea's subtitle were touted before Koei settled on 'Afternoon of Darkness'. As foreboding names go, it hardly strikes the heart with cold terror. Disgaea: Morning of Funny Turns, perhaps; Elevenses of a Dicky Leg or, maybe, Tea-Party of Quiet Regret. But don't be fooled – this isn't some unintentional Japlish translation cock-up, rather it's the kind of leftfield humour that characterizes this unique and very funny Japanese strategy RPG from start to finish.
The game centres on the story of a young demon called Laharl. In the opening scenes, Laharl is awakened from a two-year slumber thanks to a botched assassination attempt by a pink-haired girl with acute amnesia. To add to the boy's problems, he finds out that during his lengthy oversleep his father, king of all Netherworld, passed away, leaving the slumbering prince promoted to the throne.
Naturally, this being hell and the new king being unconscious, all of the other would-be overlords have stepped in to try and take charge. So it's essentially your job to lead Laharl around the underworld, picking up new recruits, asserting his dominion by stamping out the pockets of usurpers wherever they emerge.
The story is told via cute cut-scenes (with voice acting in both Japanese and English options), with each of the game's 14 chapters introduced by an anime-esque recap of what's happened so far. The story is good throughout and puts Laharl and his team of devilish vassals (and one angel) in some riotously amusing situations. Wanting to see what comes next will drive you on through the game's deeper mechanics but, truth be told, you'll need little encouragement where these are concerned.
While some of you may still be reeling form a month spent juggling statistics with recent Pocket Gamer PSP favourite, Final Fantasy Tactics, you better steady yourself for another big-hitting Japanese turn-based strategy game. For players who found FF Tactics too difficult or, ironically, too old-skool and inflexible, then this might just be the perfect alternative for you.
Why? Well, it's more welcoming to the newcomer, while offering the experienced player far greater freedom to advance their team in any number of different ways. True, the lighthearted tone and tongue-in-cheek dialogue might appeal less than Tactics' more austere approach, but for freeform strategy and silly giggles this is the place to be.
For anyone wondering why we're speaking in code all of a sudden, here's a brief rundown of the basic rules: you control a team of units in a grid-based environment. You take turns with the enemy units to move your squad around the board, square by square, initiating fights and healing friendlies as you try to overwhelm and defeat the opposition to 'win' the map.
In between battles you can equip your team with various items of armour and weaponry and, in Disgaea, you have the option of recruiting enemy units, creating powerful monsters by throwing enemies into one another and combining them, crossing great distances by throwing friendly team mates from arms to arms in a long chain and 10,000 other little ideas and complexities that make this the definitive strategy RPG of all time.
Really, it's that good.
All of the intricacies of the game are, in a sense, optional. Players who just want to carve through the story, see a few of the endings and leave it there are perfectly welcome to do so. However, the joy and long-term appeal of the experience is in mining each level for maximum rewards, building strong relational bonds between your units, uncovering new classes, levelling up your weapons to stupendous degrees, achieving perfect completion to each and every map and creating monstrous statistical behemoths in your clutch of characters.
The PSP conversion (Disgaea was originally a highly sought after PlayStation 2 game) is excellent, with pin-sharp sprites and polygonal environments, as well as quick loading. But not only is it faithful, a whole new storyline has also been added for fans of the original and there's a new ad-hoc one-on-one mode for players wanting to take their squad up against a friend.
On paper, then, the game sounds very similar to the aforementioned FF Tactics and so you might be wondering if it's worth investing in both. But it's something we'd wholeheartedly encourage you to do as both are incredible and in many ways quite distinct from one another. Still, in an ideal world these two games would never have been released so close together.
Granted, players raised on, say, Gran Turismo and Grand Theft Auto (good as those those titles are) might wonder what on earth the fuss is about. But give Disgaea just a little bit of your attention and, in no time at all, it will have stolen your heart, mind and soul.
While many developers wrestle with trying to bring complex 3D worlds, dazzling racing games and fast paced FPS titles to the PSP, the truth is that more slow moving, boardgame-style titles seem to suit the platform better. For Pocket Gamer, this is the first PSP game in two-and-a-half-years that has had us reaching into our bag for the machine at every available opportunity weeks after we first started playing.
And as recommendations go, there's none higher.