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Disgaea on the DS is a remake of the first game in the series, which originally appeared on the PlayStation 2 back in 2002. It’s the first foray into the handheld sphere by Nippon Ichi Software and gives DS owners a chance to play an strategy-RPG that isn’t Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem. Fans of the series can stop reading here and go buy the game; it’s the same Disgaea you know and love, only portable. For those new to the series or even the genre, this is your introduction to one of the most maddeningly addictive franchises of the last decade.

The game opens in boilerplate JRPG style as the young hero wakes up and is summarily tasked with saving the world. So begins a long and illustrious trip through one of the most genre-savvy, self-aware games to come out in quite a while. No RPG or cultural cliché is spared the wrath of the writers’ cutting wit and willingness to lampoon any trope that wanders into their field of view. From the alt-story “next episode” teasers in anime to the game’s very fungible fourth wall, the dialogue and script are tremendously sharp and uproariously funny.

Disgaea takes the traditional battle of good and evil and turns it on its ear. Aside from the fact that Laharl, the lead character, is the son of what essentially amounts to the King of Hell, the combination of fallen angels, angels of the regular kind and downright diabolical “good guys,” added to the fact that the Netherworld isn’t even as hellish as some of the game’s later locales, means you can pretty much toss out the window any preconceived notions you may have about standard JRPG morality. While an SRPG can get away with little more than a good battle system and a modest backstory (Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, I’m looking at you), the extra effort put forth by the writers and the localization team shows through here and puts the roleplaying into “strategy roleplaying game.”

The graphics are isometric pseudo 3-D, with a polygonal environment but 2-D sprites representing allies and enemies on the battlefield. The field can be rotated to four views in 90-degree increments, which helps the player figure out the lay of the land before making his move. The top screen of the DS displays a top-down tile map that gives an overview of the position of every ally and enemy on the board. All one can really ask of graphics in a game like this is that they provide an unambiguous view of where things are and facilitate the player’s strategic development; after that, they should merely to stay out of the way except to provide feedback. At this task Disgaea succeeds admirably.

The battle gameplay itself is rock solid. It takes the 10v10 approach, and unlike the Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre series there is no real penalty for death except for the money which must be paid to resurrect characters after the fight. You can keep a solid core of 10 allies and use them in pretty much every situation, but most players will want to stretch that roster to 12 or 13 for situations where specialists such as magic users, archers or melee characters are better suited to carry the day. Training up your team is a piece of cake, as any dungeon can be revisited and used as a proving ground for new blood. Difficulty ramps up beautifully, and the game is paced in such a way that, with the exception of the first five hours of gameplay, there is rarely a need to repeat a field with your core characters.

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Disgaea‘s item system is nothing short of brilliant. Thanks to the game’s “item world”, each item has its own dungeon with dozens of levels, the reward for which is a super-powered version of the same item. The humble Amulet, costing all of about 30 “hell” (the game’s currency), can be upgraded to the point where it is stronger than armor costing hundreds of times that amount. Of course, as your team improves you can take on the Item World for those much stronger pieces of equipment and deck out your warriors in elite über-gear that will make those boss fights much easier. The game rewards the player for taking the time to learn its mechanics; while you can mash through it the old-fashioned way by simply buying the best gear and using a lot of hack-and-slash tactics, it is infinitely easier and more rewarding to take advantage of the gifts the developers have given.

The music is appropriately atmospheric, drawing equally from comic anime style and the sorts of tunes you’d hear at a Halloween hayride. Not since Jack Skellington has the horror genre, so at home during the October festivities, made itself so welcome the other 11 months of the year. With all the hell you’ll save by powering up your own items, you’ll have plenty to put into the game’s money sink that is its music shop. The music of your choice plays in the Item World, and since it is there that you will spend the majority of your battle time, it pays to discover a favorite or three.

The game also includes an interesting way to earn your way into better equipment and to get just about anything done. You may be the heir to the throne of the Netherworld, but the monarchy is not absolute. There is a Senate that will have to be placated with gifts or smacked around by force if you are to get anything done. Anything that provides real benefit will require Senate approval, and there is a minigame in place that lets you push resolutions through to get more varied equipment, to improve your movement and counterattack and to improve the quality of the items available in the game’s store. As in real-world politics, votes don’t always go the way you plan, and when that happens you can impose your will by force. Just don’t expect those senators to give up without a fight.

The DS’s Wi-Fi capability is put to use here; once you’ve pushed through the first couple of chapters you can battle, trade and interact with other owners of the game through the built-in wireless network connection. Those who are interested in such things will get plenty of enjoyment out of them; those who prefer their gaming to be a solitary pursuit can safely ignore this feature.

As mentioned previously, all this ease and usability comes at the cost of a frustrating initial grind to break out of your early-game weakness. Disgaea will seem sadistically difficult during the first five hours or so; this may be off-putting to some players, but the rewards are well worth that initial time investment. The designers seem to have built the first part of the game with an eye toward letting players try the old-fashioned style just to learn how irritating it can be; once you get the chops to try Disgaea‘s unique ways of powering up, you’ll know exactly why you should. This is not a game to be beaten in a quick sitting or even a weekend; there is easily a hundred hours’ worth of battle here, every bit of it a blast to play.

Bottom line: Disgaea DS is a faithful translation of the PS2 original and well worth the cost for anyone looking for an outstanding SRPG on the go. This is one of the best DS games to come out this year.

Recommendation: Buy it. If you’re already an SRPG fan this is more of the same; if you are not yet on board, this is the perfect introduction to the genre.

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