Apparently 2009 is the year of the Prinny. This fictional penguin creature not only starred in his own portable platformer Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero
, but is all over Nippon Ichi Software's newest PSP adventure game, Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days. With all of these different games I've really started to fall in love with this adorable (and dangerous) creature, so it should come as no surprise that this Prinny-filled adventure game is yet another must-own for fans of obscure (yet totally accessible) Japanese role-playing games.
Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days is a re-release of the 2006 PlayStation 2 game (Cursed Memories). While some fans may be disappointed that this isn't a brand new game, there are enough enhancements and extra quests to make you fall back in love with this phenomenal console game. Best of all, this PSP release will mean that gamers who missed the game the first time around will finally have a chance to check out one of the best reviewed role-playing games in recent memory.
In Dark Hero Days you play Adell, a demon hunter who realizes that he's the only one in his hometown who hasn't been turned into a soulless monster. As he investigates his surroundings he discovers that everybody is acting a little odd, so he decides to take matters into his own hands and do something about it. Before long he's introduced to a young girl named Rozalin, who happens to be the only daughter of the evil Overlord Zenon, the one suspected of turning everybody into monsters. So the two of you (along with friends and warriors you pick up along the way) set out to defeat Zenon and make everything normal again.
The dynamic between Adell and Rozalin is a lot like a combative version of Crono and Marle from Chrono Trigger. Rozalin has lived a life of privilege, so she comes off as a little stuck up. Did I say that she's a little stuck up? What I meant to say is that she's outrageously obnoxious, to the point where neither you nor Adell know what to do with her. This dynamic is common in Hollywood movies, but outside of a few examples (Kane & Lynch: Dead Men springs to mind) you don't see it very often in games. As I progressed through the story I wondered if these two would even make it through the thirteen episodes without killing each other.
What sets the Disgaea series apart from all of the other role-playing games on the PSP is its incredible sense of humor. I could get into each and every character's quirk, but the fun of the game is watching how their stories play out in extremely humorous ways. It's not just the character dialogue, either. The game is often narrated by a wacky TV news program, a subject that is certainly ripe for parody. While not all of the comedy works, the characters find themselves in increasingly crazy situations. The game gives you the option to completely skip the story, but you are really missing out if you bypass the fantastic writing and always surreal storyline.The battles are a variation of the standard strategy role-playing game, a sub-genre wherein you take turns setting up your characters, planning attacks and then executing your plan. While some may argue that the PSP already has two stellar titles in this sub-genre (Square Enix's Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lines and Sony's Jeanne D'Arc), none of them tackle the gameplay with the amount of humor as Disgaea 2. And besides, it's been years since either of those two RPGs hit the PSP, so we're about due for another incredible strategy-oriented adventure game.
At first the gameplay doesn't look any different from either of the aforementioned games, but the more I played I realized that there's more to this game than meets the eyes. In most strategy RPGs you either plan all your moves before the end of the turn or perform your moves individually. In this game you can use both throughout the course of the game. At any point during a turn you can execute your planned moves without ending your turn. That means that you can see how much damage you take away from an enemy before deciding to work on the rest of your move. This adds up to a lot of strategic planning, since you aren't strapped to only seeing what happens when your turn is over. This small variation adds a lot to the strategy and makes Disgaea 2 stand out from the rest of the RPGs on the platform.
On top of the standard attacks and magic spells, there are a number of cool new additions made specifically for this PSP version of Disgaea 2. Some of the new features come from 2008's Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice, while other ideas are fresh to this PSP game. The biggest change to the gameplay is the addition of combo attacks, which means that you can team up with somebody standing next to you to pull off a bigger, more powerful attack. But be warned, you aren't the only side that can pull off these tag-team attacks. You'll quickly discover that the enemies are capable of teaming up to lay down some major damage. This change to the gameplay gives the game a completely different feel, one that I found made the whole experience a lot more exciting.
Other changes include brand new characters, enemies, weapons and special abilities, all of which you can earn and create over the course of the story. There's also a new option that allows your teammate to literally pick up and throw people around, an ability that allows for speedier travel over the occasionally large battlefield. And then there are the Geo Symbols, colored markers that can change your attributes in the middle of a fight.
Outside of the battlefield there are a few new additions as well. Perhaps the most substantial are the devilishly clever Axel missions, which involve the wannabe demon actor feuding with a director. And if that's not enough for you, there's even downloadable content. For some that still won't be enough to consider buying the game again, but for everybody else this is the most comprehensive version of this game available anywhere.
What surprised me the most about Dark Hero Days is how good it looks on the PSP's screen. While there's nothing wrong with the graphics in either the PlayStation 2 or 3 titles, the sprite-based characters look especially sharp on the smaller screen. The game has been formatted to fit in a widescreen display, giving you plenty of room to look around and survey your plan of attack. With its short battles and level grinding, Disgaea 2 is the perfect type of game to take on the go, so I'm glad to see the graphics look as sharp as they do.
On top of the good looks, the game also offers some solid music and voice acting. All of the acting from the original PlayStation 2 game has been brought over to this game, which means that you're in for a lot of funny line readings and over-the-top acting. The fantastic music also returns, only this time around you can buy brand new songs in the story mode that will play during your encounters. It's true that some of the music can get on your nerves and even I have my limit of hammy overacting, but there's little doubt that the game's audio presentation is just as strong as the visuals.
It would be a lie to say that there are no other games like this on the PSP; there are certainly other tactical RPGs on Sony's portable. But none of those games have quite the sense of humor or whimsy as Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days. I fell in love with each and every one of the characters ... even when they are at their most insufferable. With its crazy story and strong presentation, Dark Hero Days is an RPG that will stick with you long after you've completed the lengthy story. Regardless of whether you're a fan of the original or never played a Disgaea game in your life, there's plenty of content here to keep you busy for a long time to come. I can only hope that the next PSP Disgaea will be an brand new adventure and not just an enhanced port to a three year old game.