The Game Design Forum

Enduring Impressions: Disgaea

Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, Nippon Ichi / Atlus, 2004 Disgaea: Cursed Memories, Nippon Ichi / NIS America, 2006 Disgaea: Absence of Justice, Nippon Ichi / NIS America, 2008

Nippon Ichi’s 2004 strategy/JRPG sleeper hit has always been something of an anomaly in its own era. In an age when both American and Japanese games were starting to diverge from the classic RPG formula and try innovative ways of implementing their RPG elements, Disgaea was something of a traditionalist holdout. It was released at the end of the Playstation 2’s life cycle, and yet it had graphics that wouldn’t have been remarkable for a Playstation 1 game. It received almost no hype; in fact developer Nippon Ichi had a very hard time releasing it in the United States, eventually partnering with Atlus to publish the first installment.

So what has made Disgaea a franchise that still successful years later?

Probably the biggest thing Disgaea has going for it is something a lot of games these days could emulate: value. Disgaea has a ton of content. There are games out there that claim to have 100+ hours of content, but much of that is just filler. The hallmark of Disgaea is that you really can get 100 hours of content out of it-- and this is increasingly true as the series has gone on. None of this content, however, is made up of pointless minigames or useless collectible items. The content is real, appropriately challenging, and there’s more than enough of it.

Essential Game Concept: Everything Levels Up

Grinding levels in an RPG can be tedious, and has been the downfall of many (mostly console, single-player) games. The genius of Disgaea is that rather than go with less levelling, the game opts for much, much more of it. But the levelling is very cleverly staggered and varied. Your raw stats level much like you would expect from any RPG. But your job class levels as well; after a certain point you can upgrade to a better job class in your same tree for added benefit. Weapon skill grows at a different rate, conveying a string of new usable benefits. Individual combat abilities gain levels and change. You increase the strength of equippable items by entering them and fighting through an item-world dungeon. Even suffering casualties on the battlefield, and burning through your stash of money at the merchants causes you to gain levels and rewards.

The result of this is flow: game-making flow. Because every single action you take causes you to level up something, there is never any wasted effort. And because something is always levelling, the gameplay is always changing, just a little bit more complex than it was before. This is a recipe for flow, because there is never any 'down-time', so to speak. No matter what actions you take, the next battle will be different. No matter what you did in the last battle, something in your menus requires your attention again.

The missions / dungeons scale with you as well, which means that you have a very long RPG flow curve ahead of you. For more on that, see EGC 3.

Essential Game Concept: Terrain Puzzles

While you can take my use of the word “puzzle” lightly most of the time, some of the battlefields really are mazes. That said, it rarely gets to the point where the geo-grids (what they call terrain effects in the game) are annoying. In fact, an expert knowledge of the terrain grid can be a major tide-turner in battles where you find yourself outmatched by higher-level enemies. And like with everything else in the game, using the geo-grid will help you become more powerful, as you can set off chain reactions that can really pad your inventory with great gear and items for selling.

Probably the most inspired addition to the tactical aspect of Disgaea is the ability to throw characters; throwing stacks of characters in sequence takes this to the extreme. It is possible in the game to have a line of characters stack themselves up, and throw each other across the map. Ultimately this is a very simplistic feature, but it both adds a lot of tactical value on complex and difficult maps, and also helps to make wrapping up large maps a lot quicker, once you’ve effectively won.

Essential Game Concept: Game-Breaking Power Curve

Disgaea has absolutely no mechanic in place to prevent the player's party from becoming ludicrously powerful. Part of the appeal of Disgaea toward the end of the game is that the player becomes far more powerful than opponents of the same level. Expert players will easily be a match for enemies as much as twice their own level. Where in other games there are arbitrary level caps, or diminishing returns on stat points or armor strength, there is nothing in Disgaea to hold you back. With the right leveling strategy, it is possible to burn through the game like a demigod. Fortunately the game has also included some ludicrously powerful gods to fight, making this a gameplay feature rather than a gameplay flaw.

Essential Game Concept: Massive Amounts of Content

In the age of DLC, we can appreciate having a ton of content served to us for the price on the label. Truly, this is a crucial game design idea as much as anything else. For every one of the shorter games on the market that emphasizes multiplayer, there’s another that is just a short, overpriced game with nothing real to offer. Difficulty settings, in my opinion, rarely count as additional hours of content simply for the fact that you still have to slough through all the mundane filler that you’ve done before, even if some portion of the gameplay is enriched by greater difficulty.

While some might call this attack on short games hypocriticial since RPGs can be somewhat repeitive (grinding, already discussed), I think that there’s an essential difference. True, to the wrong person Disgaea can seem downright boring, but that is a matter of taste, and not poor game design. The great thing about the end-game of Disgaea is that the gameplay accelerates. By the time you reach the end game of Disgaea, the amount of progress you make per hour is very large, and after all the play you’ve put into the game, this is rewarding. So in a sense, hours 100 to 120 are much richer than hours 5 to 10. The effect does wear off eventually, but hey, you have to get back to real life at some point, don’t you?

The Bottom Line

Disgaea has so effectively delved into RPG elements that it seems impossible to outdo the series. Designers who love to use RPG elements should pay close attention, because this is the highest concentration of RPG elements available. Moreover, they’re so well-refined and perfectly spaced that the nuts-and-bolts game scholars can simply take them as a rubric against which to test their own material.

If you like playing RPGs, and (like most of us) have a limited amount of money to spend, pick up one of the Disgaea series. The PSP ports are probably the best bet for value, as you can tackle a few dungeons while you’re waiting at the dentist, or what have you. The most entertaining of the 3 games is definitely Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness (the first episode) but the most refined is Disgaea: Absence of Justice (the third title). Just beware--only the first two games are out on PSP. The third one is PS3 exclusive. Whatever the case, you’ve got yourself more game than you can probably handle.

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