Jeanne d'Arc has seemingly opened the gates of a massive flood of excellent SRPGs for the handheld. Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness continues the PSP's onslaught of fantastic SRPG games, and this may be the best yet. This stellar translation of the PS2 original features a silky smooth framerate, brisk load times, a fantastic story mode, and a slew of extras that will have fans, new and old, rushing to get this game.
Some may be unfamiliar with Disgaea's rabid fan base. However, it's easy to see why the game has such a strong following. This Nippon Ichi classic blends a fun, fast-paced story with a wacky cast of zany characters. The writing is incredibly sharp, wholly embracing and parodying genre conventions. For example, one of the earliest characters is simply called "Mid-Boss" by the catty Laharl. The stylish presentation and heavy use of voice acting certainly adds an appreciable amount of character to the experience.
However, that's not the only thing that makes Disgaea so appealing: the gameplay will easily have you coming back for more. The game follows the typical model of all SRPGs, but adds many touches that make it unique. Due to the huge number of factors that must be considered in-game, playing Disgaea can feel like taking a class in university. While the game attempts to be approachable, it's clear that this is a game squarely for the hardcore -- the SRPG veteran.
You can deploy up to ten characters in each battle, which can make for some truly epic, chaotic and stunning fights. Your numbers are plentiful, and you'll want to exploit that to your advantage. Setting characters near each other before an attack can trigger the chance of a combo attack. Characters will jump atop of enemies, and work together to inflict massive damage.
There are other things to remember. For example, non-monster characters can throw each other. This is more than helpful -- it's a necessity. There are times where you'll have to go long distances. Having allies throw each other is a great way of going to hard-to-reach places.
Quite possibly the most significant thing to keep note of are the Geo Cubes, which offer both positive and detrimental effects. These crystals can endow like-colored squares with a number of status effects, such as increased defense, automatic damage, and more. Destroying a Cube will set off a chain reaction where all like-colored squares are damaged. Enemies may land on squares that give them an extra set of attacks, but if you can destroy the Geo Cube in time, you'll inflict quite a large amount of damage to them. Of course, the same can happen to you.
Of course, this is but a small part of the combat system. The incredible depth and variety found in this engine puts many competitors to shame. However, the comprehensive nature of the game extends to many other areas. Character creation, for example, is something that players will easily spend hours on. The mana you attain throughout the game can be used to create new breeds of loyal monsters, but there's a catch. You'll have to get the approval of a hard-to-please jury, one that can be bribed (or beaten!) to meet your needs. It's a game in and of itself.
Items are also incredibly thorough. No longer will you be simply looking for the most powerful weapon around. Each item has individual stats, so no two swords will be exactly the same. Yes, they may have the same name, but their rarity, attack power, and more will all differ. Additionally, you can enter the Item World, dungeons that are hidden within each item. Each item presents dozens of fields to go through, and extend the life of the game quite significantly.
This is but a touch of all the things you can do in this massive adventure. Players will easily spend 30-40 hours on the adventure ... the first time around. Players are free to replay any level they want in order to level up their characters and find new loot. At the game's end, players will be able to replay the entire game for additional endings.
If that wasn't enough, the PSP version adds ad-hoc multiplayer and a brand new single player adventure, Etna Mode, which chronicles what would've happened if Etna did kill Laharal at the beginning of the game. This alone should be incentive for fans of the original to play the game -- it's like getting two games in one!
Unlike Final Fantasy Tactics, this port of Disgaea is technically sound on every level. There are practically no load times, and the ability to save between each level is appreciated. The framerate is rock-solid, and the camera controls (although annoying) are a far improvement over Tactics. The sprites look stunning on the PSP screen, and the large character art that appears during dialog sequences looks quite sharp. In spite of all the additional content Nippon Ichi has added to the game, both the English and Japanese audio tracks can be found on the UMD -- a treat for those that may want to preserve the original feel of the game.
Afternoon of Darkness isn't as accessible as Jeanne d'Arc, but for SRPG pros, this is the game to beat. The original Disgaea was a fantastic game, and adding so much new content to this far-improved port makes this PSP port the definitive version of the game. Both Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea are great games -- but if you can only choose one, make sure you pick up Disgaea. It easily gives you the most bang for your buck.
PSP Fanboy score: 9.0