Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Disgaea's plot is a fairly bizarre variation of the thematic battle between Heaven and Hell. How fitting, then, that the game itself can be both Heaven and Hell for the player.
But before we get back to that, let me repeat the basics. Disgaea is a small-scale tactical strategy game. In short, you lead a group of up to 10 people on different battle maps, trying to obliberate every single enemy there is on the screen. There are several different ways of accomplishing this, ranging from the normal sword attacks, to group attacks involving up to four people, to strange special attacks that includes punching enemies into the heart of the sun, having dragon summonings flame the snot (and everything else) out of you, and of course just throwing the infamous exploding prinnies. Which is the best thing to do with anything that says "dooood!" all the time, but that's another matter. And besides, apart from that annoying habit, who wouldn't want homicidal penguins that carry filet knives and bombs?
Anyway, about levels. in order to get your ragtag mini-army to kick-ass conditions, there are several ways to do this. First and foremost is of course to level up the character. Then you can level up your skill levels on different weapons, leading you to learn more skills. Then you can level up the skills themselves, making them more effective. And then, if the character gets himself a protegé, the mentor can learn magic spells from that protegé (if s/he has any) by standing next to him. And then, you can enter an "item world" for each and every single item and weapon and piece of armour you get, and by beating the monsters there (or at least get yourself to the "next level" exit that's on each of the randomly generated maps), you can then level up the items or weapons to be more effective. And inside the item world, some of the monsters you beat can then be put into an item of your choice to increase the effectiveness of said items. Phew.
Had enough leveling yet?
Well, this is where the Heaven/Hell aspect sets in. See, there are a lot of items and weapons and armour. No wait, that sentence needs more patos. There are a lot of items and weapons. A staggering amount. Now, mostly the one-time items doesn't need to be leveled up, thank goodness. But once you've found yourself a good weapon, you'll of course want to level that one up. And during the course of doing so, you will invariably end up getting more good weapons along the way, which you will then also want to level up.... For an obsessive-compulsive player like myself, this game can pretty much never end at all. In fact, I still haven't gotten past chapter 3 (out of 14) after a total of +40 hours. gameplay total, because I spend so much time in the item world.
And if you're still unsure if I'm serious about how much leveling there is, I haven't even told you about the Senate, the character creation, character class changing, and other things that can really delay the main progress further... The game is at the same time both very sparse (with regards to the setting and game world), and chock filled to the brim. If only there were more world to do all the things in, and a few more things to do except battling and preparing for battle...
Now, on the battle maps, the main objective will of course always be to destroy your enemies. But on many of these maps, there are a bunch of differently coloured squares, as well as some liftable pyramid thingies called Geocodes. And the interesting thing here is that if you put a blue Geocode on a red square and then destroys it, it will then turn every single red square on that map blue. And the more interesting thing is that if you manage to actually wipe out all the colours, you'll get a good fill on the bonus meter that accompagnies each map. And the really interesting thing is that if you can do this in a proper combo-like manner (better read the manual on that one), then this bonus boost can get enormous. And when you fill the bonus meter on a level, you'll be rewarded with money, experience points, and of course items and weapons.
The downside is that once you've started such a combo, it takes time to finish, especially on the maps with four or more diffferent colours on the squares. And that gets immensely boring after the 100th time or so... But you can always check what prizes are available for filling the bonus meter on map X, so if it's all crap, then just skip it. And as a general rule, it's usually crap until the higher levels. On the other hand, not only does it fill the bonus meter, but anyone - ally or enemy - standing on one of those squares will take a certain amount of damage each time it changes colour. And this increases for each colour combo you pull off. So sometimes it can be useful (and even necessary) to use these Geocodes for that.
The characters that I have seen so far are a lovably miserable bunch of misfits, which is just as it should be. The script seems to have been better adapted than many Japanese to be able to suit the more Western style of humour, which I profess is my preference. And the voice actors actually sound like they're taking the job seriously, which is a rarity in the game world (Grandia 2, anyone?).
But the game progression, such as I've seen of it, leaves something to be desired. Now, as I've just described to you, it's true that there are lots of stuff you can do on the battle maps... But on the other hand, just about everything you will do happen on the battle maps, and no matter what your goal is (furthering the plot, or leveling one of the many variables that can be leveled), it will be accomplished by either beating enemies or doing a Geocode combo. Item leveling in particular can get very repetitive, not the least because 9 out of ten levels has the same tune playing over and over and over and over and over, with absolutely no break in between.
That the graphic is very simple is perfectly fine by me, with 2D characters battling it out on 3D battle maps from an isometric perspective. What I really dislike, though, is that I can't really look at the battle maps the way I want to. The zoom levels are "too far off" and "not really close enough yet", and with only four angles of view, and no selecting the altitude angle, it can be very hard at times to see who's where.
As such, this game is in fact better suited for the just a little bit hardcore gamer, who will most likely focus on the plot battles, leaving all the finer nuances alone (apparently, you don't really need to figure more than the basics to succeed at this game, or so it tells you), whereas people with more than a slight hint of OCS can either be sucked into it... Or end up leaving it on the shelf because they despair of ever seeing an ending to it.
UPDATE: Some time after this review was written, I did actually manage to finish the game. But since there really isn't anything else to this game than what you discover in the three first chapters (apart from the plot), my comments pretty much stands.