The first Disgaea game, 2003's Disgaea: Hour of Darkness for the PlayStation 2, with its virtually endless playability, memorable cast of eccentric characters, and complexity of strategies both in and out of combat zones, breathed new life into the somewhat floundering tactical role-playing genre, as well as established Nippon Ichi Software as a developer to watch going forward. While subsequent Disgaea installments were all fine examples of grid-mapped, turn-based havoc in their own right (even the handheld ports stood the test of time), they never quite managed to build on the unrivaled freshness captured so brilliantly in Hour of Darkness. Now, finally, a decade after Laharl, Etna, Flonne, and the those combustible critters known as Prinnies burst onto the gaming scene, a true sequel to their revered debut has arrived, and it's easily the best Disgaea incarnation since the original took the niche RPG market by surprise.
Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness continues the zany tale of half-demon Netherworld overlord Laharl and his aim to maintain a position of authority within a universe full of hyper-critical underlings who view his rise to the throne as undeserved nepotism (Laharl's father favorably ruled before him). If a more serious, Final Fantasy Tactics-type SRPG plot is what you're after, look elsewhere, because Disgaea D2's core narrative delivers an unrelenting deluge of silliness from every direction. The off-the-wall script contains numerous laugh-out-loud moments, from Laharl suddenly waking up in the body of a woman, to Etna's farcical anime episodes, complete with ridiculously lengthy titles. The same voice actors reprise their previous roles, and they're clearly having a blast jumping back into the shoes of these whimsical underworld denizens. Visually, Disgaea D2 is the most vivid and detailed chapter to date, but that's not saying much, considering the earlier PS3 games looked like they were from the preliminary PS2 era. Yet, Takehito Harada's designs are among the most recognizable in the field, a striking blend of anime character models both traditional and modern with a decidedly bizarre twist.
Of course, a Disgaea game wouldn't succeed without its signature nonconforming battle mechanics, and Disgaea D2 is certainly no slouch in that department. Never before has reaching the level 9999 cap been such an enjoyable experience. The number of options available at any given decision point, even immediately following the obligatory tutorial stages, are staggering; there's no one correct path to absolute victory. All the standard Disgaea trademarks are fully intact: tower-attacks, partner- and item-tossing, group assaults, Geo Panels, everything that makes each Disgaea essentially limitless in its replay value has been retained here to excellent effect. A remarkable degree of customization runs through every facet of foe-slaying and stat-boosting, and the job system has been thoroughly refined; more depth has been added, but it's become streamlined and less taxing to reassign classes.
A pair of fashionable features do well to eliminate the feeling of tiredness that the recent Disgaea games unfortunately exuded. The ability to climb atop recruited monsters, basically reformatting them as mobile shields, able to absorb damage while you rain hell on your opponents, substantiates the application of adding a collective of perfunctory beasts to your squad that may otherwise seem unnecessary. With the use of these monstrous mounts, weaker or strictly supporting units (like clerics or low-ranking archers) can stay out of harm's way longer, swooping in with powerful combination barrages when more intensive assistance is required. Disgaea D2 also boasts the serviceable Demon Dojo, a nifty character cultivation arena that allows for the amplification of specific attributes via training grounds that increase in effectiveness with further usage. The particulars of the Demon Dojo offer an alternative manner to fine-tuning teammates, deepening the process of grinding so it isn't just a ceaseless cycle of unmethodical skirmishes.
While Disgaea D2 may be behind the curve when it comes to its graphics, it's miles ahead in terms of indefectible SRPG goodness. NG+ mode vaunts extra bosses and item-world quests to hold players' captive long after devoting an already considerable 35-40 hours to the central story. Reuniting with Laharl and his restless underworld frenemies is a homecoming that has been worth the wait, and, much like the premier Disgaea, there isn't any doubt dedicated players will keep the game in regular rotation for years to come.