Strategy RPGs aren't usually known for their humour. Sure, Fire Emblem: Awakening inspired the odd chuckle, but for the most part, devising grid-based battlefield attacks is serious business. Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness on the other hand is chaotic, nonsensical, and absolutely mad – and we mean that in the most positive sense possible.
The game puts you in the shoes of young, arrogant demon-prince Laharl, one of three main protagonists starring in the game. You and your strange two-pronged blue antennas have just been made evil Overlord of the Netherworlds having inherited your father's throne, and you're ready to take on your demonic duties. But there's one small problem: your minions don't seem to take the blindest bit of interest in your new status, don't respect your authority, and openly laugh at your majestic semi-clad statues. What do you do? Really, you have only one option: beat your minions into submission with your army of adorable, explosive penguins.
The story truly begins while you are out giving the monster inhabitants of the Netherworld a lesson in who's boss. Laharl, power-hungry redhead Etna, and ditzy angel Flonne discover that a group of demons known as the Krichevskoy Faction are looking to usurp the young prince and take the throne for themselves. While the three attempt to re-establish Laharl's dominance in the realm, they encounter a mysterious girl called Sicily who also wants the throne for herself, as well as a sudden influx of celestial flowers which are spreading rapidly across the Netherworld. While it's not exactly a captivating or original storyline, expect plenty of laughs as well as gender-swapping madness to be had along the way.
Disgaea D2's colourful and silly overtones mask its rather deep and complex strategy gameplay. The turn-based battle segments take place on various gridded terrain, with your party and the enemy side taking turns to out-manoeuvre one another and hit with massive amounts of damage. Careful planning goes a long way, as each character has a certain skill, weapon, class, and set of base stats, all of which can be enhanced. The aim is to eliminate the opposing party, ideally keeping as many of your own vassals alive as possible.
While this seems simple enough, the title has an array of interesting combat features which makes taking down enemy teams slightly more challenging. Returning to the series is tower stacking and Geo Panels. Humanoid characters can lift multiple party members to make stacked towers, allowing them to throw team mates onto higher points of the map in order to gain a tactical advantage. Geo Panels on the other hand are different coloured tiles which line the map, with certain colours aiding either the enemies or your own party. Some panels, for example, may give the opposing team a 25 per cent damage boost, while different colour tiles may instead make your own party more resistant to status-altering attacks.
New to the series is the ability to straddle your Prinnies or other monsters and ride them into battle. Monster mounting is useful in combat as it allows a humanoid character to attack from atop their ride, safely keeping out of harm's way, while the poor monster beneath takes all of the damage from the opposition. While technically quite useful in battle, you can't help feeling sorry for the poor souls who have to bear the brunt of all your ill-planned strategizing.
Battling hordes of Netherworld demons is both challenging yet rewarding thanks largely to the inclusion of a very clever AI system. Enemies can and will team up against you, often cornering you and dealing out huge chunks of damage using combined special moves. They will react to Geo Panel changes on the battlefield, pick on your weaker party members, gang up on your strongest vassal, and move to positions behind or to the side of you in order for their attacks to hit harder. Disgaea D2 is a game which really makes you think about every single move that you make.
If you have never played a Disgaea game before, or are new to the SRPG genre, you may find the combat elements a little overwhelming at first, due to the sheer amount of multi-tiered gameplay features. The first chapter takes you through a series of tutorial battles, slowly introducing new techniques, however, some of the tutorial elements are sadly non-interactive, as you watch your PlayStation ghost take over, scrolling through menus and selecting attacks, rather than allowing you to complete the actions yourself. While not necessarily tailored to beginners, the title thankfully allows you to plot all of your moves on the gridded-battlefield and then completely backtrack on your actions as long as you haven't executed your attacks, making the steep learning curve slightly more bearable for newbies.
One of the most interesting features of the release is the character creation and customisation tool. Points earned during battle can be spent at the Dark Assembly, a room in which you can conscript both humanoid and monster minions to your evil army. After selecting a class for your vassal which ranges from mage to fighter or perhaps a healer, you can name and customise your new addition, and even select their voice. Even if you're unable to come up with a name that's suitably ridiculous, the random naming generator is absolutely hilarious, branding your new characters with titles such as 'Spaghetti 4 U' and 'Trish the Dish', highlighting the wonderfully silly nature of the franchise.
Despite bursting with colour and bright, bouncy hues, the game's 2D art style sadly looks quite dated. Certain landscape textures can look slightly blocky, but on the plus side the chibi 2D character models are cute, and the static anime-style skits in-between battles look great. The title also offers both Japanese and English voice tracks, for those who find the English dub too painful to sit through. The whiny soundtrack can also start to grate after a while, being both repetitive and uninspired, so make sure that you have your mute button at the ready if you're planning on starting a particularly long level grinding session.
Another niche title to add to the wishlist, Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness offers captivating and challenging gameplay, as well as a great sense of humour. With a 25-hour main storyline and a 9,999 level cap, SRPG enthusiasts will find plenty to keep them busy this winter. Newcomers to the franchise may want to delve back into Disgaea's archives before trying their hand at D2 in order to better acquaint themselves with the three main characters, but after a few hours eliminating demons on the battlefield, you'll soon be up to speed with all of the tactical gameplay delights that the series has to offer.