If you suspect that you might be what the games industry has affectionately labelled a 'casual gamer', stop reading; I'm afraid this game just isn't for you. A frightening combination of statistics, attributes and menu screens glued together with anime visuals and a ludicrous narrative make the Disgaea series very much exclusive to the core club. Still reading? Good, then like me you're a fan of niche Japanese titles, and can handle the complexities of a deep and intricate role playing experience. Dark Hero Days is the PSP remake of Disgaea 2 which hit the Playstation 2 back in 2006, complete with all new missions and features brought over from Disgaea 3.
The game takes place in the once prosperous world of Veldime, where a powerful Overlord by the name of Zenon appeared and placed a curse on the entire human population, gradually consuming their consciousness and turning them into demons. The only person left unaffected by the curse is a young man named Adell, who promises to find Zenon and defeat him in order to save his family. Using a powerful summoning spell, Adell's mother attempts to summon Zenon, but ends up summoning his cherished daughter Rozalin instead. Alongside the spoilt Rozalin, Adell and his rag tag army embark on a quest to find Zenon, and lift the curse.
Those that have played a Disgaea game before, PSP or otherwise, will know exactly what to expect from Dark Hero Days, which rigidly follows the formula set by its predecessors. Missions are undertaken from a central hub, which in the case of Disgaea 2 takes the form of Adell's hometown, Holt. From this hub players can manage and arrange their army, create new characters in the Dark Assembly, shop for better equipment and heal their dishevelled characters at the Netherworld Hospital. The hub is your board room, strategy office and headquarters all rolled into one.
The main bulk of the gameplay, however, takes place on the battlefield: an isometric grid where characters can be moved around like little animated chess pieces. The player takes it in turns with the enemy to dish out commands with the intention of defeating the opposition. Simple enough in theory, but the game offers such a vast array of strategic options that things can quickly get confusing. Each character has a move range, which determines how far they can move around the grid. Once positioned within appropriate range of an enemy, the character can use magic, a special attack, items, lift or throw an enemy or ally, defend or simply attack. In addition to this, characters can team up for joint attacks, and objects known as geo symbols affect the properties of the environment itself. The scope for strategy is consequently immense, and each mission can be approached in numerous ways.
Your army starts off with a modest five members: Adell, Rozalin, a warrior, a magician and a Cleric (read: healer). The Dark Assembly gives players the option to expand by creating characters from a further fourteen classes. Only some of these are available from the start, with new classes unlocked by meeting certain requirements. The Ninja class, for example, requires level five Sword and Fist mastery, whilst unlocking the Beastmaster requires that you capture a monster. Each class has six sub classes that improve on base stats and aptitude (how well statistics improve with each level), and each character can be levelled to a staggering 9999 - for anybody with that kind of time on their hands.
If this wasn't enough, each and every item in the game, from chewing gum to swords, can be levelled by entering the object through the Item World. Here, randomly generated floors make up each level of the dungeon, and for every floor cleared the item's level increases by one. It's a lengthy procedure, but the payoffs can be huge. A new feature of the sequel also allows characters to receive felonies - considered a great honour in the demon world - which have numerous benefits to a character's development. Ultimately, Disgaea boils down to creating the perfect army, and this takes a very long time. It's a deep, deep game, with endless character development and near infinite replayability.
The script is as sharp and witty as always, with comical dialogue and frequent non-diegetic comments that really speak to the core audience. When Adell and his cronies enter a particularly dangerous area known as the Murderer's Vault for example, a schizophrenic, French speaking frog by the name of Tink (who is just as entertaining as his description would allude to) cautiously remarks that 'monsters of level 100 can be found in the area!'. Another time, a character asks Adell why he is human, suggesting that it's because "he's the main character". Like the original, Dark Hero Days will have players laughing out loud, if not at the gags, then the sheer bizarreness of it all.
Despite the great dialogue and humour, the overall plot lives in the shadow of both Disgaea and Disgaea 3, possibly as a result of a sub-par protagonist. Where the original Disgaea's Prince Laharl was obnoxious, rude and arrogant in the best possible way, Adell suffers from "clichéd RPG hero syndrome", an unfortunate disease that makes him spurt pretentious nonsense about truth, trust and justice every five seconds. He carries the narrative competently enough, but lacks a certain pizazz that the anti-heroes of Disgaea 1 and 3 bring to the table. Fans will be pleased to see the return of the scantily clad demon Etna, however, who brings a much needed injection of "badass" to the often overly sentimental plot.
Niggling narrative gripes aside, Dark Hero Days is still the definitive Disgaea 2 experience, and improves on the original in several significant ways. Firstly, the game includes all new Axel chapters, which follow the fading celebrity Axel's ongoing disagreement with his director. The core gameplay has also been improved with the addition of Disgaea 3's Magichange mechanic, which allows ally monsters to be turned into ranged weapons. As well as all this - and pointing out the slightly obvious - the game is portable, and the quaint 2D visuals have never looked better than on the PSP's widescreen.
Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days sees the unashamedly hardcore strategy game return to the PSP in style. Fans of the original might be distressed to discover recycled character sprites, attack animations and music, but the experience never feels stale. Those that have played Disgaea 2 on the PS2 a few years back might be enticed by the new Axel chapters, and the Disgaea 3 mechanics spruce up the strategy nicely. For newcomers to the series, Dark Hero Days is as good a starting point as any; offering the most comprehensive Disgaea experience to date. Whatever category you happen to fall into, though, be prepared to sacrifice all of your free time; Dark Hero Days is a bottomless pit of gameplay that will command your attention from start to finish.