by Marty Demarest

If you're a movie fan, you've likely encountered some small, independently made movie that managed to entertain you more than any big-budget release. Maybe it was the unsettling horror of the original Evil Dead; or perhaps it was the nuanced humor of Being John Malkovich. Well, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (Rated: T) is the video game equivalent of one of those movies.

Disgaea is published by Atlus, a company that has built a reputation on quirky-but-excellent games that go on to become collector's items. Disgaea falls into the company's preferred genre of turn-based strategy role-playing. While that sounds like a mouthful, it's surprisingly simple. "Turn-based" simply means that your army of mythical characters battles your opponent (the PS2 in this case) turn by turn. The "strategy" of the name means that you win through careful planning. And "role-playing" means that the characters grow and change while you play. In Disgaea's case, this mainly involves Laharl, a demon prince who must battle challengers to his father's netherworld throne. At the beginning, one of his allies tries to murder him in his sleep. It's that kind of game.

Disgaea is open-ended to an extreme degree. I won't even pretend to have reached the game's ultimate conclusion, because I'm not sure that it has one. Ostensibly, the storyline takes 40 full hours of play to unfold. But the reality is absurdly longer. Characters can reach their 200th level of experience and learn spells so powerful they can annihilate every enemy on the playing field. And not only are there a seemingly infinite number of battlefields on which to exercise your demonic skills, but most weapons in the game can gain levels as well. Your characters just travel inside of them to confront even more enemies. It adds up to worlds within worlds, each one of them featuring a new environment and enemies to battle. It's giddyingly extreme.

Even with so much to offer dedicated gamers, there's nothing to keep newcomers from enjoying Disgaea. With its odd characters and rock-solid gameplay, it's much more accessible and enjoyable than any number of "mainstream" games that have been released recently. And if you are a regular gamer, Disgaea is the one game released so far this year that you should absolutely buy. It's destined to become a cultclassic, and it's substantial and entertaining enough to keep you from needing another game for months.

Publication date: 09/25/03

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