Turn-based tactical RPGs were a dime a dozen ten and twenty years ago, and with series like Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, and Final Fantasy Tactics, there was never a shortage of tactical goodness to go around, particularly if you were a Nintendo fan. Among that heyday during the late ‘90s and early 2000s was born the Disgaea series. Far more whimsical than its more serious counterparts, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness on the PlayStation 2 set itself apart with its zany humor and fourth-wall-breaking commentary, all wrapped up in one of the most compelling battle systems in a video game to date. Though I’m only experiencing the series for the first time with Disgaea 1 Complete on Nintendo Switch, it’s easily become one of my favorite tactical RPGs of all time.
When you first start up Disgaea 1 Complete, you take control of protagonist Laharl, the heir to the demon throne of the Netherworld. As Laharl awakens from a two-year slumber, he learns his father has died and that the kingdom is up for grabs among the denizens of the Netherworld and he must reclaim his rightful place on the throne. And, as one might expect, you do that by cutting down anyone who might stand in your way. As you do, you build your party of playable characters by either recruiting new characters via set story beats, or you can visit the Dark Assembly to create your own demons using Mana you’ve collected from combat.
Though the story is there to tie together why Laharl and company are running around and beating up demons, it’s not what keeps drawing me back to Disgaea 1 Complete; the game’s innovative, turn-based battle system—comprised of combat, terrain analysis, and light puzzle elements—is at the crux of what makes Disgaea 1 Complete absolutely shine. If you’ve played other strategy RPGs in the vein of Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics before, the basic premise of Disgaea’s combat will seem immediately familiar: a grid is lain upon the battlefield, and your objective is to move your units across the grid and defeat all the enemies on the map. Each of your units carries a weapon, can equip armor, and has a normal weapon-based attack in addition to one or more special abilities that cost MP. Where Disgaea builds upon this, however, is with several additional mechanics which deepen the game’s combat. Is there a segmented portion of the map that seems impossible to walk to? Not to worry, as any humanoid character can pick up any adjacent character and throw them a set distance.
Additionally, many maps contain geo symbols strewn across the grid that buff or debuff any character standing on a grid square of the same color, which can be thrown to another colored square to move the buffs/debuffs to another square color or destroyed entirely—which will damage any character on a square of the same color. There are many moving parts to combat, and the game’s tutorial mission sort of throws it all at the player in rapid succession, and that amounts to quite a bit to digest all within the opening minutes of the game.
Though there is much to Disgaea’s combat systems, it’s an absolute blast when all parts are in play. You send each individual character through a portal at the start of each map, and you can send them back through the portal to safety at any time, which can be integral to your strategy. For example, I send out my hard-hitting fighters on the front lines and keep my healers toward the back, and knowing I can pop my healers in to heal my main party and send them back before danger strikes is only another strategic layer one can add to the mix.
Beyond the more traditional, level-based story content, there are plenty of other activities to complete as well. The aforementioned Dark Assembly is where you can create custom party members as well as power up your characters. Additionally, you can enter the Item World, where your party is transported within a weapon, piece of armor, or a held item and you fight through various levels of the item to power it up. Furthermore, the weapon and armor shops are frequently updated with new items, so all of this—combined with the fact each character can gain experience to level 9999—adds a staggering amount of depth for continuous play.
Visually, Disgaea 1 Complete looks fantastic on Switch in both handheld and docked modes. The PS2 classic is gorgeously rendered in HD and is accompanied by still-great voice acting in the scenes that support it. I almost exclusively played the more-than dozen hours I spent with the game in handheld mode, and it is absolutely my preferred method of playing Disgaea 1 Complete. The only major complaint I have against the game is the lack of touchscreen controls in handheld mode, which seems like a no-brainer and feels like a glaring omission from the Switch release. Being able to touch a unit and touch its desired space to move to would have been an immense time-saver when trying to cycle through units during battle, so why that option is not present is rather puzzling, though it doesn’t greatly detract from the otherwise spectacular package.
Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Disgaea 1 Complete—aside from its innovative battle system—is the fact the game never takes itself too seriously. Constantly poking at the fourth wall, from item descriptions like a Common Sword’s “go buy something better” to Etna’s frank commentary at the start of each story chapter, there’s never a shortage of jokes or hilarity to be found to spice up the game’s largely bland story beats.
Disgaea 1 Complete takes one of the best games from the PlayStation 2 library and packages it in all its glory in beautiful HD for on-the-go tactical RPG goodness. Though it suffers from a bland story and the lack of touchscreen controls feels like a vast oversight, Disgaea 1 Complete on Switch offers one of the best strategy RPGs of the modern era.
Disclaimer: A review code for Disgaea 1 Complete was provided by the game’s publisher.