Shortly after Switch’s launch, Disgaea 5 Complete brought the tactical RPG series’ unique brand of colour, combos and comically excessive levelling-up to the console. A year and a half later it’s joined by an HD remaster of the game that kicked things off fifteen years ago, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness – now rechristened Disgaea 1 Complete. The leap backwards from ‘5’ to ‘1’ implies a significant downgrade and should temper your expectations to an extent; be under no illusions, this is very much the original PS2 game in widescreen with high-def art and extra content from earlier ports (it previously appeared on Sony PSP and Nintendo DS, plus a PC version released in 2016). In many ways, a fresh lick of paint is all that’s needed – the base game remains a winner and its idiosyncratic spirit still feels fresh – but series veterans might find it frustrating to go back to simpler times.
Of course, ‘simpler’ is a relative term. There are overlapping systems galore in this first entry, and plenty to get bogged down with, but we’ll get to that. The story begins when Laharl, young demon lord and chronic over-sleeper, is awoken by his vassal, Etna. It appears he’s slumbered through the death of his father, King Krichevskoy, and there’s trouble brewing in the Netherworld. Exploring the small castle hub you’ll find the Dimension Gate, a portal to disparate locations where you’ll track down ne’er-do-wells and do turn-based battle on a quest to reclaim his rightful title of Overlord.
In addition to the hefty main story, you’ll need to grind through side quests to strengthen your party. The imaginatively named Item World enables you to level-up every single item in your inventory by conquering abstract, randomly-generated floors of enemies. Additionally, you can spend accumulated mana in the Dark Assembly and create new party members, take combat exams and lobby monstrous senators for funding as well as access to better weapons and other perks. This ‘Complete’ version also contains the Etna Mode extra story from Afternoon of Darkness (the PSP port).
It’s up to you how far you go down the rabbit hole of peripheral systems; one NPC cheerfully reminds you not to worry too much – “You can still beat the game with minimal knowledge.” In many ways, this is Tactics 101, albeit with Disgaea’s unique spin. Laharl sums up the strategy succinctly in the tutorial – “So, the basic idea is to gang up on one character and beat the living daylights out of him, huh?” All the stats and mechanics are tempered with irreverent humour, and the soundtrack helps keep things light by flitting between carnival oom-pah, gothic grandeur and full-on butt rock. It sounds too eclectic to work, but it’s fantastic.
Everything's lovely and sharp, too. The original sprites look fabulous in their updated guise and there’s none of the customary image ‘softening’ on the handheld screen, although the environments and geometry betray the game’s PS2 roots. Shadows, if present, are rudimentary and a few textures seem to have escaped the up-res brush (Laharl’s coffin lid jumps out at you on the very first screen). Character movement is initially jarring, too – Laharl zips around the castle at an alarming pace which doesn’t match his leisurely walk animation. Little details constantly remind you of this game’s vintage.
Remarkably, then, the base systems hold up just fine. Isometric-style battlefields are covered by a grid and navigated via an analogue-controlled cursor. You’re free to select combatants in any order and line up attacks across the board; however, they won’t act until you pull up the team menu with ‘X’ and select ‘Execute’. It’s up to you whether you attack one-by-one or queue every action and watch them play out at the end of your turn.
Lift and throw mechanics multiply the available options – some areas aren’t accessible without being thrown by a teammate. Prinnies (the cute penguin doods) explode when thrown but fear not; you won’t find any of that fashionable perma-death here. Characters downed (or sacrificed) in combat are easily revived at the Hospital back at the hub (remember to visit after every battle, though).
Combos are initiated by positioning allies in adjacent squares before an attack, and a ‘mentor’ system enables created characters to benefit from fighting alongside their master (who can eventually learn their pupil’s elemental attack). All movement can be cancelled with ‘B’ until you execute an attack, meaning it’s entirely possible to float a strong character around to combo with others, resetting their position every time. You’ll also need to consider unoccupied spaces; Special moves often require free squares for landing. Glowing pyramids called Geo panels bestow various effects on squares of a corresponding colour and can be moved or destroyed. It’s a flexible system offering dozens of legitimate strategies depending on the team you build.
In open areas the camera is fine – ‘L’ and ‘R’ rotate it 90°, while ‘ZL’ toggles between two levels of zoom and ‘ZR’ skips the cursor between party members. However, your view is frequently obstructed when terrain gets complicated or abstract (see the Item World). Pillars and other offending bits of scenery would likely fade out if this were a ground-up remake and it’s mildly irritating when you think you’ve cleared a stage but there’s some mushroom guy lingering in a blind pit.
Disgaea 1 Complete is certainly an authentic rendition of the source, and it’s impressive how well the game stands up after fifteen years. There’s no touch support but performance is excellent. Text is rendered large and legible, you can fast-forward through story scenes or skip them entirely from the area selection screen, and attack animations can be toggled off for both enemies and allies. English and Japanese voices are available and we found the zany cast of humanoids and monsters thoroughly entertaining and great company for the grind.
And you’ve really got to take pleasure in that grind, in those numbers gradually going up, in building your team. Even after dozens of hours invested, it can feel like you've barely scratched the surface; Disgaea is a huge journey – especially if you’re determined to reincarnate your party for the best possible stats – and arguably best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. You’ll want to keep it on the back burner in between other things and Switch is arguably the perfect platform for it.
Disgaea 1 Complete blows raspberries at po-faced, self-serious strategy games by mixing complex systems with comedy to delightful effect. This remaster is a great introduction for series newcomers, provided you can forgive the odd mismatching texture and an inflexible camera. Veteran fans who have assimilated years of iterative refinements and additions may have a tougher time, but an abundance of charm helps paper over any quality-of-life deficiencies. This cult classic has never looked better and the Switch version makes dipping in and out a breeze.