Alright, first off, Disgaea is one of those series with Confusing Nomenclature. Not as much so as Wonder Boy or Clock Tower, but still. The very first Disgaea game ever released was Disgaea: Hour of Darkness for the PS2. This is a port of that game, just with the usual bells and whistles attached to convince fans of the original to buy the same game a second time. They changed the subtitle to "Afternoon of Darkness", I guess on the chance that derptards might think the game was actually only an hour long. Anyway.
Disgaea is a fairly standard Japanese strategy-RPG in the mold of Final Fantasy Tactics and such, but it has two distinctive qualities that earned the game a cult fanbase and allowed a bunch of sequels to be made. One is that it's an over-the-top, "wacky" running parody of both genre conventions and anime in general. The other is that it takes the concept of "levelling up" to the extreme, and then some. Not only is the character level cap 9999 for your party, every individual item, down to the weakest peices of armor and the beginning healing items, can be leveled up to 100 as well. You even gain levels at the shop, for buying new stuff. And then, in addition to standard EXP-based levelling, character skills also have to be raised through repeated use. With only a relative handful of characters forced into your army by the story, the bulk of your forces will be custom characters rolled up from scratch, and you're free to endlessly replay previous battles to grind levels and cash. So even though the game has a linear plot-based progression, there's still more of a sense of openness and freedom in how you craft and level your party than the standard JRPG. It's basically the polar opposite end of the genre from Fire Emblem.
We follow the story of Laharl, Prince of the Underworld who begins the game by waking up from a two year long nap/coma. His father, the King, has died, and during his sleep various other demons have been squabbling over who gets to be the new King. So Laharl sets out to establish firm control of his kingdom, but since he's level 1 and nearly broke, we've got hours of work cut out for us.
The game is divided into "chapters" where there's four or five story-related battles you have to clear to move on to the next. The game is centered on Laharl's castle, hub from which you get to automatically travel to the story battles via magic portal. But there's a shit ton of other stuff lying around in the castle for you to do as well. Most notable is the "Item World", where the aforementioned levelling of any and all items and equipment takes place. A procedurally generated dungeon is created for each item, with up to 100 floors, and each floor of it you clear raises the item by one level (increasing its base statistics.) The Item World can keep you busy by itself for as long as the full length of some other games, but then there's also the Dark Council, the sort of parliamentary governing body of the Netherworld. This is where you go to create new characters (purchased via mana that you win in battle), but you'll also want to go through combat tests to raise your rank with the Senate periodically, which offers a wide range of benefits. You can also put forward various proposals, such as what items the stores should carry, or the invasion of some side-quest land, which the Senate will vote on. Favorability to the proposal depends on your current rank and strength, but Senators that are wavering can be bribed, and if too many are against you, you can attempt to ram the proposition through by force by simply beating hell out of all of them.
Disgaea was engaging for the first few chapters, then it started to lose me, and I eventually quit before finishing it. The problem was that the game's two central strengths both sort of fall apart after awhile. The first is the game's "parody" tone. I have kind of a low tolerance for this "zany anime" sort of thing, but Disgaea wasn't bad at all at the outset. At worst it was still tolerable, and at best it actually had a few chuckle-inducing moments. Unfortunately, as you get further into the game it decides to try to fuse in more and more "emotional" and "dramatic" points to the plot ... and these are the same sort of hackneyed anime cliches that the game just spent hours making fun of! I found it hard to take and would rather the whole thing have just been satire.
The second is the grind-centric nature of the game, and just the overwhelming amount of shit you have to level. Now, I appreciate that a lot of the maps are designed in more of a "puzzle" style than most SRPGs, where you're meant to deduce how to use the game's "geo panels" (little generators that impart characteristics onto certain squares, like stat or EXP boosts) most effectively to easily end the battle in your favor. However, even with that, there's still too much repetition. The way most chapters work is that the last couple of story-based battles in them have enemies that are WAY above you in levels, equipment and power if you're playing the game normally, so you're forced to grind for a fair amount of time to compete with them. The only grind options are replaying the same old story maps over and over, or going to the Item World. The Item World maps are procedurally generated, but once you've been through ten floors of one item you've seen 'em all basically. The procedural generation also leads to some maps that are overly huge and sprawling, some that are hard to navigate thanks to extreme terrain height fluctuations in weird places, and some that are actually impossible to clear because they chuck enemies off on some floating island that's unreachable or up on some massive mountain no one can jump or throw to the top of. If you just want to bust through the story, Laharl is overpowered, and if you focus on giving him most of the kills he can stomp the opposition with only a mediocre support squad. But really, that's nearly as boring as grinding the same maps over and over.
The presentation is a mixed bag as well. The graphics are alright, with some decent sprite work, and there's a lot of flashy attack animations. The game doesn't really delve into the "moe" depths of sexualized children that later NIS titles would, fortunately; Laharl's vassal Etna is the only borderline offender here, and she's supposed to be some sort of imp that's like a thousand years old anyway, so I'll give that one a pass. I'm less forgiving about the music, which sounds like a simpler version of Tchaikovsky with more synthesizers and weird sound effects. Sometimes it's pretty good, but sometimes it's exceptionally annoying, and unfortunately the song that plays in the castle - the one you hear the most by far - is one of the more annoying ones.
Disgaea has a lot of good ideas and elements I appreciate, but as a whole the package was a little too repetitious, grindy and annoying for my tastes. There's the usual whole big cult fanbase that loves the shit out of it though, so whatevs.
* Gameplay Video