Nippon Ichi Software is one of my favourite developers of all time. Masters of the SRPG, almost all of their games are absolutely packed with both depth and charm. Occasionally, the end result of their ambitions that they pour into each title don’t work out quite as well as they should in theory, but every single game to have come out of the studio has been simply memorable at worst, downright incredible at best. Almost all of their titles are linked in small ways, too, so playing almost every game they’ve released (that’s been localised, of course) is an absolute joy for me.
So without further ado, allow me to rattle of my list of what I consider to be the top 10 games they’ve ever produced:
10 – La Pucelle: Tactics
It’s a shame to see a game’s quality diminished by a poor localisation, and that’s exactly what happened with La Pucelle: Tactics. Produced in the days before NIS America opened up, La Pucelle was localised by Mastiff, who were reportedly scared of potential backlash for some of the game’s religious imagery, and so they removed just about all of it. Bizarrely, the game’s plot about demon hunting members of a small church was not edited at all, bur crosses were removed from clothing, weapon designs were altered, Hell was changed to the Dark World, and…cigarettes were edited out.
As a result, it’s hard to not feel like La Pucelle was a bit neutered outside of Japan. Underneath the bizarre localisation edits you’ll find an enjoyable story supplemented by great characters and a combat system that hinted at what would be seen in the Disgaea series. It’s been overshadowed by NIS’s later output in a lot of ways, and isn’t quite as memorable as most of their library, but La Pucelle is definitely still worth seeking out. It was recently released as a PS2 classic on PSN, so it’s certainly not hard to get hold of these days. An enhanced port of the game was released on PSP, but was sadly never localised.
9 – Phantom Brave
Undoubtedly one of the most serious titles NIS has ever made, Phantom Brave is almost entirely bereft of humour, switching it out for a story centred on a 14 year old girl named Marona who loses both of her parents at a very young age. Ash, an adventurer, was killed in the same attack that lead to the deaths of Marona’s parents, but due to a fumbled attempt by her father to bring everyone back to life, he now exists in a phantom state and watches over Marona. Due to Marona’s ability to see and interact with phantoms, she is treated harshly by almost everyone she encounters, believing that she cooperates with evil spirits.
It’s a delicately told story that possesses some genuinely strong writing. Unfortunately, the game is somewhat hamstrung by an ambitious combat system that stumbles slightly in execution. Eschewing the typical grid based systems of the SRPG; all units instead have a circle that dictates their movement range per turn which they can move freely within. It’s a sound idea in execution, but movement often goes awry and forces the player to try move their characters multiple times to get them into the desired position. As almost every party member barring Marona is a phantom, they must be summoned into battle by having them possess objects such as rocks and trees that litter the battlefield, and can only be used for a limited number of turns before being sent away for the duration of the fight. It places an emphasis on speed that changes things up radically, but doesn’t work quite as well as the traditional base summoning system seen in many of NIS’s other games. If the gameplay was a tad stronger, Phantom Brave’s story would push the game far higher up on this list, but as it stands, it’s a quality title that deserved to see a sequel. It did however get enhanced ports on both Wii and PSP with a variety of gameplay tweaks and additions that make them worth checking out above the PS2 original for those interested in the game.
8 – Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome
The only other game NIS has made that features the same style of gameplay introduced in Phantom Brave, Makai Kingdom feels like the game its spiritual predecessor should have been. Though the story and overall tone are far closer to something like Disgaea, tweaks to the Phantom Brave’s core systems lead to a far sharper product overall. The plot is largely farcical, following a demon named Zetta, who considers himself to be “the most badass freakin’ Overlord in the cosmos”. At the start of the game he accidentally destroys his own netherworld, but quickly binds his soul to a sacred tome in order to save himself, vowing to have his netherworld restored into existence.
Makai Kingdom is frequently hilarious, and never anything less than fun. The gameplay still isn’t quite as satisfying as most of the traditional grid based SRPGs NIS is known for, but it helps the gameplay seen here stand on its own two feet, and I look forward to seeing if the studio will revisit this style at some point in the future.
7 – Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure
One of the most (and I hesitate to use the word) heartwarming games I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing, Rhapsody is far from perfect. It’s undoubtedly the easiest game NIS has ever released, no doubt as a result of the game being targeted at children. The battles last about a minute on average (save the bosses, who are also very easy) and require next to no tactical planning, but there’s an incredibly pleasant time to be had with the game. The story is typical storybook fare, centering on a girl who can talk to dolls going on an adventure to save the prince she loves after he is turned into stone.
The game is largely known for the cutscenes that are almost entirely sung, rather than simply acted out. Despite being released on PS1 where dual audio was incredibly rare, the option to listen to the songs in either Japanese or English (or muting them entirely, if you’re feeling particularly heartless) was present, and almost every song is delightful, no matter what language you pick. It received a DS remake a few years ago, but it replaces the SRPG combat with typical turn based battles. There were numerous sequels, but sadly, none of them were ever localised. The original game is rather hard to come by these days, but for those willing to seek it out, it is absolutely worth it.
6 – ZHP: Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman
I was convinced I hated roguelikes for the longest time. My first attempt at getting into the genre was with the bland and uninspired Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games on the DS, which I struggled through despite having a terrible time throughout. I didn’t even bother with the genre until NIS announced the fantastically named ZHP: Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman. Admittedly, my first reaction to the announcement was one of disappointment. I wanted them to stick with the SRPGs I’d come to know and love. A roguelike, to me, seemed like a massive step backwards.
Nonetheless, I sat down and played it at launch, chalking it up to the fact that I’d never disliked a game they’d made, and that I wanted to support everything they released. I’m so glad I gave ZHP a chance.
An attempt to start a franchise that would usurp Disgaea’s popularity, ZHP didn’t quite make it that far and never even managed to spawn a sequel. With all that said, ZHP is one of the most creatively charged games NIS has ever released. Breaking off into an entirely new genre for them was a bold move, that they made a roguelike so incredibly accessible without sacrificing any of the difficulty that characterises the genre is nothing short of incredible. The first roguelike I managed to really sink my teeth into; ZHP gave me an appreciation for roguelikes that I could’ve never seen myself attaining. Hilarious, endlessly charming, and surprisingly well written to boot, ZHP is one of the best games on PSP.
5 – Soul Nomad and the World Eaters
Proving that even when treading familiar ground they can still create something wholly unique, Soul Nomad is without a doubt the darkest game the studio has ever released. Maintaining the grid based combat of the Disgaea but greatly expanding the scale, Soul Nomad saw you fighting with armies, not just units. It even gives you enough power to defeat the final boss right at the start, the player character having fused with a sword that contains the soul of a destroyer named Gig, allowing you to freely access his power. The game smartly deters you from doing this, however, by reminding you that such a thing would be equivalent to letting everything in the world die, encouraging you to rely on Gig as little as possible.
It’s rather ambitious in terms of plot, too. Set in a universe on the brink of collapse, there are multiple story paths to follow, and everything can branch out in wildly different directions. Friends in one story can be bitter enemies in the next, and your character can become a hero or a mindless destroyer. The game remembers not to override everything with despair, injecting levity through a wicked sense of humour. Soul Nomad is an absolute gem, and it’s easily one of NIS’s least popular games, never even receiving an enhanced port.
4 – Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten
Disgaea 4 succeeds where both 2 and 3 failed (even though 2 was a great game in its own right), It remembers to forge its own identity, rather than just providing more of the same and resting on the laurels of the first game. Delivering a fantastic cast of characters, a surprisingly engaging story, some of the best comedy in the franchise, as well as what is considered by many to be some of the finest gameplay in any game from the studio to date, Disgaea 4 is outstanding.
Implementing online features that work surprisingly well and changing series tradition in small ways to make everything just a little more approachable for newcomers while still keeping in more than enough to please longtime fans. Even the DLC was fantastic, with new campaigns and characters being frequently released. Other developers should take note. THIS is how sequels should be made. An enhanced port of the game will be released next year on PS Vita, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
3 – The Guided Fate Paradox
The Guided Fate Paradox is to ZHP what Makai Kingdom was to Phantom Brave: A spiritual successor that recognises almost every flaw of the original and corrects them, making a far more enjoyable experience overall. However, unlike Makai Kingdom, Guided Fate doesn’t have a particularly flawed base to work off of.
It’s a slightly more forgiving game than ZHP was, the weapon system has been revamped and everything is just a tad more approachable, but the game is still incredibly hard when it needs to be, delivering some of the most tense dungeon crawls I’ve ever experienced in any game. Planning and improvisational skills are needed in equal measure as the game progresses, which just makes victories all the more satisfying. It’s a surprisingly well written game, too, delivering an enjoyable story from start to finish. I recently reviewed the game and adored almost every second of it. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, there’s not a dull moment to be found. Oh, and the music is excellent.
2 – Disgaea: Hour of Darkness/Afternoon of Darkness
The first Disgaea (Particularly the PSP version) was, up until this year, my favourite game. I bought it on a whim for about $10 back in 2009 when I was on vacation at my cousin’s house. I didn’t bring my PSP with me on that trip, so I had to wait to get home before I could start playing it. What an odd experience that was for me.
For the first 5 or so hours, I was having a good time, but shortly after that something just clicked for me. Feelings of joy began to well up partway through the story and I just knew that this was the game; I’d never been so engrossed by anything in my entire life. I fell in love with absolutely every facet of Disgaea. The characters (Takehito Harada’s character design has stuck with me for an incredibly long time, too), the story, the music, the gameplay. Everything left me with a goofy grin on my face the entire time.
Disgaea is pure gaming bliss; I’ve sunk over 500 hours into this game between every version (even the lacklustre DS port), and I bet I could still go back today and have just as good a time with it as I did when everything first clicked for me.
I strongly advise those interested in the game to start with Afternoon of Darkness on PSP, if that’s not doable, go for the PS2 original. Disgaea DS, while having the more content than any other version, ruins the visuals and the music, as well as eschewing most of the voice acting. It does the job if you have no other way to play it, but otherwise, you’re better served with any other version of the game.
1 – Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness
I could gush about Disgaea D2 for the rest of the year if you’d let me, so I’ll try to keep things brief. A direct sequel to the first game, D2 is an absolute masterclass in every way. Harkening back to many of the systems from Hour of Darkness, D2 scraps the changes introduced in 3 and 4, and trims much of the fat the franchise has built up in the process. It also features one of NIS America’s best localisations to date.
Streamlined without being feeling dumbed down, there isn’t a single misstep made with the changes D2 introduces. Stuffed full of content and the most satisfying gameplay I’ve ever experienced, D2 even makes grinding fun, allowing players to tweak almost every facet of the game down to the tiniest detail. My new favourite game of all time (funnily enough, the first NIS-developed game I reviewed for Boss Dungeon), I’ll be playing D2 for many, many years to come.