I first heard of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness and Nippon Ichi Software through Gamepro magazine in 2003. It was hailed as the second coming of Final Fantasy Tactics and my interests were piqued. I didn't know much about the game other than an overstated unique humor on top of standard isometric strategy gameplay. The holy bringers of translations, Atlus, brought the game over that August and I probably got around to it a year or so later. The single piece of marketing that finally made this a must have game was the amazing Tsunami Bomb trailer.
Honestly, my life with the JRPG has been slow. I first got a whiff of the genre through rentals of Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Final Fantasy VI. Sadly though, the only times I really had the chance to play those were when I had to split the console among other family members, making them extremely short lived experiences. Beyond the Beyond was the first JRPG I ever got a chance to truly sit down with and I didn't enjoy it.
Then everyone's favorite stomping ground, Final Fantasy VII, arrived and I rented the game half a dozen times before finally owning a copy. Following that, I bought into everything Squaresoft, eventually stumbling upon my favorite game Final Fantasy Tactics. That game pushed me into loving a genre I'd never had the chance to explore.
So as an unaware SRPG enthusiast, I was impressed by Disgaea. Which was made by some unknown Japanese team and translated by some other relatively unknown company. I found the translation to be above par, and the gameplay to be different and over-the-top enough to truly become enjoyable. Of course this being the first true Atlus game I'd owned, I had no idea where their translation quality truly lied. Thankfully, it was excellent throughout.
Disgaea offered something unique in the combo system, characters and job system that is different than any other games like it. Sure the characters might be outlandish, but they are still fantastic. The job system might be maddening with the restarts, but the customization is pretty intense. The game offers so many unique builds on top of the central job system, that it revitalized the entire genre. My only major issue with the game is an unreasonable hatred towards throwing my characters (even if doing so can make them explode).
So I was walking around my local Best Buy one day and stumbled across a PS2 game that looked oddly similar to Disgaea. At the $19.99 price tag, I picked it up flipped it over a few times and finally walked out of the store with it. This wasn't Disgaea. Disgaea plays like Final Fantasy Tactics. This played like something familiar, yet all together different. The voice acting wasn't really compelling, but I was sold on the gameplay.
Disgaea offered a sense of plain silliness with the amount of customization, but it was never entirely forced upon you. Phantom Brave offered the customization in a much more direct route. The characters you interact with all have a unique job that works with in the game's world. Healer's heal both inside and outside of battle while Merchant's sell you new items. I've never really had my own party ever help me outside of battle before. It's kinda neat.
The battle system is completely grid-less. This is also something that I had yet to experience in the genre. The main character confines characters to items with a purpose of either claiming it or boosting the attributes of those characters. These items are in a class of their own as you eventually own hundreds of them, all with different abilities that can be mastered and with unique titles that boost attributes. The whole item system is so complex that I find myself just boggled down in item management for longer than it takes some battles to take place. For many that's probably a bad thing, for me though it is bliss.
So with Disgaea and Phantom Brave in my collection, it was time to move up to Disgaea 2 and see how that game fared for me. Sequelitis definitely popped its head up as the characters and classes never had the same bite as the original did. Though with that problem, there was enough new that I could brush those faults aside.
I had really enjoyed NIS games up until this point, but it wasn't until Soul Nomad & the World Eaters came out that I truly found out why I loved this company. Soul Nomad isn't my favorite game from NIS. Mostly because it isn't in a sub-genre that I traditionally liked to play as I never got into the original Ogre Battle when it had come out. Something about Soul Nomad did however sell me on this style of game.
Starting off, the main character really brings back that attitude Laharl had in Disgaea. This was comforting as I was very unsure of how I would like the battle system. Playing some of the early Advance Wars games really helped to relieve this as it plays out on the map in similar fashion, just with more depth in unit customization and interaction. I found myself finally enjoying it. All these experiences turned this game into something interesting and fun.
These three games had each attacked the genre in very different ways that really brought with it a sense of appreciation for Strategy RPGs. I wanted to know more about what this company could bring to me. The companies American branch turned me on to smaller Japanese studios like Gust. This local branch seems to make me excited for the new games that I hope will get localized. Heck, I've even watched all of Hayarigami's live-action horror movies for the DS series that at one point may have been considered for localization. I mean why else would NIS translate all the movies?
It was the accumulation of all these things that sold me on where NIS really belongs to me as a company. I respect them for keeping me excited about a genre I really enjoy, in ways I wouldn't think I'd enjoy it. Shame a lot of other people really rag on the company. There seems to be a lot of things to rag on for a company that hardly existed this side of the globe 6 years ago.
NIS has done some really cool things through its American branch. They localized the tsundere epic Toradora. They localized a series that fans have been clamoring for a decade, Sakura Wars. They've brought many Gust titles that would most definitely have stayed over in Japan. All of this and single handedly reinvigorating the SRPG in North America is a pretty tall order for a company established extremely late in 2003.
In 7 years of translating they've also had numerous problems. Stupid legal problems with Tim Langdell and Warner Bros (a lame pun is not something to get a legal department involved with) have forced name changes and halts in production of a few items. Bad production led to a few of the anime dvd's for Persona and Toradora to suffer slight ghosting issues. Bad QA led to Ar Tonelico 2 having a small issue of crashing (it can be avoided) because it uses too much memory for the PS2 to handle.
Those are production issues and simple bad luck. They are legitimate complaints from consumers. Oddly the loudest complaints don't seem to be from those issues. The biggest issue most people seem to have are how antiquated the games look. Apparently 2d sprites are a mixed bag for some. It's ok to be 2d in shmups, fighters and Mega Man games. Those are apparently niche enough to get away with it. RPGs aren't. People complain about the low-res sprites, but their complexity has improved dramatically with each new title.
Others complain that the games take too long to finish. I'm not sure how that's a problem, but I guess it's valid. Though Atlus seems to be doing just fine in this regard. I think NIS porting these games to handhelds really removes that issue. I mean, you have to do something while in the bathroom. Why not grind out a SRPG?
People complain about how the Disgaea series never evolved, but if you want something drastically changed from Disgaea then pick up Disgaea Infinite or Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? If you want to stay within the genre, pick up Phantom Brave, Soul Nomad, Trinity Universe or wait off until ZHP comes out. If none of that makes you happy, then make your own damn JRPG.
The final complaint is about translation errors in a few games. When a companies main job is to translate a game, its unforgivable. It's also understandable. I've played through translation errors in Capcom games, Square Enix games, Atlus games and many other localizations. They happen. You can only take this experience as a games company and improve upon it.
Of course the thing that really halted NIS's fanfare in America was the release of Cross Edge and Last Rebellion, both PS3 games. One is a Compile Heart game that was made in collaboration with many companies, the other is a Hit Maker title. NIS America picked up Cross Edge believing that a NIS cross up with Namco, Gust and Capcom characters would sell to people, but apparently people thought that idea wasn't a very good one. A 360 port might have come stateside, but many people just seem to respond to the notion as just a horrible idea. I don't listen to the "it's a bad game" argument as I've seen tons of million+ sellers that were just garbage. I still would like to get a copy of the game as I had to buy a PS3 to finally play it. Anybody waiting on that 360 port will have a long wait since it's apparently stuck in Tim Langdell copyright hell. So for the 4 of us praying for a 360 port, you are most likely out of luck. Thanks Tim.
Now, Last Rebellion was a game NIS America had to port over due to licensing contracts. Haru Akenaga of NIS America said that "once we got Last Rebellion we realized it was not the kind of title we should release in the United States because of its quality. I feel really sorry for our customers because we released that title." I will ask you to name one president in gaming that has issued a statement like that about their product while producing a game that is still enjoyable. He ensured that it received low marketing revenue (so as not to confuse the casuals) and was only intended for the niche customers that might have enjoyed it despite the flaws.
Finally, the broadest argument I've come across is that the game maker is just too niche. Maybe it is. At least at the $60 price tag. I can understand that people now want a super high-res experience that probably cost 30 million to make to maybe justify the money a consumer would have to shell out. Though, I can't understand how a game that can take up to 90 or more hours to complete isn't worth $60, but your money isn't my money. I have to say, when NIS America brought Sakura Wars, a game people have been clamoring about for well over a decade, to the Wii at $30 nobody bought it. Many shouted how they wanted dual-audio prior to release. So when it was left on two discs for the PS2, it still sold below expectations.
It saddens me to see where the company is right now. In February of this year the companies stock price dropped from 36,200 Yen to the final closing price of 7,000 Yen. This price was frozen by JASDAQ so it wouldn't plummet even further south. This unfortunately led to the cancellation of 3 unannounced projects (which I can only assume were awesome). Cancelling these games cost the company 21 million Yen.
There are many reasons this happened, but I would argue it was due to the lack of talent to adapt towards this console generation. For a developer that blossomed under the low power of the PS2, we've only seen a sudden drop off with current generation development. The higher costs of dev kits and other development tools with the cost of learning new hardware has probably cut down profits. Meanwhile, game sales have been sluggish for the developer this year with many games failing to reach projections.
Fortunately an improved focus on handheld titles should help the developer recoup their losses. Sadly, once I finally man up to getting a PS3, NIS decides to focus on PSP gaming (AKA the only current console I don't own).
NIS is a company I am biased towards. They make games I want to play. Even when they don't, I'm pretty sure I'll be genuinely surprised by what I get my hands on. From what I've seen, this company tries. It's something that in the world of Activision is a nice thing to see. They have released games nobody wanted to touch. They have expanded in to new markets. They are trying to release games that people are asking for. Sometimes they create games that just arouse people's interests. They even released a game in a genre that has avoided America for far too long.
This is why I am biased and I will always be biased towards a company that tries. NIS has gone through a lot in 20 years in the industry. Over the past decade alone they've had to face and overcome the same things that took companies like Squaresoft 20 years to overcome. Censorship, approaching a world wide audience, recessions, patching, multi-platform releases, ports, hit and miss series all within a decade of North American releases. I really do hope they get out of this funk as a much stronger company, dood.