I spend enough time around here playing games that most people don’t choose to. I understand. I happen to enjoy more games developed in the Land of the Rising Sun than developed locally. Perhaps it’s the often complex stories. Perhaps it’s the awkward, non-cookie-cutter characters. Perhaps it’s the requirement to be creative in art direction rather than simply emulating something seen in real life. Perhaps it’s that nearly every single one of my favorite soundtracks all come from the likes of Square Enix and Nintendo classics. But jumping into what I’ve always called an “anime game” like Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is new ground, even for me.
You see, when I was first assigned to tackle the review for Disgaea 3, I was worried. I had never played a game in the series before, and to be honest, the style of gameplay and art direction turned me off. I mean, sure, I’ve played tactical RPGs before, by which I mean I really enjoyed Final Fantasy Tactics. But I’m not a fan of anime styled anything, and have even gained a reputation amongst a few of my friends as a hater of all things anime, with the exception of the old Transformers and Pokemon cartoons.
I mention all of these things not to put the thought in your head that I may be unqualified to review Disgaea 3‘s re-release on the Vita, but to make a point that the fact that I enjoyed the game at all is astounding.
Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is a re-release of 2008’s PS3 game, Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice, with a few added sprinkles. Those who have played the original game will be happy to know that this release features ALL of the DLC released for the PS3 game, including some cameos from characters in Disgaea 4, some added gear, and a few exclusive maps, in addition to some finicky Vita touch controls. If you’re one of the veterans who played the original game and simply wanted to know what makes this game different, that’s about it. It’s your same game but with a few added bonuses, and arguably the better system to focus a game which relies almost entirely on old-school character sprites. Those who’ve never played a Disgaea game before and want to know exactly what they’re getting into should read on.
The Disgaea games are tactical RPGs, or strategy RPGs if you prefer. This means if you’ve ever wanted to know what the oddly-shaped and designed lovechild of StarCraft and Final Fantasy was, this would be your perfect example. In addition to the traditional aspects of RPGs such as leveling up your characters, teaching them new abilities and equipping them with weapons and armor to boost their stats, you’ve also got the twist of all the combat taking place like a turn-based strategy game.
It sounds tricky to wrap your mind around, but it’s actually quite simple. Combat is done entirely on a map with a set grid, with a few added set pieces like movable blocks or staircases and such. You and your opponents start (typically) on opposite ends of the map. The ultimate goal is to wipe out all the enemies on the map, and avoid losing all the characters you can summon into battle. Characters usually take on the traditional roles that you’d find in an RPG. You’ve got melee attackers, magic attackers, support players, healers, buffers/debuffers, etc.
With the beginning of each turn, players have the option of having all of their characters on the map take action. Players can move each of their characters a set number of spaces, and also have them attack, use items or use other special moves like magic spells. Actions are essentially queued up as the player sets them, and won’t play out until the player hits the “Execute” button, which puts all the planned actions into motion in the order they were set. Once a player is satisfied, or has performed an action with each character, their turn ends, and the enemy repeats the same process for their own squadron of warriors. The process repeats back and forth until one side is completely eradicated from battle.
And although the base gameplay is fairly simple, it’s the details that make combat a bit more difficult.
Say you see a set of colored blocks and corresponding sections of floor are a matching color. If you or the enemies are standing in that section then whatever effect that section has will affect the occupiers each round. These can be helpful, like +50% defense per turn, or hurtful, like +20% damage per turn. Destroying certain colored blocks on differently colored floor sections will change that entire section the new color, and also damage everything standing in that section while the change takes place.
Or what if you see an enemy that’s taken refuge on top of a tower of blocks and they’re entirely unreachable? You’ll have to move around other nearby blocks to make a staircase so that enemy can meet his demise at your feet.
And if you can manage to surround a poor enemy with multiple of your characters, chances are good that you’ll be able to nail a team attack, in which all the characters in a certain area might attack simultaneously for significantly more amounts of damage.
After each battle, you’ll be brought back to the hub world to save, stock up on supplies and learn new abilities before you head out and do it again.
Do any of the last few paragraphs sound overwhelming or repetitive? If it does, Disgaea is clearly not meant for you. You’ll be repeating the described steps, and the story doesn’t do a whole lot in order keep you going. Especially considering the story probably only takes up about 20% of the total game. You’ll get individual levels for items later on called the Item World. These dungeons are relentless sets of levels, between 30-100, where the goal is to clear all the floors. You can only leave every 10 floors. You kids have fun with that.
But if you’re interested in the story, you’ll have to get around the odd, quirky nature of the characters and the world. The game takes place in the Netherworld, a world filled with demons and all things evil. You’re protagonist is Mao, the son of the Overlord, who really hates going to school. After a day of reading comic books, Mao decides he wants to be a hero. This is an odd revelation, given that the Netherworld is a topsy-turvy land where good people are considered delinquents and pests and lawbreakers are considered model citizens.
Mao is angry because his father smashed his game system. I mean, wouldn’t you be? Sure, demons could totally have some other gripe against each other like, “Hey! I was supposed to invade Thailand! Not you!” or “Stop leaving your trophy kills in my lawn!” or “Hey! Who ate the last of the human fingers?!” Nope, Mao is angry because all his hard work into his video games are gone forever, and he’s so angry he’s going to destroy the Disgaea equivalent of Satan in order to feel better about himself. I suppose I’d be that angry too were I in a similar position, but thankfully I’ll never have to find out.
The story is a little out there, the characters take some getting used to and the voice over work is surprisingly fantastic, if a bit cheesy. It all adds to the flair expected of the game. That brings me to my next, and ultimately most important, point. Disgaea 3 is very much a niche game. Chances are, if you’re here, you’re either a person who has played a game similar to this or someone who hasn’t. If you haven’t, you’re likely just curious because you love most Japanese games, love anime or have a friend that just won’t shut up about it.
If you still can’t wrap your head around whether you’d like Disgaea 3 or not, do a little test I put together. Queue up a few cutscenes for the game Catherine on YouTube. Don’t play them yet though. Next, go find a way to play a few minutes of Final Fantasy Tactics. If nothing else, it’s on the PlayStation Store for $10 and is utterly fantastic. Now, play the YouTube videos in the background while playing the game. If you weren’t able to focus for very long or quickly got annoyed at balancing the intense thinking the game requires between the over-the-top cheese of the cinematics, then Disgaea 3 is not for you. However, if you’re doing okay, repeat about three more times. The feeling you get should be essentially the same feeling you’ll receive while playing Disgaea 3.
If you feel good then congrats! You’ll probably like one of the most hardcore Japanese games on the market. If you’re confused, angry or just bored, don’t feel bad because, as mentioned, Disgaea 3 clearly isn’t a game that tries to please everyone at once. Then again, it certainly shouldn’t apologize for that.
Personally, it’s a little too much for me, the guy who considers Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Xenoblade Chronicles amongst some of the greatest games from this console generation. But newbies looking for a new kind of game and veterans looking for a familiar game with some added bonuses will find solace in Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention.
This review is based on a copy of the game provided to us for review purposes.
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Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is a very well built game, but it ultimately won't appeal to anyone other than the established fans of the franchise or the most hardcore players of the genre.