Apr 20, 2012

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Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention Review

Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention Review

If you had told me years ago that Western gamers would fall for the melodramatic machinations of cartoonishly-evil masterminds in training at a Netherworld academy (where they are brought to life by striking anime art), I’d have checked your pulse at “machinations”. Yet here we are today, and Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention stands proudly as the third installment in a dearly-beloved series of strategy role-playing games. Disgaea’s cult following in the States has granted developer Nippon Ichi Software some well-deserved international success, and Absence of Detention is a fine example of their craft. Tactical RPG veterans will fall in love with the game’s enormous depth and addictive gameplay, and newcomers who pay close attention won’t be left far behind. Disorganized systems and somewhat niche appeal keep Disgaea 3 from earning a perfect recommendation, but there’s tremendous fun to be had once you’ve sunk your teeth into Nippon Ichi’s latest.

From the start, the series’ tradition of zany characters and fourth-wall-bending humor is apparent. Mao is the premier golden-boy student at a demon academy where truancy and bad attitudes are actively encouraged. In order to defeat his father the Overlord, Mao must learn to become a hero, swapping social norms for delinquency by being the nice guy for a change. What’s with the Freudian angst you ask? Mao’s father crushed his video game system, putting an end to millions of hours of progress. Thus begins his epic quest in an utterly bewildering world that draws you in through sheer novelty. Wacky dialogue, over-the-top voice acting, and self-referential jokes are a wonderful accompaniment to a truly unique setting that doesn’t bother getting bogged down with political nonsense and melodramatic romance. I truly appreciate Disgaea 3′s single-minded dedication to absurdity.

Thankfully, this focus helps carry you through a plot that, quite honestly, could be presented better. The entire story is told through 2D text-based cutscenes shown immediately before and after almost every battle. The anime art that brings each character to life is charming and vibrant, but some of these scenes overstay their welcome. Characters frequently fall into overwrought conversations that needlessly extend the interim between battles. It’s a shame, because battles are without question Disgaea’s strongest suit. Anyone familiar with SRPGs like Shining Force or Final Fantasy Tactics will already be a step ahead of the curve. Every stage features a grid of variable size and terrain across which you can semi-freely move your characters. The turn-based system of Disgaea is a tactical wonder that allows you to input as many commands as you have characters on the field without interruption. Magic, items, and special skills can all be deployed and simultaneously executed before surveying the damage and ending your turn. In that sense, every battle feels like an elaborate game of JRPG chess, if chess involved stylish team attacks, monster transformations, and exploding penguins.

Such unique concepts are really just the tipping point for a game that prides itself on creativity and deep gameplay systems. The wealth of tactical options is almost mind-boggling. Tiles of varying color provide different stat boosts for both allies and enemies standing on them, and the colors can be changed by breaking Geo Blocks upon them. The same Geo Blocks can also be used to detonate each other, devastating the enemy with chain-linked “block drops” or coordinated color shifts of the aforementioned tiles. These actions will net you progressively better bonus items and rewards at the end of each battle, placing emphasis on careful decision-making in an effort to foster a balanced and powerful party. Using your characters’ special skills and magic is contingent on distance, terrain, and available SP. Additional stat changes can be unlocked by placing your characters in academic clubs or trying new classroom seating arrangements. Combined, these systems and others (including combo attacks and throwing) craft an extremely compelling gameplay experience that is difficult to master.

Unfortunately, the experience is also somewhat difficult to pick up and learn. Disgaea veterans (who have probably already played the PS3 release) will have no trouble here, but newcomers to the genre and those unfamiliar with the game’s mechanics may find themselves drowning in information. For a game that relies so heavily on a deep understanding of its tactical possibilities, it’s a shame that instruction feels so disorganized. Various statistics, along with the hub world and menus, are thrust upon you with no explanation while Geo Blocks are given an inordinate amount of tutorial time. I appreciate the latter, but the former should never be a concern in a game like this. Even dependable JRPG staples like HP and items don’t translate to Disgaea as directly as one might hope.

However, I encourage the uninitiated to push past the learning curve and early defeats. When the gameplay clicks, Disgaea 3 becomes an addictive tour de force that engages both your mind and your hunger for loot and prizes. The best-laid plans feel incredibly rewarding, while enough leeway is given to make recovery from ill-fated strategies quite possible. Still, no amount of learning will improve a lackluster camera that frequently fails to offer a clear view of the action. Four isometric angles and three zoom levels simply cannot maneuver clustered terrain changes effectively. As a result, close-quarters combat can make character selection feel imprecise and can obscure your view of the battlefield. Changing the camera’s zoom level and swapping between characters can both be performed by tapping the Vita’s back touch panel, but accidental presses will become a nuisance to many players. Ultimately, it’s a nice (ahem) touch that I’m thankful can be disabled.

Visually, Disgaea 3 impresses without breaking much new ground. Character sprites in battles and the hub worlds are well-detailed, complementing the game’s pleasant spell effects and demonic-lite art direction. Likewise, the character art in cutscenes is crisp and lively, but lacking animation variety. Strangely, the game’s fantasy-horror aesthetic doesn’t seem to match its soundtrack particularly well. The battle music and hub world themes are “peppy” and optimistic, often forgoing the dark organ and piano symphonies one might expect for whimsical tunes and J-pop. I wouldn’t call this a problem (though the limited number of tracks and repetition might disenchant you), but it’s certainly unexpected.

Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention comes through the porting process a better game than its 2008 PS3 counterpart, improved visuals and included DLC notwithstanding. The Vita’s pick-up-and-play nature fits Disgaea perfectly, allowing you to enjoy endless replayability in chunks of time large or small. A 60-hour story, New Game+, post-game content, and randomly-generated optional dungeons inside every item ensure that Disgaea 3 offers an incredible amount of bang for your buck. Whether that bang fits your bill is another matter entirely. As a champion for Nippon Ichi’s special brand of humor and strategy, Disgaea 3 serves fans a portable helping of tactical role-playing goodness. As an entry point to a genre, Disgaea 3 makes several missteps but ultimately extends a very welcoming hand to patient newcomers. Whether you are new to the genre or a fan of the series, you can’t go wrong.

Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Genre: Strategy RPG
Release Date: 04/17/12
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
MSRP: $39.99