Originally released in 2008 as the PlayStation 3-exclusive Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice, the Vita’s Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is the latest entry in Nippon Ichi Software’s relatively nascent line of intensely hardcore strategy roleplaying games. The series debuted nearly eight years ago on the PlayStation 2 and in that time it has spawned four official entries, four handheld ports, anime and manga adaptations, and sold more than 1.7 million copies worldwide. Though overshadowed by strategy titles linked to more popular gaming properties (most notably Final Fantasy Tactics), the Disgaea games have attracted a devoted following of fans who adore the idea that each entry offers literally months of gameplay content and nearly endless depth.
More on that later, but for now I’ll just point out that the most powerful character currently uploaded to the game’s online tracking system is at level 765. He’s clocked a little over 30 hours of play time, and to reach the game’s cap he’d still need to pick up an additional 9,234 levels. In short, if you intend to see everything Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention has to offer, you’re going to be here a while.
Fortunately for those who lack the pedantic capacity to be motivated entirely by successively larger numbers, Disgaea 3 complements this incredible depth with an intensely charming storyline. You play as the demon Mao, an honor student at Netherworld Academy. Those familiar with Western religious mythology might describe Mao’s world as Hell, but instead of Boschian horrors rending the flesh of sinners and supping upon their shameful transgressions, the populace of Disgaea’s netherworld trends toward adorable anthropomorphic cat people and sarcastic zombies.
That trend of twisting expectations also extends to the game’s story as a whole. Mao, as a demonic honor student, thrives on evil (no matter how petty) and disdains the school’s delinquents, who are in fact kind-hearted demons who strive to be as well-behaved as possible. Mao’s teachers praise him for skipping class and mugging his fellow students, while the “bad kids” regularly upset their parents by adhering to a self-imposed curfew. It’s a simple example of inverting established societal norms to create a unique, engaging setting, but the dialogue in the game is so well written that even without the underlying gameplay depth, Disgaea 3 could succeed solely as one of the few examples of pure satire in gaming. To wit: Mao exists both as a standard protagonist and as a hilariously on-point cipher for players of the game. Superficially, his goal (taking vengeance on his demon father) seems pretty standard for any Japanese roleplaying title, but that’s before you realize that he only wants to slay his dad because the old man smashed all of his video games. I don’t want to say that kind of petty rage should be familiar to any gamer who digs this kind of niche strategy title, but that’s only because it says really depressing things about my maturity.
Not that the game is purposely malicious or disdainful of its audience. If anything, Disgaea 3’s writers are just trying to lampoon as many familiar tropes as possible, and they certainly win points for leaving no sacred cows unslaughtered. At various points the game satirizes tokusatsu superheroes (think: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers), fighting games, overly histrionic anime and the creepy-if-commonplace fetishization of cat girls. That’s all in addition to the game’s endless jabs at the cliches of the roleplaying game genre that are no doubt familiar to anyone who might be playing a title like this. This is the game Mel Brooks would have designed if he was a self-aware 23-year-old otaku, instead of an octogenarian Jew.
As I said before however, the game’s entertaining plot and hilariously endearing cast of characters are not its primary draw (despite my obvious fondness for them). Instead the series has developed its caste of hardcore devotees by offering an endlessly complex brain teaser of a strategy game. If you’ve played any title in the SRPG subgenre you already know the basics: Battles are turn-based, characters move along a grid, and classes are differentiated primarily by their diverse skill sets (warriors do damage, mages cast spells, healers heal, etcetera). Disgaea 3 builds on that base by offering team attacks for up to five characters, friendly monsters that can metamorphose into useful weaponry and blocks that simultaneously paint swaths of the battlefield with positive or negative effects and serve as wildly damaging implements of destruction. The end result is a series of battles that more closely resemble a cerebral puzzle game than anything else. Though the early stages can be beat with simple brute force, as you progress through Disgaea 3 you’re increasingly compelled to think critically about each move and learn to leverage your characters’ abilities to maximize their damage potential (while also ensuring that at least one of them survives to the end of the fight). Using chess an analogy has been done to death, but if you taught a rook to throw fireballs and gave a bishop a gigantic axe it would be a pretty close approximation of what you get in this game.
Surprisingly, that depth only increases outside of battle. Not only do you have a pretty sizable main story to play through, but following the credit roll you’ll find an additional mini-story starring the adorable Raspberyl (that was originally only offered as downloadable content in the game’s PS3 incarnation), and the opportunity to replay the entire thing with new, more powerful characters, items and abilities. What’s more, every item you find in the game contains a sizable dungeon. Plumb their depths and the items themselves will level up, offering yet another facet of the game to customize. Plus, unlike the PS3 version, Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention gives players the opportunity to choose custom graphics for any weapon they’ve poured hours into leveling, which should speak directly to those fans who get a burst of dopamine from re-moulding every inch of the world in their image.
Before we go any further, I should probably address the most glaring question about Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention: “Why should those who played the original PS3 version of this game care about this new iteration?” It’s a fair question; this is, after all, a rehash of a four-year-old game that by all rights should only be of interest to people who, most likely, would have already purchased the original version. That’s the danger of reissuing a niche title like this, I suppose, but publisher Nippon Ichi Software (NIS America here in The States) has done an excellent job of adding compelling content that can only be found in the Vita version of the game. I already covered the customizable weapon aesthetics, but Absence of Detention also includes new boss battles, new skills for each of the game’s character classes, the all-new “Tera” class of magic and fighting game-esque “Super Moves” that allow characters to unleash awesome, bombastic attacks when their health drops into the red. Likewise, the game includes all of the downloadable content released for the PS3 game to date, and has adopted an online tracking system similar to that seen in the PS3’s Disgaea 4 that allows players to view the progress of anyone else playing the game anywhere else on the planet. In effect, it’s an online leaderboard, adding a completely unexpected sense of competition to a genre that has historically been rather lonely.
Despite these additions, it should also be pointed out that the Vita game brings with it some new issues not seen in its predecessor. Most prominently, the developers attempted to shoehorn touchscreen functionality into a game that simply didn’t need it and the results are frustrating. By default, if you tap the rear touchscreen on the Vita, your in-game camera angle will shift between one of three preset positions. It’s a good idea in theory, but in practice it’s almost impossible to avoid inadvertently switching angles. The part of the rear touchscreen responsible for shifting the camera just so happens to be exactly where your middle and/or index fingers would grip the system by default. Fortunately this can switched off in the game’s options menu (and the standard buttons are more than capable of shifting camera angles as necessary), but it smacks of an attempt to use the Vita’s quirky technology purely for the sake of having a “touchscreen functionality” bullet point on the back of the box.
I should also probably point out that Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention uses the exact same sprites seen in its PS3 predecessor. Fans will recall that the biggest knock against the game when it originally debuted was that the character sprites were not high-definition, despite the industry-wide push toward that sort of thing that this most recent console generation ushered in. Honestly, I didn’t have much of a problem with it on the PS3, and the sprites look even better here thanks to the Vita’s gorgeous yet relatively small screen, but if you were appalled by the PlayStation 2-era character aesthetics in the original Disgaea 3, you’ll be likewise displeased by its Vita resurrection.
Of course, this is not a game aimed at people who get bent out of shape over graphics. It’s a title meant for those who want to pour a few hundred hours of their lives into grinding endless dungeons and slaying increasingly ridiculous boss monsters. Those who lack patience and a strong attraction to numbers may want to seek entertainment elsewhere, but for those who desire a title that can handily keep them occupied for months on end while also introducing a hilarious, engaging plot should buy Disgaea 3: Absence Of Detention as soon as possible. It’s not just the best, most content-packed version of Disgaea 3 to date, it’s also an exceedingly unique experience in a genre (and industry) oft-defined by tired cliche.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation Vita on a copy provided by NIS America)