Welcome to the Netherworld’s “Evil Academy,” where demons are trained to become evil! …sort of.
The third game in the Disgaea series introduces us to a new cast of characters, a number of new gameplay elements, and a quirky story that easily rivals that of its predecessors. The game delivers on nearly all fronts, but let’s start with the weaknesses.
Though it’s noticeably better than the previous Disgaea titles, and has probably the best in-game graphics we’ve seen yet from Nippon Ichi Software, Disgaea 3 still looks like it would run just fine on the PlayStation 2. This has been a perennial problem for the Japanese developer; they always seem to be half a generation behind the graphic curve, even though they traditionally remain in the realm of the less graphic-intensive 2D.
The best thing about Disgaea 3 is definitely the still character portraits that appear during dialogue cut scenes. The anime-style characters are detailed and beautiful. Most of the major characters have over a dozen expressions to show, so a lot of artwork went into the game. The sprites are also well-animated, particularly for special abilities and combo attacks. Also, the battlefield maps in Disgaea 3 are much larger and more detailed than the maps of previous Disgaea titles.
A word of warning must be given: if you don’t have access to a high definition screen, know that you will struggle to read the text. It is tiny, and when it appears on the outdated standard definition screen, it is simply too blurry to read.
The voice acting in Disgaea 3 is a mixed bag, regardless of the language you have chosen. The original Japanese actors are decent and never over-the-top, but some of the characters seem to lack personality. In stark contrast, the English voice actors generally go overboard. This is actually one of the better English tracks we’ve seen from NIS America, but that doesn’t stop my ears from grating after hearing protagonist Mao use his whiny voice for the hundredth time, or Mr. Champloo’s Emeril-wannabe “Boom!” Some of the best English voices come from the monsters. For example, there are Latino demons that are always calling you “ese” and “homes,” and who could forget the Prinny’s classic catch word “dood?”
The soundtrack to Disgaea 3 is, in a word, remarkable. Composer Tenpei Sato has been working with Nippon Ichi for over a decade, yet he continues to create fresh and original soundtracks as though it were his first score each time up to bat. The vocal-performance songs (Japanese only) are excellent, and the instrumentals are even better. I love the battle themes, heavy on the electric guitar; I love the emotional tracks like “Wanderer’s Poem,” which features amazing acoustic guitar and a Wild Arms-esque whistled melody. The soundtrack is fantastic.
Also, big thanks to NIS for allowing players to control the volume of four different tracks: sound effects, music, in-game dialogue, and cut-scene dialogue. Being able to adjust these to your own desire is much appreciated.
If you aren’t familiar with the Disgaea series, it’s like this: mischievous demons in the netherworld somehow manage to become “the good guys” in their own twisted ways, even as they intend to be pure evil. Along the way, the script writers regularly break the fourth wall and make scenarios that intentionally lampoon the vast majority of RPG clichés. Then, at the end, they end up resting on a cliché to bring some resolution to the conflict of the plot.
In Disgaea 3, you play the role of Mao, the son of the Overlord who rules over the Evil Academy. From the game’s start, Mao claims that his only goal in life is to become strong, kill his dad, and become the new Overlord. But the plot is far from simple. Joined by his self-proclaimed friend/enemy/rival Raspberyl (or “Beryl” for short), as well as a hero wannabe from the human world named Almaz, Mao discovers through research that the only way to defeat his father is by obtaining the power of a hero. Unfortunately for demons, this is a difficult thing to do.
You see, at the Evil Academy, Mao is the “No.1 Honor Student.” And in Evil Academy, being an Honor Student means doing everything a demon ought to do: skip class, enslave lesser demons, mock the teachers, run in the hallways, etc. Basically, being mischievous is considered a good thing. In contrast, the few demons who actually go to class and study are considered “delinquent” and in need of reform. These rebels who like to do community service projects are, unfortunately, the sort of demon that Mao must become if he wants to attain the power of a hero.
The problem with this good/bad switch-up in Disgaea 3’s vocabulary is that, in any given context, you don’t know how to take what they mean. An honor student is good, because an honor student is bad. A delinquent is bad, because a delinquent does “good” things. This negation of good and evil may sound like nihilism, but the writers never even consider this option. Instead, what we see is that “good” and “bad” are relative to the human and demon world, and then even more relative based on individual characters. However, by “relative,” I mean “polar opposite,” so it’s no small wonder that the characters in your party continue to travel alongside you when they have completely different understandings of what is the “right” thing to do. Somehow, everyone ends up justifying why they fight whoever they fight, whether it’s the Overlord or someone even more sinister…
The worst part about Disgaea 3’s story is that the opening is incredibly slow. No major plot revelations happen for the first half of the game. Indeed, it took at least five hours before anything that resembles an “inciting incident” happened. Fortunately, after a certain point is reached, the plot becomes increasingly interesting to the point where this reviewer didn’t want to put the game down. And after you finish the main plot, there is further storyline in a post-endgame scenario that brings in characters from past Disgaea titles for even more mayhem. But the ending is satisfying enough, with a true villain that’s worthy of Disgaea’s twisted nature and a resolution that makes you smile contentedly with the results.
Disgaea 3 is not an example of traditional story-telling. It is quirky and silly to the same degree as Monty Python, though in decidedly non-British ways. You have a main character who is the definition of Otaku, obsessed with videogames and science experiments, a home economics teacher who uses cooking metaphors for every single situation in the game, a group of delinquent demon do-gooders, and plenty more oddball characters in the party. Yikes.
Ever since the first Disgaea, NIS has been known to break all the rules when it comes to what you’d expect in a turn-based strategy RPG. All the conventions you’d expect are still there: experience/leveling, skills/abilities, combos, equipment, and a mission-based story arc. However, there’s so much more, and some things are so incredibly streamlined, that the Disgaea experience is unlike anything you’ve played before. If you haven’t played any game in this series, this is a fine place to start.
One of the most important game mechanics in the Disgaea series is the ability to throw. You can throw almost anything: allies, opponents, objects, whatever. Generally, throwing is used either to destroy geo panels/blocks, or to help get a party member across a pit. But you can also use throwing to put an enemy wherever you want (like, conveniently in the center of your allies so they can rip him apart), or to just help a teammate travel a large distance. You can also opt to use the person(s) lifted as a weapon instead of throwing them immediately.
In Disgaea 3, a new abilitiy was added. Monster-type demons cannot lift and throw, so instead, they have been granted the ability to “magichange.” Using magichange, the monster becomes a weapon that another party member wields, granting them heightened strength and some abilities exclusive to that monster’s magichanged form.
Also new to Disgaea 3 are the blocks. Now, “geo panels” (which determine various effects on colored squares of the field) are not controlled by tiny pyramids. They are controlled by large, stackable, destroyable blocks. Also, it’s common in Disgaea 3 to see a series of same-colored blocks stacked together. In this situation, you are not able to lift the blocks, but if you throw a singular block on top of, or adjacent to, the stack of blocks, they’ll all be destroyed, filling your “bonus gauge” and harming any enemies standing atop the blocks. This mechanism reminds me of the N64 puzzle game “Tetrisphere,” and was probably one of my favorite additions to Disgaea 3’s gameplay.
Outside of combat, the “Dark Assembly” has been replaced and modified with “Homeroom.” The whole voting/bribing thing remains the same, but a host of new features have also been added. You can assign each character in your party to a variety of clubs, and where they are seated can help determine special bonus effects (most of which you customize).
The “item world” is back, and we also have the “class world.” In the item world, you select an item from your inventory, and it becomes a series of randomly-generated dungeons. As you go deeper into the dungeon, the intrinsic stats on your item (be it weapon, armor, or consumable item) increase. The “class world” is similar, except that you enter a randomly-generated dungeon inside of one of your party members, and as you travel deeper into it, your party member levels up and has opportunities to gain some unique abilities.
Is there room for exploitation in all these systems? Most definitely. However, unless you have a strategy guide handy or have taken a lot of time to think about it, you will progress at a normal level and complete the game without it becoming too terribly easy. However, any exploitation used for massive level-grinding should be recognized as necessary to complete some of the post-endgame side quests. As you may know, the numerical stats in the Disgaea series are leaps and bounds larger than in normal RPGs. Want to become level 9,999? Have over 1,000,000 HP? Go for it.
Decent camera usage and control? Check. Menus that are easy to navigate despite their complexity? Check. I think that settles it. User interface is decent. No sixaxis gimmicks in this game.
In Japan and in North America, the NIS label has become a formidable force in the world of 2D, anime/sprite-based gaming. One might say they set the standard. With Disgaea 3, that is certainly the case, though the bar has been set low graphically (as usual). Being the first turn-based strategy RPG to reach North American PS3 owners, the game is virtually a must-buy for PS3 owners who enjoy the genre. And, considering the variety of bonus items you can get by ordering directly from NISA’s “Rosenqueen Store,” there’s plenty to love about Disgaea 3. The main plot arc takes about 25 hours to complete, and then hundreds of hours from there to max out characters and take on the game’s greatest challenges. The game is certainly a worthwhile purchase; I recommend it to all PS3 owners, particularly those who have yet to experience the Disgaea series.