Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
The Disgaea series took a while to really grow on me. While I enjoyed the first game, I felt it was a bit shallow in the strategy department. The second game added a lot, but the story was not as good and it seemed to lack some of the first game’s charm. In spite of my high standards, the series has a massive cult following, prompting a remake of the first game on the PSP and an upcoming one on the DS. Now Disgaea 3 offers seventh generation console representation.
If you’ve watched gameplay videos, however, you probably would be skeptical of the last point. Even with more character classes, abilities, weapon skills, items, and battle maps, the game is not so big as to seem worthy of being on PlayStation 3. Still, though Disgaea 3 does not feel at all like a PS3 game, it does feel like a damn good SRPG.
Like Disgaea 2, Disgaea 3 brings back just enough of the basic gameplay system to keep vets happy and adds just enough new content to make the game challenging all over again. All around, it’s an improvement.
NIS made some bold changes this time around, including doing away with weapon aptitudes and gradual learning of skills. This time, players must use mana points accumulated by defeating enemies to purchase skills and abilities for characters. The catch is that each character type has a specific range of abilities they can learn from the weapon trainer. To learn more advanced skills or abilities outside of their class, players will have to use the all new Academy World. The Academy World is similar to the Item World, only now you can improve individual character stats instead of items, and there is no way to exit before the 10th floor, unlike the Item World where you can use an exit door.
Disgaea 3 sports 27 human classes, 20 monster classes, and 16 specialty characters including guests from Phantom Brave and Disgaea 1 & 2. Each human and monster class has six ranks and, like Disgaea 2, new ranks are only opened up by leveling the proceeding rank to a certain point. Combine this with the fact that higher ranked jobs can learn new abilities, and what you get is a very nice feeling of progress to character advancement. Through transmigration, your characters will grow in potential in various ways, and with seventeen unlockable classes, you will be handsomely rewarded for your efforts. The number of special attacks, weapon skills, and spells has been increased, and with the Academy World, you can customize any character however you want. There are also legendary skills from Disgaea 2 which can be obtained through the Academy world.
Also, the environments are much improved. Where the previous games used generally flat, small battle fields with some exceptions, in D3 virtually every stage is massive and unique. The battles really are three dimensional now, with multi-level stages, destructible environments, boxes, treasures, and geoblocks. The geoblocks in particular add a trippy sort of puzzle game feature to combat. By throwing same colored geoblocks next to each other, players can destroy massive sections of the battle field, cancel geopanel effects, and damage enemies at the same time. The only negative side to this is that the big stages add to the character smallness problem, which I mention in the section on graphics. That issue aside, I absolutely loved the massive stages and the improved throwing mechanic.
Whew! Did I mention mabilities yet? Each specialty character and generic class has a fixed status upgrade and a range of additional modifications purchasable using mana. Mabilities can do everything from boost a specific stat, power up certain monster types, cancel enemy counter attacks, protect characters from status ailments, and much more. There are so many of them that I lost count, and like weapon trainer skills, they vary with each character.
There are also extra-curricular clubs that can boost how much mana you obtain and a variety of battle situations. The dark assembly has been replaced by the homeroom council where, like Disgaea 2, players can influence council members with bribes and alcohol. Seating arrangements in class affect character relationships and combo attacks; masters can use their pupil’s skills by standing next to them (though they don’t learn them this way now), and, oh yeah, the combo attacks have all been jazzed up and now you can do combos with weapon skills as well as normal attacks.
Honestly, if I had a hundred pages I could not paint a complete picture of all you can do in Disgaea 3. In summation, Disgaea 3 is massive. This time around, the game has really earned its reputation for hundreds of hours of deep strategic gameplay. The only criticism I can make is slightly related to the graphics in that, after hitting the 120 hour mark, I have not seen much to justify making this a PS3 game. It’s complex and it runs smoothly on Blu-Ray, but I don’t buy that this could not have been done on PS2. To the fans who lack PS3s and see little else out there to merit buying the system, my heart goes out to you. To those who invested $400 in a system and dropped a few grand on a 40” high def plasma, I can understand a little bit of their frustration, since Disgaea 3 doesn’t do anything to make you feel like you’re really taking advantage of the PS3’s capabilities. Besides that perhaps not so minor grumbling, there’s no denying that Disgaea 3’s gameplay is the best in the series and better than just about any other SRPG on the market today.
Disgaea 3 takes place in the Demon World Academy of Evil (Jaaku Gakuen), a kind of netherworld prep school. The rules work a bit differently from what you’d expect. Doing homework, getting to class on time, following the rules, and generally trying to be a good student earns you the title of delinquent, while the student who avoids homework and skips class the most is dubbed the “honor” student (in a demon world, wouldn’t being a delinquent be a good thing though?) The main character this time around is Prince Mao, son of the overlord (not Laharl or Zenin. This is a separate netherworld) and the school’s highest ranked student, who has never gone to class once. Thanks to an unhealthy obsession with manga and video games, Mao gets the idea of overthrowing his father and becoming a great hero. When asked how he can kill his own father, Mao explains that his father erased all of the data on his PSP memory card (given a different name, though) and so he has sworn vengeance.
As you can guess, the story is completely wacky. Mao’s personality is different from Laharl’s and Adell’s, the earlier protagonists, in that he mixes a weirdly mature determination with a demon’s childish rudeness and impropriety. He evolves over the course of the game after meeting Almaz, a hero wannabe, and stealing his badge. Their relationship makes for some hilarious dialogue, with Almaz serving as a kind of straight man during their manzai-esque banter. Beryl, the heroine and top delinquent, is much funnier than Rozalin. I am curious as to how the game will translate since much of the humor is based on language, puns, and the culture of Japanese secondary schools. Given the way she speaks, an American version of Beryl ought to sound like a cross between an inner-city gangster and a backwoods hick.
Ultimately, whether you find it funny or not will be up to you. I found the comedy this time around to be much sharper and ironic, which is an improvement. As for length, the main story feels shorter being that there are only eight chapters. The post-game is bigger than ever though, with a big cast of returning favorites (yes, Laharl, Flonne, and Etna are playable) the Academy and Item worlds, and a various legendary skills, items, and bosses to find.
NIS, both as a developer and publisher, has never impressed me with its graphics. Phantom Brave and Makai Kingdom’s sprites look they could have been done on the SNES and, on their 4th Disgaea game, the series still has a distinctly PS1 look. The resolution is sharper this time around thanks to the PS3, and many of the later spell and attack animations are marvelous. It’s a colorful game and far from painful to look at. It’s merely that it could have been done much better. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using simple 2D sprites, but the fact is, they can look much better than this, and since 2000, most sixth generation games have done better. Higher resolution does not improve the smallness and the lack of detail in most character models.
In fact everything seems smaller this time around. As a result, already unimpressive sprites look even less detailed, and worse than that, the game is very difficult to read. This may not be as big of a deal in the western version since you likely won’t be reading hundreds of Chinese characters, but it was still annoying. I thought I was the only one who felt this way since I’m not Japanese and reading kanji is already an ordeal. Yet if you check the Japanese message boards and Amazon reviews of the game, you’ll see that dozens of pure blooded Japanese gamers made the exact same complaint.
It annoys me to have to criticize otherwise decent games on this point since, personally, I do not care too much about graphics. Whether it is a fear of change, a sense of entitlement, incompetence, or just a lack of effort, NIS has stuck with the same mediocre graphics for years, and it reflects poorly on an otherwise respectable series. This is coming from a guy who still plays NES and Game Gear daily, and really does not need or expect Halo 3 level detail in every single game. Still, it is not being superficial or a “graphics whore” to take issue with a game’s look. Video games work through visual interaction (hence that word “video” being in there) and graphics are a fundamental part of the experience. We react to what we see, and the quality and detail of what we see affects the depth of the experience. How many fans of the original Disgaea would have flocked to the game if, instead of its low-budget quirky anime style, all the sprites were replaced with white and red dots?
In spite of all this, the graphics are miles away from being so bad as to ruin the game. For me, graphics are to video games what presentation and smell are to food. The most important thing with a game is how it plays, and the most important thing with a food is the taste. Disgaea is sort of like a Sloppy Joe. It may smell weird sometimes, and it doesn’t look all that attractive. People who have never tried one may be turned off by how messy it looks. Yet if you get over your initial impression and sink your teeth into it, you’ll enjoy a rich, delicious, meaty experience. Disgaea 3 is basically an extremely delicious, messy sloppy Joe, and most gamers who sit down to enjoy it will not be able to get enough.
The Japanese voice acting is top notch and overall, this game has the best soundtrack of the series. There is a huge amount voice work for each generic character class, story character, and most NPCs. Some sound effects have been recycled from Disgaea 2, others sharpened or tweaked a bit. No complaints from me, since everything from the thwacks of fists to the 50’s Western movie gun effects suit the game’s cartoony vibe perfectly. The battle music is even more upbeat and somewhat circus-like this time around, yet it works. While some of the tutorial menu songs annoyed me, the opening theme, home base music, and later combat music are all quite good.
Control is pretty much the same as the earlier games, with some improvements. You can zoom the camera in and out, and pan in any detection to keep an eye on your troops. The displays for each character have been improved; now when the cursor is on a character, it shows their movement and throw range, status, level, and other information. This is convenient strategically and a nice touch.
The first game left me wanting more, and the second game seemed like an upgrade patch. Disgaea 3 sets its own mark, using what was tried and true about the first two games combined with several new character enhancement systems to create a pretty flipping huge game. On the other hand, it took NIS multiple games, recycled cruddy graphics and all, to finally get it just right. In an alternate universe where Disgaea never existed, this game under a different name would have been an absolutely spectacular PSP or PS2 game. As it stands, it’s definitely the best Disgaea game and will keep fans glued to their seats for dozens of hours.
Go ahead and add ten points to this review if you are a series fan who doesn’t
care about graphics or the fact that it’s on PS3. If, on the other hand, you are new to the series, this is definitely the one to get. There’s enough depth and variety here to keep you busy for months, and the battles are just so much fun to conduct that you’ll never get sick of it. While it is not terribly impressive visually, virtually everything else about the game is done right. Considering that Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3 are still somewhat starved for RPGs (and handhelds are swimming in remakes), Disgaea 3 is a welcome addition for folks who did not buy PS3 just to play Call of Duty 4.