Few series have stayed more remarkably consistent than Disgaea. With a sturdy twelve years and five titles under its belt, fans and critics alike had begun to feel that this was one series that was starting to grow a bit long in the tooth. Not helping matters was the lacklustre critical reception that its latest entry received. Would Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance (actually the series sixth entry) stay complacent with its established systems, or would it buck conventions to breathe new life into the series? The answer is somewhere in the middle, but luckily, it works!.
Alliance of Vengeance’s stage is set in the midst of a grand space war: Tyrannical Emperor Void Dark has been conquering his way across the galaxy one Netherworld at a time, subjugating their citizens to conscript them into his growing army. Standing in his way is the mysterious Killia who, you guessed it, seeks vengeance for those who have already fallen to Void Dark. In contrast to his predecessors, the self-serious and focused Killia is a bit of a dull protagonist; matters not helped by his voice acting, which is delivered with all of the gusto of a flustered accountant.
Fortunately, he’s joined by five eccentric Overlords seeking to wrest their respective Netherworlds back from the fiend that deposed them: There’s the temptress Seraphina, muscle-headed sweetheart Red Magnus, intelligent and Machiavellian Christo, curry-obsessed rabbit-girl Usalia, and Zeroken: karate-kicking Overlord of… himself. This technicolor cast of loveable misfits provides all of the goofball antics that the series is known for. Red Magnus is my personal favorite; it’s always cute when his good-natured brutality accidentally kills enemies who have surrendered to him (it’s not as horrific as it sounds, I swear).
Gameplay-wise, Alliance of Vengeance adheres strictly to the groundwork laid by its forebears. This is a tactical RPG in which the emphasis is less on strategy and more on dogpiling: The opposing army tends to bum-rush the player unit nearest to them in an attempt to isolate and pound them with repeated attacks. Your best bet is to do the same: Pick an enemy, surround them, smack them down with as many attacks as you can and watch as the ridiculous combo that ensues causes catastrophic damage. Massive combos also fill up the bonus gauge, a meter that awards items for demonstrations of excess.
This is much the same as it ever was for Disgaea, but Alliance of Vengeance mixes things up with a few neat new features, including a limit break-style system called Revenge. When a character achieves the Revenge state, their power is boosted and the cost for all skills and spells is reduced to 1 SP. Each Overlord character has access to a powerful Overload ability when in this state that can quickly turn the tide of battle. Seraphina, for example, can charm all male units within a certain radius. Overloads make Overlords valuable allies, as well as fiendish opponents.
The game also does a lot to streamline many of the series’ more cumbersome aspects. This is most notable in its revamped class-levelling system: In previous entries, gaining experience with a unit would grant access to that unit’s advanced classes and their skills. However, to use those classes, you were forced to either reincarnate them at level 1, or create a new level 1 character in the advanced class. Not so in Disgaea 5; any character who unlocks an advanced class is immediately upgraded. Similarly, character creation now allows you to pay a fee to increase their level to as high as Killia’s. These anti-frustration features shave many hours of pointless busywork off of the formula, allowing you to spend more time in Disgaea’s wacky battles.
Early game chapters are quick and breezy, but the difficulty ramps up sharply around the story’s midpoint, forcing you to take an Afternoon of Darkness to grind levels for your team. To mitigate this, you’re granted access to the Item World, a returning feature that consists of an endless number of dungeons within any item in the game. Each Item World contains hundreds of floors of battles, with an opportunity to heal or exit every ten floors. Each floor you conquer raises the level (and therefore, the stats) of the item in question.
Battles in the Item World also offer an extra layer of complexity in their Geo Panels. Existing in the main missions as well as the Item World, Geo Panels fill the playfield with different-colored tiles that grant special effects on all tiles of a specific color if a prism occupies a tile of that color. The Item World truly allows this system to shine by arranging panels and prisms so as to create miniature puzzles on each floor. Destroy a prism, and the color of the panel it’s on will change to the color of the prism, damaging units and destroying prisms placed on that color. Arrange the prisms to eliminate all colors on the field within one turn, and all enemies will suffer massive damage, and you’ll see a giant boost to your bonus gauge. Figuring out how to achieve this is addictive and rewarding, especially when there are five or more colors present on one floor.
Joining the Item World is a new activity called the Chara World, in which you dive into your allies. Despite the similar concept, Chara World couldn’t be more different; it takes the form of a board game not unlike those found in Dragon Quest. You’re granted a limited number of dice rolls to get through a board of positive or negative event spaces, with a powerful bonus of your choosing if you reach the goal. To offset its valuable rewards, the game can only be played once every hundred-or-so levels per character. Though the treats on offer are enticing, Chara World itself is not very exciting, as each board only boasts a handful of different event spaces that don’t have much of an impact in either direction.
Alliance of Vengeance may not be a graphical powerhouse, but its high-res sprites and portraits look absolutely gorgeous. Somewhat less nice is Tenpei Sato’s soundtrack which, like previous games in the series, consists of short pieces that loop during the lengthy battles. This is particularly egregious in the hub theme, a two minute vocal track that loops endlessly as you organize your team in between missions. It grated on my nerves so much that I had to mute the TV whenever I went back to base.
Alliance of Vengeance proves there’s still life in Disgaea’s formula yet — it knows where the series’ strengths lay and builds on them while its anti-frustration features gracefully bring the series up to speed. The addictive side content makes this entry a treat for longtime fans; a player smitten with the game’s systems won’t be running out of things to do for a long time. It’s also great place for newbies to start, as its self-contained story requires no prior familiarity with the series’ lore. No matter what level of experience you have coming in, Disgaea 5 is a truly enjoyable romp.