Review: Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention
Strategy RPGs have a rather discernable fanbase. Those are the gamers who pour hundreds of hours into a game like Disgaea 3 and are proud of the time they spend. Typically these sort of games take quite a bit of patience to delve into, understand and interpret the typically deep, rewarding combat system. Disgaea 3 is not the exception to the rule, but, in my opinion, it sets the bar as to what an SRPG should be, and that tried and true formula has certainly withstood the test of time.
Disgaea is what we could refer to as Nippon Ichi’s flagship franchise and has always been highly praised for its quirky stories, happy-go-lucky visual style and incredibly deep gameplay. For those who might have missed it the first time around, like myself, Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is a re-release of the PS3 title that released back in 2008. This time around, though, it’s packed full of more goodies, including all the DLC that was released for the PS3 version of the game, as well as some additional content specific to the Vita iteration.
If you know anything about Disgaea games, it’s that their stories are rather silly at first glance. The story here is the same as the PS3 version – you follow the “protagonist”, Lord Mao, as he takes revenge on his father. Here’s where the quirkiness comes in. Why does Mao want revenge on his father? Because his father, the Overlord, accidently deleted Mao’s save data for a game which he spent over four million hours playing.
Don’t let first impressions fool you, though. The story, while still retaining it’s silly, candy-coated exterior, evolves over time into a rather touching tale of friendship and family. It certainly takes the over-the-top JRPG tropes to an extreme, however these titles and stories like this are always a breath of fresh air, especially when the gameplay is so deep and rewarding.
While, at its core, this is an SRPG very similar to the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics, Jeanne D’Arc or Tactics Ogre. They really all are based on the same idea. You fight on grid-based battlegrounds and move your characters independently of each other, directing their abilities and attacks at enemy units, as well as defending your own. If there was any downside to this – and this is something common to games of this sort – it’s that the actual gameplay of Disgaea 3 requires a lot of patience. Once you get neck-deep in the game, battles can take anywhere from five minutes to half an hour, depending how the tides of destiny treat your team of warriors.
The good thing, though, is that Disgaea 3 is likely unintentionally designed as a nearly perfect portable title. The game progresses through these battles, but you always are allowed to return to a central point, where you can recover, buy/sell and, most importantly, save. Granted, you can always suspend the game, thanks to the Vita’s software, but if you’re like me, always looking for a hard save point, the game fits nicely into the portable lifestyle.
Progressing through the game, your group gains special tools to power themselves up. Even at the maximum level you’re still getting benefits of reaching certain goals. Reaching level 9,999 allows you to start over (sort of like a New Game+ but not) with better base stats. Therefore your characters get stronger by leveling up each time than they did in your previous play-through. Mastering this game takes many (hundreds of) hours, if you’re the dedicated sort.
There are a huge variety of simple, yet robust, concepts that add a multitude of hours to the gameplay or the replayability of this title. In addition to the basic gameplay mechanics and concepts, as I mentioned earlier, all the DLC from the original game on the PS3 is included here. Much of the special characters also require you to complete the game at least once to unlock, thus adding to the time you can drop into this title if you’re serious about it.
Naturally, being a new iteration of the game, there are Vita-only features. As far as content, they’ve included characters from Disgaea 4, such as Fuka and Desko. There’s a new type of magic added, as well, which really only comes in handy to feed the power-hungry players who enjoy and feel the need to dish out ridiculous amounts of damage to enemies who don’t stand a chance.
One feature that has been added based on the Vita hardware – aside from the touch-screen mechanics, which I shall address in a moment – is the use of a 3G Vita’s GPS functionality to raise your honor quotient. This is a way to gain more experience, better prices in shops and all sorts of in-game bonuses. You can get these points through regular in-game means, but if you take your activated 3G Vita to different real-world locations, you can gain a much higher honor quotient much faster. Unfortunately, I rarely could benefit from this. While I do have a 3G Vita, I don’t take it with me because I drive to my workplace and I don’t have time during the day to play. I don’t have a lengthy, hands-free commute like many others do.
It also kind of disappoints me that this feature would be added in the first place. I understand the need to add new features, and possibly even in-game features to improve your honor quotient without relying on one model’s hardware. It sort of puts those who (rightly) opted for the lower-priced Vita at a disadvantage where none needs to be.
The visual presentation here is almost exactly the same as it was on the PS3. However, if it’s even possible, I think the game looks better on the Vita. You have the option between crisp or smooth sprites, as well. Neither option makes them look quite as good as in Disgaea 4, but still both options look better, in my opinion, than the original game. Unlike other console-to-portable ports, all the cut scenes, dialog and other assets are completely in tact here, including the Japanese language dialog.
Overall, though, there were a couple thinks that are rather offputting. The major issue is the use of the Vita hardware, including GPS and touch-screen controls. I mentioned the unnecessary GPS usage earlier. I also think the game would have been better off without the addition of touch-screen controls. While, at its core, it’s a case of “no harm, no foul”, because everything you can do with the touch screen can be done with buttons, I’m unsure why touch-screen controls are even needed as an option. I’ll spare you my diatribe about adding unnecessary features to appease Sony and just state that any and all touch-screen controls in the game are much better represented in just regular ol’ button controls. ‘Nuff said.
On the gameplay side of things, like nearly all SPRGs in existence, you either love them or hate them. No amount of story, visual acuity or fancy hardware controls are going to get you past the gameplay if you just can’t handle it. While it’s a very deep and intricate experience, it is also a very time-consuming grind, and that will, unfortunately, put a lot of people off from trying this game. I’m sure it did when the original came out four years ago, and it likely will now, especially since the demographic for the Vita, at this point in time, isn’t focused on JRPGs like the PSP was throughout most of its life.
However, if you do enjoy SRPGs, and the quirky humor of the Disgaea games specifically, you’re going to love this one. Even if you played the original four years ago, this is a great time to rehash the things you enjoyed about it and play it again in a portable format. It’s certainly a worthy addition to the RPG library of Sony’s latest handheld (a genre that isn’t yet too big to begin with on the Vita). It’s definitely something for JRPG fans to sink their teeth into to get them past these early days until the genre inevitably explodes on the Vita just like it did on its predecessor.