The Disgaea series has always been aimed at the masochistic Strategy RPG crowd. Allowing players to level their protagonists up to 9999 and requiring a serious amount of devotion the series has developed a cult following. With Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice not much has changed, in fact if anything this is the most feature-rich entry in the series to date. If you are a fan of nearly endless level grinds, outrageous dialogue and storylines and of course exploding demonic penguins than you can let out a collective sigh of relief. Your utopia has finally arrived with Nippon Ichi’s latest entry in the Disgaea series.
Unlike other games of the Japanese RPG persuasion the story in Absence of Justice doesn’t involve locating the crystal of life or saving the world. On the contrary, you assume the role of Lord Mao, a social deviant demonic schoolboy who has serious daddy issues. Keeping with the theme of appealing to its core audience Mao is also hopelessly addicted to manga and videogames and has a personal vendetta against his father, who just happens to be the Overlord of the Netherworld. The reason for his vengeance: his father stepped on his portable game station and deleted over 4 million hours of gameplay; yes it truly is a tale of love, loss and geek-ness.
Disgaea 3 starts you off in the Netherworld Evil Academy, an overworld where showing up for class on time is frowned upon while truancy is honored. This setting serves as a planning ground for all of your endeavors throughout the game, though it does feel a bit limited in activities. There is very little to see and do here and as I mentioned feels more like a catalyst for the core eight chapters of the game. Even with its limited functionality there is more than enough to keep you busy for months so it really is a minor gripe in the long run. Much like the previous games Absence of Justice is flooded with extremely witty dialogue that really keeps you entertained from beginning to end. The series has become known for not taking itself seriously and our new protagonist doesn’t disappoint.
One this is for certain about Disgaea 3 though, it is not for the casual player. According to the bullet points for the game it contains “Stupid Hard Levels” and one trip through the tutorial will clarify that this game was designed for the veteran SRPG player. Much like previous outings there are a plethora of character classes to toy around with. This time around though NIS has decided to change the formula for progression. Instead of simply learning new skills you now have to spend mana points to upgrade your skill set. Character classes are also limited to the set of skills they can learn by default, but if you wish to train them on different skills you will have to traverse the Academy World. Here you can learn various new abilities for any class by working your way through a series of floors much like the Item World in previous games.
Another audacious change to the formula is the re-design of geo-symbols. Instead of having a set of spaces on any given area you can now toss, re-arrange and even stack geo-blocks on the battlefield for various effects. Stages have also been increased in size to take advantage of the new geo-block system. There are now multi-tiered arenas to wage war upon and you can even use the new block-combination system to tread away some of the playing field. This new mechanic adds a whole new layer to the core game mechanics and forces even veteran players to learn new tactics.
Even with all of these new nuances fans of the series will quickly grasp what is going on rather quickly. While the game claims to be the hardest of the series, it actually feels more streamlined now thanks to the intuitive combat system and addition of geo-blocks. However, if you have never tackled the likes of the Disgaea series expect a huge learning curve from the outset, but in the end it truly is worth the effort as the sense of progression is the most rewarding it has ever been. Besides who doesn’t love exploding penguins and ridiculous plotlines to accompany their ridiculously in-depth game experience?
The one area where Absence of Justice falters is the visuals. Love them or hate them, the sprite-based world is back and now in high-definiton. On the bright side the game is one of the most colorful you will ever see. The mixture of bright colors and vibrant backgrounds really stand out on an HD set and the artwork for dialogue scenes is some of the best I have seen. The more powerful spells and attack animations are also worth mentioning as they truly are visually pleasing. Everything else feels like it was rendered on a cartridge-based system. Developers like Arc System Works (Guilty Gear) and even the more recent XBLA title Braid have proven that 2D sprites can still be an aesthetically pleasing visual choice, but for whatever reason NIS has continued to use the same sprite palette since 2000 and frankly, it has begun to show its age.
What does stand out though is voice work. When a game is as cleverly written as Disgaea 3 is, you hope and pray that the voice actors do a great job of portraying the emotion convincingly. Thankfully every line delivered here is top-notch and feels right at home with the quirky humor. The soundtrack and sound effects do feel recycled from previous games, but to be honest they were already nearly perfect so I cannot blame NIS for sticking with what works. The rest of the presentation does feel lacking, especially the tutorial which makes fun of its complexities with Prinnies (those demonic exploding penguins) even commenting on the fact that even they don’t understand what is going on-dood. Combine this with the nearly unreadable text and you have a game that is in desperate need of as much attention to the visual fidelity as it receives in the depth of its combat.
Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice is the pinnacle of the series and really does cater to the hardcore fans. While this series will continue to be a cult classic because of this, perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing. If you are a fan of the series there is no reason not to pick it up, but if you are just a fan of the genre in general and have never toyed with the franchise be warned; there is a steep learning curve found within. Overall NIS America has done a great job of bringing the series to US gamers and I am sure we have not seen the last of this quirky series.