A console launch window is an excellent opportunity to push both fresh IP as well as evolutions of older franchises. The excitement that surrounds new hardware coupled with a limited pool of software allows even risky prospects to gain more sales exposure than perhaps they would have otherwise received. Is it so strange therefore for one of the games released in the Vita’s post-launch period to be a PS3 port – the above market description would suggest that this is a golden period for publishers to push such a development. With Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention however we can see more than just a simple cash-in – for a start the game comes with all of the DLC released for the PS3 version as well as some new material. Coming along with more than just a new subtitle then, Disgaea 3 is clearly a meaty addition to the Vita line up.
For those that may have missed the 2009 PS3 release Disgaea 3 is a strategic RPG from the fine chaps at Nippon Ichi Software. This iteration of Disgaea follows Mao, the son of the evil Overlord, as he plots to wreak revenge on his father for accidentally stepping on his SlayStation gaming console and destroying four million hours of save game files. Ouch – a totally acceptable motive for attempted patricide. If you’ve managed to play any JRPGs in the last, well, ever, you won’t be too surprised to find out that Mao also happens to attend school, albeit the aptly named Evil Academy. As with the rest of the Disgaea series the game is set in the Netherworld and requires no prior knowledge of the series for you to appreciate and enjoy, although some series perennials do make the obligatory cameo appearance. And, just like we have come to expect with Disgaea both the story and the characters are completely and absolutely bonkers.
You see, Mao manages to convince himself that the only way to defeat his Overlord father is to become a true hero and use the powers of love and justice and stuff. To facilitate this he ‘acquires’ a hero title and true enough his moral compass and behaviours begin to change. With me still? While still behaving as the Number One Honour Student of Evil Academy, Mao has to deal with both his internal flux, demon delinquents (demons who annoy their parents by being as good as they can) and his quest for retribution, all whilst still being a lovable megalomaniacal-nutjob. It’s insane, but it works. Even better, the story and characters are fleshed out excellently by a series of talking head scenes as you progress through the main campaign, with the voice acting being particularly strong. Even better for those hardcore traditionalists out there Disgaea 3 comes with the Japanese voice track, although with the English variant being so strong you should probably sit back and chillax with the craziness you can understand, dood.
Gameplay wise Disgaea 3 is similar in outward appearance to the majority of other strategic JRPGs out there. However, the cute square-based battlefields hide a series of complex mechanics that are utterly addictive. For instance, your characters have the ability to throw one another (or enemies!) around the battlefield, ensuring that you can cover far more ground in one turn than you otherwise should have been able to. Positioning can give characters next to the attacker the chance to join in and boost the attack whilst not taking up their own turn, giving you a vital edge in some battles. In addition to this battlefields are usually littered with a number of geo-blocks; these blocks can offer advantages or disadvantages to the player character or NPC stood upon them, sometimes making it imperative to change your initial plans in order to make maximum advantage of them. End of level rewards can be increased by chain destroying these blocks too, leaving you with the option of going out of your way to attack the terrain as well as the enemies advancing onto your party. Oh, and did I mention that you can transform your monster characters into weapons for human characters to use, or that you can throw Prinnies (penguin like demons) like a grenade at an enemy? Mentalness.
The thing is, away from the excellent story and main mechanics, Disgaea 3 just keeps getting deeper. For instance, within your Homeroom class you can propose and attempt to pass various motions with your class reps, ranging from better items to stronger enemies. You can arrange your characters’ seating positions for various effects, and have them join student clubs to gain access to other benefits. For the serious grinders (ooh er!) there are various reincarnation and absorption options that will keep you tinkering for a long long time while you make absolute powerhouses of characters. And these will be needed if you keep digging, because you have whole new dimensions of difficulty you can unlock in game. Although to get there, you’ll need to spend time in one of the best gaming inventions ever, the item world.
The item world made its first appearance back in the first Disgaea and has been popping up ever since. Essentially, every single item you pick up in game has its own randomly generated dungeon inside, with the rarest items boasting a hundred floors of action. Clearing or racing through floors of an item world will level up the item, as well as giving you the chance to experience many random events as you progress through the floors. If you wish to fully explore Disgaea 3’s side game then you will spend far, far longer in the item world than you will on the story itself. The best thing is that levelling up the item isn’t even the main aim of the item world – enjoy hunting both innocents and pirates as you progress through the many levels with far more difficult challenges awaiting you with each step you take. It’s a gamer’s dream and one to which you can lose significant portions of your life. Even better (at a conceptual level at least) is the class world, where you get to enter a random dungeon inside a party member. That’s right - you get to grind inside a party member! In the good way!
This strength and depth of gameplay is met more than adequately by the visual qualities on screen. In fact, the game is stunning on the Vita - the intentional pixelation working far better with the smaller screen than it did for the PS3. Indeed, the resolution offers the right amount of old school charm for many of the graphics to be on the right side of cute rather than simply painful to look at. While you may find an individual preference for distance or rotation there will be no configuration that makes the game look ugly, or at least doesn’t serve a purpose. The touch controls can get annoying however – unless you have child-like nimbleness to your fingers and an ability to avoid cramp from holding the Vita with clawed hands you will be well served to turn off the rear touch pad controls to stop your viewing angle from randomly changing. Pinching and flicking on the front screen is intuitive enough though, and to be fair such simple controls are all we should expect from a game that had no touch control brief at all back in its original development specs.
In terms of added material Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is an attractive package compared to Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice; for a start it comes with all of the DLC that was released for the PS3 version. In addition to this are a couple of new story quests and bosses, some new spells and moves and some GPS functionality that will give various bonuses to those who have a 3G Vita (bet you feel that was a worthwhile move now, huh?). These are all essentially late game or post-storyline extras, but for anyone who has already demolished the PS3 game and just wants to check them out there is a handy cheat that will unlock the Parallel Worlder in a new game. It is a shame, however, that the portable nature of the Vita wasn’t accounted for with the addition of a save and exit option when you are stuck in the middle of an item world. Of course, there is always the sleep mode option, but sometimes that just doesn’t cut it.
Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is the best RPG you can get on the Vita right now, and is likely to remain as the best RPG on the platform for some time. The sheer amount of options available in this one title can provide you with many hundreds of hours of gameplay and although trophy hunters may baulk at the time investment required for the rest of us this is an extremely economical purchase. From the visuals to the soundtrack to the voice actors to the game mechanics, boxes are ticked in every quarter making this one of the most rounded gaming experiences you could have on any platform, let alone one fresh enough to still smell like a new car. The item world, the class world, reincarnation, absorption, secret bosses and a slight obsession with pirates means that the main storyline is literally just the start. Call home, say goodbye to your family and make sure you have the Mountain Dew on ice, because this experience is going to eat your life and then make you say thank you.