(PlayStation Vita Review) Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention

Developer: NIS (Nippon Ichi Software)
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

For fans of turn-based strategy games, few things are as welcome as news that NIS America is prepping another entry in their Disgaea series. Featuring goofy humor, over-the-top spells, modifiers for modifiers, and an unabashed love of grinding, the series has grown from a cult hit to a full-fledged franchise, with over half a dozen entries and a handful of spin-offs. The series’ Vita debut takes a look at its past, though, with the enhanced re-release that manages to supplant the original with more modes and better gameplay, making Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention far superior to the original.

Some confusion over why NIS went with 2008’s Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice instead of last year’s Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten is understandable. It’s even somewhat surprising, considering that the third entry was the weakest in the series. But the fact is that the handheld line follows its own schedule, owing to the fact that it started years after the console line. Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days for the PSP was the previous portable release, and it came out in 2009, nearly three years after the PlayStation 2 original. The handheld versions are never straight ports, however, and much as it did with previous releases, NIS has packed Absence of Detention with an abundance of extras.

The core of the game is largely the same as the original, comprised primarily of the main campaign from Absence of Justice. The storyline follows Mao, a starry-eyed evildoer and son of the Overlord. It’s his goal to be the worst demon not only in the Evil Academy but in all of the Netherworld, and to do this—as well as get revenge for having his save game files deleted—he sets out to overthrow his father. Being evil, the easiest way for a young demon like himself to get ahead is by not going to class and ignoring curfew. That is, until his rival Raspberyl hits on an even better scheme: to be the best student at the school. Well, best by human standards. She reasons that if a demon is supposed to skip school and repeatedly be late, then it would be even worse to be the exact opposite: to be on time, do all of their homework, and not miss a day of class. Recognizing a good thing when he hears it, Mao then sets off to become a hero: the ultimate evil in the Netherworld. Along the way, he happens to run across a would-be human hero, Almaz, and promptly steals his title. Now a lowly demon servant, Almaz joins Mao in order to gain back his title and save a princess from her inevitable capture by the Overlord. With Almaz in tow, Mao sets off on a quest against his rivals and himself, as his crew venture into the wilds and his own heart so that he can find his own hero title and gain enough power to get the revenge his save files deserve.

The rest of the game follows the traditional Disgaea system of isometric turn-based battles, event scenes with 2D art and text bubbles (at times spruced up with voiceovers), and grinding for more and better loot. Hubs allow quick and easy access to stalls for resurrecting and healing, as well as purchasing items; the classroom for creating and linking units; and the various portals needed to reach dungeons and quests. Aside from the dimension and Heart Bank levels, which form the chain of maps comprising the storyline, there are various dungeon-filled worlds that can be visited to boost a range of stats. Items can be upgraded by battling through 10 levels of the Item World, where the party can then proceed or exit back to the main hub and reap the rewards of stat boosts for the chosen item, whether it is a weapon, mana potion, or ninja slippers. Similarly, a Class World is available to enhance the characters, with the difference being that the enemy levels are based on the host character and that they are generally tougher, though they also offer double the experience and mana. The worlds are purely for grinding, allowing players to skip out on replaying older story levels and earn some nice bonuses as they get newly created characters up to snuff, or give veterans a boost before a tough story fight. They can have a bite to them, with unprepared adventurers finding themselves out on all their loot if they don’t have an exit item and fail to make it to the tenth floor.

New units are created when other characters sacrifice some of their accumulated mana points, which could otherwise be used to learn and boost skills as well as acquire Evilities. The amount of points allocated to a new unit determines their grade at creation, with point allocation determining whether they are ready to take part in the story missions immediately, or if they need to level a bit. Skills are broken down into two types, weapon and magic. Each is a special attack—say, a fire spell for a fire mage—that characters become more proficient with as they use them, but they can also be given a boost to the next level by using mana. Evilities are similar to skills in that they cost mana and strengthen with use, but differ in that they are character traits: instead of adding an upgraded attack type, the character will instead gain an SP Aptitude increase of 10% or recover an additional 50% when healed. Evilities are limited by character type, and only one of the two slots is swappable.

The classroom allows not only for unit creation but also for characters to form in-game bonds. These relationships can take a number of forms. The most basic is by proximity, with those characters seated next to each other capable of attacking in tandem with elaborate combos when near each other on the battlefield. A more evolved bond is formed when they are placed in the same club, which offers additional benefits, such as being able to use the same spells as a fellow member who is next to them on the battlefield. Debates in Homeroom can also be initiated, and this allows for motions to be put forward, also at the cost of mana points, which can lead to anything from better weapons in the store’s stock, to making enemies stronger, to having characters focus on filling the shops with a specific item type. Debates can be swayed using bribes, though a probability is offered before the vote is called to give the player an idea whether they’d be wasting mana on a lop-sided session. If push comes to shove, the party can try to bash any representatives that were against the proposal, though that can be a pretty painful route in the beginning.

As with the other Disgaea titles, there is always plenty to do. Whether it’s diving into the worlds to boost item or character stats, countless hours can be spent grinding with little regard for the story missions. A string of post-match performance bonuses also encourage practice and tweaking, as well as a strong incentive to continue dungeon diving. How skillfully a floor is cleared isn’t just determined by how the enemies were dealt with but also by how the player took advantage of the Geo elements.

Battle is, as always, the dominant activity, and the Geo elements are a significant component of the combat system. Colored Geo Blocks and their associated Geo Panels are scattered around the battlefields and offer various modifiers that affect those standing on them; for instance, a red panel might offer 50% extra mana or a green panel might confer an extra counter hit. How they come into play can determine if a level is a walk in the park or a rough-and-tumble slog. Whenever a block is destroyed on a panel, it will change the panel in one of two ways: they change the color of different-colored panels and destroy those of a similar color. Regardless of which happens, any characters on those panels or blocks when a change occurs will take damage. There is one block type that wipes out all panel effects completely, and that is the null block. In many instances, the goal is to create a chain of panel changes before engaging in combat, as the damage incurred by the enemy (who are often placed on blocks and panels) will make the fight that much easier.

On top of the Geo elements, unit positioning also has a significant impact on performance. The weapons, armor, and items the characters have equipped, as well as their unlocked skills, will determine movement range, attack strength, and accuracy. Attacks also have rotatable patterns that can only reach certain heights and angles, adding even more variables. Jumping into a Disgaea title can be intimidating, even with the tutorial and help text, because of the many modifiers to keep track of, and because the Geo elements can make some levels a little too puzzle-ish; as a result, any solid tactics will require taking these unavoidable game changers into account.  Initially, though, one of the biggest problems players will face won’t be because of the swarm of stats, but the camera.

Despite being able to rotate the viewing angle, as well as zoom in and out, it can be difficult to get a direct line of sight between the character and targeted enemy. An icon indicates what characters are being targeted, but the varied elevation can still make it difficult to differentiate between combatants. A sub menu indicating units in range does help, though having obstructing objects turn semi-transparent would be welcomed. Making matters worse is the default scheme where the back touch panels control zoom and unit cycling during combat, which causes all sorts of problems. Having a set space allocated exactly where the fingers rest on the back of the system makes extended play a little uncomfortable, and the panels are so sensitive that the camera is frequently sent flying about inadvertently. Fortunately, the back panels can be turned off in lieu of the front touchscreen.

One of the Vita-specific features is a little out of left field, and that is how the GPS and Wi-Fi functions have been utilized to add to the player’s Honor Quotient. The Honor Quotient is a sort of bonus modifier that can result in anything from more experience per kill to cheaper items, and it can be lowered a number of ways (difficulty level, clearing stages, etc.) but can now be increased by the physical distance traveled while playing. A way to promote Disgaea to passers-by, or just a nice reward for commuters? Either way, I’ll take all the bonuses I can get.

Not all of the new additions are tied to the hardware. In fact, most is in the form of in-game content. Absence of Detention not only comes with all of Absence of Justice‘s DLC, which includes characters from previous Disgaea releases, but it also includes new moves, new classes, and three post-campaign storylines. One of the stories stars rival Raspberyl in a four-chapter expansion that was released as DLC, and the other two are brand-new storylines featuring newcomers Rutile and Stella. Limited weapon cosmetic customization, allowing stats and look to be swapped from a preset list, was added alongside tera-level spells, which feature other NIS characters drawn by guest artists. The downside to all of this is that the main campaign must be completed before much of the new content can be unlocked, and that’s a lot to ask from someone who has already dropped 50-plus hours into the PS3 version. Although, I do hear there’s a cheat to access the content without having to play through Mao’s portion.

Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention, with all of the original’s DLC plus new spells, characters, and post-campaign side stories, is not only the definitive version of Disgaea 3, but a great game. The game is also a much better fit on the Vita, with its visuals coming into sharp contrast on the smaller screen, and although not all of the new hardware-specific features paid off, they are easy to adjust to. The new side stories augment the main campaign nicely, and will be a nice treat for fans. For those who sunk countless hours into the original, Absence of Detention is a tough call, though I’d argue that the Vita’s lack of a solid strategy title, and the dozens of extra hours of content, makes a compelling case to pick it up again.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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