Ladies and gentlemen, we have gathered here today in remembrance of my Disgaea 3 save data, which was lost when the Playstation 3 randomly decided to self-destruct its hard-drive. My save data had a long and fulfilling life, almost carrying the game to completion with a roster of enjoyable, strong characters. Indeed, I was but an hour or so away from confronting the final boss… but it was not meant to be. Ladies and gentlemen, a moment of silence.
Once again we find ourselves in one of the many netherworlds that exist within the Disgaea universe and, like in the original game, we take control of the son of its overlord. Mao is kind of geek: a ravenous fan of heroes who spends his days locked up in a room reading comics and performing experiments. Despite living in a Netherworld styled after a school, Mao has never once attended a class, and in the twisted logic of Disgaea‘s demons, that makes him a great student that should be admired. That is, until we take control of him and Mao decides it’s time to head to school in an attempt to seek out a hero he can capture, so he can then somehow become a hero himself and overthrow his father.
Sounds logical to me.
His search eventually leads Mao and his childhood friend, top-delinquent Raspberyl, to the would-be hero Almaz, who Mao captures and swaps titles with. Mao becomes a hero and Almaz begins to slowly turn into a demon. Except the duo finds out that a title alone is not enough to beat Mao’s father, sending them on a long quest to figure out an alternative solution.
Compared to Disgaea 2, and even the first game, the plot and characters of this third entry aren’t that fantastic. They are certainly fun, I enjoyed Almaz’ perpetual misfortune, Mao’s mad scientist style, and Raspberyl whose gang follows all the rules and are therefore the black sheep among demons. These are fun characters that feel about as developed as the side-cast of previous games. Compared to the intriguing stories of Rozalin, Laharl, Kurtis, and Adell, Mao and his crew feel more like the comedic extras. Even a few weeks after losing my save data I am struggling to really name anything particularly noteworthy about their character development.
Most of the story involves Mao and how his heart is keeping things locked away, how he is saying things he does not mean and does things he actually doesn’t want to do. Literally entering his heart and wrestling for control of it is a nice metaphor to represent this, but I honestly can’t say I was that invested in his struggle because nothing in the plot ever managed to reel me in. I was just working through it because the gameplay was fun enough.
Story score: 5/10
Open heart surgery
Disgaea 3, like the two games before it, is an absolutely mad strategy RPG with more content in it than any sane man can reasonably digest. You create characters in exchange for mana earned by defeating foes, ranging from typical RPG classes like healers, archers, and warriors, to monster creatures and bizarre characters like Geo Masters. You take ten of these characters at a time into stages where you must defeat all the enemies while also dealing with the geo panels, which have special effects that may benefit or destroy you.
You can still level characters to the preposterous cap of 9999 and reincarnate them back to level 1 in order to upgrade them to a different unit or a higher tier of what they already were. I used that this time to upgrade my regular Prinny to an orange one, which had slightly higher base stats and satisfied my Dutch patriotism. All of this will sound familiar to longtime fans, but Disgaea 3 does bring some changes with it.
Rather than gaining abilities as you level up, these are now purchased at the cost of mana, which can also be spent on the new evilities. Each character has one base evility and a secondary one you can swap out, which offers special bonuses like reduced damage or increased aptitude for specific stats. Sadly the amount of evilities on offer is limited and the primary ones tend to offer the most benefits anyway.
Also new are school-themed mechanics, like a rebranded dark assembly and the class room where all your created units go to. You only have as many slots for characters as there are tables and you can assign your various characters to clubs that provide bonuses. Who you seat characters next to and what clubs they have also benefit how likely they are to perform team attacks, which now finally also work with special attacks for devastating combinations. You also have a “class world”, which, like the item world, creates randomly generated stages, but out of a character instead of an item. While these are intended to improve a statistic, I mostly just used them to farm obscene amounts of mana.
It’s not all roses and sunshine, though. The level design has fallen back into some old habits, featuring stages that aren’t so much challenging as they are inconvenient. Stages that are very long, demanding you move your entire army across a large gauntlet, or stages with annoying geo effects are by far the worst. Some new features are also unappealing, like the magichange that allows monster-types to transform into weapons to be used by human-types, but only if they stand side-by-side and it’s only useful in some cases. I barely ever used it, same with the clubs and evilities that I just largely forgot about after setting up the few I really wanted.
It’s a bit of a shame, really. The additions to the gameplay are what Disgaea 2 lacked, even if they could have gone much further to make these improvements really worth it, but I had a really bad time with quite a few of the game’s stages. I much preferred Disgaea 2 for its decision to deliver solid level-design at the cost of innovating very little.
Gameplay score: 6.5/10
Ups and downs and some more downs
Obnoxious the stages may be, but I can’t deny that visually the designs of the levels are very nice for an isometric strategy RPG. A lot of levels enjoyed creative environments, perhaps some of the only ones in the series so far I would refer to as “memorable”. The over-the-top animations for special moves and the fun use of the in-game graphics to design cutscenes with also remain praiseworthy.
An issue I, and many other reviewers at the time, have with Disgaea 3 is that it doesn’t really feel like we have advanced a console generation. The sprite art is nice, sure, but it looks pretty much the same as it did on the Playstation 2, and there is nothing else to point at where all that power has been put to use. This was two years into the console’s lifespan, by the way.
To make up for this the music is stellar, with some of my favorite tracks of the entire series found in this one game. The music in the HUB area is particularly cool, even if you hear the first minute of it over and over again as you visit the healer and shopkeeps in-between stages. The voice cast is also nice, with the English dub having a lot of big names. Vic Mignogna puts up a great mad scientist as Mao, Johnny Yong Bosch lends a great voice to the would-be hero Almaz, we got Stephanie Sheh and Michelle Ruff doing some side-characters. All great actors, but nobody really brought their A-game in either the dub or sub, nobody that really, definitively cements either as the best option, like how Yukari Tamura absolutely sells the Japanese dub of Disgaea 2.
Presentation score: 7/10
Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice is a fine entry in the Disgaea franchise, but fails to mark the franchise’s bold step unto the next console generation. It looks and feels like a Playstation 2 title and, while the Tenpei Sato soundtrack and the solid art-style carry it far, turning the entire game in a parody on high schools feels like shallow theming. Disgaea 3 just doesn’t have the impact and wit of prior entries and wouldn’t even compare favorably to Disgaea 4. It is truly the middle child of the entire series.