It’s been a while since I last talked about this franchise and I have my reasons for that. While I merely needed a break between Disgaea 3 and 4, I actually attempted to play through Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance twice before, only to find myself bouncing off within the first few chapters. It really couldn’t capture my interest the same way prior Disgaea games did, so I really had to bite down and force myself to play through it.
My opinion of the game did improve somewhat towards its conclusion, but not by terribly much.
It wouldn’t be amiss to say that the story of Disgaea has undergone a lot of power creep. Whereas prior Disgaea titles largely took place in a singular Netherworld, in Disgaea 5 the whole multiverse of Netherworlds is in peril. You play as a band of rebels, each of them an overlord from one such Netherworld, who are fighting back against the demon emperor Void Dark as his armies conquer one world after the other.
Prior games suggested that the title of Overlord held some gravitas and that Netherworlds were vast places, but now Netherworlds are often just small planetoids and its Overlords generic, low-level enemies. The game suggests a large scope in order to make Void Dark seem imposing, but the setting can’t hold a candle to any other game in the series thus far.
The main characters that make up the rebel army also weren’t as entertaining as their predecessors. Some like the dumb musclehead Red Magnus or the hyperactive Zeroken just feel like generic anime tropes, while others are just strangely similar to other characters from the series. Usalia is an adorable little girl who, like Desco, functions as the only monster-type character in the party, Seraphina is a spoiled princess who takes up gunslinging just like Disgaea 2‘s Rozalin, and main protagonist Killia is a mysterious guy who gave up some phenomenal power after a life-changing encounter with a woman; an arc recycled straight from Disgaea 4‘s Valvatorez right down to his title.
Towards the end of their arcs these characters became somewhat interesting, but the process of getting there is tedious. The dialogue in Disgaea 5 feels like it went completely unedited; there are dialogue sequences at the start and end of each chapter, at the start and end of each individual level, the first time per chapter when you go to the level select comes with extra dialogue, preview sketches play at the end of a chapter, and between levels there are “optional” dialogue sequences in the HUB. All of these are presented in basic visual novel segments mixed with in-engine cutscenes, which doesn’t look “bad”, but also makes it difficult to get excited for the sheer volume of text you are asked to work through.
In the game’s defense, the comedic writing is much improved over Disgaea 4. The characters may not be the most original, but they frequently had me smiling at their antics as these wildly different people attempt to cooperate and live together. The jokes aren’t entirely dependent on running gags anymore and those that remains are handled far better. The excellent voice work also added to the game’s charm, though it’s a shame that the between-level dialogues are text-only.
The story is a major factor in the success of any Disgaea game and between this and the fourth game, I am beginning to notice a decline in quality. 1, 2, and 3 all told interesting, well-paced stories that had their fair share of comedy, but stuck the landing when it came to character arcs and emotional moments. The fourth game started strong, only to then turn the whole storyline into a joke and ruin its character arcs. Alliance of Vengeance mostly suffers in its pacing, however. Developments are slow and the plot twists are evident hours before the game actually confesses them, but most jarring of all is how blatantly the game pads out its runtime. There are several chapters that just deal with trying to defeat the sub-villain Bloodis, all of which end in some manner of failure to justify the next attempt. You end up fighting the same boss like 6 or 7 times throughout the game’s storyline, and other bosses frequently repeat as well.
It was clear that Disgaea 4 was relying on the Rule of Funny when it came to the storyline, which Disgaea 5 doesn’t replicate entirely. Instead it’s just so bog standard that I was left unsure if the story was intended to be a parody. Several of the game’s most crucial moments were undermined by being too cheesy to take seriously, even down to the big finale. It’s difficult to feel invested in these characters when their big moments are based around anime setpieces that haven’t been original in over 2 decades.
Besides story, another major selling point of the Disgaea series is its open-ended strategy gameplay. This, fortunately, has remained largely in tact.
You create armies of characters and monsters, who you then customize with gear, special traits, and the skills you teach them. You can reincarnate characters into different species, overhaul what they can do through the character world, put them in clubs together for extra benefits and improved teamwork; there’s almost no end to your options here.
Disgaea is a great game if you want to feel powerful. Your stats go up fast and reach far into the thousands, even if you just stick to the main storyline. Magical attacks and well-timed critical strikes can do tens of thousands of damage, and area-of-effect skills can wipe out hordes of enemies in one move. The flashy attack animations add to this feeling and are more ridiculous now than ever before. Even basic units like zombies end up unlocking skills with complex animations, some of which last over a minute to complete.
The stages in Disgaea 5 are also great. It was fun to figure out how best to tackle each new level and even those few that looked annoying to navigate were rarely as bad as they seemed. Their art-design is also fantastic, with each new Netherworld taking you to a wholly different place with its own tilesets, decorations, and backgrounds.
My main issue with the game and my reason for dropping it twice before is the difficulty curve. Disgaea games have always leaned towards being heavy on the grinding and I was able to bear with that just fine in prior games. However, you now have more busywork between levels than ever before. You dispatch troops on little away missions, you torture prisoners for bonus stat points, you complete quests, buy gear, unlock new stuff in the dark assembly, power up characters in the character world, manage evilities, train skills, and delve into the item world to power up your equipment. You do all of that for hours upon hours, yet it feels like you’re only barely keeping up with the game’s difficulty curve.
You are limited to bringing 10 characters into battle, but enemies can bring many more. They are also powerful and well-equipped, and frequently start at tactical positions that give them major advantages. It wasn’t unusual to have my best characters picked off in turn 1, while you may not be able to do any serious damage at all to some enemies unless you can target their weakness. In a way I could appreciate the challenge, but having to do so much on the side for so little apparent gain soured my relationship with the game, and deterred me from wanting to do anything more than strictly necessary.
I would have liked to have a varied army with unique characters, but I stuck with the same crew of basic classes and monsters throughout the whole game; the grinding required to reincarnate them or maintain more than 10 viable characters was just too exasperating. In the end I used some crafty tricks to power-level my characters, and still I ended up struggling through the final chapters of the story. Those who play the game without such exploits will be in for some phenomenal dick moves; like at one point where the enemies are just suddenly 20 levels higher than the chapter before it.
Some of the game’s new additions also helped lessen my enjoyment of the Disgaea formula. Unlocking new units by leveling up combinations of other types has been a staple of the series since forever, but now this is tied up into an obnoxious quest board system. There are hundreds of quests available at any given moment and you are only allowed to have 10 active at any time, even if you already meet the criteria for completing them. The actually meaningful quests also share space with trivial busywork, most of which are immediately followed-up by another quest that’s just the same chore but more of it. Why do we have early 2000s MMO-quest design in a modern JRPG?
I will admit that some quality-of-life improvements were very nice and hopefully carry over into Disgaea 6. Being able pay money to level up a newly-recruited character is a nice change that cuts down at least some of the necessary grinding. Having it also apply to reincarnations would be neat. I also appreciate that characters automatically upgrade to higher tiers instead of demanding you reincarnate them.
New to the series is the Revenge meter, which fills up for each individual character as they take damage or lose allies. Once this meter fills up, the unit gains a boost in power and all skills will cost a mere 1SP. Overlords also get powerful Overload skills on top of that. These activate powered-up forms, apply map-wide buffs, do damage to all enemies, or even just outright instant-kill some foes. Abilities like Seraphina’s area-of-effect mind control overload can turn a battle into an instant victory, and Overlords can use these Overload skills AND get the usual buffs from the revenge meter AND still do their entire turn.
It’s really cool when these trigger at convenient times, but makes it more questionable than ever why you’d even bother with generic units at all. Training and unlocking them are a core appeal of the Disgaea series, but Overlords get all the same abilities as regular dudes, as well as overload abilities and their unique powers. Why recruit a healer when Christo gets all the same spells and has a map-wide buff on top of his unique abilities. Hell, if you got the appropriate DLC for it then you can fill out your roster with the old protagonists and never bother with recruitment at all.
Disgaea 5 makes me worry that the magic of the series has passed for me. I used to love fostering my own army, fighting through item worlds, and working towards the cool stuff I wanted to unlock, but here it all felt too tedious and required. I was pushing through hours of grinding just to be prepared for the next handful of levels, and clicking through endless streams of dialogue for a story & cast that only became “somewhat amusing” after being stuck with it for 40 hours. Disgaea 4 was “disappointing in places”, while Disgaea 5 was just plain “disappointing”.
I can imagine that the hours of post-game content and the wide selection of characters—not to mention the fantastic attack animations—will make Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance a fantastic RPG for those who are looking to play something that will soak up hundreds of hours. But those of us who just want to play casually will be stuck with a bloated story and a bunch of busywork required to keep up with the difficulty curve.
It’s not a good look for a game when I have to calculate how much tedium I’d have to endure to maybe make the game fun for myself, and the math tells me that I just shouldn’t bother.