When the first screenshots of Disgaea 3 hit the Internet nearly a year ago, I looked at them and said to myself, "Lies! All lies!" Indeed, most of the Internet apparently said the same thing, and why not? Nippon Ichi, N1 to its fans, had long been criticized for reusing art assets and engines from game to game for their PS2 efforts. With Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice, they were apparently recycling the engine and much of the assets of the PS2's Disgaea 2 onto a 1080p Blu-Ray PlayStation 3 title. The 3-D backgrounds, still simple and largely textureless, were benefiting from the increasing resolution, but the sprites looked absolutely sad. On the whole, it felt like such a profound act of laziness that it was breathtaking, and after playing the game for a while, I feel the same way. Presentation this primitive is inexcusable on a machine like the PS3; characters don't have frames of animation for jumping, and even the fonts are unchanged and occasionally difficult to read if you're sitting too far away from your TV.
Ah, but the gameplay … that is very good indeed, if amazingly baroque. The original Disgaea catered heavily to the OCD mentality of gamers, while Disgaea 2 took a leap forward into catering to Asperger Syndrome. With Disgaea 3's extremely complex system of character upgrade — involving using Mana to buy most character skills, upgrade skills, and purchase passive abilities called "Evilities" — appears to be catering to the paranoid schizophrenic gamer market. Sometimes it seems like too much, and this is probably a game most players tackle with a guide or GameFAQs at their side, just to keep track of what they're trying to do.
Our review build showed up a couple of weeks ago, and no, I haven't done everything the game has to offer yet. It is not humanly possible to do everything in Disgaea 3 in two weeks, even if you are a series master with a PhD in the game engine's complexities. The current estimates I've seen floating around for achieving every in-game goal is something like 200 hours, and most fans are going to take much longer to get there. Disgaea 3 captures much of the fun that made the original often described as an "endless" game, where you really aren't just playing it to some sort of full-completion end before you sell or trade it away. The fun of Disgaea is in going off the rails and goofing around, making weird characters and leveling them up just to prove that you can, and seeing what's possible. This sort of freedom has been absent from RPGs for quite some time, and it's hardly ever seen in tactical RPGs. Even Final Fantasy Tactics and its recent spin-offs obligate you to follow the story and stay in sequence to a far greater degree than Disgaea 3 does.
So, any figures you read about completion time for Disgaea 3 are meaningless. Disgaea masters in my acquaintance have cleared the eight-chapter basic story mode in a mere 12 hours, while it was a good 40 hours on my game clock before I saw the credits roll for the first time. I can't say how much of that time was the result of me playing around in the famous Item World, where you punch bad guys in your weapons until they work better, or try out things with reincarnation, the principle that lets you take a character back down to level 1 so you can raise him again with better intrinsic base stats and stat growth. You can also opt to reincarnate characters as a "higher rank" version of their class, which often opens up new Skills and Evilities to buy with Mana you harvest by defeating enemies. Skills and Evilities carry over to new reincarnations regardless of how you reincarnate a character, so the temptation to build up ubercharacters using tons of brokenly mismatched Skills and Evilities is very powerful.
Even after you clear the game to get the basic ending for the first time, there are seven other endings you have to ferret out by meeting various requirements that range from the silly to the challenging. There are nine special post-game maps to unlock, some that reward you with guest characters to add to your party (like the original Disgaea's Laharl). Every stage in the game has an "evil twin" that you first unlock by fighting enemies who appear randomly in Item World. You can only beat evil twins by solving terribly difficult puzzles involving the game's Geo Panel mechanic, which consists of specially colored tiles with effects that range from beneficial to crippling. You can alter their effects by moving Geo Blocks around with the Lift & Throw ability, or destroy blocks to change their colors and possibly eliminate them altogether. There are even bonus maps for power-leveling, and an entire other "world" of the game called the Land of Carnage, in which you can visit versions of past maps where enemies have become ridiculously powerful. In return, the Land of Carnage offers ridiculously potent rewards.
This is all, basically, what a fan of Nippon Ichi's games would expect. That said, there are a few surprisingly new mechanics in Disgaea 3. All characters can potentially combine Skills with each other, allowing for two characters to deal huge damage by attacking simultaneously. You can organize your characters in various "clubs" in a "Classroom" that incorporates the classic Senate mechanic from the first game. Clubs are created by passing proposals, with effects ranging from adding new store equipment to allowing characters to quickly gain EXP, Mana, and money. You can even arrange your characters at little desks that indicate their relative stat growth levels, with the arrangement affecting their likelihood of doing team-up attacks.
One proposal you can pass allows you to occasionally visit "Class World," which is essentially Item World for your characters. Defeating enemies there allows you to rapidly amass copies of powerful weapons you already have, increase usually fixed stats like Movement, and move Evilities around from one character to another. Between Class World and Item World, possibilities for character customization in Disgaea 3 are potentially limitless, and you can neurotically while away dozens of hours trying to get the most out of a favorite character's stats and items. All told, Disgaea 3 may have perfected the grind as high game design art, even over previous entries in the series. It's like running an endless treadmill, where you are constantly given candy and the promise of really awesome candy if you can only get to running a little faster. You are more likely to get distracted by other games or real-life things before you play the game long enough to find it dull.
While Disgaea 3's gameplay is total satisfaction, the aesthetics leave quite a bit to be desired. The game fumbles hardest with music, which is by far the worst I've ever heard in a Nippon Ichi title. Tracks were so obnoxious and repetitive that my housemates ended up begging me to play with the sound off. It's a shame this isn't a 360 game, since it's a perfect candidate for custom soundtracks. On the whole, the localization is good, especially for the spoken dialogue, but it fumbles with the (frankly huge) amount of non-spoken text. Some of it is wittily translated and amusing, and Disgaea 2's irritating typos are nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately, a lot of the text was clearly not edited for grammar or usage, resulting in some text that is downright Engrishy and hard to parse.
The voice acting fares well on both tracks, although the Japanese is the more amusing of the two. It's nothing too inspired, but it's solid and won't distract or irritate you. There are even plot events that change a character's voice clips in combat for a while, which is terribly amusing. The characters are basically likeable and the story more of a true comedy than Disgaea 2's strangely earnest attempt. The characters are all designed with foibles and habits that range from amusing to hilarious, although I was getting pretty tired of all the "opposite day" jokes (demons love bad things and hate good things, omg!) by the time the credits rolled. The plot is somewhat troublesome since, of all the efforts Nippon Ichi has developed between this game and the original Disgaea, it is the one that most shamelessly apes the plot of the original. Protagonist Mao is essentially a nerdy Laharl, his sidekick Almaz is a masculine Flonne, and Etna's role was simply divided into two different characters (Raspberyl and Sapphire). It's pretty predictable if you know the original, and likewise, some of the jokes involving the "demon school" setting are outright moldy. A parody of the Haruhi Suzumiya dance in the opening animation, guys? That is soooo 2006. Everyone's moved on to Lucky Star memes by now.
These complaints aside, though, I can say that the characters manage to become endearing anyway, there are enough genuinely funny jokes and anime parodies to hold a player's interest, and the game even manages a plot twist or two that you might not see coming from a mile away. For a title that is at heart about gameplay to the point that the plot's action hinges on characters grappling with the dramatic consequences of system mechanics, it works well enough as a way to teach you the basics before you wander off into your own personal grindfest.
Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice works, even though it shouldn't. There are so few PlayStation 3 exclusives that offer this sort of gameplay depth and longevity that it has been the sole occupant of my PS3 since I got my build. The grind feels fresh and compelling, even if you know it isn't and really shouldn't. So much of what makes a game fun to play is "feel," and in Disgaea 3, Nippon Ichi has balanced the feel of the game's long and bewilderingly complicated grind into something that always feels satisfying, where you always feel like you're making progress. It's like playing a really good MMO, only without your friends talking smack over Ventrillo and endgame bosses that don't require 25 people at once to fight. For those of us who love a good grind more than we like other people, it's a wonderful game. Of course, if you're sick of Nippon Ichi's shtick by now, I'm not sure Disgaea 3 is original or different enough from previous efforts to make you want to come back for another few hundred hours of grinding. That could be considered your loss, though.
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