Mao’s an excitable demon who's especially tickled at the thought of hot sauce covered eggs and experimenting on fake heroes. As Evil Academy’s number one honor student, he sure does spend a lot of time doing the things he supposedly hates, like cavorting with humans, rescuing his arch-nemesis from torture, and exploring the elements of heroism -- all in the name of evil. See, he’s decided to crush his father -- who just happens to be the Overlord -- because he smashed all of Mao’s videogames and destroyed millions of hours of save data.
That’s Evil Academy for you, home to some of the Netherworld’s nastiest despots and primary setting for Nippon Ichi Software’s latest entry in the vaunted Disgaea series. While the Japanese gaming scene has no shortage of school-flavored stories, none of them -- save Persona -- drip with such exquisite perversion. Disgaea 3 balances its simple, engaging story -- one that unfolds over eight chapters and numerous extra levels -- with micro-management of the highest order.
It’s a divisive series. Some just can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Others burn out long before enjoying the ancillary characters and levels.
Want to play as an exploding penguin and then morph in to an ass-whooping cheerleader? Have at it. Create the perfect allies and max out their equipment as well. Take your team all the way to level 9,999, reincarnate them, and do it all again. Yes, that’s the beauty of Disgaea. As long as you have the patience, the game will seemingly never end.
But what has become of the braggart series that, back in 2003, reinvented the strategy role-playing game genre by offering nearly unlimited customization and unprecedented level caps? Disgaea 3 further refines the grid-based strategy of its predecessors, making use of the PlayStation 3’s hardware to offer more intricate and challenging level designs along with better overall balance to character classes, enemies, and levels. It delivers hi-res backgrounds and a widescreen format, though low-res character sprites sit jarringly — and disappointingly -- atop these redone elements. Casual players may see little difference in the core combat mechanics, while vets will see a new batch of enhancements that attempt to perfect an already addicting formula. Yet even with bigger levels, lengthier voice-overs, and more lands to explore, many may find it hard to consider Disgaea 3 a PlayStation 3-worthy title.
When it comes to combat, players will recognize elements of other isometric strategy RPGs. To travel through the main game, it’s really up to the player whether to use story characters or custom-created ones. On the battlefield, your requisite combos and special attacks — which can now be merged depending on the type and order -- are available along-side proprietary mechanics such as team attacks, tower attacks, and the all new "magichange" that allows monsters and characters to combine for a set number of turns. Adding to the variety of maps, especially in many of the optional levels, are stackable geo blocks (replacing geo cubes) and geo panels. Both of these elements add attributes to specific squares in combat, such as Exp +100%, and are essential to unlocking the true potential of characters.
In the world of RPGs, Mana represents a lot of different things. In Disgaea, it’s your most important asset and now it’s even used to purchase and boost skills as well as character-specific modifiers called Evilities. This change pushes players to explore every corner of the game to find the best levels to max out costly skills. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Disgaea review without the mention of power-leveling, which is quicker than ever thanks to a new adjustable battle speed setting.
The ability to skip battle animations has returned, though pesky camera angles still persist. For some reason, the most useful angle (an almost overhead view) isn’t lockable, so players will have to select it each round of combat or use either of the other two. A minor annoyance, but one that is frustrating especially with how much combat can be customized--and expedited--otherwise.
Outside of battle, there’s even more to enjoy as Mao and company traverse the Netherworld. Characters now attend homeroom and can be placed in optional school clubs that offer various incentives, such as advanced tutelage from teachers, new items in the shop, and shared Mana. This is also the place to pass bills to add new levels, character classes, school clubs, and more.
Besides the regular game and its myriad endings, there are many other places to explore such as the Item World—a way to travel inside items to level them up and find other high-ranking items. A new Class World lets characters level up their base attributes and transfer skills to other characters. Add the optional levels such as House of Ordeals and the Land of Carnage and you’ll have an excessive amount of playtime at your fingertips.
Gamers looking to find fault with Disgaea 3 and its decidedly old-school feel will no doubt do so. Fans looking for hundreds of hours of fun will find that too. What can I say? It’s a divisive series. Some just can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Others burn out long before enjoying the ancillary characters and levels.
There’s plenty to highlight in NIS’ latest venture: better balance and level designs, more character classes and combat options, and plenty of side quests, though the low-res sprites, minimalistic story scenes, and overly simplistic presentation may turn gamers away before they’ve gotten to the deepest parts. I considered Disgaea 2 to be the definitive strategy RPG on the PlayStation 2. Disgaea 3 hasn’t fully grown into its new hardware. but there’s plenty of room to expand, especially with the possibility of downloadable content. It's not quite perfect, but it's one of the best titles on the PlayStation 3 thus far, and will keep your fingers warm well into the winter months.