"The game falters slightly because it couldn't pull a rabbit out of the hat and produce something wholly new and exciting that we haven't already seen from the franchise. Evolution can be a grand thing, though, and that's precisely what's offered here."
With its hilarious plot and deep customization options, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness rocked my world. Then Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories arrived with a darker story and gameplay tweaks galore. My world rocked yet again. Now Disgaea 3: Abence of Justice is here--this time for the beefier PlayStation 3--and the question has to be asked: does the rocking continue?
It certainly doesn't to the same extent, and some of that can be attributed to the plot. It centers around a young demon named Mao who is the son of the Overlord and hopes to defeat him someday. So what if they're related? As the story begins, Mao is again ditching class at Netherworld Academy, despite residing right on campus. On Earth, this would be delinquent behavior, but in the ass-backwards Netherworld, it's just one more thing that contributes to his status of honor student (see also: lying, subjugating the less fortunate, refusing to introduce oneself to new acquaintances and so forth).
Mao's world is inhabited by a motley crew of humans and beasts, some new to him and others not. They include--but certainly aren't limited to--his resourceful butler Geoffrey, the perky Raspberyl (who considers herself his friendly rival), a half-hearted hero named Almaz and an assortment of trolls who speak with Spanish accents and use terms like “holmes” and “weddo” to the point where it defines who they are. Throughout most of the story, these assorted denizens of the Netherworld barely change, until right near the end when many of them pass through one ordeal or another and much introspection occurs.
The general lack of character evolution allows for a variety of jokes that otherwise wouldn't work. Mao persists in denying the power of love and friendship even when their merits are painfully obvious, which gives rise to some interesting arguments. There also are frequent instances where the game breaks the fourth wall and mentions things like boss battle traditions and the like. When they're not being used as Band-Aids to patch logic gaps (of which there are several), such conventions actually work out pretty well. The setting, which builds around an academy campus, is also refreshing at times. Sometimes the humor and character motivations seem juvenile--appropriately so, you might argue--but by the end of the adventure there are a few twists that put everything in its proper perspective. Even if you're willing to avoid thinking about it too hard, though, the story feels slightly inferior to what was offered in the first two games.
Causing that main adventure to unfold will take resourceful players less than 40 hours, but that's not the end. There are plenty of new activities reserved for after the credits roll, with narrative developments handed out piecemeal as you continue to explore the Netherworld. It's easy to breeze right through the plot if that's your main reason to play, but you'd be doing yourself a disservice and missing out on so many of the other things that the game offers.
If you've played the previous two installments, you likely recall visiting the all-important Dark Assembly to create characters, boost abilities, expand the inventory offered at the local shops and so forth. Disgaea 3 ditches the familiar senate in favor of the classroom. The new environment serves the same purpose as the old one--nothing of any importance is missing--only now there are some enhancements. For example, it's possible to assign party members to various clubs and to decide upon seating arrangements that produce special effects in battle. You'll be able to learn skills from other demons that are in your same group, plus they'll be more likely to band together for combo skills when you get into a tight situation. That's only a broad overview, of course.
Another change is that you no longer learn your best skills just by using them repeatedly. While it's true that a fire spell's range will improve over time, the area impacted will not grow unless you develop what is called an 'evilty' boost. Mana gained by defeating monsters is spent to unlock new skills. Some of these are passive, like when you choose one that increases your resistance to status ailments, while others do more spectacular things like expanding a single panel of damage into something more. Some of this is certainly welcome and gives you unprecedented control over how your party members evolve, but it can be a hassle compared to when such things were automated.
Character evolution is managed by more than just visits to the classroom and the evilty scholar, as well. Now you can enter the Class World. It functions much like the Item World from previous games (which returns here and remains the best way to power level). Once you discover him, a wandering prinny with a ridiculous afro will sometimes appear in your headquarters and let you dive into a given character to improve attributes. Disappointingly, it's not possible to boost things like HP or ATK--that still comes down to what weapons and armor you equip--but you can impact how far your chosen warrior moves, likelihood of countering or performing a critical hit and so forth. Because all monsters within will be at the same level as the demon you are improving, it's also a great way to gain strength for your whole party.
With Disgaea 3, the level of optional customization has reached the point where I would consider it excessive. On my first trip through the game, I created only one custom character and only boosted two characters up to level 90 or so, with a handful of others hovering around level 60. I died only once in spite of that. Sure, I knew that there were tons of thrilling characters just waiting to be created and utilized, but there was no reason to do so; I was already mopping the floor with everyone just using the default crew. Challenge and depth are both available in spades, but you have to be willing to look for them and you have to be the sort of person that enjoys diving into all of the extras.
Thankfully, some of the available challenge did spill over into the 'regular' portions of the game that all players will experience. Geo Blocks replace the panels of olden days and are a nice improvement in a few of the required stages. They force you to consider not only the horizontal lay of a given map, but the vertical one. They can be stacked and you can stand on them, plus they can be cleared to trigger combo chains. Tossing a solitary one to join a bunch of its fellows will wipe out whole areas and potentially take out enemies in the process, plus color effects can make things downright interesting. There are also some new attributes, which you'll find to be especially true if you make many excursions to the Item World. As usual, a tutorial near the start of the game will walk you briefly through the intricacies of the new system.
Disgaea 3 appears to have been created specifically for the returning fans who know and love the series despite--and sometimes because of--the occasional odd design choice. Expect to see many of the same two-dimensional sprites and battle animations that existed in past games (and yes, guest characters), and to hear some familiar tunes in the background. The only animated movie is at the beginning, with the actual story unfolding by way of character portraits and text. Nothing on-screen looks like it wouldn't have been possible on inferior hardware, even if behind the scenes it's a different matter. The PlayStation 3 processor was used not to cram amazing visuals into the game, but to handle more complex maps and a ton of spoken dialog. Newcomers (and even some returning fans) with a visual fixation will be disappointed by the perceived lack of effort on the part of the developer.
In the end, though, the reasons Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice fails to rock as hard as its predecessors have little to do with technical concerns. The game instead falters slightly because it couldn't pull a rabbit out of the hat and produce something wholly new and exciting that we haven't already seen from the franchise. Evolution can be a grand thing, though, and that's precisely what's offered here. The attempt to cover new narrative ground is commendable, the gameplay depth is astonishing on a whole new level and in general the Netherworld remains a thrilling destination. This most recent excursion might not be a technical showpiece for your PS3, but most discerning SRPG fanatics will enjoy spending an insane number of hours experiencing it in spite of that.
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 31, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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