Within the videogame community there are few genres more niche and yet beloved by the true hardcore fans than the Strategy RPG (SRPG). The genre is commonly defined by an RPG-like story and leveling gameplay, which has strategy in the form of character position and movement added into the mix. Any given character’s actions have a certain range, and each turn the character can move a specific distance, usually marked out by a grid along the entire playing field. In these aspects Disgaea is no different than most SRPGs. Where this series differs is in specific gameplay aspects as well as the common themes of the story.
The Disgaea writers do a fantastic job of never taking themselves too seriously. The story is filled with clichés directly referenced by the characters and the fourth wall is shattered repeatedly through the game. Disgaea 3 does a good job of having a humorous story that really has no deeper meaning to glean through. This is not the type of game that will spark philosophical debate on internet forums (unless the power of love and friendship is up for debate), but it will have you giggling the whole way through. Disgaea 3 starts you off as Mao, the honor student demon son of the Overlord of the Netherworld. The Netherworld in this version of Disgaea is encompassed by Netherworld Academy, a place where all demons go to learn how to be demons, or at least that’s the supposed goal. In practice no one actually attends Netherworld Academy, because that’s the way to be an honor student. If you go to class, you are shunned as a delinquent. The storyline commonly comes back to the backward logic involved with delinquents and honor students within Netherworld Academy. After starting the game, Mao soon decides that he must defeat his father as revenge for stepping on and destroying all of his video games and “millions of hours of game data” (something I’m sure we can all relate to). This leads you on a wild adventure that took me 44 hours to complete, and had me fighting sophomores, competing in a battle royale to be class president, and delving into Mao’s heart for reasons you’ll come to know later.
Once the storyline has played through its first act and you are given the reigns, you will find yourself roaming around the halls of Netherworld Academy. This is the main hub of the game, from which you are able to procure new weapons, armor, and items as well as gain access to the item world, classroom world, and homeroom. The most important of these is the homeroom, from which you will be able to create new characters, as well as reincarnate the characters you already have to make them more powerful. Reincarnating a character does come with a bit of grinding since they will start from level one again, but you’ll find that your new character will have a much easier time getting back to the level they were, as they keep all of their items, and a reincarnated level one can easily kill a level 10 enemy. Homeroom is also used to organize your characters into clubs, and give them certain seating arrangements. Characters that are sitting next to each other have a better chance of working together for a team attack, and clubs come with certain bonuses. The final use of homeroom is to create new clubs, change the level of items available in stores, and create new classes that you are given access to after you complete certain conditions. All of these options cost mana, which is gotten by delivering the killing blow during a battle and is also used for obtaining and upgrading skills, so it is not something to be wasted thoughtlessly. After you decide what new club you want to start, you will pay the mana and then the club will be voted on by homeroom representatives. That’s right, even after spending the mana, you might get nothing for it. You are not without options however, as you are able to bribe the representatives with items to try and persuade them, and even if you lose your motion you can beat the crap out of the representatives that voted no to force the issue. This is often not possible however since commonly you will be at an incredible disadvantage to the representatives as far as level goes.
The gameplay of Disgaea 3 plays nearly identical to that of the previous installments in the series. To advance the story, you are transported to a battlefield, with the objective always being total annihilation of the opposing force. The lack of direct non-violent exploring in Disgaea 3 doesn't mean that you're only able to fight in these story-related battles, however. You are also able to grind and test your demonic prowess in the item worlds and classroom worlds. Item worlds consist of randomly generated dungeons within any item of your choice where the goal is to either kill everyone on the field, or to get one of your characters into the portal to the next area. It’s a fantastic place to grind a few levels, but is not to be taken lightly as you are stuck in the item world until you have completed 10 battles. You are not given any time for relief, as the next battle starts immediately after the battle being fought is won. Once you have completed 10 battles in the item world, you are given the option to leave, and the item that you chose to play within is given 10 extra levels of strength. This can be a great way to turn a lackluster weapon into something truly useful beyond its cost. Classroom worlds play out much the same as item worlds, but instead of going within an item you choose one of your characters to go into and level up. The same rules apply, and after 10 successful battles you are rewarded with the character's inherent attributes being increased (i.e. the attack bonus that the character gets from any item can be increased from 110% to 120%).
The strategy of the series mainly revolves around the existence of geo panels, geoblocks, and the ability of your characters to lift and throw anything that they are next to (including other characters as well as enemies). Geo panels are grids that are all connected by a given color, and can then be given certain attributes by geoblocks that are stacked onto them. As an example, if I have a purple geoblock with the bonus that it adds +50% attack, and I throw it onto a red geo panel, now all red geo panels give anyone standing on them +50% attack power. If I then destroy the purple geoblock, all of the red panels will now change to purple, the +50% attack power bonus will be gone with the geoblock, and anyone standing on the color changing geo panels will be damaged. If you destroy a null geoblock on the red geo panels then all of the red panels will disappear. A clever puzzle solver can sometimes link geoblocks and panels together to destroy multiple colors in a single blow. This is always fun to see, but also serves to fill up the player’s bonus gauge, which will then reward you with prizes, experience, and money after completing the stage. New to Disgaea 3, there are now stages with multiple geoblocks of the same color. Geoblocks that are next to each other when the stage begins cannot be lifted, but they can be destroyed by attacking them or throwing a free block of the same color next to them. Destroying geoblocks in this fashion again serves to fill the bonus gauge, and any characters or enemies standing on top of the blocks when they are destroyed will be damaged from the fall. During a play through of Disgaea 3 you will become quite familiar with all of these strategies, as their proper use can make you victorious in even the most impossible seeming battle.
The technical presentation of the game is pretty much what you would expect. I never ran across any bugs within my 44 hours of play time, and the menus work well and are easy to maneuver through. There is a definite dated feeling that comes with the menu presentation, which is most likely due to the lackluster visuals. I do, however, appreciate the amount of customization the menus provide, as well as the ability to choose your save file picture from a number of options, which is just a cool little addition.
The one aspect that the Disgaea series has always had trouble with, and probably the biggest reason that the game lacks popularity, is the lackluster visuals. While the special attacks are incredible, and the hand drawn character stills that are presented when a character is speaking are incredibly detailed and aesthetically pleasing, you will mostly be spending your time staring at sprites that are difficult to differentiate from the original title in the series which debuted on the Playstation 2. The visuals are endearing at points and I can definitely see how the fans of the Disgaea series can enjoy them, but technically speaking they are barely passable for the current generation and it just feels like Nippon Ichi is dragging out this game engine past its prime, with sprites that actually look worse in HD and bland and lifeless level design visually. Further problems are found with the camera, which only has four settings that you can switch between, and will often times put an obstruction in the way of seeing an enemy's moves which can be annoying at times, but never broke the game per say due to the title's turn-based nature.
The audio presentation of the game is commendable in its soundtrack as well as the voice-overs, but the sound effects for special moves and attacks come off as extremely dated to my ears. They were not distractingly bad, but it simply felt like I had heard these sound effects on SRPGs made years before, and on gaming systems with much lower capabilities. That said, the music in Disgaea 3 is addictive, and I could definitely see myself listening to the soundtrack by itself. The voice-overs are exemplary, but this might be due to the comical nature of the subject matter. It seems much easier to act out a scene when you are trying to be silly, than to do so and be serious, so the voice-overs might not seem fantastic because of their actual quality, but instead because of the ease with which the subject matter can be acted out.
Where Nippon Ichi slacked in visuals, it seems they didn’t waste that effort, but instead threw it into the gameplay. There is an incredible amount of things to do within the game beyond the actual storyline itself, and the main storyline is a heck of a lot of fun, and humorous to boot. Disgaea 3 pulls off the strategy part of an SRPG nearly perfectly, as you will find yourself trying to plan every battle beforehand. A perfectly executed plan with no unforeseen hitches is an incredible sense of accomplishment, especially during the more difficult fights. The customization possible in your fighting force is amazing; there are many more classes than you could ever actually put on a battlefield. Also, when reincarnating a character, you can choose to turn them into whatever class you desire, so you can change the classes available to you without having to create a completely new character (which is also possible). Both of these together make it possible to create your fighting force in whatever way you see fit, and whatever most matches your fighting strategy. My sole qualm with the gameplay in Disgaea 3 is that it forces on you a certain amount of grinding that some may find a turn-off, although I never minded it since I enjoyed fighting through the battles themselves and never really got to the point of grinding being tedious.
The value of Disgaea 3 is immense in terms of an RPG and has a lot going for it. First off, the title is a budget title at 50 dollars (ten less than the norm) and for that you get a 30-40 hour main storyline. The main story took me 44 hours, but I’m going to assume that I’m not the best there is and others will complete it much faster. As if that wasn’t enough, the game has a further storyline after the first has concluded. The optional storyline is far more difficult than the main one, and the level jumps between stages are far more pronounced. Within the main storyline, enemies in adjacent battles usually differed 2-3 levels in difficulty. In contrast, the first battle in the optional storyline has a 10 level difference in enemy difficulty in comparison with the last boss in the main storyline. Also there are just so many extra parts of the game that you can play through after the main storyline: classes that I didn’t get (which is the majority), skills that I haven’t seen (again the majority), and cameos from a plethora of different characters from other Disgaea games (Etna being the first one, much to the delight of some rabid fans of hers). To put it in perspective, when I completed the main storyline, my highest character was level 72, and the highest possible level that you’ll probably have to get if you want to complete everything possible is actually 9,999. Nippon Ichi definitely knows how to treat its fans and anyone who truly loves Disgaea 3 will be busy for months to come.
Overall, Disgaea 3 is an incredible value at fifty dollars US, and is a whole lot of good natured fun. If you can get past the subpar visuals of the game, then it can be a great introduction into the SRPG genre. The story is humorous, the music is catchy, and the voice-overs are fitting, and if you become a true hardcore fan then you will be busy for many months. That said, this is still mainly a game for the established SRPG fan, and if you have already tried and disliked the genre then there is nothing in Disgaea 3 that I think will change your mind. It is a perfect example of an SRPG for SRPG fans, but I don’t think it has anything incredibly innovative or new that could bring someone who already dislikes SRPGs into the genre.