The Vita has been touted by Sony, and even some gamers, as a PlayStation 3 in your hands, which means that we can and should expect plenty of console-quality games to release on it, be they ports or original titles. I think this is a pretty lofty claim, but the steady stream of ports the system has been getting proves that it's at least capable of a similar experience. In some cases these ports are even the superior versions of the game, akin to a Game of the Year edition. Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is the latest example of a port done right; developer Nippon Ichi Software has given us not only the entirety of the PlayStation 3 version of the game without any compromises, but all $50 worth of DLC, and content and features that are exclusive to the Vita version, vastly improving the experience in the process.
If you're familiar with the Disgaea series, you should be well aware that the franchise is known for its liberal use of meta humor and its ability to poke fun at itself, even when the plot gets serious. In Disgaea 3, the story takes place in Netherworld Academy, a place where demons hone their evil, and where being helpful and generous is frowned upon whilst cheating, lying, and threatening to get your way are all rewarded. Some of the ways in which the theme of 'bad is good' manifests itself are extremely humorous, with many of the jokes revolving around the inherent absurdities of JRPG tropes and cliches.
You play as Mao, the star student of Netherworld Academy and son of the overlord of the underworld. As a star student, he's very keen on maintaining his reputation as a cold, heartless, cruel demon who feels no compassion and is quick to anger when things don't go his way. When his father steps on his game console and ruins the 4 million hours he's spent on his game, he vows to defeat his dear old dad and take over the netherworld, enslaving and performing experiments on anyone who gets in the way. Even though much of the plot revolves around Mao's quest to defeat his father, there are a lot of subplots and subtle character developments that add a surprising amount of depth to the narrative given the silliness of the game as a whole. Most of the characters are there for comedic relief (take, for example, the home economics teacher known as Mr Champloo, who speaks entirely in cooking analogies), but even these characters have a certain depth to them that unfolds as the story progresses.
One aspect of the game that really makes the characters stand out as the most memorable part of Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is the surprisingly effective voice acting. Every single character is fully voiced, and the interactions witnessed during the simple cutscenes are fluid and well done; there's very little in the way of awkward pacing or poorly written dialogue. The soundtrack is also decent. Whilst no single track stands out as being exceptional, the upside is that there are also no annoying ones. The game runs flawlessly, and I didn't encounter a single bug throughout my time at the Academy, though the fact that I have to point out that the game is fully functional, rather than buggy, says more about the state of modern video games than the quality of Disgaea 3.
Even though Disgea is mostly known for its humor, the gameplay of Absence of Detention is incredibly accessible. Previous iterations (and even the PS3 version of Disgaea 3) were plagued with camera issues that made character movement and placement a chore, especially in levels with tall walls or pillars that could obstruct your view. The Vita version rectifies this by giving you a nearly-flat top-down view that you can activate by pressing square and tapping the top left corner of the screen at the same time. Performing the button presses properly can be a little tricky, but the simplification offered by the top down view makes battles significantly more enjoyable, since the removal of visual obstacles allows you to focus wholly on strategy. This is also fantastically helpful for dealing with the rare puzzle-platforming elements that show up throughout the game in the form of block-throwing and platform-making.
Absence of Detention also includes rear and front touch controls that are useful for looking around the map and scrolling through menus, though I ended up shutting off the rear panel controls about half way through the game because I found my fingertips were accidentally tapping it (the option to turn off the touch controls was therefore a god-send for me). There's even GPS functionality that gives you bonus points that you can use to unlock things.
The gameplay overall remains unchanged from the console version, the only major new addition being the inclusion of 'awakened' versions of moves, which are randomly performed when attacking enemies when you yourself have low health. It's not a very common occurrence, however. In 40 hours of game time I only witnessed this about a dozen times or so because most abilities result in instant kills. On the flip side, the special attack animations are all gorgeous, even if they are pretty simple-looking sprites. Absence of Justice wasn't all that impressive to look at on the PlayStation 3, but on the Vita's OLED screen, Absence of Detention looks flashy and vibrant, and any sprite-based shortcomings are less noticeable.
Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention's main selling point, and the reason you should pick it up even if you've played the console version, is the sheer volume of content that comes with the package - it's staggering. The story alone will take you 35-40 hours to complete, not including side quests, the various classroom-related features, the item world, or any of the post-game content. Once you've beaten the story, the epilogue opens up side content in the form of DLC expansions for the game, such as Raspberyl's four-chapter side plot or a recruitment drive that allows you to get your hands on bonus characters such as Adell from Disgaea 2. You're also given the opportunity to start over in a New Game Plus mode. Even if you rush through everything Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention has to offer, you're easily looking at 50+ hours of gameplay, even more if you're a completionist who insists on making every character class, unlocking every secret, and buying every upgrade (including the Vita version's custom paint jobs on items).
That said, there's very little in the way of explanation, be it how to play the game properly or what to do to access the bonus content. There are tutorials explaining the various features, and the game is pretty forgiving compared to many strategy RPGs, but the best features are barely hinted at and it took a lot of fiddling around with the various options to figure out how everything worked. The problem is compounded when trying to access the vast amount of DLC included; there are no notifications to indicate that more content has been unlocked, you just have to browse around your hub world to see if anyone new is hanging around. Some of the bonus content is readily available in the epilogue, but since the game doesn't tell you how to access the rest of the bonus content, you'll likely either need to consult a FAQ or fumble around a bit until you find it. Luckily, there's a cheat code that can be activated whenever you turn the game on that allows you to access at least some of the content freely.
Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is the definitive version of a fantastic game, filled with enough content to keep hardcore players busy for months. We just hope Nippon Ichi follow suit with Disgaea 4, because these are the kinds of ports we want to see on Vita.
This review is based on a digital copy of Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention for the PlayStation Vita, provided by the Publisher.