Version tested: PlayStation 3
Mao, the 1578-year-old schoolboy star of Disgaea is super cross. His father, the Overlord of the Netherworld, accidentally stepped on his SlayStation Portable console and, in doing so, destroyed 4 million hours worth of save data for Mao's favourite videogame.
It is, without doubt, the worst thing that's ever happened to the heir to the Netherworld throne, who decides that the best way to teach his clumsy father a lesson is by killing him.
It's a narrative premise that should resonate with the series' audience. As players of the first two games can testify, should a Disgaea manage to get its hooks in you'll lose your mind to it - all other games becoming temporarily obsolete as every moment of free time is ploughed into your new Strategy RPG obsession. The idea of save-game corruption 200 hours into creating a perfectly balanced team of thieves, ninjas, star mages and Majin is, in this universe at least, legitimate grounds for patricide.
So it is that Disgaea's inimitable humour makes its debut on the PlayStation 3, a migration from the PS2 that's brought with it scant technological progression. The jagged, untidy character sprites are indistinguishable from those in the previous games. The outrageous team-up battle animations and ground-shaking magical effects are no less creative, but no more impressive, than they've ever been.
Menu screens and 2D character portraits benefit from pin-sharp HD treatment, but players hoping the jump to the current generation might have evened a balance that has always favoured function over form will be disappointed.
Not that this is a genre anybody really plays for aesthetic wow. The option to turn off animations, turning movements on the chessboard-style maps into darting hops and reducing attacks to mere numerical readouts are all present. The developer knows that for most serious Disgaea players, graphical frippery is a barrier to the game's true first fruits: intelligent levelling, long-view planning and red hot XXX stat porn.
The third game is set in the Netherworld of the previous titles except this time you're stationed within a high school. The series' basic elements have all been re-skinned to fit the metaphor. So the hospital where you restore characters' health and magic points after a battle becomes the school nurse; you organise your team's internal alliances in a classroom; one chapter takes place in the midst of a Home Economics class and, rather than supplicating the Dark Assembly should you want to up the quality of items in the shop or create a new character, you'll now be addressing the Student Council. The metaphor serves the game well, helping to define and channel the story in a way that remains fresh throughout.
Nippon Ichi's translation work (which has always struggled to match the high standard Atlus laid down in the original title) is assured and the voice acting, if hyperactive in a Ren and Stimpy-meets-Excel Saga kind of way, fun. The supporting cast is entertaining but the cut-scenes that precede and follow each battle are too long and think they're funnier than they are.
The basic story elements follow the formula of the original with worrying exactness. Mao's characteristics closely mimic those of the first game's protagonist Laharl; his companion Almaz, also trying to kill Mao's father but for ostensibly heroic reasons, is (initially) similar to the angel Flonne. The lead girl of the group, Raspberyl, is every inch the Etna.
The sense that Nippon Ichi is sticking close to the original game's successful template carries over into the game mechanics. These take the best improvements of the second game and crowbar them back into the more robust framework of the first. That's not to say there aren't innovations. Disgaea 3's changes are, on paper, significant, and they do smooth over some of the series' quirks, but they have mixed results.
The most obvious change is in the introduction of Evilties, special augmentation abilities that improve a character's performance in battle. These must be purchased with Mana points (a kind of experience currency earned by defeating enemies). Each character has two Evilties, one which is auto-assigned based on their job class, and one which can be customised. Additionally, you can now use Mana points to purchase and upgrade new battle skills sooner than if you simply leveled your character and let them grow naturally.
This new layer of economy certainly increases the fussiness of maintaining your team but it also grants a pleasing amount of freedom - allowing you to focus all of a character's Mana in a chosen area (e.g. a White Mage's heal ability) right from the off.
The mechanical interrelationships between team members are also now much more complex than before. The likelihood that two characters will join up for a team attack is no longer random but manually set in the classroom area of the hub. The introduction of 'After Schools Clubs' bestows further benefits to those members you assign to a club's limited places (e.g. members of the 'God of Cookery' club will see the effectiveness of items they use doubled).
Monsters, previously a little redundant as team members, are now more effective due to the 'Magi change' command. This allows the monster to turn into a special weapon that can be used by a humanoid character if they're both members of the same club. Technically you lose a character by transforming one of your monsters into an inanimate object, but this loss is offset by the power of the new weapon's attacks.
Finally, the Geo Block system has undergone a massive overhaul. No longer just status-effecting panels on the play grid, the idea has been translated into 3D, with blocks stacking to form temporary towers and blockades which must be toppled and turned against enemies using planning and ingenuity. The complexity this adds to what is already a multi-layered system is, to begin with, dizzying - even for those familiar with the Geo Panels of the previous games.
These additions and evolutions will challenge series veterans but for newcomers Disgaea 3 presents an almost insurmountable learning curve; the game's rewards may seem too far off and hard won to warrant the effort. However, get to grips with the intricacies and, once again, Nippon Ichi has created a delicious statistical sandbox to play in.
There are those who will want simply to follow the story and uncover one of the game's eight endings, without diverting into the extra-curricular depths. For these players the game is well worth the effort.
But for series veterans who want to drill down to the bottom, upgrading weapons by slogging through 100-level grinds in the item world, balancing Evilties, managing clubs and alliances to create a squadron that is literally the gigantic sum of its creator's decisions, a blanket recommendation is harder to make. For these players Disgaea 3 is in many ways more of the same - a sequel that makes some interesting changes to the way the journey plays out, but too few to the ultimate destination.
8 / 10