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.