Disgaea is one of my favourite strategy RPGs of all time. The others are Valkyria Chronicles and Final Fantasy Tactics (the original game, not the rest of the series). The rest could pretty much vanish and I wouldn’t miss a single one. Sorry Fire Emblem fans, but I’ve tried two or three of those games and they never manage to keep me engaged for more than a couple of hours and certainly nowhere near long enough to get to the end.

Being able to play Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice is actually one of the main reasons I bought a PS3 and, to this point, I’ve invested about 30 hours of my life to it. At the rate I’m going, the game will probably claim another 20-30 before I get to the end of the main story, let alone the post-game side quests and power levelling. That’s considerably longer than the offline, single-player experience of most of the PS3’s top titles… combined.

The protagonist for this chronicle of the Netherworlds is Mao, the son of the Overlord (and Dean) of Evil Academy. Mao has been consuming everything imaginable about “Heroes”, humans who according to legends told in the Human World have gone toe to toe with Overlords and prevailed. He hopes that this research will eventually lead him to the power to kill his father. Why? Because Dad stepped on his “Slaystation Portable” and he lost 4 million hours worth of save data.

That’s just the beginning of Disgaea 3’s relentless mockery of stale Japanese RPG conventions. Even more than the first two games, Disgaea 3 is filled with irreverent humour, game and pop culture references… I even found a nod to a Japanese Internet video meme the other day. (Link goes to NicoNico Video, which is in Japanese and requires a login. Sorry but 4Kids had the original video taken down on YouTube). Most of all, Disgaea 3 is very much willing to poke fun at itself and its predecessors, with characters often breaking the fourth wall to get a chuckle out of the fans.

To balance with the humour, Disgaea 3’s story explores interesting grey areas in the ideas of “Good” and “Evil” through the mixed-up morality of the Evil Academy. Unlike schools you and I know, honour students of the demon school actually never attend class, instead plotting various evils to unleash upon their classmates while avoiding doing “good” things like greeting each other, following proper etiquette, and doing volunteer work. But yet Mao desires the power of the Hero to crush his father, which requires him to reconcile his desire to be the Netherworld’s greatest honour student with his desire to open his heart to friendship, love, and justice, the cornerstones of a hero’s power but also of the lifestyle of a delinquent.

While Disgaea fans do love the stories and characters, the true source of the series’ staying power is its incredibly deep strategy RPG gameplay. The format is fairly simple: you deploy a group of up to 10 demons, humans, and monsters and position them on a 3D map to deliver some serious hurt to your enemies, ganging up on them with Team Attacks, unleashing devastating special moves, and taking advantage of special properties of the terrain to gain unfair advantages. But all of this has been seen before. Here’s the special Disgaea twist: the game provides a number of ways of greatly increasing the levels and stats of your units and there’s virtually no cap on the power that you can gain as you cheat the system to become more and more powerful. Even when the main story is finished, there are still plenty of challenges left to test your mettle and let you prove that you have indeed become the most powerful demon of all. Characters can reach as high as level 9999 and individual stats can reach into the millions. The most devastating single attacks on record are on the order of hundreds of billions of points of damage. Hundreds of billions.

Disgaea’s “Item World” allows you to delve inside of one of the vast array of items that you collect throughout the game to play randomly generated maps against increasingly powerful enemies. While some might find this to be an absolutely appalling instance of grinding as a game mechanic, the Item World solves a problem that many strategy RPGs have: levelling up your characters and making money can be incredibly tedious and demoralizing. In the Item World, each map that you clear raises your item one level, raising its power well beyond its base stats. So now you’re not just making money and levelling up your characters, you’re also making the items that they use much more powerful to gain a distinct advantage against your enemies! Ten maps inside of a 30,000 Hell (the currency of the Netherworld) sword can make it even more deadly than one you’d buy for 100,000 Hell.

That’s just one of a number of elements you must master to gain ultimate power. Tens and even hundreds of hours can be spent after the credits roll to create your ultimate team. And once you do, there are more than enough nasty side quest bosses to try them against? How nasty? Try 400 million HP and about 75 million in every stat nasty. It’s a long climb to the top, if you want to take it. Or you can just enjoy the main story and move on to something else afterward.

To put it briefly, if you’re a fan of the series, Disgaea 3 is hands-down the best Disgaea ever. That is, until Disgaea 4 hits shelves I imagine. Each instalment of the series has come with improvements to the formula to streamline the experience and make it even more fun to play than the last and Disgaea 3 is absolutely no exception. For the same reason, if you’ve given Disgaea a miss until now Disgaea 3 might be your best point of entry to the series. Here are some of the things I appreciate that Disgaea 3 has tweaked from the previous two games:

  • The game ramps up much faster than the previous two in terms of levelling up. This lets you progress through the story and get newly created characters up to speed more quickly, which used to be an absolute chore in Disgaea 1 and 2.
  • The master/pupil system has been replaced with participation in school clubs. The leader of the club receives extra gain to his/her stats from the others in the club. This is slightly less tedious than the previous two games, where the relationship is set from character creation and can never be changed. The clubs system also helps with character development and levelling, as some clubs confer bonuses to the experience points, Hell, and mana that its members gain.
  • Mana is much more useful. Before it could only be used for proposing various topics with the assembly, for creating characters, and for reincarnating yourself. Now mana can be used to learn new skills, boost old ones, and learn character- and class-specific traits called “Evilities” that open up a whole new dimension of character development.
  • Geo crystals are now geo blocks. There are now many more ways to interact with geo effects, including placing same-coloured geo blocks together to cause them all to disappear and standing on geo blocks (even without an associated coloured panel!) to take advantage of their effects.
  • The Item World has never been so interesting. “Mystery Rooms” appear relatively often to add variety to the otherwise monotonous dungeon crawl. These include one-time opportunities to shop for very rare items, jumping around a map to collect treasure chests, fighting a powerful monster to gain its valuable treasure, recolouring your characters (no need to reincarnate!), and an old fortune teller who further increases the potential of the item you’re exploring. It also seems as though the random map generator has been improved. Disgaea 3’s Item World maps seem to have less of the undesirable features that made the Item Worlds of previous games tedious to play, like completely unreachable areas/monsters and incredibly high peaks to climb.
  • This is an incredibly personal point but getting an Archer is no longer as tedious as it was in the previous two games and with some retooling of their special attacks and stats, they are much more useful than before. Archers are my favourite female class in the series, your mileage may vary.

Really, the most scathing criticism that could be made of Disgaea 3 is that while it has definitely updated the gameplay and story-telling elements, the graphics are still very much like the previous entries in the series, despite the massive processing power of the platform. Really, I don’t even consider that a fault of the game as I appreciate its retro sprites-on-3D style, but Disgaea 4 is planning to introduce HD sprites which will considerably improve the look of the game (apparently with the option to switch to the “old” style, just in case).

In short, if you like Japanese RPGs, try this game. If you like Disgaea games, this one is an absolute MUST. Seriously, I had trouble pulling myself away from the game for long enough to write this.