Kids, be open minded about evil.
AND on the Eighth Day—right around that annoying ‘Japanese siesta’ slot when all the really good sushi restaurants inexplicably shut down from 2 to 5PM —God created ‘fan service’. And He looked on the weird-ass, stoopid-hard, crazy-deep turn-based strategy, and He called it Disgaea, for the third time. And He saw that it was good.
[image1]Set in a stylish, demonic Netherworld—yep, another one—Disgaea 3 tells the tale of Mao, a student attending ‘Evil Academy’. The sprawling campus is a sort of infernal Hogwarts, populated by all manner of monsters and demon-students whose fashion sense runs somewhere between a Dungeons & Dragons session in the middle of a Harajuku anime-festival and Casual Friday on the bridge of the Battlestar Galactica.
The rules at Evil Academy are a little, um, ‘different’. ‘Honor Students’, like our high-strung protagonist Mao, are the ones who do their damndest to never show up for classes and do de facto Evil whenever they can. Meanwhile, screwup ‘delinquents’ like our co-star Miss Raspberyl, are the ones who actually attend classes and do despicable, perky Good Deeds. And prinnies are the ones who look like nervous, stitched-together, demon-winged, peglegged penguins…. that explode.
Of course, It wouldn’t be a Disgaea game without at least one real head-case main character, would it? Mao does the Disgaea lineage proud as an entertainingly-ambitious, utter-patricidal psychopath who gets the notion to suddenly become a Hero and off his demon-overlord father (also dean of the academy), an idea he gets from—wait for it—too many comics and video games. Somewhere, Jack Thompson is getting a nostalgic, disbarred little stiffy.
Next-gen debut or not, Disgaea 3 still looks like yet another PS2 game—why it’s an uppity, PS3-only title is anyone’s guess. Like its ancestor games before it, this is a turn-based strategy RPG with a humorous, goofy storyline… that totally belies the insane depth lurking just below its surface.
[image2]Combatants on the grid of each battlefield can move, attack, employ items, and use magic in turn, as expected from any grid-based strategy title… but this is a Disgaea game, and it goes that one extra bizarre mile at every turn. Here, character leveling is taken to comic-book extremes (we’re talking way into quadruple digits, here), and team combo-attacks and their animations are intentionally crafted to be the most visually-outrageous ones imaginable.
The new ‘magichange’ scheme allows pairs of party members and monsters to temporarily transform themselves into mutant uber-weapons. Players can enlist new party members, unlock a slew of character-classes, modify their characters, weapons and items ‘til Judgment Day, and even alter the game itself by swaying/bribing/coercing an in-game ‘student council’ (or by plying said council with drink and getting its members plastered, an option that should be available in every video game everywhere).
The previous game’s feature of battlefield-altering, 2-D ‘geo panels’ is here expanded to 3-D ‘geo blocks’—which can also be picked up and thrown about to different locations at will, which can really play mix-the-shit with the strategic situation. And if certain, err…, waddling members of your party aren’t pulling their weight in battle, you can always pick them up and throw them, at which point they will explode wherever they land. And if the dozens and dozens of thorough, hard-tweaking strategy options isn’t enough for you, the crazy-deep Item World levels (bizarre hyperspatial realms within items and weapons that can be fought through to upgrade said objects) can up the time clock to hundreds and hundreds of hours.
Both the Japanese and English voicework is excellent, and there’s a lot of it. It almost makes up for the often long, drawn-out, back-and-forth exchanges done in the creaky-old still-portrait-and-text interactions between characters. The story often doesn’t make much sense, but it’s at least entertaining.
[image3]The otaku self-referential humor never stops, the music is quirkily unique, including a looping theme in the academy that I can only describe as a sort of peppy, infernal, haunted-carnival Japanese mambo. Here is a game that literally starts messing with you before the game even starts: An intro message urges kids to sit playing in a dark room, sitting “as close as humanly possible” to the TV—and then punks them an instant later with a big “JUST KIDDING!”
Also, Disgaea 3 is the only game in recent memory that starts off with a full-on, stage-style, anime musical number. I kid you not.
Too bad, alas, about the still-dodgy battle camera and archaic, largely-unchanged-since-shortly-after-the-Big-Bang menu interface. And although part of Disgaea’s charm is its constant fan-service in-jokes for the initiated, newcomers are really left on their own. Even what passes for the game’s tutorial doesn’t help all that much; there’s a lot to study at this academy, but only the self-starter students will really get the full benefit of the curriculum.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for deeper, goofier, more obsessive, more fan-service-oriented, more grind-those-characters-up, Japanese-wonkoid strategy than this, then you are up Shitake Creek without so much as a broken oar… and you are also one scary, scary otaku.