IGN Review of Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice
Disgaea 3 represents NIS' next title in a well-renowned strategy RPG franchise that has garnered a tremendous number of fans over the years. Gamers who fell in love with NIS' earlier works have been eagerly awaiting the franchise's debut on the PS3 and now the game is finally on store shelves. Unfortunately, Disgaea 3 offers very little improvement over its predecessors and -- on a current-gen console -- begins to show the age of its technology and (more importantly) its design. While I'll be the first to note that long-time fans will still enjoy this game for a variety of reasons, Disgaea 3 looks awful and feels clunky. Looking back on my time with Absence of Justice, I was very disappointed with the title as a whole, despite the quality of some of its parts.
In case you're unfamiliar with the basics, Disgaea 3 is an extremely time-consuming strategy RPG with a silly sense of humor and enough grinding opportunities to make your head spin. The game follows Mao, son of the Overlord, who is bent on defeating his father because the oversized ruler of the Netherworld stepped on Mao's videogame systems and destroyed his millions of hours of data. You should already be able to grasp how eccentric this game's tone is. Eventually, Mao joins up with a hero wannabe, a demon do-gooder and a fiery chef while the team is guided by Mao's semi-omniscient butler through a series of dimensions in order to claim victory over the Overlord.
Gameplay in Disgaea 3 will be familiar to anyone who's played a Disgaea game in the past. You'll do all your shopping, organizing and party management from a few small hub worlds and teleport to each separate battle area whenever you choose. Like other strategy RPGs, you control a team of characters by issuing commands to them one at a time and then executing them all at once. For example, you can move several warriors into position, assign targets and prepare magic, then hit Execute to pull them off in a series, which will raise your Bonus meter and reward you with extra items and experience.
Disgaea 3 also has a number of other systems in place besides straight-forward combat. Monster characters can transform and combine with human characters, group attacks can be performed under certain circumstances, the environment can be used to your advantage (colored Geo Panels can trigger a number of effects if you stand on top of them), characters can be created/reincarnated at will and skills can be learned or boosted at any time. Most of these systems are governed by Mana, which you acquire from defeating enemies, and spending Mana allows you to power-level characters and take a bit of the edge off the grinding. Customization options clearly flow through this game, which I certainly appreciate, and having so many classes at your disposal is fun.
Furthermore, Disgaea 3 carries on the tradition of absolutely mind-blowing leveling opportunities. While most RPGs place a level cap on you at 99, you can once again rocket your characters to level 9,999 if you wish (and have hundreds of spare hours to kill). This madness is made even more unbelievable when you consider the Item World. In Absence of Justice, you can enter randomized dungeons that live inside your items, giving you fresh battles at every turn. With each floor you descend, you raise the item's level by one and increase its statistics. The potential for creating God-like characters is clearly visible here.
But this is a title that just wasn't executed properly and really demonstrates the developers' limitations. First and foremost: the game's graphics. Although graphics aren't an overly important element in strategy titles, the sprites and environments of Disgaea 3 are simply unacceptable. I absolutely adore 2D games, but none of the character sprites are in HD and they look borderline atrocious on an HD television. These visuals would have been tolerable a few years ago on the PS2, but having them set in a modern PS3 game is embarrassing. The sprites aren't even charming, with limited animation sets barely keeping them alive. Environments are also horribly bland and uninspired -- even lifeless. For a game that invites you to spend hundreds of hours on one file, it certainly doesn't make it easy on your eyes.
One can argue that graphics mean nothing when weighed against such involved gameplay. While that's true to an extent, Disgaea's mechanics also feel dated and clunky. The game's menus/interfaces (which appear to be the only things actually presented in high-res) are archaic and awkward. While battles play out fine on occasion, the control system is clearly in desperate need of an overhaul. As you move the cursor over the battlefield, the camera follows the elevation of the cursor to keep things focused on where you're pointing. Unfortunately, because Disgaea 3's level design can be so random, this often means frequent and radical changes in elevation. Moving your cursor over such a battlefield will cause the camera to leap up and down madly in an attempt to follow the cursor, which can be unbelievably disorienting.
What's worse: you have very limited camera control in Absence of Justice. Despite the fact that you can rotate your perspective and zoom out, this rarely helps you get a good view of multi-tiered arenas where walls block entire sections of the battlefield. I can recall multiple times when, during my enemies turn, I couldn't actually see anything that was happening -- I just sat and watched a blank wall while all my characters were pummeled to death behind it. This is not amusing.
I also had a number of data loading issues, though this was probably a fluke. Regardless, I lost my main file at one point because the game suddenly stopped recognizing the data. Thus, I recommend that if you're going to pour in days of play time, make sure to back up your save file just in case.
Hopefully I've made it clear that fuzzy sprites aren't the game's only issues. These problems seem to stem from Disgaea not keeping up with the times, both in terms of technology and game design. Just because you can level up your characters to 9,999 doesn't mean that the rest of the game's elements have matured over the years and offer the same value that they did in the original Disgaea. But being an RPG fan, I can often forgive imperfect gameplay if it goes hand-in-hand with an amazing story and cast, but sadly that's not the case here, either. The narrative of Absence of Justice is poorly told and sometimes pointless as characters talk in circles for hours on end without ever stumbling onto anything profound. In fact, most of the game's dialogue is composed of recycled jokes that you hear ten minutes into the game and that's very disappointing.
I will admit that the story did start to intrigue me a bit as I invested more hours into the experience, but watching everything play out through static portrait cutscenes is getting excruciatingly old. I understand that having the pictures of the characters with dialogue below is a "classic" device, but I'm beginning to feel the need for something different -- I've seen it far too many times now. It would have been tolerable had there been more variations on the portraits, but each character only has three or four to speak of and it gets tiring very quickly.
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