Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is a port of Nippon Ichi’s first effort in their popular series for the PS3, with a few token features of Vita hardware added in along with all of the DLC that was released for the original. While it can definitely be a challenging, entertaining game – and one with a sizeable amount of replay value, at that – the same old problems of the series and genre it belongs to hold it back. These issues only grow larger when presented to a new audience, system, and time for gaming.
Absence of Detention takes the classic Japanese paradigm of turn-based RPGs and skins it all in a layer of goofiness and absurdity. You play as Mao, son of the underworld’s Overlord, who attends a sort of hell university. Here, your academic prowess is measured by how much homework you ignore and class you cut, and Mao is the brightest (laziest) student at the Academy, spending all of his time playing video games and reading manga. But all this time spent in worlds of heroes vanquishing evil has rubbed off on him in a curious way, and he resolves to be a hero himself in the only way he can imagine: usurping his father as the ruler of hell.
To do this, you create lots of cute, anime-styled characters, assign them classes, equip them with all sorts of gear, and do battle on squared off arenas. You take turns moving your party around, and can position them in different ways relative to enemies (behind, beside, above) to pull off more successful attacks. Characters can position themselves relative to each other for team and counter attacks that combine magic with brawn in all sorts of outlandish, wild spell effects. The more zany elements of Disgaea persist in this third entry as well; by “stacking” enemies on top of each other, for instance, you can create a more powerful foe and up your chances of getting a meatier reward.
And that’s just to begin with! As you may expect, the number of things you can do in Disgaea 3 are dizzying at times. You can take your party to worlds inside their own gear to improve both the equipment and your party, level your buddies well into the thousands, and spend hours obsessing over the best way to get around status-altering geoblocks – which can vastly change the lay of the land in a battle – among other things. Mao’s Slaystation Portable has racked up countless hours on Disgaea-styled games, and if this one really gets it hooks in, its easy to imagine the same thing happening to you.
Pretty well all of the visual assets are imported from the original PS3 version of the game. Although the sprites are not redrawn as they are in Disgaea 4 and look a little unimpressive overall, the colour and personality that goes into the character designs make up for a lot. The environments – again, nothing special – nonetheless hold up the gameplay well enough. It’s just tough to go back when past entries have already moved past these aging sprites. The relatively small size and great clarity on the Vita’s screen certainly do help the visuals, and watching all of the doofy characters interact and battle each other looks much better on the compact OLED than it does on a television. It doesn’t tax the new system in any way, shape or form, but it’s nothing if not a charming game to look at.
Much like everything else in this game, your level of enjoyment with Disgaea 3 will be directly proportional to your previous investment in the genre. Like fighting games, these sorts of RPGs serve a relatively niche market and don’t make much effort to reach out to – much less teach – people who aren’t already into them. And the Disgaea series has the additional hurdle of being a parody of the overwrought, melodramatic nature of these games throughout the 1990s. Yes, the ridiculous dialogue and overall attitude can still be entertaining. Yes, Mr. Champloo is still pretty funny. But so much of the humour is based upon genre tropes and pitfalls that it can wear thin, even if you understand it.
The true fun of Disgaea 3 is the revelation that the game wants you to find loopholes and exploits and use them to get ahead. In fact, after a few hours into the game, battles become difficult to the point where you’ll pretty much have to find a few of these tricks and fight dirty (that is, after all, the demon way). There’s definitely a lot to chew on, and if you dig deep enough, you could easily spend well over a hundred hours meticulously getting through all of the content the game has to offer.
Most won’t, however, because Disgaea 3 is tailor-made for pre-existing fans of these sort of meticulous strategy RPGs, with a steadfast resistance to change or accessibility. Yes, Disgaea 3 offers hours upon hours of tactical battles, ludicrous anime trappings, along with challenging gameplay. If you’ve never played a game like this, before, well…good luck. This is a more general complaint that extends beyond the scope of one game, but it’s vexing to think about how a little effort put toward an optional tutorial that breaks down the dizzying amount of options would help immeasurably in bringing this game to a larger audience. It lazily explains the basics right at the beginning of the game, but it’s not enough. Even as someone who played hours of Disgaea 3 on the PS3, some of the more obtuse concepts were lost in the shuffle as I played through this port.
Camera control is another concern, with the action frequently obscured by walls, effects, or the sheer volume of sprites on screen at a given time. Some basic controls for looking around help out, but it’s definitely not ideal. A maddening rear touch panel feature for controlling the camera is switched on by default, but if you value your sanity, it can painlessly be disabled in the options. If you’re a genre vet or someone with a high tolerance for this kind of dense, grinding gameplay, you are most likely okay (and probably prefer it) as is. But for everyone else, it presents a steep and potentially insurmountable learning curve. Even after playing a few of these games throughout my life, Disgaea 3 stuck out as needlessly cryptic and obtuse after a time.
I know there are many players out there who haven’t touched a game like this whose eyes would be opened by a game as deep and challenging as this one. Unless you’re willing to spend a bunch of time reading FAQs and other external sources of information, though, I’m not sure that Disgaea 3 will be that game. Possible, absolutely, but unlikely.
I’m also mixed up about who the audience for this game is. Tactical RPG players are a wild bunch, and most of the people with enough know-how to really dig into this game have probably done so in the last four years it has been available on the PS3. If you’re a big fan of the genre who is jonesing for a meaty turn-based RPG on the go, Disgaea 3 certainly isn’t a bad choice if you missed out on it originally or crave the portability. But that’s about all it’s good for. Of course, this is a port of an existing game – but the problems inherent to the genre hold it back noticeably on Sony’s latest handheld, as well as on its merits as a game.