The PlayStation Portable had at least a couple of things to shout about during its life as the eternal underdog to the juggernaut that was the Nintendo DS. It was home to not only some of Sony’s key franchises, but also the definitive place to play a Disgaea game. Home consoles were generally clunky and required you to be at home at all times, while the Nintendo DS was under-utilised as a platform. It helped that both the ports they released, namely Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness and Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days, had an array of extra content that made the purchase an attractive option. Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention aims to capitalise on this concept on Sony’s new handheld platform – the PlayStation Vita. Is school out for a summer of tactical RPG goodness, or should Nippon Ichi have stayed behind after class?
Since this is essentially a port of a PlayStation 3 game, there may be a few of you out there who know exactly what changes were implemented in this game. For those who haven’t seen Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice, this was where the gameplay turned from somewhat crazy to outright madness. Fundamentally it is still a tactical RPG with an isometric perspective. Geo Panels alter the terrain to give units standing on them allocated buffs and de-buffs. What is different here are that Geo Blocks also form part of the terrain and can be disposed of by throwing the same colour next to each other. Aside from the slight alteration of the pyramids being turned into blocks, the only other difference is the range of different blocks present. Some are better explained than others, with the prime example being the confusion of the difference between Invincibility and Mighty Enemy panels, but generally speaking they work well to liven up the combat.
While characters have always been able to combo with each other, Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice also introduces Tower attacks, where you can stack up to ten party members to launch a devastating array of attacks on foes, which for some can be exploited to increase the levels of lower ranking allies. Magichange allows monsters linked via School Clubs to non-monster characters (more on this later) to change into a weapon that the non-monster character holds. It allows for the two to combine to use unique abilities and for the two of them to gain experience at the same time. The only downside is that it lasts only a few turns before the monster disappears into the ether.
Finally there is a Special Move Combo system, where weapon based abilities can be stacked to attack at roughly the same time. Even unique abilities are affected by this, though the limitations are that no Magic can be used for this to work and the character must be a legal target at all stages of the attack for both party members. These are all intimidating concepts for newcomers to the series, but hardcore audiences will feel right at home with the bizarre and potentially broken ways to exploit the system.
After each battle, you are presented with shops and other things in the Headquarters. While shops are most certainly traditional, they do rank up with a certain number of purchases. The Classrooms allow for reshuffles of party members into Social Clubs that not only enable Magichange abilities, but also grant special perks. Seat allocation in the Classrooms also determines affinity for combos. This is also where the traditional debates are held in order to unlock new content, requiring Mana to raise the topics in the Student Council. These work exactly as they have done since the series’ inception as you will bribe your way to victory or beat opposing characters to submit. The Item World also makes an appearance and remains unchanged.
What is different is how characters advance in their skills. Instead of being linked with Weapon skill levels, characters can now buy and enhance skills using Mana at the Evilties merchant. They can also buy perks this way which add various passive skills to the build. They can be sold and downgraded if required, allowing for a very customisable system. The problem is that the game doesn’t really teach you how to use anything effectively, meaning that it quickly becomes a case of trial and error. For some, figuring out everything in order to exploit the system is a huge draw, but these are a select few. The fact that there is also constant level grinding to be done also slows down the gameplay to a sluggish crawl.
As with every portable version of the Disgaea series, there is a host of content that doesn’t appear on the PlayStation 3 version. For starters, all the DLC that was present on the PlayStation Store for the PS3 is included as standard. Aside from several brand new short scenarios and boss encounters, there are a couple of gameplay additions that not only change the flow, but also improve on style. Some such as the Tera level spells have to be earned, but new Character Class specific skills are actually obtained early on and are useful. Instead of being just meat-sacks that can learn weapon based skills, this update actually makes you think about what classes your squad are by giving you more than statistics to worry about.
Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention also takes a leaf from the hero inspire research material that Mao drools over by having characters use “Awakened” moves when in desperate situations to deal more damage whilst showing off. Speaking of showing off, weapons can now have custom styles applied to them, but these are merely aesthetic changes designed for the hardcore fans. Looking at just the inclusions to the game itself listed above, they’re generally quite thoughtful and really add to the experience.
But of course, this is a brand new handheld system with flashy tools and gimmicks. It would be too shameful for Nippon Ichi to abuse such things? Would it? Turns out they found a way to use quite a lot of the PlayStation Vita’s toolset, though they are hit or miss at best. Via the Data Shop, you can now get up to date ranking details via the PlayStation Network. WiFi capabilities – check. Players can also take their systems around with them in order to obtain Honor Quotent or “HQ”, which is also increased by winning battles and your total play-time. With HQ, you can get more experience points, Mana to spend on skills and discounts at stores, just to name a few. 3G and GPS – check.
Finally, both front and back touch screens can be used to manipulate menus and characters in your headquarters. Touch screens – check. But are these useful? Well, not really. The Data Shop is certainly a sound idea, but feels unutilised as a whole. Honor Quotent is so badly explained in-game that you’re better off just playing it wherever you are. Then there are the touch screen camera controls that are so sensitive that you’ll frequently be altering the display.
Part of the amazing quality of the PlayStation Portable conversions was that the PlayStation 2 was a more powerful system. Here the specs are similarly lined up between the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita, yet it is equally amazing as to how it stacks up. Small details have even been added to this version, such as characters moving during full character art discussions. The voice acting is as cheesy as it comes, though Almaz in particular comes across slightly more organic in line delivery, even if he is a bit of a wimp. The music gets tedious after a while, especially in some maps/home worlds it might do, but at least here you get the opportunity to change it up slightly.
With its ridiculous plot, complex systems and massively elongated gameplay, it is difficult to recommend this to anyone who doesn’t have a passionate affinity for Nippon Ichi’s particular brand of daft Tactical RPG madness. For those who like to think outside the box, who are probably already indoctrinated into the Prinny horde, Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention provides a suitable add-on package that does seem to step up the ambition, despite the PlayStation Vita’s exclusive controls taking an evident back seat. Certainly not my favourite game of the series by a long shot, but the conversion is remarkable nonetheless.