I once knew a guy who played Disgaea so much that his girlfriend broke up with him.
It was easy, at the time, to poke fun at him for being the only guy I knew in real life who lost a girlfriend to a video game. Then I played Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention, and I felt a brief glimmer of understanding.
The tactical role-playing game is designed from the ground up to be the kind of game that will suck you in if you aren't careful and prompt you to forsake friends and family. You can easily spend hundreds of hours leveling up characters and recruiting teammates by playing and replaying missions.
Disgaea 3 was released originally on the PlayStation 3 in 2008 but has truly found its forever home on the PlayStation Vita as an enhanced port. Everything from the quick, turn-based battles to the 2D sprite animation just seems as if it was made for a portable system.
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I recommend it to anyone with a mind for strategy and an appreciation of Japanese pop culture. I don't recommend it to anyone without one or both of those qualities.
That's because for your typical adult American gamer, this game might be just a little too Japanese. The game is chock-full of silliness that wouldn't fly in a Western-developed game.
Take, for example, the plot.
The game takes place in Evil Academy, sort of a high-school for demons. You play as Mao, the top honor student who is on a quest to destroy his father. What was the catalyst of the father-son conflict? The Overlord destroyed Mao's video game system.
When I say Mao is the top honor student, I mean he skips class constantly and never completes assignments. Everything is opposite in Evil Academy. Going to class is delinquent behavior. Thank-yous and apologies are insults.
After reading a comic book, Mao decides he can best his father only by begrudgingly taking on the qualities of a hero. It just so happens a meek boy named Almaz, who fancies himself a hero, is wandering around Mao's house.
So, naturally, Mao kidnaps him, steals his title of Hero and seals it away in his heart, giving Almaz the title of Demon. Then things start to get weirder, and I started skipping the long, talkative cut-scenes to get to the action more quickly.
The best thing I can say about the story is this: it doesn't take itself too seriously. A few of the jokes don't translate well for Western audiences, but Disgaea 3 gets mad props for making me laugh when so many other games, especially Japanese RPGs, fail to live up to their aspirations of being serious character dramas.
For most, the plot probably will take a back seat to the real meat of the game: the combat system and the ability to form enormous, insanely powerful teams.
Most RPGs let you have three or four party members at a time and level up to 99 or 100. Disgaea lets you call on any member of your team at any time during battle, and you can grind your way to level 9,999.
Combat in Disgaea 3 takes place on a grid. Each character can move only a set number of spaces per turn. Different attacks can reach different distances. A spear might reach an enemy two spaces away, for example, but a sword can be used only on an enemy right next to you.
It sounds simple, but that's because my description is overly distilled. Between dozens of different weapons classes, spells and special attacks, there are thousands of options in combat, and no two fights will ever play the same.
The battlefields are well evolved beyond the flat, simple grids in games like Advance Wars or Tactics Ogre. Disgaea 3 grids span multiple levels connected by staircases or fallen debris. Some places can be reached only by lifting and throwing teammates onto platforms or across chasms.
Preparedness is key, and your battles can be won or lost before you set foot on the grid. By wandering around Evil Academy during peacetime, visiting classrooms and shops, you can recruit new teammates, boost stats and buy equipment.
Much of your downtime will be spent in homeroom, doing seemingly mundane things like creating seating arrangements. (Two characters can perform powerful special moves on the battlefield if they are seated close to each other in homeroom.)
You also can join clubs, improve your class standing by bribing your class leaders, and hire new warriors and monsters to fight for you.
Again, that is the distilled version. About 25 hours into the game, I learn something new about its mechanics each time I turn it on.
A lost-in-translation story eliminates this game's chance of causing me to leave my wife. Still, Disgaea 3 for PS Vita is a solid purchase that perfectly balances fun, value and difficulty.