Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention Review

Disgaea 3 does a lousy job of familiarizing you with its complex mechanics, but rewarding tactical depth and goofy humor make the learning curve worth climbing.

Mao has a bone to pick with his father. Ever since dad destroyed his SlayStation Portable and cost him millions of hours in saved progress, the outraged son has been plotting his revenge. But such vengeance isn't easily carried out when your father is the Overlord of the Netherworld. Disgaea 3's zany story, rewarding tactical combat, and unwelcoming attitude first appeared on the PlayStation 3 in 2008. Now, Mao's quest to avenge the actions of his demonic dad is available on the PlayStation Vita, with the same good qualities, and the same problems.

Yes, despite being spiffed up with a new subtitle and containing all the downloadable content made available for the PS3 version, this is essentially the same game that was released on the PS3 nearly four years ago. It certainly isn't any more accommodating to new players. A series of tutorials introduces you to the basics of Disgaea's turn-based combat, and the fundamentals are standard and easy to grasp. On each turn, you can move your characters around the field of play, attacking enemies, casting spells, using items, and so on. You need to take position into account; attacking enemies from the side or rear is more effective than attacking them head-on, and if you attack from an adjacent tile, your target may respond with a counterattack. (Spears let you attack from two tiles away, sparing you this danger.) By having several of your characters attack a foe in succession, you perform a combo in which the attacks become much more effective together than they would be individually.

But to get the most out of Disgaea's battle system, you need to go beyond the basics and start exploiting the system to your advantage. (After all, nobody ever said demons fight fair.) This means, for instance, moving a character next to another to aid with a powerful team attack, then retracting the character's movement and moving him again to perform an attack of his own.

You need every advantage you can get in Disgaea 3's tactically challenging battles, which frequently complicate matters further with special cubes called geo blocks. These imbue tiles with all manner of properties that may be quite beneficial to you, or to your enemy. Figuring out how to efficiently eliminate them can be puzzling in a way that's satisfying to work out, and doing so is often crucial for victory. It's consistently rewarding to exploit the various mechanics of this battle system to your advantage, but the game leaves discovering such opportunities up to you, and coming to grips with this complexity can be a daunting and time-consuming task.

Characters standing on adjacent tiles have a chance to help each other out with powerful team attacks.
Characters standing on adjacent tiles have a chance to help each other out with powerful team attacks.

Complexity isn't limited to the battlefield in Disgaea 3. When you're not fighting, you're typically roaming around Evil Academy, the Netherworld school Mao attends. There's no shortage of things to do here. You can spend the mana you earn in battle on character-enhancing skills, and on passive bonuses, called evilities. You can also venture into the randomly generated dungeons that exist within your weapons and armor, powering up that gear and leveling up your characters.

Most importantly, you can attend homeroom. Attending class may seem counterintuitive for a student at Evil Academy, where success is measured by how well you manage to ignore your studies. But homeroom serves a number of vital purposes. Here, you can assign characters to adjacent seats to increase their chances of helping each other with team attacks. You can place students in clubs, which can confer a variety of benefits. And you can put forth "topics" for class representatives to consider. These include things like creating a new character, replacing shop stock with higher-quality, more-expensive gear, and much more. Some class reps may not be inclined to vote in favor of your motion, but you can grease the wheels with some good old-fashioned bribery. These are more than optional side activities. Your actions here can have a profound impact on your effectiveness in combat, so these tactical considerations are nearly as involving as those you make from one turn to the next during battle.

Making all these weighty strategic decisions may sound dry, but Disgaea 3's zany, pervasive sense of humor keeps every aspect of the game light and entertaining. The moment you fire the game up, you're greeted with a screen urging you to sacrifice sleep and play in the dark, before this is replaced with a far more sensible statement about playing in a well-lit area and taking plenty of breaks.

At Evil Academy, bad behavior is praised and good behavior is looked down upon; Mao's steadfast avoidance of all academic activity has made him the number one honor student in the Netherworld, while his rival, Raspberyl, has a reputation as a delinquent due to her perfect attendance and her tendency to actually do her homework. Mao's quest to defeat his father throws him into all manner of unpredictable situations involving terrific characters, and sharp, self-aware writing motivates you to push through each challenging chapter to see what craziness the next contains.

Nobody tell Mao about the Mass Effect 3 ending.
Nobody tell Mao about the Mass Effect 3 ending.

Absence of Detention retains the same technically unimpressive but charming visual style that has characterized every game in the Disgaea series. New combat animations and character reactions during cutscenes have been added to this release, but these minor touch-ups aren't substantial enough to make the game worth revisiting if you've had your fill of it on the PS3. Touch-screen controls give you a quick way to select a character in battle who hasn't acted yet, which is a convenient addition. But unfortunately the camera still has problems. Though you can rotate it freely during your turns, it's not always possible to get a clear view of your characters' positions, and during the enemy's turn, you may be stuck with a view of a wall while your characters are thrashed by their adversaries.

Unlike Mao with his SlayStation Portable, you probably won't get millions of hours out of Disgaea 3, but considering that you can level your characters all the way up to 9999, and that there are numerous endings to discover and other scenarios to complete once you've finished the main game, you might come pretty close. It's unfortunate that Absence of Detention doesn't make the intricacies of its combat system more accessible to new players, but if you're willing to stick it out and learn the ropes, Disgaea 3 provides a compelling excuse to ditch class. If you're a demon. Stay in school, human kids.

The Good

  • Deep, involving turn-based tactical battles
  • Funny story with lots of great characters
  • Enough content to keep you happily occupied for a long time

The Bad

  • Does a poor job explaining its mechanics
  • Minor camera frustrations