Deja Review: Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention

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Disgaea is a series that just seems to work better in portable form. The series' approach to character building – in which you can basically raise levels to stratospheric proportions with time, effort, and the best power-leveling locales – is more suited to on-the-go play. It's a lot easier to make your way through the randomly generated Item Worlds to level up your gear in thirty-minute commute blocks, putting your system to sleep as needed, than it is to devote hours to a single grind session squatting in front of a TV.

It's for this reason that I tend to invest far more time in the portable versions of Disgaea than their console counterparts. I'll generally put down the console editions once I've cleared the main story, but I'll invest an absurd amount of time in the portable editions to scout out many of their extras, simply because the format makes them more easily digestible. The number of hours played on my Disgaea 2 PSP save have long since passed the triple digits.

Now, we've got Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention on the Vita. I've always felt that D3 was the weakest of the series in terms of both gameplay and its story and characters. That doesn't mean it's bad, just not as good as some of the other installments. I had hoped that playing it in my preferred format would change my mind, but, unfortunately, it didn't. It's still my least favorite Disgaea game. However, it's still a very good portable strategy game with several noteworthy new additions.

What's new this time around? For starters, the graphics have received some touch-ups. While the sprites, sadly, aren't the lovely high-res models seen in Disgaea 4, the dialogue cutscenes now implement the little animations and flourishes seen in that title – a nice change from the previous static illustrations. Some added details in the backgrounds and new artwork is also a nice touch. Secondly, while not really new, all of the DLC from the original PS3 edition comes standard in the package. This includes the special Raspberyl-centric chapters that open up at the end of the game, as well as many of the extra characters.

The biggest addition by far are the brand new chapters that focus on characters both old and new. Raspberyl's partners-in-delinquency Kyoko and Asuka are the central focus of one of these chapters, while Almaz and Sapphire take starring roles in another. Two completely new characters are introduced in the remaining stories: cute catgirl half-demon Rutile and sexy student body president Stella. Fuka and Desco from Disgaea 4 also put in appearances as optional, superpowered boss fights.

There are some more subtle gameplay alterations that veteran players may notice. Additional tiers for weapons and spells have been added, making the "highest level possible" items and magic you can acquire ever-so-slightly higher (and thus making you aim further upwards in your noble grinding endeavors). A handful of brand new skills have also been added for the various unit classes. The "detention room" where you can store extra units has also increased in capacity. Finally, characters have the potential to unleash more powerful near-death versions of attacks when their HP is low. Both allies and enemies can use these augmented skills, so it's a pretty bad idea to leave foes trawling around the battlefield on the verge of death.

Disgaea 3 has a few minor tweaks to take advantage of the PS Vita hardware as well. You can now use the back and front touch panels to move, rotate, and scale the map, and well as shift through units. Unfortunately, you can't use the front touchscreen to select options in combat, and moving the cursor is similarly awkward, since you don't touch where you want the cursor you go. Instead, you have to move the entire map to where you want the cursor to point.

How's it hold up? Quite well, really.

Visually, it's a bit difficult to get used to after the exquisite HD graphics of Disgaea 4, though the smaller screen size takes a bit of the sting out of the low-res pixel art. Where gameplay is concerned, Disgaea 3 remains a solid strategy RPG that has the potential to eat up countless hours of your life.

I'm still not a fan of the way the weapon and skill systems changed from Disgaea 2 to Disgaea 3, with the ability for any class to learn weapon skills simply through repeated use exchanged for a more limited system that requires you to spend resources. I remain miffed that said changes carried over to 4. Also, the assortment of character classes isn't quite as interesting as in some of the other series installments, but that is likely due more to my personal taste than a genuine failing on the game's part.

The only significant complaint I can levy against it is that the vast majority of the new content requires you to finish the main game first. Disgaea has always encouraged a lot of freeform play and general messing around (you can basically ignore the central plot for lengthy stretches if you feel like it), so not having access to the new content right away is a bit disappointing. It would have been pretty awesome – though perhaps not technically feasible – to have some way to transfer data from the PS3 original to the Vita for this purpose.

Overall, the game is a quality strategy RPG that comes jam-packed with more than enough content to justify its $40 asking price. The only reason I wouldn't recommend it to all Vita-owning strategy RPG fans is that it's still the freeform, grind-heavy strategy RPG style that developer NIS is known for. If you just don't like that style, there really isn't anything new and exciting here that will change your mind. Otherwise, Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is a remedial class well worth taking.

This deja review is based on a PSN download of Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention for PlayStation Vita, provided by NIS.

Heidi Kemps is an intrepid freelancer living in the lap of luxury in Daly City surrounded by games, Japanese comics, and far too many figures. She contributes to G4, GamesRadar, GamePro, @Gamer, GameSpot, and a wealth of international publications, some of which do not start with the letter G. She enjoys long walks in Akihabara as well as meaningful discussions about Virtua Fighter. You can follow her ongoing freelance adventures at @zerochan.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.