While the PlayStation Vita may have a diverse selection of titles currently available, one area in which it’s sorely lacking the genre known as RPG. Portable systems are the ideal place for this type of game, as the often-long stories can be played in small chunks, no matter where you happen to be. Thankfully, Nippon Ichi have noticed the gap in the system lineup, and filled it with Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention, an enhanced re-release of a PS3 title from a few years back.
Absence of Detention tells the story of Mao, Honor Student at Evil Academy. After having his precious gaming system destroyed by his father, he vows to become a hero in order to get revenge for the many hours of save data now lost forever. Oh, and did I mention that his father is Overlord of the realm known as the Netherworld, and that Evil Academy is populated by monsters and demons? If this all sounds a bit silly, don’t worry – it’s supposed to be. Humor is an element often absent from video games, but Disgaea embraces it wholeheartedly, giving us an amusing, wacky plot, peppered with satire and self-referential jokes.
Of course, the story is only part of what makes an RPG fun, the other main part typically being combat. Disgaea is part of the sub-genre called Strategy RPG, so battles take place on a grid. Each turn involves moving your fighters around then choosing an action for them to perform, such as attacking, defending, using magic, or consuming an item. Things get a little more complicated than this, though, as there are a number of other factors to consider when planning your strategy.
For a start, adjacent characters have a chance of teaming up to perform combo moves, so aligning people next to each other takes a little consideration. Characters can also throw each other, as well as blocks that are littered around, which is sometimes essential to reach enemies that are otherwise impossible to get to. There are also special moves to employ, such as the monsters’ Magichange abilities, which temporarily transform them into weapons that can be wielded by a teammate. However, the battle mechanic that adds the most interesting layer of strategy is the Geo Block.
You see, the playing field is often full of coloured areas, and whoever stands in these sections receives an adjustment to their stats, be they friend or enemy. Destroying a Geo Block changes the area to a different colour, or even negates the effects entirely, so by throwing the blocks into certain places before destroying them, the battlefield can drastically change. Sometimes it’s prudent to eliminate the coloured areas as they will help the enemy more than yourself; sometimes it’s better to stand within the areas and keep the enemy out. Deciding how to utilize these stat-changing zones brings another level to the already-rich combat experience.
There may be some who find this type of strategy combat to be too complicated, but fortunately, you don’t have to master it in order to find yourself victorious. I’ve played other games in this genre that require full understanding of every element and careful planning of every move, but thankfully that’s not the case here. Hardcore players who wish to uncover all the secrets will no-doubt appreciate the complexity, but more casual fans can get by without spending minutes planning every turn.
Outside of combat, you’ll find yourself in the school, an interesting place that contains shops, a nurses office, and, of course, classrooms. So do you have to attend classes by day and get up to shenanigans at night, such as in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, and Bully? Nope. You see, being an Honor Student at Evil Academy means being the laziest, good-for-nothing skiver – Mao has never attended a lesson in his life! Those with perfect attendance records and great punctuality are referred to as “delinquents” – a word I was certain must be a mistranslation before it clicked that the Netherworld is basically opositeland.
Visiting classrooms does have its purpose, though. From here, you’ll be able to assign seating for your allies, increasing their odds of pulling off combo moves in battle. You can also sign up for various clubs, which give special bonuses to members, and suggest topics for debate, which achieve a number of different things. For instance, you can request a student transfer, which is really just a fancy way of saying “character creation”, giving you another party member to bring into battle.
One aspect of the game that I find myself a little divided about is the visuals. While backgrounds are full 3D, the characters themselves are 16-bit-style sprites who move around the environments in a slightly unconvincing fashion. The cutscenes are also a little disappointing considering the power of the portable system, and consist of minimally-animated characters talking on either side of the screen. It’s a style we’ve seen for years in Japanese games, but that doesn’t make it any better. Thankfully, the amusing dialog and decent voice acting help make up for some of this. The music isn’t bad, either – nothing to write home about, but catchy nonetheless.
An interesting element that I feel the need to mention is the control system. When Sony announced that PS3 games would be making their way to the Vita, I wondered of the missing L2 and R2 buttons would be emulated on the rear touch panel, and this is exactly what they’ve done in this title. The top corners of the Vita’s rear work like button presses, meaning the controls don’t have to be simplified for the portable system. However, this also means that you can’t rest your fingers in their normal positions while playing, and I often found myself triggering their functions by accident. Don’t worry, all they do is zoom the camera and speed through menus, but it still gets annoying from time to time. Of course, they can be turned off if desired.
There’s not really much more to say about Absence of Detention without getting into plot-spoiler territory, but know that I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I have a feeling that if the Vita’s library was chocked full of RPGs, this one may have been overlooked, but considering the current number of role-playing titles on Sony’s portable system, this one should definitely be considered by fans of the genre. It’s funny, has interesting combat, and contains many hours of gameplay for those looking to uncover everything.