I still remember when the first game in the now-esteemed and long-running Disgaea franchise arrived. It was called Hour of Darkness and after reading a ton of positive reviews, I went in search of what I figured would be a worthy follow-up to my time with Final Fantasy Tactics . I hadn’t been impressed with the SRPG options on PS2 up to that point but everyone was raving about this strangely-named new game from Nippon Ichi. Unfortunately, NIS America obviously underestimated how popular the game would become, as I couldn’t find it anywhere and ultimately had to wait a few weeks for the stores to get restocked. Now, over 12 years later, a new – and unsurprisingly massive – entry is upon us.
If you’re familiar with the series, you know what to expect from a graphical standpoint. The grids on which you wage wonderfully intricate battles are colorful and attractive, the character designs are often loopy yet decidedly cute, and the special effects are a tremendous highlight throughout. No Disgaea entry has ever won awards for its visual presentation but this PlayStation 4 exclusive is awfully appealing. This is the cleanest, most detailed, and occasionally most eye-popping installment to date and despite a few visibility quirks, there’s a lot to like. In regards to the latter, given the sheer amount of characters that can be jammed onto a battlefield at once, it can often be difficult to distinguish who’s who (and precisely where they are on the grid).
The sound is another familiar element. The voices are typically childish and over-the-top and the voice acting is appropriately campy. It’s really the unique Disgaea flavor that permeates the experience; it’s zany and carefree, never once pretending to a profound or even remotely serious tone. Even the special effects lean toward the cartoon-y and the soundtrack is bright, vibrant and at its best when the story kicks up a notch and we’re treated to some wacky cut-scenes. Again, there’s nothing particularly special about the audio but it’s vintage Disgaea , and it boasts the upgraded quality you should expect from a PS4 production. Clean and striking on all technical sides, most series fans will be very pleased with the visuals on display.
Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance utilizes the same classic turn-based strategy/role-playing mechanic it has always used, only with a lot more mechanics, customization options, and character-building possibilities than we saw in the first few entries. The series has gone absolutely crazy in terms of depth and longevity and I can say without any shadow of a doubt, there isn’t another title released in 2015 that will offer more bang for your buck. Lv. 9,999 characters with Lv. 9,999 equipment? Seriously ? And it’s hardly about constant grinding within a simple tried-and-true formula, because the developers utilize the best of past efforts and implement numerous additions and enhancements. The result is a truly gigantic SRPG that will give fans of the niche genre hundreds of hours of entertainment.
The structure isn’t dissimilar to recent series entries: You go through a series of a half-dozen battles or so, get a preview sample of coming events, and press forward through the unfolding – and oddly delightful – narrative. The story, which involves surprisingly interesting characters like the demon Killia and a beautiful vixen named Seraphina, along with ambitious overlords with lofty goals and plenty of emotional baggage, takes center-stage. Lord Void Dark is at the center of the uprising and it’s up to you and your team of colorful companions to thwart the Lord’s plans. He wants to eradicate every netherworld in existence and of course, that doesn’t sit too well with the protagonist and his allies. It also means you get to visit new netherworlds and the game is immediately more dynamic.
Previously, we’d finish a battle and return to the same hub, where you can customize your team and characters to your heart’s content. But now, you’re aboard a huge ship that shuttles you between netherworlds, and this acts as your hub. Sure, the ship serves the same purpose as a central hub of preparation but due to the more involved narrative and shifting environments, it feels less static. It’s set up a little differently, too, even if this hub isn’t exactly popping with new-and-improved tweaks. If you want to dive into the Item World, however, you’ll soon start to see more additions and improvements, each of which are obviously designed to enhance the overall depth of an already-deep experience. Yes, you remember the Item World, don’t you? The place where you can level up items and equipment, the place that can totally own your life?
Well, it’s back and bigger than ever. You still battle increasingly difficult monsters on randomly generated floors and then you face the Item General. Once you defeat him, it’s not over; you can continue onwards if you choose…and yeah, this process goes on seemingly forever. How far you wish to go is up to you. One of the new additions is the inclusion of random events: For example, a Level Fish boosts your items after you’ve cleared a floor, but only if one of your allies nabs it before the enemy does (and is able to protect it for a few turns). Or, an egg might magically show up and deliver unto you a new random character, or you might have to chase around a Stout Bottle, which will yield an Evility Scroll if you can take it down. If you remember, these Scrolls are used to teach skills and abilities to party members.
You will also find valuable parts to attach to your traveling vessel, and in reality, you could spend countless hours in the Item World leveling up and exploring. If you thought this particular feature of the franchise was involving and addictive before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. On top of which, we’ve got the new Character World, which isn’t exactly the same as the Item World. In the Character World, there are items you can use to gain the advantage over foes, all the while trying to avoid landing on spaces that impose a certain annoying penalty. It’s a faster-paced and more creative approach to the standard turn-based strategy formula and it works quite well. The only downside is that it’s just another reason to dump an obscene number of hours into a game that continually demands your attention at every turn.
Another new addition is Squads, which isn’t especially inventive but it does add yet another dimension to the strategy. There are times during the campaign when you’ll be forced to split your characters into specialized teams, and each team has a certain role to play in battle. Each team member gets a different perk, too; for instance, you might be able to capture weakened enemies with one Squad and another Squad can actually interrogate the captured creature back at the base. This gives the narrative a little extra flavor and allows you to attempt objectives that go beyond the standard “eliminate every enemy,” or something like that. These developers are always trying to find ways to bolster the immersion and strategy, and kudos to them for that.
All told, the story will run you in excess of 40 hours and of course, you can spend hundreds more hours after finishing it. In addition to the Item World and Character World, there are also plenty of side-quests to complete, new Squads, maps and episodes to unlock, and the all-consuming drive to create a more powerful team. That’s really the goal that sits in the driver’s seat throughout any Disgaea game, which is why those who are never happy with their team’s capabilities are doomed to spend a stupid amount of time with this game. The other downside is that when you just keep adding and adding and adding , the production gets so large that it starts to become intimidating and downright impossible to attempt for some people. And yes, that is a downside.
Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance is indeed bigger in every feasible way when compared to previous series iterations. I’m not so sure it’s better in every way, though, as the sheer amount of content can feel either muddled or oppressive. There are times when you just sit there, overwhelmed with possibilities and options for your growing party, unsure of what to tackle next. It’s almost paralyzing. Of course, on the flip side, this is what the die-hard fans of this genre demand. If you count yourself among the SRPG faithful, I can’t imagine you having any problem with the latest Disgaea . It’s everything you expect it to be with more included on the side, and that’s not going to dissuade anyone with oodles of spare time. Is this you? If so, more power to you, I say.
The Good: Striking, colorful visual presentation. Appropriately Disgaea-ish audio throughout. An immense amount of general depth, strategy and content. Longest and most involving storyline yet. Plenty of fresh systems and additions that enhance immersion and customization. A ridiculous amount of bang for your buck.
The Bad: Visibility can be an issue when battlefields become packed. Potentially an overwhelming amount of stuff. Some irritating characters.
The Ugly: “There’s only ‘ugly’ if you have other plans for your free time.”