When Nippon Ichi first appeared on the scene with Pucelle Tactics, Disgaea and Phantom Brave they seemed like the great hype. They introduced a new type of Japanese strategy RPG that escaped the somber medieval settings and traded it out for crazy, over the top story, characters and abilities that felt as though you were playing the best Japanese animations. They connected their games with hidden storyarcs that Final Fantasy’s cynical and dejected audiences could get excited about and invested in. Yes, in an age where it felt as though Japanese games had stopped innovating and a few beloved series were being milked as cash cows, Nippon Ichi was the new hope.
The Disgaea series hasn’t been completely immune to that same ‘cash-in’ treatment I’m sad to say, and if you haven’t played a single Disgaea game since the first you could pretty much jump in today and know exactly what’s going on. In fact starting up Disgaea 5 I was able to ditch a good amount of its tutorials and still have a strong grasp as to what I was doing in terms of combat, leveling, gearing up and learning new skills. There are a few innovations to be found in Disgaea 5 from the rest of the series at least, and I can say these innovations have at least gone a long way towards balancing the game, but if you’re looking for a reinvention of the wheel now that Disgaea has reached the big number 5 you won’t find it here.
Disgaea 5 slots you in the role of a demon named Killia. Just like Ryu, he wanders aimlessly ever searing for a good fight. He happens upon the shallow, boy crazy demon overlord Seraphina as she fights in a war against a rival overlord calling himself Void Dark. It’s a relatively familiar and simple setup for the Disgaea franchise. A clueless overlord and their hapless vassal traverse worlds in the name of punishment and conquest.
As a strategy RPG Disgaea is all about unit management. Choosing your favorite individual units, and shaping them to be overpowered monsters capable of dominating the battlefield. There’s only one problem, far, far too often in Disgaea your units were easily outclassed by the game’s “main” party members. This is mostly because the character units you’d stumble across over the course of the story carried a wealth of unique abilities that were easily stronger than the typical weapon abilities and magic created units could learn. Now from a personal stand point I loved Disgaea 4’s party so it didn’t bug me that I was ‘forced’ into using them, but in 3 and 2 I was stuck with a ton of characters I didn’t necessarily like because the numbers they pulled were better than my army.
Disgaea 5 remedies this one thing in a huge way. This title introduces a mechanic called “Revenge”. Revenge is akin to a limit break, with a bar that builds each time a unit or their allies take damage. Once that bar is full the character goes into a Revenge state that allows them use skills for next to no cost and tank damage like a boss. In Overlord units, Revenge unlocks a special skill. For Seraphina she can seduce all males within range of her attack for a turn, while the muscle headed Red Magus turns into a giant sized damage machine. Main characters can also execute special unite attacks based on their love or hate for each other. While non-overlord units don’t get any special abilities, they get all other Revenge benefits. The revenge system is a great way to level the playing field between all units, story units don’t feel too strong, created units don’t feel too weak, and enemy units also get a chance to go into the revenge state.
The only irony is in the storyline. In the Disgaea continuity, you don’t get to be stronger, more powerful or more badass than an overlord. As the name implies these guys and gals are usually the undisputed rulers of their individual hellscapes aptly named ‘Netherworlds.’ Disgaea titles usually feature at least one or two overlords, usually an aspiring demon looking to take on the moniker or a villain who serves as the main antagonist and/or final boss. In Disgaea 5 your main party is made up almost entirely of Overlords, all demons who have been deposed or threatened by a force even greater than them named ‘Void Dark’ (think Alexander the Great of Overlords). The story recalls Nippon Ichi’s long since cancelled Makai Kingdom, which was meant to be all about a war between Overlords. There’s more Overlords than you can handle. We’re having an Overlord flash sale. Why can’t I hold all these Overlords?
So the irony between gameplay and story that I mention comes from the fact that you have a party of the strongest beings in all the Makaiverse, and they’re essentially no stronger than their lowly vassal units. That being said I don’t mind it. The balance is necessary and I enjoyed the greater amount of control I had over my team. With created units in mind, the customization options have also changed little since Disgaea 4, complete with the chance to pick their ‘personality’ (I have a very pregnant Cleric supporting my team) and the option to choose their general color palette. Creating a unit really just influences the core stats you get, as a majority of skills can be learned via other means, though Reincarnation still plays a major role in strengthening them and boosting their abilities.
There are a couple of new classes introduced to this Disgaea. The Maid class comes in with a Chemist-like role in that she’s supposed to add some more power and range to your items used in battle. The Fairy lights up the field as a new monster who specializes in magic. Movement has been improved, giving each character a general field of movement they can walk around in indefinitely until you clear the turn. This means you don’t have to keep undoing actions to move them to the right spot. The lifting and throwing commands in Disgaea have also been changed slightly, so that now you can throw a character or monster in a multitude of directions instead of just a straight line, while monsters can now automatically “toss” a character thrown their way in a predetermined direction. The game also now allows you to see resistances, affinities and prospective damage you’ll do to an enemy. All of which allows you to apply much more forward thinking to your strategies and give your ‘final attack’ to a unit who direly needs the experience instead of just letting any old army member finish the battle.
A few other changes to the game includes the ability to send units in your army out on missions to recover items and prisoners of war. It places a little bit of value to units who might otherwise sit in your base and collect dust as you progress in the game. Chara World works for your characters similar to how Item World works for your weapons and equipment, allowing you to dive into that character’s soul and unlock hidden potential with a board game type mechanic. There is also the new Quest system which will request you kill a certain kind and number of enemy units, collect items or perform other special tasks. Unlocking new classes is now tied to the Quest system and successfully completing certain objectives. None of these new systems are too ridiculously deep, and feel like a slight spin on older Disgaea mechanics and systems.
Otherwise battle still functions exactly the same. You’ll run into maps where you have to carefully examine geo panels and geo stones, using them to your advantage and keeping the enemy at a disadvantage. Different map challenges will tickle your brain in different ways. You’re still going to be trying to fill up your Bonus Meter for after battle rewards. You can bet units such as the Valkyrie, Priest, Mage etc. all still function exactly the same as before (and the Mage will still be one of your most ridiculously overpowered units if raised right), and the female Armor Knight makes a return.
The music, true of all Makai styles, uses a nice mix of techno, jazz and orchestral to give it a distinct flavor. The graphics aren’t exactly flooring, and some of the sprites appeared to be reused from Disgaea 4 (which was the game’s last major graphical update.) However character sprites do at least get a few poses, and their unite attacks have entirely new and deliciously over the top animations.
I would sum up the entire game as a collection of minor changes applied to the overall Disgaea formula. There is nothing so deep or groundbreaking that it really confuses the player or makes it an unrecognizable game. At the same time it’s not quite enough to give Disgaea that fresh spin it kind of direly needs. Old school Disgaea fans who just need that next Makai experience will enjoy this one, at the same time if you’re burned out on the Disgaea series this is an entry you’re allowed to skip. The game is thick with tutorials and, like most Disgaea games, the storyline of the previous Disgaea and Makai game’s is entirely irrelevant until after you clear the main campaign which all goes to say ‘new’ players curious about the series can jump into Disgaea 5 with no muss. I had fun with my Disgaea 5 experience, and while I wasn’t exactly floored by the new features, I appreciated more customization in content for a bit of a more tailor made gaming experience.