Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: October 6, 2015
ESRB: T for Teen
After more than ten years since its initial debut it is very likely that most people know where they stand with Nippon Ichi Software's Disgaea series. The bizarre over-the-top antics of their main characters, near-endless item world grind, and 9999 level caps (with even higher damage counts) have helped cultivate its strong strategy-RPG following.
That said, it is also apparent that the series has lost its vigor in many eyes as well. It has had its up and downs, from storytelling to gameplay mechanics, and most fans would probably have difficulty articulating why one entry is truly better than another beyond their first impressions. Generally speaking, however, 2013's very safe retread that was Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness was not the answer to renew interest for many despite the return of fan-favorite characters. But with new PS4 hardware it seems like NIS has to taken confidence in a proper numbered installment once more with Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance. Does its less safe rebellion prove fruitful or should its misplaced ambition be quelled?
Rather than dealing with the life of â€œhonor studentsâ€ or an eccentric prinny instructor, Disgaea 5 has a more typical Japanese-RPG setup at the start with a universe enveloping threat. This threat, known the Demon Emperor Void Dark, is rapidly conquering netherworlds and increasing The Lost army along with it. The less typical motivations occur by mere happenstance when the temptress overlord, Seraphina, is saved by a mysterious blue-haired demon Killia whom single-handedly takes down a battalion of The Lost. Instead of feeling indebted to Killia, however, Seraphina decides to follow him with the intention to manipulating his power for her revenge against Void Dark.
Revenge is hardly a subtle theme in Disgaea 5 if the title didn“t already give that away. Narrative-wise it will seem like the only driving force for most of the cast making the first half of it honestly quite slow, in addition to its early story parallels to Disgaea 4. What is surprising is how it actually breaks past its plodding start significantly with a more engaging second-half. The overall character development -- specifically for its lead cast -- ends up being surprisingly heartfelt, especially when compared to previous Disgaea games.
For instance, the giant yellow prinny riding Usalia -- whom seems little more than mascot fodder at first glance -- ends up having a surprisingly grim backstory, and seeing her grow past that is done well. Though the game develops its characters better than you would expect, the main story does ends up being rather predictable as a whole.
Where the most enthusiasm comes across is undoubtedly through its dense strategy-RPG gameplay. The mayhem of exponentially leveling up, diving into the item world, tossing allies across terrain, and smartly using geo panels are certainly all there and then some. However, the upfront new additions to the series come in the form of new classes, revenge mechanic, quest system, and several more quirky unlocks buried for more studious players.
The most substantial to combat is probably the aptly named "revenge" gauge that increases when ally characters get hurt or killed and applies to enemies as well. When the gauge is maxed characters get a big combat advantage with a 100% critical rate, drastically lower skill cost, and lessened overall damage. In addition to this bonus, "overlord" characters in the story get access to unique skills called "Overloads". For example, Seraphina can charm all men characters to attack their own allies for a turn or Zeroken can create four duplicates of himself to use for several turns with the use of Overload. It is a cool new mechanic that can easily turn the tide of battle... or make certain boss characters quite menacing.
Disgaea 5 does more than add a few mechanics and calls it a day. Sure, many appreciated refinements come from Disgaea D2 like cheat shop which allows you to drastically manipulate experience progression or class mechanics that makes strengthening a character's base stats far less grindy. Not only that, though, as Disgaea 5 also cherry-picks many of the previous entries best mechanics and then improves upon them with its own flair to it. Similar to Disgaea 3's classroom system, you can create different groups of characters to wildly different perks in Disgaea 5's. Squads require for less micromanaging than previous games despite their perks being great. You can recruit new characters through "interrogations", get significant experience/stat perks, use of unique squad only skills in combat. or the more absurd quirks in the hub world like assigning a curry cook or being able to punch characters... because, why not? The depth to Disgaea 5 is just crazy even for the most minute concepts.
Probably the only real slight against the new additions is the necessity of quests. In the matter of fairness, they are generally inoffensive with the tasks and the rewards they unlock. The problem with quests is when it comes to unlocking specific characters. Though getting new human classes is more comprehensive (and actually explained) compared to previous games it is obtaining certain monster classes can be feel more restrictive than previous games since they require specific items that may be more luck based to obtain than they should be.
Another issue is that Disgaea 5 goes overzealous with the DLC. It is not surprising because it is standard practice for the past few Disgaea console releases but after playing so much Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited on Vita last year one can't help but feel short changed when it comes to post-game stuff to work towards due to DLC segmentation.
Despite its shortcomings, a lot of the Disgaea charm is certainly still intact with its presentation with the fifth. Questionable English dub quality not withstanding, Tenpei Saito's brings his goofy but whimsical music style and jazzy melodies to complement much of the game's setting. The music does unfortunately lack an insanely catchy hub theme like Extreme Outlaw King or Arcadian Vampire even though it has a good opening theme. Visually, Disgaea 5 has not seen much of an upgrade over Disgaea 4 but the 3D sprite-work is still quite a treat. The many extremely cool-looking attacks are still as crazy but fun to watch as ever, even if the blocky 3D backgrounds serve as a noticeable contrast at times.
With the transition to new hardware one can certainly be weary if formally loved franchises can make it safely. Admittedly, Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance does absolutely nothing to push PS4 hardware in the slightest, but what it does is make pretty much unquestionably the best actual game in the series. There is an insane of gameplay depth, smart additions, and retains most of the charm of the series. Fans will certainly stake their own claim on its story aspects, especially for how plodding and predictable it is at times, but -- like a lot of Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeace -- it has a lot more heart than you'd expect for a series that should be all too familiar by now.
+ Cherry picks most of the series best gameplay mechanics and adds cool new ones
+ Charming sprite work and soundtrack
+ Develops its main characters better than previous Disgaea games
+ Tons of strategy-RPG depth
- New quest and character recruiting structure can feel limiting compared to previous games
- Story is rather slow for the first half and quite predictable overall
Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10)
Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance undoubtedly bests its predecessors as a strategy-RPG but its quirks can bring contention to its storytelling and endgame content. Regardless, there is little doubt is my mind that Disgaea fans or even curious strategy-RPG fans should more than keep their eye on what is one of the very best RPGs on PS4.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.