Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance is a very good game. No, wait: it’s a very bad game. Is it an okay game? No, it’s never that! It’s either an unparalleled package of fun or an interminable waste of time, and sometimes both at once. See, Disgaea inspires extreme feelings and internal struggles as you stare into its indiscernible abyss, and it’s hard to come out of the experience as neither a die-hard convert nor someone who’s sworn off the series entirely. The good news — or bad, depending on how much you value your free time — is that Disgaea 5 is clearly the most engaging and full-featured entry in the series yet.
When it comes to filling your time, the Disgaea series has always been the nuclear option, and this new entry adds a few kilotons of power to its explosive mix. A lot of it comes from the game’s new “squad” functions, which get your bench units active in resource gathering or other support roles. The Nether Research Squads in particular work well to incentivize already-existing functions like the Item World, as they’ll report back after you clear ten maps and ten maps are incredibly easy to knock out in a low-level item. There’s curry to eat for a one-battle boost, a capture-and-interrogation system for enemy fighters and a bevy of other minor options to make deciding what to do next a legitimate concern.
The story in this Disgaea 5 is… well, it’s just as engaging as it was in older games, which is to say that most should probably just ignore it. As Jenni pointed out earlier, it has a lot of parallels with the last game, but thankfully it’s matured just a bit and doesn’t have fundamental empathy flaws like the PS3-era installments. There’s a certain segment of the audience who will enjoy the narrative and its characters — these are the same people who are still amused by Prinnies saying “dood” after every sentence — but for everyone else, the game makes it incredibly easy to just skip the story entirely. You’ll still be able to appreciate the default party these story units assemble, and they’re fun units to use even if you don’t sit around and listen to them talk.
Disgaea 5 is, from a game design standpoint, totally broken. And it revels in it.
What the story lacks in providing structure to players is made up, in part, by the quest system. It’s not a new thing for RPGs, to be sure, so you’re probably familiar: you take on various tasks, like retrieving items, defeating specific types of enemies or other goals, and return when you’re done for a reward. Quests can be annoying in many games, but in Disgaea, anything that gives you just a bit of direction and focus is beneficial. It also gives you a reason to return to older areas that isn’t just “I need to grind for experience or items,” like tracking down an old boss to grab a cool weapon or capturing weaker foes and filling your base with citizens.
Disgaea 5 is, from a game design standpoint, totally broken. And it revels in it. Success in Disgaea is found by exploiting the game’s mechanics, like moving and un-moving characters for support attacks or passing bills in the Assembly to change enemy difficulty. As strategy RPGs go, it’s on the opposite end of the spectrum as a classic Fire Emblem, and it lives for one thing: the joy of the grind. This mentality pre-dated the modern mobile free-to-play craze, but as that field’s taken off, Disgaea has felt more and more comfortable demanding more and more grinding from the player.
If there’s something you want to do, there’s a good chance that you can do it in Disgaea 5, provided you put in the time. Not getting better at the game’s strategy, of course; that’s crazy. No, this is just about grinding for levels or currency. This is true of many games, I suppose, but what makes Disgaea different is just how many currencies and things to level there can be. Each character can get to level 9999, sure, and again if you reincarnate them for stat boosts. But all the items also have levels, raised by playing maps in Item World. There’s currency you’ll need for the shops, there’s currency you’ll need for the assemblies (yes, plural), and you can’t even save up for that stuff because you’ll need some cash for buying map editor parts of all things.
Mechanically, there’s a lot that’s new about Disgaea 5, but I wouldn’t say it’s different; it’s a tree with so many ornaments that “bordering on overkill” is a distant memory of four games ago. There’s “Dual Magichange,” which fuses multiple demons into one weapon; it’s a cool idea, but you’re using three units as one to do it, so the trade-off is often less than worth it. There’s “Revenge Mode,” which powers up units as your squad takes damage, and main characters’ “Overload” skills that can trigger during this mode and provide unique powers. These give you a fighting chance as you start to lose ground in a battle, which can be fun, though relying on these skills too much just puts off the inevitable level grinding for another map or two.
The flip side here is that years of Disgaea development and new, powerful hardware have allowed the team at Nippon Ichi Software to make its most slickly-developed title yet. Everything runs incredibly smoothly, loads quickly and fits together in a way that’s satisfying. There are a lot of bells and whistles, too: you can customize everything, from individual color values in character sprites and specific difficulty ratios to your home base layout and music. (That last one is much appreciated; the default netherworld song is cringe-worthy, and a poor choice for something that’s supposed to loop for hours on end.)
Mechanically, there’s a lot that’s new about Disgaea 5, but I wouldn’t say it’s different; it’s a tree with so many ornaments that “bordering on overkill” is a distant memory of four games ago.
The visuals don’t push the technical limits of the hardware or anything, but they’re leagues ahead of the PS3 games, and about as much as you can hope from this team and franchise. Sticking to its aesthetics while getting away from the visual limitations of low-resolution sprites and flat polygons means it suffers less from “looking like a PS2 game” and benefits more from establishing its own feel. Don’t worry, though, if you like pixels, as they’re still in here.
Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance is a game that many will love, but it will be a strange love: one full of frustration and tense moments, of taxing days and sleepless nights. It’s a weakly-designed, wonderfully-developed game with charming visuals, grating music and a nigh-unending wealth of things to do. Its appeal suggests that the franchise may never be for everyone, that what makes it Disgaea is exactly the Sisyphean grind and aimless structure that many may find unappealing. But if you give in — if you let yourself get lost in the madness of Disgaea — there are few games that can compete.