Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
Review Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: October 6, 2015
It’s often said that satire is best when half of the audience doesn’t realize you’re being satirical. Usually, this brings to mind a breed of subtle humor that marks some of the best storytelling out there, medium aside. That’s why when I saw allusions to the “satire” that Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance evokes, I prepped myself for a tongue-in-cheek cheesefest that I’d heard was common for the series. I was half right, at least.
In a series considered to be among the best of strategy RPGs, their fifth main entry has mastered many things. Mechanically, the game performs exceptionally well. Many small tweaks to the Disgaea formula are present, and for the most part they all make the overall experience a superior one. Character creation, class unlocking, and ability upgrades – now named “evilities” – have all been streamlined in a way that is absolutely necessary for a game as dense as this. The new squad system, something that could be seen as a replacement for Disgaea 4’s Evil Symbols, is also a welcomed addition, adding another layer of depth in a way that is very easy to grasp. Looking just at this, you can see why Disgaea as a series is praised, packing a multitude of significant strategic considerations into a system that is relatively accessible.
That excellence is more questionable in the narrative. Normally, I’m in the camp of gamers that appreciates mechanical excellence above most other considerations, and I think that’s especially true for strategy games. While lore and backstory are appreciated, and can add depth and make a series more recognizable and enjoyable, how any strategy game really sets itself apart to me is in its mechanics. But Disgaea 5 is campy to such a degree that I feel even stalwart mechanics-focused gamers will be affected, for better or worse. Stop me if you’ve heard these before: a pretty-boy demon who is too cool for school and struggling with a dark side, an over-the-top female sidekick with only one joke, a tough guy whose sole reason for existence is to be a meathead. Disgaea 5 reads like a bad anime, and your enjoyment will be directly linked to how much you can appreciate that.
While I can maybe buy that the game is in on the joke, it really doesn’t have anything to say beyond its tropes, and the narrative actually does a fairly good job in defining where the game goes right and wrong. Just look at the subtitle: Alliance of Vengeance. Mechanically, they incorporate this into the game by means of Revenge Mode. When a character takes enough damage, has allies fall, or defeats another combatant who is in Revenge Mode, they can unlock the mode for themselves, giving them significant buffs. In less capable hands, this might have been where the significance ended, but the benefit of gaining items that grant permanent buffs from beating someone who is in Revenge Mode offers an additional risk-reward consideration.
By contrast, the cliche tormented-soul “have to get stronger” ethos espoused by the protagonist for the sake of getting revenge is something we’ve all heard a thousand times before, and shows how little was done to differentiate the story even when tackling the same issues the game does mechanically. I would pick on the voice actors for hit-and-miss performances – particularly highlighted in Killia’s constantly flat affect and Seraphina’s obnoxious laughter (that they felt necessary to include IN VIRTUALLY EVERY CUT-SCENE) – but really, there’s only so much that can be done with material like this. It’s trite, but it knows that, and you’re either going to like it or you’re not.
Rarely have I been so equally impressed by a game’s design and annoyed by its narrative. Mechanically, the game does exactly what a good sequel to a well-respected series should do: make improvements, large and small, without losing the core experience. As a piece of writing, however, it’s campy and makes no effort to be anything more than that. If you’re a fan of the series or exceedingly cheesy anime, you’ll probably find no fault there, but I can’t help but feel that a little more time spent developing the story would have made the whole experience much more enjoyable. Still, I can’t help but like a well-made strategy game, and if nothing else, Disgaea 5 deserves that title. But please, for the love of god, no more of Seraphina’s laughter!