Some JRPG fans have been holding off on buying a PlayStation 4 due to its “lack of exclusives,” since a number of high profile titles (like the now 2016-bound Persona 5) will be simultaneously making their way to the PS3. If you’re into strategic role-playing, however, it might be time to shell out the cash: Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance is here, and it’s the best of the genre currently available on the console.
This new Disgaea continues in the series’ long tradition of tactical role-playing action, building on a tried-and-true system that got its start 13 years ago on the PlayStation 2. Like the four prior main games, Alliance of Vengeance has you moving your army of colorful characters across a number of equally vivid isometric maps to wage war on foes. To do this, you’ve got the main crew at your disposal — Killia, Seraphina, Red Magnus and a bunch of other quirky demons — but you also have access to a recruiter who brings in customizable party members of many different classes.
Many of the franchise’s famous gimmicks return, from lifting and throwing other characters to those tricky Geo Panels that set special conditions depending on where you’re standing. Fitting in with the “vengeance” theme of the title, there’s also a new feature on hand: Revenge Mode. As your characters take more and more abuse, their gauge accumulates; once it reaches max capacity, they enter a special vengeful state that enhances their stats, brings their critical hit rate up to 100% and allows them to perform a special “Overload” skill. The latter ability is tailor-made for the character who uses it — Seraphina’s charms all men in the vicinity, for example, while Red Magnus’ makes him (and his strength) increase exponentially in size.
As usual, the battle system is fun, challenging and a lot faster-paced than the average strategy RPG. The stage design is uniformly great, striking a nice balance across the worlds: there’s enough variety and complexity here to keep things from getting stale, but not so much that you’re overwhelmed with information to keep track of. Longtime fans can breathe easy, too, knowing this entry is also true to the series’ legacy of providing insane amounts of content. Though the main campaign will take the average player about 20 hours, there are plenty of quests to participate in, secret characters to recruit and challenges to drive your inner completionist crazy — and add plenty of time to your game clock.
For some reason, a common complaint from critics in the past has been the series’ “old-school” visuals. All the characters and environments may be two-dimensional, but that’s not inherently a bad thing — these are absolutely gorgeous sprites boasting an incredible level of detail and color. They’re animated simply, to be sure, but to get this sheer amount of manic energy and invention from a 2D game in 2015 is refreshing. Add the visual splendor of the high definition character portraits, and you’ve got undeniable eye candy — 3D elitists be damned.
That graphical pop fits in well with the franchise’s trademark humor, which follows a pretty unabashed formula: a ragtag bunch of demons with hugely varying personalities (and unfortunate backstories) get together to fight a common enemy, bickering at first and (of course) eventually befriending each other. But who says formulas can’t yield great results? This idiosyncratic group of characters is an absolute delight, with this reviewer’s personal favorite being the spoiled, man-enslaving “Overlord of Gorgeous” Seraphina. Dial back your expectations of an epic drama, revel in the playful irreverence and have a great time.
If there’s something to complain about, it’s the sound. Make no mistake, the vast majority of the songs and voiceovers here are absolutely on point; the frenetic, brass-heavy battle music is an obvious highlight. Unfortunately, when the acting and music are bad, they’re really bad. In the former case, nobody’s going to deny that Disgaea’s characters and humor are intentionally over-the-top, but why do some of these performances bring to mind a pandering children’s cartoon series rather than a game meant to be enjoyed by people of all ages?
As for the latter problem, with regards to the music, there’s only one major offender. Unfortunately, it’s the song that loops when you’re in the game’s main lobby, and it’s pretty awful. There’s no two ways around this particular bit of criticism: the song itself is fine, but the women singing it… can’t sing very well at all. The majority of the notes are off-pitch, which makes walking around the lobby more unpleasant than it needs to be.
Sound issues notwithstanding, Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance is the first worthwhile exclusive for Japanese RPG fanatics on PS4. It has everything that made its predecessors great: a fast-paced, addictive battle system, an abundance of content and a cast of humorous characters. The two-dimensional sprites that make up the game’s aesthetic may be traditional, but their detail looks great in HD, and the game’s vivid use of color is eye candy. If you’re a fan of the genre and you’ve been holding off on Sony’s latest console, here’s your excuse to move into the next generation of JRPGs.
Review code for Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.