Sometimes you don't want wild innovation, you just want the same thing done better. Disgaea 5, subtitled "Alliance of Vengeance" on our shores, is the sixth primary title in Nippon Ichi's popular strategy series and it definitely qualifies for the aforementioned statement. (The reunion game, Disgaea D2, was actually the fifth title.)
This is the first Disgaea released on this current generation of consoles. Visually, Disgaea 5 looks great. We get new high-resolution hand-drawn art for all the character portraits, meaning combo attacks and conversations feature crisp, clean Takehito Harada art. The power of the PlayStation 4 means more sprites onscreen too, so battles can be a bit bigger than they were before. Oddly enough though, the character sprites in-game for returning characters and units seem to be pulled directly from Disgaea D2. That's probably a logistical and financial concern on Nippon Ichi's part, but it means that while the character art features clean lines, the sprites suffer a bit of aliasing.
Disgaea 5 tells the story Killia and his rebellious band of former Overlords. While previous Disgaea games took place on a single Netherworld, D5 is galactic adventure. The warlord Void Dark has taken over a third of all the Netherworlds in the galaxy, destroying or deposing the ruling Overlords. Into this conflict comes the lone, wandering warrior Killia, who through no fault of his own begins to collect ex-Overlords around him like Tribbles on the Enterprise.
Killia is a lot like Disgaea 2's Adell; he's far more serious and focused than those around him. He's got a mysterious backstory and he's driven by revenge! (In the Japanese voice track, he's played with earnest seriousness by Mamoru Miyano.) If you're looking for Disgaea humor, that's delivered mostly through the supporting cast, which includes Seraphina, the vain Overlord of Gorgeous; Red Magnus, the Rock-like Overlord of Scorching Flame; Christo, the conniving Overlord of the *spoilers*; Usalia, the pacifistic potential Overlord of the Toto Bunny Netherworld; and Zeroken, a young Overlord with no world who fancies himself a great warrior. (Zeroken is also the best and I'll fight you if you disagree.)
It's a good cast and they do deliver the classic Disgaea humor, full of pop culture references, non-sequiturs, and general weirdness. Do I think they're as good as the cast for Disgaea 4? No. That cast remains my gold standard, even above the original Disgaea trio of Laharl, Flonne, and Etna. I think part of the reason for that is Valvatorez is one of the strongest leads the series has had, with a solid mix of seriousness and humor. He had a tragic backstory, but that tragedy made him quirky and emotionally earnest. It was a great combination.
In contrast, Killia is the straight man for his title. The callbacks in his design to Disgaea's Laharl made me think he was being primed for a different reveal, but his real backstory is much more straightforward. Since he's the hook you hang the entire game on, he brings the whole thing down just a little bit.
So how does the game play? Like Disgaea. This is still the same tactical strategy RPG action you've come to expect from Nippon Ichi. Take your squad of up to 10 on into an isometric battlefield, using combos to deal millions in damage. If you've played Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Battle, or Fire Emblem, you'll feel largely at home here, thought everything is turned up to 11.
It's easy to understand Disgaea's basics as they're shared with other tactics strategy games, but the series retains a long list of additional features and gameplay modes most casual players will never use. There's basic combat and leveling, the Geo Panel system, the Item World, Reincarnation, Evilities, the Dark Assembly (Disgaea 5's version of the senate system), Magichange, and Recruitment.
Many of these older systems have been revamped, drawing from various older Disgaea games or making up something new. Capturing enemy units has been moved to a new Squad System, allowing you to denote certain members as a Squad. Each squad has a different special ability, like the capture squad, who gains the additional ability to throw a net over weakened enemies and bring them home. Recruitment now works off currency instead of mana, meaning you can staff up your squad quicker. You can also pay to have your new squad member boosted up levels, so you're not getting a new character at level 1 while everyone else is 50+, a big problem in older Disgaea games. Class Ranks now upgrade automatically per character, which actually helps to make your veteran squad members feel more worthwhile, whereas before you' could'd often capture a new character that outdid anything you already had available.
Those are just the old systems returning for this round, but Disgaea 5 features a whole host of brand-new systems, mostly built around helping you build the perfect squad.
There's the Chara World, which acts as the Item World for characters, letting you dive into a board game to improve individual squad members. The new Quest system gives you rewards for completing certain objectives, like "destroy X thing" or "reach Y rank". This system ends up feeling like busywork, as the only missions you'll feel compelled to tackle after the early part of the game involve unlocking other class types, like the Magic Knight. The Nether Research Squad lets you send your extra squad members on a mission for items, experience, and prisoners; it's probably my favorite new addition. Revenge Mode activates in combat when your allies get attacked, boosting your stats and letting story characters pull off powerful Overload skills.
A few chapters (10+ hours at my pace) into the game you'll finally have every feature unlocked and available to you; Nippon Ichi does realize they can't throw it at you all at once. When you read that list above, you see Disgaea's greatest strength and weakness. It's a game that stacks system upon system and success requires knowing exactly which systems to engage with. For veterans, this is easy, but for new players, the wall is huge. The developer wants Disgaea to "appeal to a broader audience," but I question if the game as it stands can do that. I've wondered if the Disgaea series might be too hardcore for its own good, as the general aesthetic would do well in an easier, Advance Wars-style title, but it's too late to change course. Nippon Ichi would be better off spinning off into another series, like Phantom Brave.
This is Disgaea, warts and all. Disgaea 5 is the kind of game that will match the effort you're willing to put into it. If you've loved Disgaea before, hey... this is the biggest Disgaea yet. (Honestly, Disgaea 5 is one of those games that really doesn't benefit from a review because if you're going to buy it, you already know that.) From a gameplay standpoint, I enjoy it the most, even if there are some system cuts I could make here and there. From a story standpoint, Disgaea 4 still takes the crown for me, but this is solidly "good enough" and the cast will still make you laugh. This system with a cast as good as Disgaea 4 would be nearly perfect, but as it stands, Disgaea 5 is merely great. If your tactical thirst is real - and really, there's not much out there for you - Disgaea 5 is definitely worth a purchase.
The best Zeroken in the game is Zeroken.
You can play a Disgaea game forever if that's your thing and Disgaea 5 is no different.
The Pocket Netherworld song has lyrics. It's very weird.
Disgaea 5 features hot new high-res character art, but the sprite looks like they've been pull from the PS3 games.
Disgaea 5 is a Disgaea game for better or for worse. This means solid tactical combat, over-the-top attacks, and more game systems than you can shake a stick at. The cast isn't as good as Disgaea 4, but the game itself is undeniably bigger and more robust. Veterans will be happy and new players have a lot to digest. Prepare yourself.