In a genre that prides itself on balanced gameplay and character building, you can always count on the Disgaea franchise to be the outlier in the strategy role-playing realm with its ability to not take itself too seriously. If you've played previous instalments, you'll know that a wacky cast and unconventional stories of the netherworld both accompany rich turn-based gameplay. Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance is the franchise's first foray on the PlayStation 4, with promises of it being the largest adventure yet. Well, dood, does bigger equate to better?
Back to the netherworld we go in order to find out. Like previous instalments, Alliance of Vengeance starts us off in the depths of the demon world. It's here where we meet our main protagonist Sir Killia, a demon with a murky past. His sole mission is to reap his vengeance on an overlord named Void Dark – clever name, right? – and in true video game fashion, our antagonist poses a danger to the very existence of our unorthodox hero.
On the path to building a rebellion army to suppress this evil in the land of evil, we meet a few colourful characters that form an impressively efficient rag-tag team of outcasts. As usual, this cast is fantastic; each one has an interesting motivation, and you'll be in love with every one of them by the end of your first playthrough.
Fans of the series will instantly recognise a tonal change in the story. Opposed to previous titles, the plot in this one deals with the more serious themes about handling vengeance. Unfortunately, though, things get too corny at points, detracting from what could have been an emotionally powerful tale. That's not to disparage the character writing, however, which is an aspect that's still at its brilliant, clever best.
But, if you're into it, you'll be happy to know that there's a whole lot of campaign here. Unfortunately, it feels like the developer was trying so hard to make the game bigger, it stretched out some of the narrative for the sake of padding the length. The stages designed for the adventure are fun, varied, and provide different scenarios for you, but about three quarters of the way in, you'll be wondering if you'll ever reach the climax. What's more, there's also a strange difficulty spike towards the end that can be frustrating if you haven't built the right type of team, which threatens to pad the runtime even further.
Now to the real juicy stuff, dood. All of the excellent strategy and character options make a glorious return, and they're better than ever before. A load of new classes have been added, including – wait for it – zombie maid and dark knight. Best of all, they scale to your level – you just need to have enough currency to cover the bill.
A great deal of the strategy begins before the battle; trying to build a team that can handle any situation is a whole lot of nerdy fun. Covering up that Death Star-thermal-exhaust-pipe-sized weakness on your team is key to surviving the more difficult stages, while focusing on elemental damage, the special gauge, health bars, and items will also go a long way in making sure that you succeed.
You can find success in a myriad of ways, so Disgaea is often about how creative you can be. For some time, we were owning the field using four knights, five mages, and one healer – but it's all about finding your own balance, and creating powerful teams is extremely exciting with so many options available.
Level designs start off easy enough, where the only difficulty you'll have is efficiently moving your troops. Further down the line, you'll be asked to avoid stage damage, movement impediments, and powerful enemies. In other words, it's more of what fans have come to expect. Speaking of stages, a past complaint has been their boring aesthetic. Although it's mostly still a whole lot of flat maps with very few dynamic aspects built in, there seems to have been a more conscious effort in decorating them here, which is appreciated.
What's more impressive, though, are the animations that come with your attacks. Saying that they're over the top is doing them no justice; massive special attacks will fill your screen with colours, explosions, and a whole lot of madness. They're fantastic in every way possible.
Along with the eye-pleasing attacks and freshly painted stages, a new revenge system has been added to the mix. Now, when your allies are being attacked, each character's revenge meter will fill until you hit the cap. At that point, that character's statistics are increased exponentially, and some can unleash a powerful special called an overload. Going into this mode can swing the battle even in the direst of situations – and at times, you'll need it when you're surrounded by loads of foes.
In battle you're able to capture enemies for later interrogation, as well as appoint characters to teams that will yield special boosts like an increase in attack and accuracy. Seriously, there's a whole lot to experiment with and do here – you can even decorate your hub world to your liking.
Meanwhile, the Item World, which has also appeared in the previous instalments, allows you to level up your gear by entering an endless amount of battles. The difficulty of these stages increases the further that you progress, and this makes your equipment much more powerful as a result. The chances of finding rare loot also increases the deeper that you go down the rabbit hole, and it's this potential reward loop that'll keep you hooked. It's the ol' carrot at the end of the stick trick, and Disgaea does it fantastically.
Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance is arguably the most complete package in the series. Despite an unnecessarily long campaign that's home to some surprising difficulty spikes, it's still an excellent strategy venture that will give you plenty of bang for your buck.