The nonsensical turn-based strategy RPG series Disgaea has always marched to the beat of its own drum. With Disgaea 7: Vows of the Virtueless, this tradition continues, for better or worse. We can't imagine new converts will be won to the cause here, but if you've stuck with the series this long, you'll likely have a Hell of a good time.
The story this time around follows the decidedly un-chivalric samurai Fuji, a brawler whose obsession with money and disdain for the bushido code make him the antithesis of the classical warrior. In a backwater of the Netherworld, in an area known as the Hinamoto Cluster, a society of demons that resembles feudal Japan attempts to cling to the old ways.
Fuji encounters an otaku girl named Pirilika, who is obsessed with the Hinamoto culture she knows from movies and anime and is quite disappointed to find that reality doesn't exactly live up to her imagination. Naive but generally a good person, she's also the CEO of a popular clothing label and thus extremely rich, and there's no price she won't pay to see Hinomoto returned to what she sees as its former glory.
With the promise of a massive payday in hand, Fuji lends his tremendous fighting talents to the cause, and the two set out on an interdimensional romp of epic proportions. In true Disgaea fashion, they quickly accrue a colourful cast of characters, making unlikely friends and facing bizarre foes along the way.
From Fuji's disturbingly destructive daughter, Ao, to the absurdly self-obsessed degenerate Shogun Yeyasu, to the trigger-happy Chivalrous Thief, Ceefore, the cast of Disgaea 7 is as eclectic as you'd expect. Add Suisen, a cybernetic living weapon, and Higan, a swordmaster who's grown bored of swords, and you have a lot to work with, although your mileage with the characterization of each is likely to vary.
It's silly and fun, serving as a vehicle to guide you through the standard suite of story arcs, allowing you to meet and recruit the main characters mentioned. We feel like the campaign flows a little easier than the last instalment, Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny, and that it feels more engaging throughout. There were, admittedly, moments we found ourselves skipping through to get back to the game, but that's always been the case here.
Being Disgaea, the vast majority of your time will be spent engaging in excellent turn-based tactical combat, which is about as good as it can be. At this point, after more than 20 years of refining essentially the same combat system, there isn't much that can be done in terms of innovation short of a drastic overhaul. Still, there are a few new additions that spice things up, some more successfully than others.
Four new classes have been added to the mix, for a total of 45, but throughout the campaign, diversifying your crew isn't strictly necessary; it's in the title's infamous post-story endgame where the difficulty really starts to ramp up. That said, keeping even a moderately-sized crew up to date in terms of gear and enhancements remains a menu tax, as the process requires quite a lot of tinkering,
Still, changes to how auto-combat works mean more input is required from the player than last time around. You can still have your party endlessly grind while you're at dinner or folding laundry, but you'll need to occasionally play battles manually in order to do so. The Demonic Intelligence (D.I.) system introduced in Disgaea 6 has been vastly expanded, almost allowing for Final Fantasy XII levels of granularity in tweaking parameters and priorities, or you can pick from preset archetypes.
Perhaps the biggest addition to this iteration (pardon the pun) is the introduction of the Jumbification mechanic, which temporarily causes characters to grow to gargantuan sizes. In this form, regular attacks can devastate entire groups of enemies and turn the tides of battle in a dramatic fashion. Enemies can Jumbify as well, with up to four Jumbified characters being supported at once. It adds an additional level of complexity and chaos, which is never a bad thing but can sometimes feel difficult to plan for.
Certain story characters have access to Demonic Weapons, which lets them enter Hell Mode, allowing them to use these arcane implements to devastating effect. Hell Mode essentially functions as the character's Limit Break, allowing them to enter a heightened state and giving them access to rare and visually dramatic special attacks. Like Jumbification, this adds another welcome element but adds yet another mechanic to be aware of.
Outside of combat, those looking for a change of pace might enjoy a spot of Netherworld Sightseeing. Hinamoto is a tourist destination, after all, and you can discover special conversations that flesh out the world, as well as minigames and even secret quests not available through the traditional Quest Shop. After clearing stages, you can return to see how the locals are picking up the pieces and getting on with their lives. Special pop-up stores can even sell Netherworld-specific items which the Rosen Queen Company doesn't stock.
Online AI Battles make their debut in the form of the Ranked Battles feature, but this wasn't something we had much luck with in finding matches. It allows players to deploy their own squads of characters against one another, with the action controlled by each's specific Demonic Intelligence settings. It's a cool idea for those who want another way to test their might, with the victor earning in-game rewards as well as eternal bragging rights.
The Disgaea series is nothing if not consistent, and with Vows of the Virtueless, fans will have another reason to dump dozens of hours into this bizarrely endearing world. It becomes increasingly dense with each subsequent release — barring Disgaea 6, it could be argued — and so isn't exactly newcomer-friendly, but we can't imagine many are still wandering into the series unaware of its reputation.
Disgaea 7: Vows of the Virtueless continues the Disgaea series' inexorable march forward, adding new mechanics and further complexity. It features a story campaign that goes down smoothly, if a little forgettable, but it's full of clever encounters that require more input than previous outings. It won't convert unbelievers, but for those already on the hook, it's as good as the series gets.