In the early days of the Nintendo Switch we're gradually seeing the broadening of its library to incorporate a wide range of genres. Disgaea 5 Complete is an early and substantial release for strategy / tactical gamers, and is also the most 'Disgaea' game many will have played. To be absolutely clear from the outset your humble scribe is not a Disgaea veteran but is new to the series. If you want to take that fact as a stick with which to beat us then, hey, no need to read the rest of this review - just dig out your virtual pitchfork and head to the comments section. If you want to know how this series is received by a newcomer that loves strategy games, though, read on.
Disgaea 5 Complete is weird, and we don't mean that as an insensitive and boneheaded perspective on the representation of Japanese culture in games, but simply as a recognition that it's peculiar on any level. The first loading screen we saw was a blue penguin doing a ballet-style pirouette. We then saw a light-hearted battle scene before it kicked into one of the most bombastic, dramatic and peculiar cinematic sequences ever committed to a game. We then settled down into a world of talking penguins that say 'dood' a lot, a delusional heiress and a lead hero whose voice actor sounds like he performed his lines while checking his Twitter feed at the same time. The cast expands exponentially from there, with all manner of quirky protagonists entering the action.
Pleasingly it's mostly entertaining, albeit the humour and zaniness can arguably get a tad wearisome after a while, and it's also a distinctly mature game. We'd forgotten that Nintendo systems have games with swearing, and the localisation team evidently had a lot of fun working on this title. Dialogue is often amusing and downright absurd, with the story also following those trends. It's a game that is not supposed to be taken at face value, nor as a serious battle between good and evil. It's goofy, and even when characters speak earnestly of defeating the malevolent 'Void Dark' - who is taking over the universe one 'Netherworld' at a time - they often do so out of touch with the overall tone. It's silly, peculiar storytelling (with plenty of voice track to back it up) that works for the most part, even if one character's grating 'Ohohohohoho' laugh made us spam the skip button every time it appeared.
The series is familiar to Sony gamers, of course, though there was a release on DS quite a while ago - we don't feel Disgaea 5 Complete suffers from a lack of familiarity with the IP, however. The story is perfectly easy to follow (by the relative terms of its odd approach) and the mechanics can be mastered. Those that are intrigued by the prospect of strategy RPG gaming that is seemingly endless should feel confident about jumping in at this point in the series, as long as they're up for the challenge.
Disgaea 5 Complete likes menus with a generous side-portion of complex mechanics. A lot of what you do involves picking through menus, sub-menus, sub-sub-menus and beyond. To give you an idea of the complexity (and therefore flexibility) the game offers, simply attacking a foe requires you to get into position, select a type of attack (from multiple menus), perhaps change your primary weapon and then go to an entirely separate menu (with various options) to then 'execute' the move. That's only for a simple attack, which becomes increasingly rare as a strategic move as the game spreads its wings.
Battles, where you spend most of your time, take place on isometric maps; later in the game they have environmental hazards to deal with, and even (occasionally) 'Geo Effect' panels and crystals to affect how units perform. Before long you have a squad of up to 10 that you hand pick from your sizeable crew, naturally considering which units are levelled up but also ensuring you have a balanced group; so far, so normal. As the various early tutorials make clear, however, it's not just a case of sending units to tackle foes one-on-one; reminiscent of other strategy titles you can line units up next to each other to increase odds of teamed up combo attacks, which are fantastical assaults that are always entertaining to watch. Units can also pick each other up and throw them or even use each other as live weapons with which to pummel foes. Another game changing ability is for units to be infused with 'Revenge' when colleagues are knocked out or there's positive momentum in the squad; some characters have useful 'Overload' abilities to transform the battle, while others just gain temporary strength.
As you'd expect, too, you need to carefully assess strengths and weaknesses of both your team and the enemies. Early on you can merrily swat aside foes with little real thought, but later on some will be vulnerable to elemental attacks, others to physical moves, and others a mix of both. The profile screens when viewing a unit provide a complex grid of numbers and stats, along with strategic tendencies (some like attacking in groups, for example) and a lot of information we've probably missed. This is a game constructed by a development team that's hugely passionate about producing well-refined strategy gameplay, and on a technical level it's certainly impressive.
Battles are undoubtedly a lot of fun, and the blend of grid-based manoeuvring and outlandish attack animations has kept us engaged. The implementation isn't flawless, however. The maps and moving through the grids can be a little fiddly, with limited camera options not always giving you the optimal view. Occasionally, on complex maps with multiple sections and levels, it can be a tad tiring to simply set things up as you like by the time you get the cursor where you want and set your moves.
It's also a little unintuitive and messy. For a game that portrays a breezy and comedic tone it's also designed for those that are gluttons for statistics and layers upon layers of systems. What that means is lots of complexity, which is good, but also a daunting edifice for those that are accustomed to lighter-touch strategy games. Practically every strategy game has many layers of systems and mechanics, but Disgaea 5 Complete is rather next level in the depth it offers; to be clear we commend the infrastructure, but it's wrapped in a user interface that throws so much at players that those without complete focus will forget the majority of the options available to them. Unlike some games in the genre that feel accessible even when they're actually throwing around complicated ideas, Disgaea 5 Complete skips the accessibility part and offers the depth regardless.
This is reflected in the sheer range of activities you undertake away from the core campaign 'chapters'. In your hub world you start off with various stores, a hospital to heal your team (in exchange for money, of course) and some areas of interest. In little time however you're tackling sub-quests, and embarking upon an impressive range of sub-tasks. For example you can build 'squads' with your roster, and being in these squads can impact their capabilities in battles - so they may be able to capture units, for example; you can then have an interrogation squad try to flip those enemy units. Another example is that you complete sub-quests to unlock new character classes, and then recruiting them may unlock entirely different features or optional Netherworlds to explore.
Assuming you keep track of all the additions as they arrive, there's undoubtedly a lot to help you make progress. The 'Item World' allows you to level up items and in the process earn more experience for your units, 'Research' is handy for sending off units that you don't use to explore Netherworlds and pick up goodies and experience. You can even go to the Strategy Assembly to quite literally change the rules of the game, and even unlock a cheat shop. This is a quirky area as it works as a congress / senate of sorts, as you cajole and even bribe representatives to back your requests in a vote.
It's easy, frankly, to lose track of all these options and abilities, but it's important to try and utilise every advantage that's given. The game does - as expected - up the ante with progress and your team may find the going tough if you've not been diligently levelling them up, improving their equipment and abilities along the way. There's a lot to keep track of, and failure to do so will likely necessitate some old-fashioned grinding.
An area where Disgaea 5 Complete certainly doesn't fall short, though, is unique content to keep you company through the grind. This game includes all of the DLC from the PS4 original, and far beyond the story-specific Netherworlds to explore (which typically have five levels and a few hours of play each) there are lots of optional worlds and subplots to play through. Some introduce backstory, others new characters, and they provide plenty of opportunity to take the edge off the necessary grinding. You can also replay any level you want to clear sub-quests or to just improve your performance, with a top-notch effort yielding better rewards.
The 'Special Content Shop' is home for what was once the DLC, including characters and scenarios. One of our earliest actions - while still learning the ropes - was to empty that store of its free stock, and some of the characters from that content became integral parts of our squad building. You can also pick up a huge amount of currency as a 'bonus', which almost felt like cheating; we ignored the bulk of that money to play 'properly', but it's handy when buying equipment or recruiting units to know that you have plenty of 'HL' to spend if necessary.
As for the core presentation here, as expected of a game originally on PS4 it delivers relatively attractive visuals, though they're not exceptional by modern standards. The character portraits and illustrations are, we'd suggest, of better quality than the sprite work, but the overall effect is decent; insane special modes and combo attacks do look terrific, and maps get quite colourful and appealing. We actually preferred playing on the Switch screen most of the time, however, as the smaller real estate suited the visuals, which can look a little dated on a large HD TV display. In terms of sound there's a lot of voice acting, which is generally performed with great enthusiasm, and the soundtrack does its job well.
All told you have an enormous amount of lovingly created content here, far too much for most players (we suspect) to get close to seeing it all. That does, in theory, mean that the value for a purchase is off the charts; if you buy into the complexity of the gameplay and enjoy the wackiness of the experience you'll have zero regret over a purchase. From the first time you see a 'counter counter attack' to the insane levelling up and extravagant showdowns as the game progresses, there's a lot to love here.
Disgaea 5 Complete is a tough game to judge. On the positive side it offers an extraordinary volume of content, its own quirky approach to storytelling and a complex set of systems that complement each other well. Unlike some other major strategy RPG IPs, however, it struggles to present its complexity in a cohesive way, with a user interface that groans under the weight of its goals. Fans of the game and series likely adore this hardcore approach, but some more familiar with strategy games that are more focused and precise in their execution may find it hard to fall in love with all of those layers of detail. There are so many terrific parts to the game, but they get somewhat jumbled together.
For Disgaea fans this game is worth a purchase, especially as it includes all DLC from the original and plays beautifully on the go. For strategy RPG fans we still give it a hearty recommendation, but with the proviso that it's more demanding and tougher to master than many of its genre contemporaries. If you're up for the challenge and time investment, and can tolerate its zany characters and settings, then it's well worth adding to your Nintendo Switch collection.