Disgaea 7: Vows of the Virtueless Review – Like Before, But More

    Title: Disgaea 7: Vows of the Virtueless
    Developer: NIS
    Release Date: October 10, 2023
    Reviewed On: Switch
    Publisher: NIS America
    Genre: RPG, Tactical RPG

Disgaea has been around for a long time, and I’ve been there with it. The biggest jewel in Nippon Ichi Software’s anime-styled crown, the series has, in some ways, come a very long way from its original outing on the PlayStation 2, but in others, stayed very close to where it started. If you compare the original to Disgaea 7: Vows of the Virtueless, what you’ll likely find is a series that has heavily expanded but is still instantly recognizable.

If you’ve been living under a rock, the Disgaea games are a series of tactical RPGs with one main appeal above all else – they’re an absolute paradise for level grinders. The first game turned heads with a level cap of 9,999, and it’s not even like the player is meant to stop there since the game will happily let you “reincarnate” your characters and start from level 1 again to chase even higher stats. Not only that, but every individual skill can be leveled up through repetition, and even your throwaway items and equipment have levels that can be increased by going through randomized dungeons.

The other thing that unites them all is an absolutely wacky setting full of cartoonish, sexy demons. Previous games have mostly stuck to a European-fantasy-inspired Netherworld, full of vampires and spooky castles and the like, albeit with an anime twist. Disgaea 7 breaks that tradition by placing the player in Hinomoto, a much more feudal-Japan-inspired take on the demonic realm that visually looks immediately distinct from everything that came before it.

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This is also helped by the game carrying the series’ new fully 3D art style over from the previous entry. The character models are still small, but they’re nicely expressive and move fluidly enough for the attack animations to play out, though it’s visually a bit frustrating that every single special move has to play out on a separate miniature map rather than most of them taking place right on the one you were already fighting on.

While Disgaea 6 came under heavy fire for seemingly pushing the series’ number-go-up ideals too far, leaning very heavily on an auto-battle system to allow the player to grind levels even while they weren’t playing, Disgaea 7 has corrected course while still keeping all of the quality-of-life improvements and even adding new ones. For starters, while the aut0-battle is still here, it’s significantly more limited in application, and you can no longer use it for story missions you haven’t beaten yet.

Previous games in the series had a “combo” meter that would fill as the player performed consecutive actions, but which was frequently impossible to max out, leaving valuable rewards visible but impossible to acquire. Vows of the Virtueless finally does away with this and instead gives each map five bonus objectives that each corresponds to a randomized reward chest. While you can’t see what the actual reward is before the fight is over anymore, at least you have the ability to get most, if not all, of them in any given fight.

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The Item World has also been adjusted, and while it seems to be more difficult than in the past, it also no longer takes a significant amount of time to complete a run. This is a change that’s been a long time coming, as in the past, the biggest reason why the portable console ports of the series have been so sought-after is because the randomized Item World dungeons could take a long time to get through, and unless you wanted to waste an item (and likely a lot of time) to leave early, you had to leave your console on. Even once we moved to consoles that could use sleep mode last generation, it was still much less convenient than being able to grind on the go. Now, both problems have been solved, and the series is absolutely better for it.

The balance on the story mode maps is also at an absolute height for the series. The difficulty curve has long been an issue for these games, but in my time with it, I very rarely was forced to completely stop what I was doing and grind, and this is also helped by the fact that you can create new units at level parity with the rest of your party instead of starting fresh at level 1.

Basically, everything I’ve mentioned is a basic quality-of-life upgrade, but honestly, that’s really all Disgaea still needs to keep itself going. This series is here to give you two things – a goofy plot about demons and a constant method of progressing and getting stronger. Where Disgaea 6 banked on taking that aspect largely out of players’ hands, 7 makes it clear that it’s up to you, whether you relish the grind or you find a way to break the game wide open.

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The big new mechanic in Vows of the Virtueless is that characters can now “Jumbify,” basically increasing to kaiju size to terrorize the battlefield. It’s a fun addition, but it doesn’t feel particularly well-thought-out. Jumbifying allows you to either attack a large square on the field or attack a Jumbified enemy directly, and it provides a passive buff to everyone on your team while it lasts. That’s really about it, as it disables all of your special moves, and using a special move on a Jumbified character will completely skip any animation and just provide a damage result. While I can’t think of a more elegant solution than creating new animations for every single ability, perhaps that’s an indication that this mechanic should have been thought over more.

As for the plot, well, it’s definitely a Disgaea story. Our “protagonist,” Fuji is a demon mercenary who takes after many of the other demons in the series – he’s allergic to kindness, and everything he does is for the pursuit of making himself stronger. If he happens to do nice things along the way, it’s purely out of convenience or coincidence. He meets an obscenely rich demon named Pirilika, who is, to put it mildly, completely obsessed with Hinomoto culture, making her the demonic equivalent of a weeaboo.

She finds Hinomoto to be unlike her expectations, and this is blamed on the current ruling Shogunate, so obviously, the next move is to overthrow said government – and to do it, the party will need to collect a set of legendary weapons, as one of them awakens an awesome new power in Fuji called Hell Mode. They can use these tools to defeat even the strongest foes, but only if they don’t get in their own way first.

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As is typical for the series, the story is full of very colorful characters with over-the-top personalities who can often be recruited by punching them enough times in the face. All of the absurdist jokes and pop-culture references that characterize Disgaea are here in full force, so while the plot is probably not what most people are specifically here for, it got enough chuckles out of me to make up for a lack of real depth.

I played Disgaea 7 on the Switch, though, which means we have to talk about performance. The console still offers both a “Graphics” and “Performance” mode, where the graphics mode just tries to run the game at its regular speed with whatever framerate drops come along with that, and performance mode being more strategic about keeping textures loaded at the expense of extremely noticeable texture pop-in issues. Either way, you aren’t getting a perfect graphical experience.

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However, there are two major issues that are totally independent of this setting. Regardless of which mode you’re in, having a Jumbified character on-screen will very noticeably cut the framerate in half, though thankfully, it doesn’t get worse with a second character and seems to just be a result of rendering the whole battlefield at once.

Equally egregious, though, are the multiple particle-effect-heavy special animations that make it painfully clear that the Switch is riding the struggle bus trying to work with this game engine. Very early on, you’ll find an encounter where an enemy healer will, every turn, buff her friends with the Braveheart spell, and every time this spell is cast, the framerate craters into single digits or freezes entirely for a few seconds. Both this and the previous issue happened regardless of whether I was in docked or handheld mode, which appears to make no difference in performance.

This is extremely frustrating because, as I said before, Disgaea is truly most at-home on portable consoles where the player can mindlessly grind on demand without being tethered to a television. The fact that the console best suited for this gameplay experience is noticeably unoptimized to handle it graphically makes me wonder whether the jump to three-dimensional character models was really for the best in the first place. Maybe it’ll run better on Nintendo’s next console.

Disgaea 7: Vows of the Virtueless represents the best execution of the series’ trademark combat and level systems to date. It’s a showcase of features that have been perfected over the past twenty years to be enjoyed by players, both new and returning. While there are a few new concepts that could have used more work, and it’s a shame that the Switch version is noticeably compromised, it’s a major step back in the right direction for a long-running franchise that’s got a legion of loyal fans for a good reason.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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