Disgaea has always been about numbers and Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten is certainly no exception. Since its inception on the PS2 back in 2003, Disgaea has been a series proud to wear its ever increasing numbers like a badge of honour. With a host of characters and items that can be grinded and levelled to the point of sheer ridiculousness, Disgaea 4 once again delivers a potentially never-ending gaming experience for those willing and eager to take it on. Want to take your team to level 9999? Fill your boots. Want to start back at Level 1 with all of your acquired skills and do it again?……Well, if you must. Disgaea 4 delivers more of what fans of the series have always loved, but be warned; if you’re new to the series, Disgaea 4 is likely to prove a somewhat harsh mistress.
Taking on the role a vampire by the name of Valvatorez (another brilliant protagonist in a long line of fantastic Nippon Ishi antiheroes), you are tasked with making your way back to the top of the Netherworld summit after initially giving up your power for the love of a good woman and finding yourself working a lowly job at the Netherworld prison. Eager to get to the evil President and reclaim control of your once great empire, you’ll need to recruit the usual cast of unconventional but beautifully drawn characters to aid you on your stat heavy quest.
The story never really hits on an emotional level, but like previous entries into the series, Disgaea 4 once again delivers in the laugh department. With so few videogames able to provide genuine chuckles and even the ones that do being more videogame funny than, y’know, actually funny, it’s refreshing to return to a series that is more than capable of making me laugh out loud…..and I mean that in the literal sense, not in that pretend ‘lol’ kind of way. With a great cast of characters, some fantastically witty and often brilliantly satirical writing and, of course, the return of the always wonderful Prinnies, Disgaea 4’s story is a joy from beginning to end.
As is often the case with Disgaea games though, the actual core story only makes up a relatively small proportion of the overall experience. Although additional story modes are unlocked after completion of the main, with further characters to unlock and increasingly fiendish enemies to overcome, it’s the Item World that will provide that all important uber-grind that fans of the series have grown to love. Each and every item in the game can be entered as its own unique world and in doing so, is both levelled as you progress through it while also delivering further treasures and additional capabilities for that specific item. So, as you would imagine from a hardcore strategy RPG, Disgaea 4 is home to more than a few items and subsequently home to an all but limitless collection of worlds.
If that’s not enough, after completion of the third chapter in Story Mode, you are then given access to an online map editor that allows you to create stages to play and share online. While the creation options available aren’t the deepest in the world, for those looking to seriously up their numbers, some of these levels are so perfectly crafted for heavy grinding that they will become all but invaluable to those looking to reach the very top of the level tree.
I guess at some point I should mention the actual gameplay. Well, it’s much the same as it has always been to be honest. Disgaea 4 delivers an almost limitlessly deep well of strategy and gameplay options thanks to the vast array of possibilities linked to each weapon type and the huge cast of characters available. Improving on the flawed classroom setting found in Disgaea 3, the puntastic Cam-Pain HQ (I’ve literally never seen so many puns in one place in my life) is a much easier place to traverse, making the boosting and adjustment of your troop easier than ever. Don’t get me wrong, the game will be, at least initially, all but indecipherable to newcomers, but at least things have been made a tad easier for both veterans and newcomers alike.
Out on the battlefield, it’s again a similar story. The same old isometric grid system returns with battles taking place in predefined areas. On the surface, it plays out much in the same way as Final Fantasy Tactics or Sakura Wars in that you have to control and manage your troops as you take them onto battlefield. But when you take into consideration the returning Geo Blocks and their positive and negative effects on each character and their potential interaction with Geo Panels and the colour combination powers that can subsequently be created, it’s only then that you start to realise just how deep Disgaea 4’s proverbial rabbit hole goes.
Newcomers will inevitable find the first few hours a bit of a slog, but if you’re the right kind of gamer, believe me, Disgaea 4 will repay your persistence in spades. It may not do anything particularly new, but the core experience has been tweaked, polished and perfected since 2003 and for the most part, it really shows.
Sadly, as much as that sense of continuation and consistency has brought undoubted quality to the series, it has also bought with it a sense of familiarity and a conviction to a few design choices that now seems rather antiquated. The interface for one still feels a tad overcomplicated and unnecessarily obtuse at times. Few things are particularly hard to do in Disgaea 4 but there is often a distinct lack of explanation combined with an underlying commitment to make basic actions decidedly long winded. Cursor movement also continues to be a problem with raises in the geography of each level once again capable of sending your cursor on a bit of a bender. Veteran players will be more than used to this by now, but for newcomers, it will likely come across as awkward and unruly. The return off the fixed camera system also suffers from the same old problem of obscured views and completely blocked out enemies. It’s hardly game breaking stuff but it would be nice to see Nippon Ichi iron out these long standing issues. You can spin the view around with the shoulder buttons for a better view of the action, but with a second analogue stick going all but unused, the stringent use of shoulder buttons for camera movement feels extremely old fashioned.
One thing that certainly can’t be criticised however, is Disagea 4’s absolutely sumptuous visuals. It may not push your PS3 too hard and some may argue that the backgrounds are a tad on the basic side, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s just about perfect. As a marriage of the old and new, Disagea 4 succeeds where Disgaea 3 so often failed. While we all loved the heavily pixelated characters of the PS2 era, they looked plain out of date next to the crisp HD locations of Disgaea 3 and, while you can still switch back to that original style if you prefer the old school look, it’s great to see flashy new hand drawn character art for Disgaea 4. Not only does the new style look more at home on modern consoles but each character is also beautifully drawn in its own right.
With some of the most imaginative character design found in any videogame series and an obvious love for the universe created, Disgaea 4 is a world absolutely brimming with character and imagination. The special attacks are inventive and the anime style cutscenes and cutaways are all breathtakingly striking. The Japanese-centric art style won’t be for everyone, but if you’re a fan of anime, I’d be amazed if you don’t fall in love with the visual splendour of the playfully twisted world that Nippon Ichi has created.
Along with the welcome option to switch back and forth between advanced character sprites and the old school pixelated visual style, fans of the series will also be happy to hear that both the English and Japanese voice tracks are included and can also be switched back and forth on the fly. While my preference would be for the Japanese original, I must stress that both the English and Japanese voice work is of an extremely high standard with both casts doing the consistently fantastic writing the justice it deserves.
Despite the return of a few niggling issues and a sense of familiarity born out of the series adherence to its original design, Disgaea 4 is still a fantastically deep, brilliant written and often utterly gorgeous slice of strategy RPG action. Newcomers might struggle at first but fans of the series will find little to complain about and those willing to commit to its unique charm are likely to love it like few other games out there. It may not be perfect, but for many, it will become an obsession quite unlike any other and, if nothing else, you’ll certainly learn a lot about sardines along the way……I had no idea just how good for you they are.
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