A Promising Dose of Japanese Crazy
In recent years, JRPGs have fallen away from the mainstream Western market. Nowadays, they serve people whose time and mentality allow for dense experiences wrapped in an anime lining. Many companies are busy trying to identify with North America and Europe, but others are still pushing Japan's wackier sensibilities, unfazed by the declining demand. NISA and Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten fall into the latter category, offering a foreign quality sorely lacking this console generation. The loud, colorful, anime-sprite strategy series is still going strong, finally taking advantage of the PS3 hardware and providing near-limitless playtime with its new inclusions.
Disgaea 4 is about a vampire named Valvatorez, whose past promises force him to go without drinking human blood. As a result, he spends his days in Hades instructing Prinnies, humans-turned-penguins paying for their sins in the afterlife. Hearing news of Prinny genocide by order of the Netherworld President, Valvatorez begins a chain of events hopefully leading to a toppled regime and reformation with him at the helm. It's an unpretentious commentary on poor economic conditions, and the game hams it up well, rather than handling its plot with any self-seriousness. The Disgaea series is always unapologetic with its humor, and the fourth entry isn't afraid to turn things sideways.
It's more apparent when looking at the game's cast of characters. Like Fenrich, a werewolf whose loyalty to Valvatorez is an odd mixture of coolheaded cunning and borderline homoeroticism. Or Fuka, a deceased middle schooler who failed to transform into a Prinny--the overflow of humans entering the Netherworld caused a shortage of Prinny hide. As the story mode continues, the craziness increases exponentially, even breaking the fourth wall during more climactic moments. With a script seemingly ready to explode at any moment, it's a relief to know the English voice acting is a great accompaniment; specifically Troy Baker, who delivers Valvatorez's lines with the right amount of exaggeration and flourish. It's an improvement over Disgaea 3's Mao, whose English voice actor was grating my brain by the time I was done.
In true sequel fashion, Disgaea 4 enhances its predecessors' legacy, including the various systems on and off the battlefield. The nuances are too deep to specify, but be rest assured that the in-game tutorials are well-paced and the manual clarifies some intermediary knowledge. There may be some initial information overload, especially since the menus fail to condense certain statistics and tooltips well. Even after beating the three previous Disgaea games, I found myself shuffling around more than I should have. It only takes a few extra button presses to get to really specific information, but I think the developers could do with a bit of streamlining.
That aside, the basics are simple. Both the player and enemy take turns attacking one another until a side runs out of units. Unlike Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, timing attacks isn't necessarily based on individual units. Instead, on anyone's given turn, the units of each respective side are able to move and queue an attack; this unleashes a maximum of ten attacks simultaneously, allowing for numerous combo opportunities. It seems to put the player at a distinct advantage, since they always go first, but Geo Panels (i.e. terrain modifiers) give Disgaea 4 a more tactical taste.
Geo Panels can do anything, like make certain areas inaccessible or instantly kill units ending their turn on specific spots. Nearly every map has a gimmick or puzzle revolving around these panels. They provide a twist to the combat, making sure players aren't brute-forcing their way through the story. I admit the Geo Panels are pace breakers, especially on maps involving a long path to victory. It's a bit infuriating to stop and think about an extended course of action, especially in a series known for being fast and furious among its contemporaries. I understand the hypocrisy of wanting less tactics from a tactical role-playing game, but the story mode could've done without a bunch of maps.
Disgaea 4 is at its best when characters are overpowered and letting damage numbers fly. Most of the time spent with the game involves leveling up in some form, whether it's units, items, abilities or all three at once. Finding shortcuts and exploits are encouraged, and going from level 1 to level 9999 (the cap) in a matter of minutes eventually becomes a reality. Characters' stats only get better over time, and shredding through an enemy with billions of hit points is a satisfying feeling. Of course, power-leveling into the thousands is purely for post-game purposes; it isn't a spoiler to say the story mode's final boss is at a paltry level 100.
Even amidst all the changes between previous titles, one negative constant has been Nippon Ichi's use of low resolution character sprites. Even Disgaea 3, which debuted on the PS3, had assets towing the line between the first PlayStation and the Dreamcast. While the maps are still plain, the character and monster sprites finally make the generational leap into high-definition. Quality 2D art is now a firmly seated expectation, but for a game with the breadth of content as Disgaea 4, it is no small feat.
So it comes as a surprise that Disgaea 4 incorporated network functionality for the first time. It's not a full-on competitive multiplayer mode, but a careful selection of what you want others to see from your game save. Players can choose to upload characters with certain attributes, helping or hindering their friends' progress. There were moments when I was denied access to tertiary benefits because my friends' senator wouldn't vote for its approval. On the other hand, it's nice to know I can call up a friend's upload data to assist me directly in battle. It's a neat way to show off and compare your hard work in a dedicated single-player experience, and the map editor ensures there's no shortage of gameplay. The network aspects are the strongest among a series of changes.
Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten is a considerable step forward for the series. It owns what made the previous games great while retaining only a few of the blemishes. The over-the-top boisterousness only Japan can bring marches on in this title, and I can't wait to see where their feet land next.