Some franchises are known for certain things. The demographic of people that want twitch-reflex gaming turn to Call of Duty. Those that want barbaric action play as Kratos, anti-hero of the God of War series. If you want deep strategy, coupled with comedic storytelling, you look at the Disgaea franchise.
Disgaea 4 is set in the Netherworld, the usual background for the series, and follows Valvatorez; a sardine-craving ex-tyrant who has been demoted to Prinny Instructor, and his loyal steward, the werewolf Ferrich. As the story progresses, other characters with wild and unique personalities are introduced into the fold as well, and of course, you create your own characters with various classes, in typical Disgaea fashion, which we’ll cover later.The story itself is exclusive to Disgaea 4. While a few characters return (namely, those lovable Prinnies), the cast of characters and story-arch don’t follow the first three in the series. The overlying theme is very political, as you try to stop a Prinny massacre ordered by the government. I won’t spoil anymore of the story, but as with every other Disgaea game, the lines are well written and the voice acting delivered is nothing short of amazing. If you have a good sense of humor, you will find yourself laughing at the dialogue between characters during almost every cutscene.
Now, strategy-RPG’s come in a few different flavors. You have the style where you place all your units first, and if one dies, you have no reserves, ie. Final Fantasy Tactics. Then you have Disgaea, which has a portal-tile that is anchored to one tile on the map, and allows you to place up to have so many characters at a time on the map. You place them via the portal-tile, and move from it; you can also move back to the base, as I’ll call it from here on out, and swap the character out. While this sounds “cheap” in comparison to the other standard, it offers a wide variety to build your strategy upon, and with other factors going into battle, can make it just as hard. Also, the fact that unless you grind hardcore, you probably aren’t going to have many options to swap to, makes the game just as difficult.After the battle, things remain the same. Depending on how high you got your chain (which goes up by doing damage), you receive a series of rewards. For each level of chain you will get a reward; either an item, additional XP, HL (the game’s currency), or an item. Due to some tricky wording, I skipped quite a few cut scenes after battles. A box pops up saying to “Skip Demo”, with the option to select yes or no. To me, the word “demo” tells me “demonstration”, not “cutscene”, so I selected yes on quite a few occasions. It doesn’t help matters that you can skip the “demo” of the tutorial maps, which I didn’t do, and that lasts for a few chapters.Which brings up a very nice feature of Disgaea 4; being able to skip tutorials. While you still have to do the battle, the basic concepts of the game are like most SRPGs. Set unit, move unit, attack enemy, repeat. It’s a simple formula, though the series has it’s own quirks to the math to mix things up.
Like Geo cubes, which can be thrown on colored areas of the map and affect them with various effects (like “no ranged” won’t let you use bows or guns). Effects can be stacked by placing more than one cube in the same colored area, removed by throwing the cube out of the area, or destroyed all together by destroying the cube (which, done on a colored area will change the color of the area, deal damage to everyone in the area, and rack up a massive chain.). This is one of the only personal things I don’t like about Disgaea games, but it’s been a staple since I can remember. On the plus side, geo areas really change the flow of battles, and give you numerous ways to win and lose the game. A strong team of level 15 units can struggle against level 10 enemies because of geo areas, and well placed geo cubes. That one geo cube that raises defense an additional 50% can be on the other side of the map, filled with enemy magicians waiting to devastate everyone and their standard resistance attribute. It truly makes you think and strategize more than if the geo effects weren’t in the game.
On the other side of things, with how insane and sometimes random (see, Item Worlds) can be, these geo areas can be spotted around the map with no rhyme or reason. Well placed areas and cubes make for a well thought out battle plan, but sometimes it’s just absurdly thrown together. When I see a “spotted” map, as I call it, I tend to get frustrated before the battle even really starts. And not a good frustration, either. The randomness is one of my only complaints, but it’s not against this game, it’s the series in general. When you get into the item worlds, it gets crazy and chaotic, and, while a whole game in itself, I usually stray away from them because of the chaos.
Your troops gain both XP and Mana. XP levels the player in general, as one would suspect, but Mana is a whole different story. To get XP you simply have to do an attack, action, or kill an enemy. Mana is obtained by dealing the killing blow to an enemy, so it’s much harder for, say, a Healer, to gain Mana than it is XP. They have given you ways to exploit this, but we will get into that in a bit.
Now, Mana is used as a different type of currency. You buy skills, create new characters, reincarnate yourself, level up skills, buy evilitys and pass bills through the senate, all with Mana. So it really is an important factor to the game, as every one of those options can take a lot of Mana. This equates to a lot of grinding. But, then again, Disgaea (as a franchise) has been one of the most grind heavy games I have ever played.
One change (since at least Disgaea 2, as I skipped Disgaea 3) is how skills level up. You used to use, say, Fire, and it would level up after so many uses, raising both the power and adding a new range configuration to play with. Now, while the level may go up, you actually have to spend Mana on the skills to level spells up and make them far more useful and powerful. It’s one of my other gripes, and this one is a legitimate gripe against the evolution of the game.
Something I get lost in is the character creation/reincarnation. Each class has a tree; the start of the tree is either “discovered” (fight a certain monster, unlock the option to create one), voted on by the senate, or you start with it (ie. Fighter). You get that character up to a certain level, and you unlock the second “beefed” up version of that character. You create/reincarnate that character and get it to a certain level and you unlock the final version, which is far more powerful. I usually reincarnate, which can also retain abilities and get a stat boost based on how much Mana you use. I will spend hours grinding just to level up and reincarnate a character to its second/third form. And also note, the level cap is 9,999.
A Promise Unforgotten has added a “Cam-paign” section to the game. Here is where you call the senate to create characters and pass bills (such as “Stronger Enemies” or “More Expensive Weapons”), and place members and “artifacts” on a grid style board to gain bonus’ in battle. It’s a whole new layer of strategy, and you’ll find yourself here often swapping characters around to take advantage of different scenarios, such as level grinding, or just playing through the game. Some of the bonus’, like “Gain Mana when someone else sharing the artifact defeats an enemy”, are perfect for level grinding, so others can reap the rewards of the one person you are leveling up. Eventually you unlock a “Cabinet”, which is just another layer of helpful bonus’ for you to take advantage of.
Item Worlds, as I said before, are a game in itself. Once you are able to, you can travel into an item, which will randomly generate a board and enemies. Every level you clear, raises the item level and stats, and every so often, different pathways and portals will open up. Mysterious portals can lead to a random fight with a treasure keeper, or a room filled with treasure (placed in a tricky manner so you have to jump to them, which I failed each time). The only thing about Item Worlds is that you have to use an item to escape, unless you make it past the 10th floor, in which case you can safely teleport back to the headquarters.
The graphics are gorgeous, each character being as colorful and bright as their personalities in some cases. From the vibrant colors during cutscenes, to the characters in battle, the game still manages to have that old-school charm despite the modernness of the looks. It tugs on my inner child, remembering the days of playing SRPGs and RPGs on the older Playstation system. And one of my absolute favorite graphical touches, is that each weapon looks different. I can’t tell you how happy it made me the first time I swapped swords with Valvatorez, and the next battle seeing a whole different sword there. I giggled with more excitement than when I first saw a Prinny barge onto the screen. In this day and age, their is no excuse, and NIS delivers.
Of course, I can’t review a PS3 game without mentioning the trophies, and it is a small disappointment to know that EVERY trophy is hidden. I realize their are guides for everything within days of a games release, but it’s kind of saddening to see a whole list of ???’s when I load up the list for the first time. But I digress.
One last thing before I wrap this up; I couldn’t test all of the networking features. But you can send senators to other peoples games, who will then collect bribes, and give them to you. While I had a few senators come into my court hearings from Japanese games, I couldn’t connect to the server to send mine out. Another networking feature is the ability to battle other players, but again, I couldn’t access that either. But they are in the game.
All-in-all, this single disc packs more content than a dozen games, and laces it with more humor and laughs than a good comedy movie. With only a few very minor complaints from me, NIS has managed to melt my heart (again) and prove why they are one of this generations premier RPG/SRPG developers. If you are wanting a game that makes you laugh and think, makes you not want to stop playing because you are almost one level closer to Level 9,999, or want a fresh experience that still feels comfortable and retro, all at the same time, Disgaea 4 is for you.