Game: Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
Available on: PlayStation 3 Only
When Koei picked up the rights to publish Nippon Ichi’s games, they had seen what we were about to see, the excellent quality of their products. These were rich, rewarding, cleverly written titles that deserved to be seen and heard by a wider audience. Disgaea was the first tactical romp to reach our shores. An isometric, Final Fantasy Tactics-esque affair, it involved guiding a series of charming characters through a number of missions, levelling up your party to extremes never before witnessed in a videogame previously, and working your way through an extremely entertaining, and at times wildly funny, story as you attempt to take down Baal, the Lord of Terror and evil nemesis of the series. It was a huge success critically, and commercially sold over one and a half million units worldwide. That is very impressive, and paved the way for Nippon Ichi to bring us yet more delights from the Far East, including the sublime Phantom Brave and La Pucelle Tactics.
The fourth game in the series promises even more voice acting, improved graphics, a politically-charged plot and even more of the strategic action we know and love. But does it deliver?
Most gamers were shocked when hardcore Japanese RPG developers Nippon Ichi started getting their games published in Europe back in the early to mid Noughties. Their particular area of expertise is mainly role-playing games, in particular tactical RPGs, with quite dense scripting and characterisation. Why would we Westerners be interested in that? J-RPGs are ten-a-penny, and anyone who was really that interested in an obscure dungeon crawler would generally import them anyway, right?
Since then the Disgaea series has spawned several sequels across PlayStations 2, 3 and Portable, as well as an amime and Manga series. It has even got its own mascot – you know an RPG franchise has “arrived” when it has a mascot – and the cute, penguin-like Prinny that features in all of the Disgaea games to date can stand proudly alongside the Moogles and the Slimes of the role-playing fraternity.
STORY: All of the Disgaea games are set in the same universe, which is split between the Netherworld, a realm populated by demonic creatures, the human world, and “Celestia”, a heaven-like place inhabited by angels. The roles of the creatures and humans dwelling throughout these three distinct worlds are not as black and white as you would think, there are good and bad creatures living in each of the realms, which creates some interesting characterisation. This could not be more true in the case of A Promise Unforgotten.
The protagonist is the Netherworld-dwelling vampire Valvatorez, formerly a powerful and cruel tyrant, who is now reduced to living on a diet of sardines and looking after a bunch of Prinnies along with his long-suffering servant, the werewolf Fenrich. He has become increasingly disillusioned with the Government, who he feels have become corrupt and need to be overthrown. Recruiting a rag-tag bunch of hangers on, Valvatorez attempts to do just that.
Without wanting to give too much away, the plot touches or alludes to a number of real life issues, including defence spending, weapons of mass distruction, political corruption, and even the President of the USA himself. The plot is held together with one of funniest, most entertaining, game scripts I have ever had the pleasure of working through. The characters interact brilliantly – I particularly loved the relationship between the loud-mouthed, purposeful yet often woefully misguided Valvatorez and his long-suffering servant – think Futurama’a Zap Brannigan and Kiff and you are only about half way there. As is par for the Disgaea course, there are also returning characters from previous games, characters from other Nippon Ichi titles, and enough genuinely hilarious and unexpected plot twists to keep even the most hard-faced RPG machine entertained.
GRAPHICS: The isometric environments, fully loaded with tons of beautifully drawn, lavishly colourful characters, look stunning. In a game where your playing field, and the colours of the squares on the grid, is mightily important, Disgaea 4 does the job magnificently and there can be no complaints about what has been delivered in the in-game visuals department. The front end consists of some crisp, easy to follow menus, and a terrific anime style intro.
SOUND: The music is certainly very good in Disgaea 4, and all previous entries in the series, but it is something of an afterthought when you consider how brilliant the voice acting is. The wonderfully funny lines are delivered with such aplomb, that as early as five minutes in you find yourself utterly captivated by Valvatorez and his crazy adventure. Personally speaking I was hooked – no pun intended – at the point it was revealed we were dealing with a vampire who has forsaken bloodsucking for life of eating tinned sardines; genius.
GAMEPLAY: Having a funny script and looking nice is important, but nobody is going to want to put their hard hours into a tactical role player unless it delivers the goods in the gameplay department. For the meat of the game, basic movement and attacks are turn-based, on a grid, as you would expect from a game of this ilk. As well as standard attacks, there are combos, team attacks that involve other members of your party, and special attacks. The more combos and varied attacks you use, the higher your “grade” after the battle. Achieving a higher grade will award you with more money, weapons, items and experience points.
The grid itself can affect the action, there are different coloured tiles that can increase or decrease your stats, these can affect both you and your enemies during battle. Dotted around the area are coloured blocks which you can use to your advantage. Placing a block down in a chosen spot and cracking it open will turn all corresponding panels, that are the same colour as the panel you placed the block upon, to whichever colour the block is. If you are clever about it, you can win battles as easy as pie simply by placing blocks in decent tactical positions.
The grid-based gameplay system is extremely deep, daunting even, to a beginner. Luckily for any newcomers there is an extensive tutorial that explains the basics, and the game does guide you buy the hand as you progress, introducing you to the many different actions and moves you can access. If you lose a battle, the game gives you the option to start from wherever you saved last, or go back to the beginning, whilst retaining your current stats. This is another boon if you find yourself struggling with a tricky portion of the action.
Like the previous Disgaea games, the action kicks off from a central “hub”, in this case Valvatorez’s bolt-hole in the Netherworld, where you can form your party, select weapons and items, access the shops and your other standard RPG faire.
Disgaea 4 takes things to new and crazy extremes, however, in the fact that you can level up specific weapons by “entering” a stage based solely around that weapon, meaning that quite conceivably you could pick a weapon, decide to upgrade it, and then simply grind along to your heart’s content, until it has increased to level 400. In keeping with the politically charged plot, Valvatorez also has a Senate within the main hub, an area which allows you to assign different characters positions within your “government”, power up your party and even “vote” on “laws” within the game, depending on how many missions you have defeated.
LONGEVITY: You don’t buy a Disgaea game, or any Nippon Ichi title, for that matter, for a ten hour pick up and play romp. This is a huge, multi-tiered game that allows you to customise and level up to a ridiculous degree, even allowing you to play through the game once you have completed it, retaining and improving on the same stats, up to a limit of 9,999 (!).
The main game must be worth 40-50 hours of your life, easily. Start getting addicted to levelling up weapons and whatnot, and you can kiss another few days goodbye.
VERDICT: The absolute pinnacle of an already excellent series, this is an essential purchase for fans of the tactical role-playing game. But don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some impenetrable, dialogue-heavy trudge, I like to think that newcomers to the genre would enjoy it thanks to its excellent tutorials, vibrant graphics and wickedly funny plot and voice acting. If you haven’t allowed Nippon Ichi into your life, now seems like a perfect time to do so.
I have been writing all my life, I love retro, but also sports titles and shoot em ups.Family man, lifelong Saints fan, music nerd, and all round nice guy. Find me on twitter @BigSeany1979