Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten marks the second PlayStation 3 entry of Nippon Ichi's long-running strategy role-playing series. This time out, it sports some vastly improved visuals over what we saw in Disgaea 3, finally bringing the 2-D sprite work up to par with what we expect on HD systems. Along with that, the game nicely builds upon the mechanics of its predecessors, introducing a few new elements that keep the series fresh for fans.
This time out, the story focuses on Valvatorez, a vampire prince who lost the majority of his powers after a promise made long ago. Now he's been relegated to teaching new Prinnies, human souls who have been sent to the Netherworld to work off the sins accumulated in their previous life. If you've not played a Disgaea title before, the Prinnies will be the most familiar figure in the game; they're the cute little penguin-like creatures that starred in their own PSP action titles.
Valvatorez is accompanied by his werewolf aide, Fenrich, who has remained loyal despite his master's fall from power. Other characters join the fray as you progress through the story mode, which is broken up into numerous chapters and subchapters. Some characters will stick with your group throughout, but others will come and go. Along with that, you can create an army of additional characters taken from familiar RPG archetypes, like warriors, mages and so on. One area where Disgaea 4 shines is the huge number of monster characters you can use as templates. There are other benefits to using monsters; they can be equipped to standard human characters as weapons during fights, and they can also combine with other monsters to make giant versions of themselves.
Even though I've followed the series since its debut on the PlayStation 2, I've forgotten how much stuff there is to do. Disgaea has never been particularly friendly for new players; you'll need to keep track of a massive number of stats, items, levels and characters. All of this is bogged down in numerous menus, such as battle menus, shop menus, item world menus, etc. The sheer amount of text found in any Disgaea title is staggering, and I imagine it's a nightmare to translate one of these games. It's not that the series doesn't attempt to teach players the basics; each game has incorporated a tutorial system, and Disgaea 4 is no different. Once the game shows you the workings of each world or battle mechanic, it leaves the rest up to you. This isn't so bad when you've played through four (or more, if you count ports) of these games, but if you're jumping into the series for the first time, I'd urge you to have a lot of patience.
For those who are new to the series, let's cover some basics. The game is presented from an isometric view, not unlike other popular strategy titles, like Final Fantasy Tactics from Square Enix. You'll have a core set of characters that are related to the story, and you can fill out the rest of the group with various creations. The maps are relatively small, but because of that, the pacing is much quicker than other titles. You take turns against your CPU-controlled opponent by moving your characters across a grid, attempting to either wipe out opposing characters or make your way to the exit. You can move and deploy characters in any order you wish, and you can take turns setting up attacks or item use. The player has the freedom to choose how this happens; you can move a couple of characters and use them to attack, and then move a few more and have them attack. You don't have strict phases per se, just turns that allow you to do whatever you want.
The basics to making combat work involve setting up combination attacks. If you surround a foe on all sides with attacking enemies, you'll chain those attacks before the enemy has a chance to counterattack. If you place units next to or behind attackers, occasionally they'll team up to perform a devastating attack. This is also quite useful, as the character providing support doesn't eat up his attack by doing so.
Finally, on different maps, you'll notice that the grid squares might have different flashing colors. These squares generally provide some effect to the unit, such as bonus experience, halving their defense or preventing melee attacks. These are often randomized by the game, so just because a green square on one map provides an attack bonus doesn't mean that a green square on another map will do the same. In conjunction with this, you'll come across blocks called Geo-blocks, which can be destroyed. Place a Geo-block on a colored square and destroy it to change that square's color to match the block. Chaining together moves like this to cause a cascading effect is key to gaining some of the better spoils from battle.
I found myself needing to re-learn a few things. Disgaea 3 left me a bit cold, and of the main series, it's certainly the one with which I spent the least amount of time. It took some time to get accustomed to leveling individual items through the randomly generated dungeons and making use of the throwing mechanics and various stat-changing squares in battle. I could probably write a small book on the various mechanics present in the game, but rest assured that this entry has everything you love about Disgaea.
Like previous games, the story mode represents only a fraction of the actual gameplay. You can seriously spend 200 hours or more with the game and still not max out everything. Encountering some of the secret bosses, which exist outside of the story, will take more of a time commitment than some players spend on gaming in an entire year. If nothing else, Disgaea 4 is a great value for those on a budget; you're truly getting a lot of bang for your buck. Of course, that time commitment is also a double-edged sword, particularly during this time of the year. As we ramp up for the holiday season, there are a lot of distractions, and while I'd enjoy spending more time with this title, I just don't have the luxury. Thankfully, you can run through the story mode quickly enough, and you can still play with many of the other gameplay mechanics.
As I mentioned earlier, Disgaea 4 is the best that the series has ever looked. Disgaea 3 was a huge letdown in that regard, as the assumption that we'd get some great hand-drawn sprite work was pretty much dashed when the first screenshots were released. Disgaea 3 retained its 2-D look but largely resembled a poorly upscaled PS2 game with some really blurry sprites. Disgaea 4 has redrawn all that artwork, and while a ton of designs are recycled here, they look great.
From the voice-over side of things, Disgaea 4 is a little hit-and-miss. A few characters are great, and while it's done in an anime style, I think it caters well to the intended audience. There are a handful of characters that made me want to don a pair of earplugs, or at least mute my TV, but most of the voice acting stays above par. The humor, on the other hand, didn't really do it for me. One of the bigger parts of the Disgaea series has been its tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, filled with goofy pop culture jokes and twists on the common views of Hell. Maybe this has worn off for me as I got older, but I didn't find myself cracking more than an occasional smile at this script.
That lack of humor also caused my interest in the story to wane. Unfortunately, you have to advance through the story to unlock a lot of the additional content. Thankfully, you can skip through much of the in-game dialogue, and you'll even get a prompt before and after story missions to bypass the cut scenes. I'd rather if the dialogue had been improved instead of making me want to skip it entirely, but I'll take what I can get.
I had another small point of contention with the tutorials. While I appreciate them allowing me to re-familiarize myself with the gameplay mechanics, I wish I could've skipped a few of the earlier missions. I can only imagine how frustrating this is for veteran players, who remember all of this but are forced to slog through nearly an hour of tutorial missions before advancing to the meat of the game. The tutorials are also handled kind of poorly. They simply show the player which menu prompts to hit and what to do, and then you're dropped into the same setup to perform them. Why not give the player the option to control the menu selection and unit movement during the tutorial? It would cut down on the necessary time for missions and allow the player to get into the gameplay that much quicker.
Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten is definitely a step up from Disgaea 3, at least as far as appearances go. It captures the beloved gameplay elements from previous entries and provides an astounding amount of content. Disgaea 4 can be a little cumbersome at times, and it hasn't streamlined its presentation much since the original, but the fun combat mechanics and interesting cast of characters help differentiate it from its competitors. I wish the humor had resonated with me a tad more, but I definitely had fun with Disgaea 4.
More articles about Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten