(PlayStation 3 Review) Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten

Developer: NIS (Nippon Ichi Software)
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

NIS America’s Disgaea is one of the longest-running strategy-RPG series in gaming. Since its launch in 2003 with Hour of Darkness for the PlayStation 2, there have been eight core installments and numerous spinoffs which have appeared on everything from the PlayStation Portable to Android-powered mobile devices. Each entry, while adding its own touch here and there, tended to be quite conservative in what it changed and introduced to the underlying system. The outcome is that, with each release, veterans found little changed while newcomers increasingly faced a daunting task of coming to terms with the accumulated additions. It’s a curious state that continues with A Promise Unforgotten, but with mounds of helpful information, a welcomed online component, and some smart expansions to the combat system, the fourth release keeps the series going on a high note.

In the latest outing, players assume the role of Valvatorez, a young vampire whose tyrannical ways were brought low by his promise to forgo the drinking of human blood until he scares an old friend. He faces a few problems, however, the least of which is that said friend is long dead. A monster of his word, Valvatorez remains in his weakened state while retaining what little power he has left through the consumption of the nutritional powerhouses that are sardines. As a devotee of the sardine, he thinks of nothing but consuming sardines, exploring the etymology of the various spellings of sardine, and educating others on the near-indescribable benefits of adding sardines to their diets. In short: the man enjoys a good sardine. Aside from sardines, Valvatorez also takes the training of Prinnies seriously. Very seriously. As the Netherworld’s premier prison Prinny instructor, he has gone from terrorizing man to reforming the repenting criminals whose souls inhabit the demonic peg-legged penguins. When problems in the upper levels of the Netherworld threaten his beloved Prinnies, not to mention his promise to give each recent graduate of his program a delicious sardine, he has no other choice but to overthrow the president.

Throughout his quest, Valvatorez will run across characters that will join his cause as primary members—albeit, some require more (forceful) persuasion than others. In addition to his main cohorts, he will also expand his army by the creation of soldiers. As enemies are conquered and objectives met, the party can use some of their acquired mana to call together the Netherworld Senate in order to pass a variety of bills, such as the increase or decrease of market prices, for there to be stronger or weaker enemies, and the request to create new characters. New party members, who also do double duty as senators, can be given a boost as they’re being called up by the allocation of additional mana towards their grade, bumping them up from a feeble F-grade unit to closer to an A. But to go through with this, the Senate must vote in favor of the bill. If the likelihood of acceptance isn’t looking good, then players can bribe senators with goods from their inventory bag or warehouse to sway their vote. If the vote still doesn’t go the player’s way after the palms have been greased, then the issue can be forced through combat—be warned, though, that some senators are extremely powerful. The entire process of voting and bribing is similar to past titles but can be confusing to the first-time player, but fortunately, it can be taken slowly without incurring significant penalties.

Once players get their bearings, they can then put forth bills to open new cabinet positions, assign characters to those positions (for extra bonuses and to appear in other players’ Senates), as well as unlock new structures for the campaign map. Portions of the campaign map open up as chapters are completed, and players can assign characters and place buildings on the open areas. This alone carries a number of multipliers, such as those characters near each other being more likely to join in team attacks during combat and the structures’ bonuses conferred on units within range. This is yet another feature that adds to the initial confusion for newcomers, but like the Senate, the basics are easy to grasp and the more advanced aspects can be explored gradually. The grinding required to progress through the story means there is plenty of time to experiment and get the hang of things. Soon, money will be extorted, senators crushed, and other players will feel the heavy hand of your greed as your representatives extract bribes for votes. But note that the latter goes both ways: other players’ senators hold a disproportionate amount of influence and can sway votes if not bribed sufficiently. While it can be a bit of a bother to lose out on a sure thing, it does add a nice twist to the proceedings and makes the world feel livelier. No one said usurping the presidency would be easy.

However, there are some strange design discrepancies that will undoubtedly confuse and frustrate beginners, such as the ability to ‘undo’ a movement command, even after the character has taken part in a team attack (a tactic the game encourages), but not being able to simply admit defeat after a thorough walloping by an angry Senate. While one feels like a way to game the system and the other a standard feature, the game behaves differently. The former will allow for one character to ‘double dip’ during combat while the other, with the built-in penalties of loss of money (to heal and resurrect teammates), the defeat of the bill, and the loss of the player’s time, is ignored to let the computer play out its total humiliation of an unprepared party. Another obstacle for those entering the series is the leap in difficulty that can occur on some maps; the extensive tutorials, information panes, and gradual unlocking of features do a good job of easing in newcomers, but they can then be followed by diabolical maps whose design goes far beyond what was introduced in baby steps.

Not that there aren’t plenty of ways to manually throttle down and get in plenty of practice. While the story’s ten chapters offer hours of gameplay, there are also numerous ways to grind, allowing for intense or low-key sessions to either level up or experiment with the intricacies of the combat system. It took me around forty hours to complete the story simply because I would go back through and replay story levels and Item World levels. The former to strengthen new troops and the latter to improve high-level weapons as well as gain hefty experience bonuses—the better the item, the stronger the enemies—and cash. The story levels won’t be as overwhelming as the Item World levels, which are randomized, but they can still feel quite puzzle-y due to the game’s use of Geo Panels and Geo Blocks.

The Geo elements were introduced later in the series and can be quite trying. Their main benefit is to build up a damage meter that goes towards a reward system that doles out extra cash and items based on performance after a battle has been won, but they can also deal significant damage to the player’s own party and cause some maps to drag on. Each block and panel has the capability of conferring a bonus or a penalty, be it reverse damage, no range attacks, no magic, increased damage, and so on. The real difficulty comes when the set includes invincibility and no lifting. To clear a board of the panels, the blocks must be destroyed while on top of them. Depending on what the panel’s color is that the block is on when destroyed, or if it is near another block, the result can be massive damage or leftover panels that hinder progress. There’s a great sense of satisfaction when all of the colors are cleared in one massive chain, resulting in a fantastic light show that culminates in an enemy-damaging explosion, but there is also a sense of trepidation as a misstep can result in a much tougher fight. Moderation is the crucial element with the Geo elements—when used appropriately, they offer an extra layer of strategy and excitement.

The best way to combat the Geo elements is through careful planning, which often entails libel use of the lift and throw abilities. Enemies, allies, and (most) blocks can be sent sailing onto another pane or character on the battlefield grid. The ability to stack multiple allies into a tower expands the possibilities even further, and can be used to great effect with the new tower-specific skills. There are often so many options, be it team attacks or the ability to magichange monster allies into weapons or together to form mega monsters (Giant Prinny is awesome), that it’s not uncommon to discover new tactics up until the end.

The odd design choice aside, A Promise Unforgotten is very much worth playing and not nearly as intimidating as it seems. The main hub ends up being a great way to welcome new players as it streamlines much of the traditional party maintenance process.  Instead of bouncing back and forth between towns, players can stay in one central area and access stalls that take care of all of their adventuring needs: buy and sell armor, items, and weapons; heal and resurrect allies; haggle with the Senate and explore the campaign map (Cam-pain HQ); explore the Item World; humble, extort, and turn enemies in the Discipline Room; learn and boost skills and Evilities (passive character perks); and so on. In addition to the accessible help menu, there are several non-playable characters scattered about the hub whose sole purpose is to provide even more information. The extra info is a great resource, and the time saved from not having to run about ends up being significant as the hours pile up.

Old hats no doubt recognize most of what’s been discussed and realize many of the changes are slightly re-tweaked elements from previous games. Aside from the mega monster magichange and new skills, A Promise Unforgotten does boast some new features. The multiplayer component is undoubtedly the most exciting of them, even if it’s largely hands-off. As mentioned, senators can be sent to other Senates with instructions to harm other senators, request specific bribes, but there are also other ways to interact with players. While in the Item World, there is a small chance that the level will be invaded by pirates. If there is a player-created crew of a similar level and available, there is a chance that the invaders will be another player’s motley crew. As with the senators, however, this isn’t a bona fide versus match as the invading pirates, be it the player’s crew or another’s, is controlled by the AI through rudimentary combat assignments. Players can also use special cell phones during combat to call upon another party’s Defense Minister (also AI controlled) to assist; this isn’t a sure thing, either, as one might not be available, but it’s very cool and quite helpful. The interactions don’t go much beyond the one-sided battles and looted (or extorted) goods, but they are a solid first effort for such a single-player-focused series. If the idea of other players having too much sway in the Senate or invading the Item World at inopportune times sounds too frustrating, no fear, the online component is entirely optional and can be switched off in the settings.

The online feature with the longest legs is the new map creator. Bases and maps can be created using purchasable set pieces, such as ground tiles and staircases, and populated with units automated with basic commands (long-range combat, rush, etc.). Creations can either be saved and tweaked or uploaded for others to play and rate. If creating a map from scratch is too daunting a task, then it’s possible to start small as the game allows for any of the story levels to be tweaked. Downloading maps can lag a little at times, and many of the creations are on the gimmicky side with elaborate Geo-centric designs, but there are so many for download—and some quite good ones—that fans will have a lot to play through for a long time to come.

With a new graphics engine, A Promise Unforgotten also sports some lovely visuals. Gone are the overly pixelated characters and objects, replaced with smooth, colorful models. Players yearning for the old look have the option to go back to the ‘classic’ style, but that’s crazy talk. The camera can rotate and zoom in and out, but sometimes it will sit in an unfortunate spot during an attack phase and be more disorienting than helpful.  A few extra aids help to show what characters are targeted and what panels are in a move’s range, but a semitransparency feature would’ve been nice, especially when the characters are all bunched together in the same area.

The audio work manages to hold its own with the visuals, thanks to some catchy tunes and solid voice acting. The conversations can get quite lengthy, which is great when a character is funny and the banter is clicking, but not so much when a character’s shtick is on the annoying side; say, if they talk in a high-pitched voice and refer to themselves in the third person (Desco). Still, more often than not, the running jokes and gags are just the right kind of silly, and some of the lines—Valvatorez’s in particular—are made all the better by some great timing. But if you prefer the original actors, NIS has included the Japanese audio track as well. Now if I could only stop humming the hub theme.

Colorful, goofy, funny, and addictive, Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten is a welcome entry to the series. The handful of additions might have longtime fans yearning for more and newcomers intimidated, but there is more than enough here to keep players entertained for hours. Much of the online component is more exciting than it is compelling, being as hands-off as it is, but other players definitely make their presence felt and offer a nice touch of unpredictability to the system. The map creator was long overdue and, while not the easiest toolset to tackle, it has already been put to good use. A Promise Unforgotten has taken up many hours of my life, and will no doubt take up many, many more. Check it out, doods.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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