In my freshman year of college I bought Disgaea: Hour of Darkness on a whim. The cover art and character designs blew me away. That would become the first title in which my hour count plunged deeply into the triple digits. I had never experienced a game with so much to do, and I was hooked. Now, after some financial turmoil, Nippon Ichi has released Disgaea 4. Do they still have what it takes to churn out the hour-sponges, or has their winning formula dried out?
Story – Iwashi
Disgaea 4 follows a vampire living in the Netherworld named Valvatorez. His current position in the highly vertical heirarchy of the underworld is Prinny Instructor — in other words, he’s at the bottom. Valvatorez quite literally trains the penguin-shaped scum of the netherworld how to take abuse — a thankless job if ever there was one. It wasn’t always like this, though. He was once a great tyrant, feared by both human and demon. However, at some point he made a promise to stop drinking human blood, thus becoming considerably weaker and easier to push around. And when Valvatores makes a promise, he keeps it. After adopting his new role, Valvatorez and his companion Fenrich notice all is not right in the government of the underworld. With corruption rearing its ugly head, the gang head off on a journey to investigate.
If you forced me to use one word to describe the story in this, or any Disgaea, that word would be bittersweet. The series is known for a sharp wit and off the wall jokes. For instance Valvatorez, unable to drink blood, maintains a portion of his strength by eating sardines. He is on a vendetta to spread his wealth of knowledge about this modest fish in the hopes that others can be made aware of its greatness. I learned a lot about sardines. An awful lot, and Valvatorez’s enthusiasm for the fish was consistently amusing.
So if humor is the sweetness in the bittersweet, the bitterness can be found in each character’s backstory. While not revealed immediately, the game’s light humor is beautifully dusted with clues to some sad past. In this manner, the gravity of each helping of bitterness sneaks up on the player until a carefully calculated moment. While this formula is consistent, through well… nearly every NIS title that comes to mind, it is still executed just as masterfully as the game’s trademark humor. Still, I would like to see NIS lean on this story mechanic less… I realize there are constraints from working within a humor-based story, but that is not an excuse.
System – Hi-tech Bribery
Online functionality is more involved than ever, but still the player is just as limited. I could upload one of my characters to participate in other player’s dark congress assemblies. If my character was bribed, I could even collect the bribes after the fact. But I would like to see this go a step further, allowing me to directly affect another player and witness that fact. I want to be the one who votes. I want to decide if the bribe I received was good enough. These desires could easily be game breaking, and perhaps they are, but what I really want is to feel like what I am doing with any online functionality matters. And I did not feel that way in Disgaea 4 at all. Upload of player data controlled by the game’s AI is not my idea of successful online functionality.
Most of Disgaea 4‘s strategy RPG mechanics are making a return from past iterations. You still have your base panel, geo blocks and throwing systems. There are some new features such as the ability to fuse two monster characters into one, much larger, monster. Oh, and the discipline system, sure to make you blush and laugh uncomfortably. Ultimately however, if you spent hundreds of hours in Disgaea 3, odds are very good you will spend hundreds of hours in Disgaea 4 essentially doing all the same things. Let’s face it, grinding is what sucks up the most time, and where grinding is concerned not much has changed. That’s because Disgaea 4 is built heavily off the shoulders of Disgaea 3 in terms of system with little in the way of innovation.
Presentation – Moving on up
Visually the franchise has made enormous strides. Sprite appearances were overhauled resulting in possibly the smoothest most detailed ones I’ve ever seen. The lush dialog art becomes animated during event scenes, further validating the game’s place on a current gen home console.
Conclusions – Secret Ingredient
If I were a chef and my sous-chef presented me with a bowl of Disgaea 4, I would probably say they did very well but lose points for playing it safe. The presentation was spotless; in fact, they were a huge improvement. The execution, while containing some new techniques, is largely nothing new. Overall the taste is… quite familiar. Sous-chef Nippon Ichi, I’m afraid this dish needed more heart and less leftovers.