Nippon Ichi is back with the fourth instalment of its popular tactical RPG Disgaea. Subtitled ‘A Promise Unforgotten’, this time the story follows the antics of a fallen vampire, Valvatorez (who is bizarrely obsessed by sardines) and his werewolf collaborator, Fenrich. The duo is joined along the way by various companions on their quest to defeat a secret ruler of the human world, who is intent on destroying the netherworld. It’s the usual silliness with the dry and sometimes black humour we've come to know and expect.
The last outing of Disgaea, and the first on the “Next Gen” platforms, came under a fair amount of criticism due to its out-dated graphics engine. Calls of “this could have been done on the PS2” were abound, so Nippon Ichi have addressed this shortcoming for A Promise Unforgotten. The same sprites and isometric map style has remained, but everything is much higher-resolution now, making things far less blocky and a lot nicer to look at on a big screen. It’s possible to switch to a retro mode with the old engine, which shows how much of an improvement has been made to the graphical side of things. Disgaea has never been about the looks though; it’s about the gaming experience on which Nippon Ichi are still able to deliver.
The basic gaming premise is simple and has remained the same since the series began: defeat every enemy unit on the map, but it is up to the player to decide how that's done. Many different unit types are available to join Valvatorez, from Fighters to Ninjas, Mages to Healers, Catsabers, Mothmen, Slimes and of course, the explosive and loveable Prinnie.
The story plays out across a number of chapters, each of which has six or more maps to conquer. A wealth of different attack types are available, from simply bashing an enemy on the nut, burning them with fireball magic or releasing insane special skills, such as the team tower attacks, with the goal of reducing every adversarial opponent’s health to zero. Doing so moves the story along, and treats the player with witty dialogue and a fun story, mostly obsessed with sardines. Given Disgaea is not only about the story but also about endless grinds to level 9999, the narrative can be completely skipped if desired, but it’s definitely worth sitting through the first time around.
The core gameplay remains unchanged, so any Disgaea veterans will be able to jump right in without any issues at all. For newbies to the series (where have you been?), the game provides an introduction in the first chapter to fighting, moving, magic, throwing and geo-cubes (special objects that cause status effects across the maps), along with further instructions as the player discovers Item World, the Rosen Queen Store, the Hospital, the Senate and the home-room; this time in the guise of a tactical map dubbed the Cam-Pain. Class World (for boosting stats), Evalities (special character bonuses) and Magichange (the ability for non-human creatures to become weapons) also returns, along with reverse pirating in Item World. And like all the other titles in the series, there are plenty of hidden bonuses and treats post-game for the battle-hardened.
This will all sound familiar to gamers returning for this fresh adventure, but there a few new features that have made it in to the game (along with a couple of different status effects), though it’s a little dubious if they really add that much to the proceedings. After a few chapters the ability to create and upload your own maps is unlocked, which sounds great in theory, but is fairly limited in its ability. Rather than giving the player ultimate control, there are fixed block shapes and numbers, and characters on the map can only be chosen from the player’s party, reducing the usefulness for power levelling. It’s possible to fight other player’s creations from within the map editorial suite, though the top rankings are dominated by the Japanese gamers who’ve had the title for far longer. Defeating these maps provides CP that can be spent on new block shapes, status effects and decorations for further enhancing map creations. It’s an interesting feature and hopefully one that’ll be expanded on, should Disgaea 5 ever arrive. It's also possible to create your own home room in a similar fashion, though this is little more than decoration and distraction.
Despite the largely static features, Nippon Ichi has once again produced an approachable and accessible game to newbies and veterans alike, but it does feel this time around that the game is going through the Disgaea motions, with no big improvements or changes to the core gameplay. That’s not to say that Disgaea 4 isn’t an engrossing game, there is still a hundred hour challenge in there for those gamers ready to eke out every last drop of the Disgaea universe, it just feels little different from the fantastic first Disgaea that started the whole thing off. From that point of view Disgaea seems like it’s lost some of that freshness from way back when.
That said, Disgaea continues to define the pinnacle of the TRPG mechanics and Nippon Ichi is clearly the master of this genre; just don’t go expecting anything shiny and brand new from this latest outing. It remains though, a must buy for any fan of the series.