Platforms: PS Vita
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Handhelds and strategy RPGs were made for each other, and Disgaea continues to be one of the biggest names in the business for those in the know. Nailing that sweet spot between quirky upbeat humour, insane social life-destroying tactical depth and adorable exploding demon penguin murderers, the irreverent series always feels more at home on portable consoles than it does in the living room.
Case in point, Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited, which provides the ultimate definitive edition of arguably the strongest game in the franchise.
Sardines, dood! Yes, once again, Disgaea isn't ashamed to be deeply silly when it comes to the storyline. We find ourselves following Lord Valvatorez, a once-terrifying vampire tyrant now relegated to a lowly exploding penguin instructor in the depths of hell thanks to some hastily-made promises. His mission, not to mention his obsession with the nutrient value of sardines versus human blood, quickly derails as all manner of crazy characters show up and hilarious diversions poke fun at established conventions, but a strong central theme and great localised dialogue keeps things interesting even if you've never played a Disgaea game before.
It's a surprisingly engrossing tale, even providing alternate 'bad endings' with their own non-canonical epilogue when you fail certain battles. Just remember not to save after seeing one! More importantly, though, Valvatorez is by far the most interesting protagonist in the series. Older and more experienced (but no less bizarre) than his predecessors, he's genuinely hilarious, likeable and benefits from a believable and relateable motive. Move over Laharl.
Gameplay is king, though, and Disgaea is famed for its array of smart overlapping gameplay mechanics. Or in other words: it's ace. Favouring the tried-and-tested isometric grid-based perspective, it's more flexible and versatile than practically any other SRPG out there as characters can be freely moved around each other without penalty, sequences of attacks can be planned and cued up consecutively for extra damage and detailed plans can be pulled off in the space of a single turn. The core framework is a great foundation, and Disgaea 4 wastes no time in piling on a whole host of combat options for canny armchair generals.
Units can lift and throw each other around the map, both to quickly manouevre around the arena, close the distance with enemies or pull vulnerable units out of enemy attack range even if they've used their turn. Conversely, up to four characters can stand on each other's shoulders to form teetering towers, unlocking crazy new attacks at the cost of increased vulnerability. Counterattacks can be countered and countered again. Team attacks can be triggered by adjacent units, who can then be freely moved to a new location before or after their assault. A deepening array of weapon-specific attack ranges and active skills provide a dizzying range of potential strategies and plays -- and come complete with outrageous animations.
On the RPG side of things, characters all earn experience, mana and to put towards new combat skills, passive 'Evility' buffs and better gear. Each class, whether human archetypes or monsters, comes with a host of unique benefits, attacks, ranges and drawbacks. Will you combine two monsters together into a bigger creature that can bully enemies out of position? Or morph them into powerful yet temporary weapons that eventually remove them from the field? The choice is yours, commander, and constantly improving your forces is never less than profoundly addictive.
So far, so familiar if you played the 2011 original, but the new Vita version sweetens the pot immeasurably. Not only does the crisp spritework absolutely pop out of that lovely OLED screen, but the compartmentalised battles are a perfect fit for 'pick up and play' sessions on the go. Twelve new missions help expand the backstory and show us a new facet of Valvatorez' character, the retooled Cheat Shop lets us tweak the game's parameters to our specifications and all the original DLC is included right there on the card.
Put simply, it's brilliant. And brilliantly, I simply can't put it down.
In terms of flaws, I still have some qualms about Disgaea 4's overuse of Geo Cubes. Many maps feature special panels that trigger buffs, debuffs or bizarre effects for characters standing on them, which can be changed or removed by carefully throwing and detonating corresponding coloured boxes. At best, it adds another layer of meaningful strategic depth and reward to the battle as a perfectly-detonated Geo Cube deals damage as well as changing the status effect in play, but several stages take the concept too far and make success hinge around using the mechanic rather than thinking around it. You can have far too much of a good thing.
I'm also still annoyed that EXP is primarily awarded for killing enemies, as opposed to damaging them. When new characters start at level one, this can make for some seriously longwinded grind sessions. It's always annoying to see hardworking heroes getting shafted for their contribution, beyond tiny bonuses for mage spells.
Ultimately, though, Disgaea 4's insane depth means that it isn't for everyone. You can travel into every item in the game to fight in randomised maps and improve their stats (encountering some noticeable slowdown during larger battles). You can engage in cut-throat netherworld politics on the grand stage, reincarnate characters or reinvent them on a whim. Every skill has its own progression system. The maximum level cap is 9999. Seriously, I'm just scratching the surface here.
All of this is catnip to established fans, but can leave newcomers more used to the likes of Fire Emblem, XCOM or Final Fantasy Tactics feeling lost and overwhelmed, especially when the key to mastering all of these systems basically just boils down to grinding away at more battles. Hell, hitting that 9999 cap is effectively the whole point of the endgame and metagame.
As such, I can't recommend Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited to everyone. But I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who likes their strategy hardcore, their difficulty stern and their humour zany -- even if you played the original. Get on it, dood.
- Rock-solid, versatile and insanely deep SRPG gameplay
- Hilarious and irreverent storyline with likeable characters
- Crisp retooled visuals, unique art design and annoyingly catchy music
- Loads of new story content, gameplay tweaks and DLC included as standard
- Many stages overuse gimmicky Geo Panels
- Grinding is a necessity (and is endgame content)
- The line between depth and confusing busywork blurs at times
The Short Version: As ridiculously deep and deeply ridiculous as ever, Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited makes the 2011 original feel like a brand new game and a superb value package.