Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited Review (PS Vita)
Nippon Ichi is a genius. I might sound like I don’t like the Disgaea series in this review, but I respect the utter insanity of the games, and it’s eccentric creator is a genuine auteur. Disgaea 4 is more strange, original and anarchic than any other game I’ve played this year, and I can easily imagine that fans of the series will absolutely love it. Equally though, I’m sure the volume of utterly bewildering interlocking gameplay systems will confuse and confound the majority of people who haven’t played the previous games. Disgaea 4 is an ambitious game, and it’s packed with so much “stuff” that everyone should find something they love in it. However, like an overfilled burrito, the more different ingredients you cram in, the more likely you are to include something that will make the customer gag. For me, there’s just too much puzzling and not enough tactics.
Before we tackle my main criticism of Disgaea, I should mention how much it gets right. Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited is a turn based strategy game and a port of the PS3 game Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten, and it includes all the DLC from that game as well as a whole swathe of new features. It cherry picks some of the best ideas from the three previous games and adds them in to Disgaea 4 in a seamless manner. It makes for a generous package, and as Disgaea games are always huge and deep anyway, you can’t complain that you don’t get your moneys worth. If you really get into Disgaea 4, you won’t need any other games for months. Maybe years.
But the problem is that it’s not easy to get into Disgaea 4. Not at all. And that’s not because the tutorials are bad or the design is obtuse. Quite the opposite, the game does a pretty job of introducing you to the key features one at a time, with each stage showcasing one central gameplay mechanic. Rather it’s the sheer volume of things you have to learn that becomes confusing. None of the systems in isolation are bad, it’s just stacking them them up on top of each other makes for a messy, overly complex game.
Let me give an example. Early on you learn about the importance of positioning your minions. If two characters are next to each other, there is a chance that an attack by one will trigger a co-op attack, whereby both characters will team up and do more damage. You can have as many as four characters team up for an attack based on their position. Sounds good right? A bit of tactical positioning, similar to Fire Emblem. Great!
But there’s more. So much more. You have monsters and humans. Monsters can “fuse”, to become giant monsters. They can also join with humans to “magichange”, creating new weapons for the humans. Some characters can counter. Some counter attacks can also be countered. And sometimes those can be countered too.
And you have special attacks for each character. These can attack more than one enemy, or attack enemies at range. And you can level up each special with mana points. And you have “evilities” – special character traits that affect how each character plays. And each character has unique weapons and armour. And each piece of equipment has its own “item world” where you can travel INTO the item to make it more powerful.
And you can lift enemies and allies. And throwing them will have different effects depending on who they are. For example, if you throw your basic troops (little adorable penguin-things called “Prinnies”), they explode. And characters can lift other character who are already carrying something, making big, living towers.
And much of the scenery and environment is destructible. And outside of missions you can interact with about fifteen different NPC’s who each have different menu screens and options and other worlds to explore. And there’s a meta game about voting and government elections where there are politicians you can bribe. And you can build different structures on a big map of the overworld-underworld to expand your control. And assign different NPC’s to each area to exert your influence and take over the underworld. And and and…
BOOM! My brain just exploded. That was all very confusing, right? RIGHT! I only described a tiny fraction of the game there, but it’s absolutely overwhelming. Worst of all, just when you get a handle on how the game plays and start building your own strategies, Disgaea 4 drops a whole ton of new gameplay features on you that you have to learn. You buy equipment and weapons for your little team, then you learn about evilities. You get those sorted, then you have to look at and choose specials. Then the game throws in geo blocks…
Easily my least favorite feature, geo blocks are an obscure addition that seem to have come from a different genre of game completely. They complicate every encounter and have a big impact on how each stage will play out.
Geo blocks are coloured blocks that you can pick up and throw, and they effect the colour of the tiles you stand on. Breaking a geo block will change the colour of the tiles. For example, if you break a blue geo block on a set of red tiles, all those tiles will change to blue. As those tiles change colour they will hurt any enemies or allies standing on them. This can also result in a chain reaction as the shifting tiles detonate more geo blocks. Eventually if the last block broken is the “null” geo block then you can clear all the geo tiles on the stage and get a big bonus.
It’s actually a really cool system and it’s rewarding when you trigger a big combo, but….. This is not the right game for it. I know that some people love the system, and I can understand the appeal, but it just weights the game down. It slows decision making to a crawl, and makes each new stage an intractably difficult puzzle rather than a tactical challenge. Instead of weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of your enemies and matching them up against the abilities of your own team, you spend long minutes scanning the level, looking at the placements of the geo blocks and trying to figure out how the stage designer wanted you to “solve” that particular stage. In a game that celebrates subverting the rules and fighting dirty, it feels like the geo blocks system is too prescriptive; it forces you to play each stage in a specific way, undermining your freedom to take on enemies in your own way.
And you can’t just ignore the go panels and geo blocks. They give your enemies stat buffs. Moreover, the game always feels like it’s pushing you to use them, penalizing you with poorer loot and bonus xp at the end of the stage if you don’t use them effectively.
I realise some Disgaea fans are screaming at the screen right now, and I can understand that. But the clumsy, kitchen sink approach to design in Disgaea 4 is what put me off the series in the past, and I don’t feel any different when playing the fourth game as I did the first. And geo panels aside, Disgaea 4 has a great combat system. There’s so many unique and charming animations for the special attacks that you’ll still be seeing new ones after twenty or thirty hours of gameplay. In general the presentation is excellent, with well laid out menus, satisfying visual effects and a huge variety to the weapons, character designs, enemies and stages.
Perhaps the nail in the coffin for me though is the humour in Disgaea 4. Valvatorez is a strangely blank character, and his confrontation with the bureaucracy of the underworld and the eventual revolution he instigates is about as exciting as a trade federation blockade of Naboo. His loyal sidekick Fenrich doesn’t really have a definable character trait either, and there’s an awful lot of zany anime characters with no real punchlines to any of their jokes. Maybe it lost something in translation, but for a game that seems so overtly cartoonish, it’s telling that at no time was I even close to laughing, and my desire to skip the overly twee dialogue was overpowering after the first ten hours of enduring it.
As I write this I am still torn how to evaluate Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited. I’m looking at the game right now, and there’s so much to admire. I love how flexible it is. I love being able to use the “execute” function, to perform all allocated actions without having to end my turn. I love how I can move between characters using some of their movement points, then come back to them later to use the rest. I love the attack animations. I love the strategic possibilities of merging monsters and I love how the game looks. And yet, each new stage fills me with dread rather than excitement. Each new area is a headache, and each new feature the game introduces is something that distracts me from the fun stuff I’ve only just got the hang of. I always feel like I’m not playing the game right, that I’m missing out on important features that I don’t properly understand. And crucially, even after a week of committed play, I still feel like I’m learning and I still feel like I’m not “getting it”. Most importantly, I’m still not having fun.
I’m not a casual player. This may sound hideously arrogant, but I’m good at these types of games. I’ve battled through a XCOM’s a-plenty, Final Fantasy Tactics and the whole Fire Emblem series on the highest difficulties. In the Disgaea games though, I always feel ineffectual – like I am playing the game wrongly. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I didn’t go through enough hours of brutal character grinding. Or maybe it’s Disgaea, and maybe Disgaea 4 just isn’t very good. Or maybe it is good, but only if you are a committed fan of the series.
I guess that’s my conclusion. Disgaea 4 is the best game I’ve ever hated.
3 immolated prinnies out of 5