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Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten
Graphics: 8.8
Gameplay: 9.2
Sound: 9.1
Control: 8.6
Replay Value: 9
Rating: 8.9

When Disgaea: Hour of Darkness debuted on the PS2 back in 2003, strategy/RPG fans were in heaven. It generated an outpouring of praise from both critics and gamers, and that phenomenon launched the franchise. It was also the birth of the Prinny, which has become a staple of a different kind. In 2011, enter Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten, yet another installment jam-packed with that patented off-the-wall humor and a ridiculous amount of depth. The story is beyond quirky – it’s downright insane – but obviously, the focus remains squarely on the gameplay. For fans of this sub-genre, prepare to indulge.

Although the mainstream may not notice, the hardcore will undoubtedly note the visual upgrade in the latest Disgaea entry. Everything is sharper and more defined, character detail is fantastic, and battle animations are super fluid and vibrant. The best part is that NIS keeps the charm and style from past entries; all they do is update it with stellar artistry and refinement, which will certainly appeal to long-time followers. See, this is what happens when you usher in beautiful high-definition graphics: absolutely everything looks better. But if you’ve caught the nostalgia bug and you refuse to play with the fancy new visuals, Disgaea 4 lets you select the old-school style. It’s just that the new palette is so damn smooth.

Usually, I am not a fan of the uber-cheesy, over-the-top voice acting found in so many Japanese/anime productions. I’ve never found it amusing in the slightest. But the voice performances in this game are excellent, and they’re excellent because they maintain that cheesiness while combining it with effective, professional actors. That’s a plus. The soundtrack remains a highlight as always; the original score complements the game in every possible way, and the effects are also top-notch. It’s tough to take anything away from the audio, but I will say that some voices still chafe, and there’s a slight balance issue between effects and music. Besides that…fantastic.

Okay, look, this is why I can’t play Disgaea anymore. I’m all happy playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution and I’m trying to ignore this game NIS just sent. I’m trying to ignore it because I know that when I start, I won’t be able to stop; I’ll get all involved in beefing up my party, jump into the Item World, and never come out again. I got hooked on that damn Item World in past entries and the bottom line is that I just don’t have the time these days. Nevertheless, this review had to be done and yup, yet again, I got hooked. But not just to the Item World; the entire adventure just begged for an offering of many, many hours.

Get More:, Disgaea 4 - Japanese Debut Trailer, PC Games, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

I mentioned the story before; I’ll briefly outline the introduction here- the main character is Valvatorez, a demon that has fallen from grace and yet, with plenty of pride and self-serving cockiness, he instructs legions of Prinnies. Prinnies were human criminals when alive, by the way. Anyway, we find out there are too many Prinnies (resulting in noise pollution and “lower test scores” throughout the Netherworld), so a big bad council orders a Prinny genocide. But Valvatorez promised his Prinnies they’d receive one sardine each for completing their lessons…and damnit, he’s going to keep that promise!

There’s more to it, of course, but I won’t give anything else away. Besides, it’s the gameplay that matters most. Fans will quickly recognize returning elements: tossing and throwing, Geo blocks, the Senate, combo and team attacks, etc. And oh yes, that pesky Item World. But you didn’t really think they’d release a new Disgaea without new stuff, did you? This time, when you complete a battle, you will conquer a certain territory on a map. Basically, all you’re really doing is clearing another square in order to create a new character, but it’s an interesting twist. I’m also forgetting the Evilities, skills, and skill boosts, which are important.

As you might expect, there’s a ton to think about. And it’s all wrapped up in that recognizable and amazingly addictive gameplay control format, which is pure turn-based. When I say “pure,” I mean speed never factors in; you bring in all the units you desire, choose actions, execute them, and when ready, turn the board over to the enemy. It has always worked extremely well and that hasn’t changed. But when you combine all the crazy depth, you’ll often sit and stare at larger, more complicated battles for several minutes, your brain spinning. In this way, it’s almost a flaw; there’s almost too much to consider at any one time.

And no matter how long I play, I can’t quite grasp the combo and team attacks. These can be triggered with basic and Special attacks, and it’s based on the positioning of your allies, the enemy, and the chosen skills. It’s a little complicated and in truth, I’m not entirely comfortable with the mechanic, because I find it difficult to determine exactly what will happen when attempting a multiple-character assault. Just when I think I understand it exactly, another factor comes into play and I get confused. Thankfully, though, the rest will always click…given enough time.

Get More:, Disgaea 4 - Tower Attack Gameplay, PC Games, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

You can petition the Senate for game-related changes, provided you have enough Mana. You can use Mana to pick up specific skills for characters. You can purchase, sell, and upgrade items through shops and the Item World. Almost every item and piece of equipment has specific abilities that can be used, provided that item is equipped. You can create your own characters and choose their classes. In battle, there are the Geo blocks with which to contend (environmental alterations), height issues that require tossing and throwing characters (you can even create a “tower” of stacked characters), and situations that call for combos and team attacks.

And that’s hardly everything. It’s just packed. It’s all the depth fans know and love, plus more. We still have a central hub and a basic selection map that dictates our progression, but the core principles – gameplay freedom and customization – remain solidly in place. I still think it can be difficult to see everything one needs to see on crowded battlefields, the combo and team attacks can be a tad confusing, and in some ways, the insane depth can feel overwhelming. Also, there are a few characters I don’t like and the story isn’t exactly gripping, so there are some drawbacks. But when it comes to straight-up strategy gameplay, well…

Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten is exactly what it should be: an upgrade of a recognizable game that plenty of fans have adored. It’s very pretty, the audio is borderline amazing, the captivating, addicting gameplay is back in full force (with even a little extra force), and player choice and customization immediately gives us a sense of purpose. We can do just about anything. It’s not about exploration, as the followers know; it’s about building a team any way you see fit. It’s about a solid, well-paced turn-based experience that delivers what it promises and more. It’s about clearing off a huge chunk of your calendar so you can freakin’ play it!

The Good: Beautiful yet simple visual upgrade. Great music, effects and a few excellent voices. Depth is mind-boggling. Limitless freedom to learn and customize. Patented style and humor shines through. Longevity is off the charts.

The Bad: It can feel a little overwhelming. Battlefield can still seem too crowded, and camera doesn’t always help. Story is…weird.

The Ugly: “Yep, here I am again, in the Item World. Guess I’ll just stay here forever.”

8/25/2011   Ben Dutka