More sardine factoids than you can shake a sword at.
The Disgaea franchise has a passionate and dedicated following for such a niche style of game to make it this far: a fourth entry in its line of animé-inspired tomfoolery matched with complex, detailed strategy. As someone who has watched the series from afar until now, I confess that having played plenty of Disgaea 4, I can understand the appeal of this quirky take on the classic genre. And despite that understanding, I am still confused by what I have experienced.
Disgaea games take place in a fantasy world based on reality, focused on dark beings who reside in the Netherworld, generally speaking. Each title has recurring styles of characters but the actual cast is mostly different in each game. The fourth entry tells the sometimes melodramatic, sometimes just-plain-bizarre story of Valvatorez, a vampire who once ruled the land with an iron fist.
Valvatorez has lost some of his spunk over the years, however, due to his weakness of always following through on any promises he keeps, no matter how ridiculous—such as promising not to drink human blood. Yeah, not that smart, sire. Rather than being a noble, powerful leader, he's also stuck training souls in Hades to prepare them for working off the debts of their sins. A few nonsensical scenes later, and Valvatorez casts himself as the head of a political party to overtake the President of the Netherworld, whom he feels is not ruling properly.
If that sounded somewhat serious, it's because I'm doing my hardest to skip over the completely insane, very animé-inspired writing and sense of humor. I admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the political nature of the story, and its imaginative ideas behind how heaven and hell operate in relation to humanity. There's plenty of laughs to be had, especially for all of the self-referencing, poking fun at stereotypes of Japanese animé and video games. Many of these jokes revolve around one party member in particular, who aspires to become a 'Final Boss'.
The game's writers and localization team know their audience well, that's for sure, so if you're not familiar with Japanese RPGs and/or animé, a good chunk of the humor will either be lost on you or make you cringe. If that type of content gets you excited, you're bound to eat up what's offered here. Story scenes are told through animated images of the characters and some light spritework. If you've played modern Japanese RPGs, chances are you're pretty familiar with the format. It gets the job done, but is certainly on the cheaper side of production.
The plot is mostly predictable, though during the multiple 'Final' chapters of the game, it pulls off some even more crazy stuff. Most of the big 'reveals' can be figured out within the first few hours of the game—at least, I figured them out—but even so, it's an enjoyable ride because of how likeable the cast is, how they play off each other, and how enthusiastically they are voice-acted. While the writing is intentionally cheesy, the actors definitely sell the ludicrousness of it all, helping it rise past its lean presentation. The end gets a bit too sappy for its own good, as the story drags a bit and loses steam, but then again, it's all part of the parody. In either case, Disgaea 4's story is worth checking out, especially if you're into Japanese animé insanity.
Of course, you could bypass much of the story, if you wished, and sink time into the Item World, where every object, from a healing item to a piece of equipment, contains randomly generated dungeons that, when explored, can upgrade and change the properties of the item. You can also power-level to raise stats, unlock skills, create new classes of characters, reincarnate them back at level 1 (out of 9999) for better stat aptitude. Or you could spend time altering the world map, requesting hearings at the Senate to add new buildings that change the dynamics of how your team operates, like tag-team bonuses, experience bonuses, or even unlocking different epilogues. Suffice it to say that Disgaea 4, true to its namesake, is loaded with endless possibilities to explore for those craving the progression and satisfaction gained from upgrading a party in a deep, complex strategy RPG.
With all of the extra-curricular activities, the zany story and setting, and the seemingly unlimited number of things to create and accomplish, it's a good thing that the game has a solid skeleton to support its virtual obesity. We're talking about a classic, by-the-books, isometric, sprite-based strategy game. That is, if 'by-the-books' means being able to stack characters into towers for team attacks, throw them across the stage to reach areas faster, combine party members together, turn party members into weapons… yeah. Plenty of bizarre and crazy options here, too.
There's also the Geo Block system, which involves different parts of the terrain containing different properties based on special blocks that are touching groups of panels. Some of the more thoughtful maps in the game hinge on taking advantage of—or negating the effects of—Geo Blocks. And did I mention users can create and share their own maps as well? How about the fact that navigating menus and progressing through combat can be as flashy and silly or as simple and speedy as you like? Special effects can be turned off and battle speed can be quickened, so if you simply want to grind through stuff as conveniently as possible, be warned that Disgaea 4 will make going back to Final Fantasy Tactics seem painfully slow.
If strategy games are your kind of thing, there's a ton of content here. However, there's a feeling of quantity over quality with Disgaea 4. As mentioned, the presentation can be low-key for a full release PS3 game, though it definitely does it best. This becomes a noticeable problem when the flow of dialogue is abnormally slow due to the pauses in between lines. Characters get interrupted with an unnatural break before the next character speaks. The menus, while easy to find your way around, can be vague and may not offer a clear description of how strong a skill will be, or exactly how its range will increase should you choose to upgrade it. The isometric viewpoint can become an eyesore on crowded or awkwardly-shaped maps.
The story is very predictable, dragging on for longer than it needs to, and gets overly melodramatic in spite of its comedy. Seriously, I felt like throwing up a little in my mouth at certain points. For all of its brilliant tactical possibilities, the game doesn't do a good job of showing or explaining many of them to you, nor does it really present maps that force you to use many of them. To top this all off, despite the clever options at your fingertips, I came to realize that it's more effective to have one or two characters get all of the experience than to maintain a varied, well-balanced team. This kind of defeats the idea of conducting tactical combat and means that power-leveling one or two characters is the path to victory.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantl, Disgaea 4 is a very Japanese game. I cannot state enough that if loud, dramatically convoluted dialogue is not your thing, this game will be excruciating to play. To its credit, it is quite self-aware and mocks this very fact on occasion, but it also blatantly tosses around certain Japanese names/words here and there (usually in reference to sardines, over which the protagonist is amusingly obsessed) as if that's not a big deal. That said, if you're one of those purists who can't stand cheesy English overacting but can stand cheesy Japanese overacting for whatever reason, you're covered since you can opt for Japanese audio instead.
At the end of the day, that's really what Disgaea 4 is all about—a multitude of options and possibilities that allow different players to approach it from a myriad of different angles. Its presentation isn't quite what it could be, and for all of its brilliant mechanics, there are a few issues, but Disgaea 4 definitely maintains the standard that I imagine its fans have come to expect and is actually worth checking out if you're like me and have never played a game in the franchise before. Just watch out for all those souls damned to Hell stuck wearing exploding penguin suits, dood.