Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten

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After the tragically inconclusive ending of my journey through Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice, it took a while before I had the heart to pick up Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten. I was afraid it would just be another 30-hour grind with the same gameplay I was used to and the same, old classes I always roll with. These are games you play for the story and not getting to finish that of its third installment left me sour. Of course, I eventually decided to just tank it and start playing, whereupon Disgaea 4 quickly proved to be absolutely absorbing.

Adults get stuff done!

The story of Disgaea 4 once again takes us to a Netherworld within the vast multiverse of Netherworlds. This particular one is run by The Corrupternment and the president who stands at the head of it. However, we take control of a character at the very bottom of this world’s society. Valvatorez is a former tyrant and super-powerful vampire, who one day made a promise to somebody to cease drinking human blood. Since then he has fallen from power and now lives on a diet of sardines, much to the chagrin of his werewolf servant Fenrich. The former tyrant now works in Hades, the prison of The Netherworld, where he trains newborn Prinnies before they go out into the world.

Valvatorez.jpg

Valvatorez is content with his life as a Prinny Instructor, until one day all the Prinnies under his charge are abducted. As he soon finds out, The Corrupternment has decided to exterminate all Prinnies, effectively ending his job. What begins as Valvatorez merely wanting to fulfill a promise he made to the Prinnies before their abduction spirals out of control and soon he finds himself leading a revolution against The Corrupternment.

The tone and subject matter of Disgaea 4 are entertainingly fresh and interesting. The Netherworld is now centered around politics, rather than the overdone high school setting of the previous title. Fittingly, Valvatorez and Fenrich are the first time that the lead characters of a Disgaea story are adults. They make for a fun duo, always talking about the good old days and attempting to talk sense into the many, younger Demons that cross their paths. The story also has many interesting twists and really digs into Valvatorez’ backstory, all of which had me hooked. I was playing through the game’s episodes even faster than with Disgaea 2, which I previously held up as the best-written entry in the franchise.

Lass

Besides Valvatorez and Fenrich there are numerous other characters involved in the plot. Fuka is a high schooler who died and was reincarnated as a failed Prinny, but remains in denial about it and insists that the events of the game are a dream she is having. She was a lot of fun to have around and unwillingly becomes a big sister to another party member, Desco. Desco is a man-made Demon who deeply desires to be the final boss, but is way too young, cute, and inept to fulfill the roll right now. We get to meet many other fun characters as the adventure proceeds, including old favorite Axel. Perhaps the most important bits, however, are the few scenes about The President himself, which reveal some of the political intrigue going on behind the scenes.

To see this series take on a direction about politics is bizarre and some of its commentaries can be a bit on-the-nose, but it has a good cast of characters and Valvatorez is an engrossing anti-hero for the story. With that said, a lot of the dialogue did risk being annoying because of how often characters will bring up running gags. I adored Desco at first, but having her bring up her ambition of becoming a final boss in almost every cutscene did start to grate on me.

Aliens.jpg

Sadly, for all its strengths, Disgaea 4 just seemingly loses interest in the qualities of its own stories. After the introduction missions that establish the characters, the plan to usurp The Corrupternment is enacted in a brief 3 chapters and a climactic finale. I was willing to accept this as the game being shorter than the other entries in the franchise, but what follows is a tediously prolonged series of missions that keep moving the goal post, make the storyline increasingly absurd, and conclude several story threads on lame jokes. This sadly includes an absolutely nonsensible encounter with Fuka’s dad, who is perhaps the most inconsistently-written character in the franchise thus far.

I understand that humor is part of the series’ appeal, but here it is used to squander an interesting story that was already plenty comical on its own. It definitely feels like they rushed through a lot of the early story and then had to fill space by writing joke chapters. That a much more compelling villain is replaced with a self-proclaimed madman for the last few chapters is a good example of this, especially compared to the fantastic late-game villains of previous titles.

Story score: 7/10

Disgaea got politicized

Gameplay-wise not much has been changed, which is a running theme in this series. You’ll still be creating various Demons as party members, equipping them with semi-randomized gear, and taking them into strategic encounters against other Demons. There is still an emphasis on working around terrain limitation and the special effects of geo panels. You got your level cap of 9999, your multi-tiered classes, your item worlds, your evilities, it’s all still here and much the same as it was before. In fact, I don’t think they even added any new monster-type characters this time around. That is a bit of a disappointment and the new classes they did add I honestly didn’t have much use for at all or took way too much effort to unlock.

Final Boss Arises.jpg

This means much of my gameplay experience in Disgaea 4 matched the time I had with Disgaea 3. Of course, there are changes to the balancing and the stages continue to improve still, but if you were tired of the formula before then this is not the game that will rekindle the flame.

What is different is the stuff on the side. The classroom from Disgaea 3 has been replaced with a tiled map of the world, where each tile can be occupied by a character. This still means characters standing beside each other on the world map will have better odds of performing team-attacks, but now there are also buildings to place. These buildings, or “evil symbols” as they are called, take up a tile as well and then proceed to bestow special bonuses to characters standing in the colored spaces around it. One building may have characters in its influence share a portion of their gained experience points, another will let characters use the defend command in battles on behalf of an ally, and yet another allows your own characters to appear in The Senate (Dark Assembly) to vote on your own bills.

These are, of course, an evolution of the existing “clubs” from Disgaea 3, but executed much more gracefully than before. I was especially fond of the Evil Symbols that added whole new gameplay features, like the Legendary Tree that allows you to forge bonds between characters by reaching certain criteria, which then manifest into passive bonuses.

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The game also adds a cabinet, which is a roster of ministers that work under you. By assigning your characters to these positions they get a bunch of small bonuses. There are also the new monster fusions, which come on top of the magichange system from Disgaea 3. By getting two of the same kind of monster together, you can fuse them into one giant version that adds a bunch of their stats together. It’s a tad niché in its use, but it also made some of the item worlds and story missions more interesting, as the AI can make clever use of this option as well.

Sadly, the item world did get a lot more frustrating in this installment. Pirates are ridiculously common now, as sometimes you can have a pirate invasion twice in a row or even two, separate pirates within the same stage. I also started avoiding the secret rooms because multiple times I went into one, only to be locked into an inescapable battle with impossible enemies that were certain to Game Over me. That these encounters were not scaled or, like in Disgaea 2set to expire if the player survived for several turns, is completely beyond me. These encounters made me lose an hour of progress at one point and it greatly varies how well these are signposted.

Communications office

Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten doesn’t innovate much and that is really its central weakness. It relies on the strong gameplay formula of the series and has retooled some of its existing mechanics to be more politics-themed, yet not all of those changes are for the better. It has fantastic stages and I still loved optimizing my party and forming strategies, it’s just that it all felt a little too familiar. The lack of accessible, new characters certainly added to that.

Gameplay score: 7/10

Seen it before

Disgaea 4 upholds the series’ standards for high-quality character designs and flashy animations. Of course it does, because these are the same designs we have been seeing since the early days of the series. Warriors, Skulls, magical girls, fistfighters, and ninjas, all characters we have seen before that use pretty much the same skills they always have. Some animations have been reworked to be fancier and I do admit that the main characters look absolutely fantastic, plus there are small animations to the character portraits during cutscenes and the in-game sprites are more expressive than ever before.

Oblivion Hill

A new feature is that, upon creation of any new character, you can actually select a voice for them out of 3 presets. It’s not much of a difference, of course, seeing as they only have a few lines each, yet it made the party feel more personal and diverse.

As with previous entries, however, this was another installment that kept me in doubt about what language to use. Troy Baker and Patrick Seitz definitely surpass their Japanese counterparts as Valvatorez and Fenrich respectively. Their voices stand out more and lend the characters more personality, whereas in Japanese Val, in particular, just sounds a bit too generic. On the flipside, Vic Mignogna makes the enigmatic “friend” of The President sound way too young and Michelle Ruff, who also voices Etna throughout the series, makes for a squeaky and grating Desco, who I feel is better handled by Mizuno Manabi.

Tenpei Sato, as was to be expected, returns to handle the game’s soundtrack and has performed yet another amazing job. The tracks vary from bouncy, upbeat, and silly to some that are just jaw-droppingly beautiful. The animated video that kicks off the game is set to the track Last Engage and rivals Disgaea 2‘s Sinful Rose for the best Disgaea OP so far. The second hub song, Arcadian Vampire, was also fantastic and I never got bored of it despite hearing it on repeat for hours.

Presentation score: 6/10

The end?

Contrary to prior Disgaea games, there is only one regular ending to the story. You can discover a variety of bad endings by losing specific missions, however, and there is a true ending to get if players go for New Game+ and finish the extra-hard true final stage. On top of that, the regular ending is topped off with an optional epilogue sequence between Valvatorez and any main character he forged a bond with through the Legendary Tree. These are fun extras, but you should be warned that only the very first character you bonded with counts towards this, making it a real struggle to see all of them without relying on YouTube.

Once again there is a potentially infinite amount of post-game content to indulge in. Besides leveling up characters and unlocking new classes to play with, optimizing your team to perfection, there are also some bonus chapters unlockable via Senate bills that extend the story.

Verdict

Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten is a deliberately-juvenile game trying its hand at mature themes. The political nature of this Netherworld and the well-rounded cast are major selling points that could have made this the finest entry in the series, but the game does outstay its welcome and innovates too little to make up for that and its other shortcomings. It’s a fine game and, if this is your first time with the Disgaea series, a fantastic tactical RPG. Returning players might feel it’s underwhelming, though, depending on how well the story clicks with them.

67/100

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