When Punk and Lizard asked me to review Disgaea 4 I clapped my hands and made a noise like an excited seal. If I’d had a shiny red ball, I may have done some tricks. Turn-based strategy RPG with a string of successful previous games and a trusted developer? Give it to me now. Yes, I expected great things, and great things I certainly got. I also got sardines, which was slightly unexpected.
Lord Valvatorez is a vampire, an ex-tyrant and a Prinny training instructor in Hades. Prinnies are the rotten souls of bad humans who get wrapped up in penguin skins with little bat wings. Now, those of you who have never played a Disgaea game before are probably feeling a little confused right now. Those of you who have played previous instalments and are used to insane plots are probably nodding sensibly and waiting for me to continue. Due to a sardine-related promise, Lord Valvatorez and his supporters must oppose the Corrupternment and fight for the lives and rights of all the Prinnies in Hades. Don’t worry, the game will explain everything and it will make a bizarre sort of sense.
Before I launch into the mechanics of the game, I just want to mention the voice acting. It is sheer genius and nothing less. Free drinks and a packet of Digestives to the actors. Both Valvatorez and his devious sidekick Fenrich are hysterical. Valvatorez in particular is hilariously odd, and his battle cry is the strangest I’ve ever heard. If I ever get into a fight in the middle of Tesco, I will be sure to shout “SARDINES!” before I swing my crusty baguette.
Gameplay wise, it is helpful to have some experience of turned-based grid combat. Those who know this genre well will be able to jump immediately into some reasonably hardcore gaming. Luckily, for those with less or no experience at all, there are a series of tutorials (which can be skipped) to help you along. Attack, Defend, Move, Lift, Item – the game wields all the usual options, but there is a hell of lot more to learn, and newcomers to SRPGs will be grateful for the early helping hand.The word hardcore gets banded about rather a lot in gaming circles, but in this case I think it’s well-deserved. Despite the sardines and penguin suits, the gameplay is complex. To clear a level and get maximum bonuses you need to consider your moves carefully and use each character to his or her strengths. You’ll need to place party members next to each other to perform combos. Make sure you are well-armed and armoured, and when one character can only move so many paces towards the enemy, consider flinging him the rest of the way. Monster characters can be combined to form a more powerful single character and some can merge with a human character to give him or her a strange weapon. Oh if only it were real life and I could get myself a fish gun! Those damn noisy kids outside my window would soon get a face full of sardines. Geo blocks and panels add to the fun, turning parts of the floor different colours and giving your party and the enemy different advantages and disadvantages. Thoughtful strategy and planning are needed to successfully clear these stages.
The difficulty levels starts out easy enough but the smile will soon slip from your face like a sardine down a well-greased gullet. Disgaea 4 definitely has a pain barrier, but it is so worth levelling-up and pushing through it. I spent several hours re-playing old maps just to get my stats up, but far from being a grind, it was a good opportunity to experiment with different strategies and earn extra money for better weapons and armour. I even got yself some extra mana to upgrade a few Evility skills, my favourite of which are Valvatorez’s Impaler Prince and Fenrich’s Dual Canine Attack. Take the time to upgrade these skills and your enemies can kiss their sweet grandmothers goodbye.
Of course, which character and aspect of them you upgrade is totally up to you. These decisions are what I love most about these types of RPGs. Do I spend my hard-earned money on offence or defence? Do I slowly upgrade all characters equally or do I push one or two way out in front? For me, I get attached to particular characters and I look after them first. I adore Fenrich with his unreasonably long hair and sardonic (haha) humour, so I find it hard not to upgrade him even when I know another character is lagging behind and could desperately use that slimy mucus. Or should I instead spend a large chunk of my earnings on health items because I know my healer is useless in battle and will fall down the first time she’s flashed with a larger than usual sword? I find myself hording huge amounts of flan specifically for this purpose (because nothing revives a girl faster than a piece of quiche, apparently).
So, after I’d levelled-up and refreshed myself with eight cups of tea, I went back to the main story and things felt a little fairer. Two attempts and one tantrum later, I was back on track. The pain barrier was broken and I’ve been rattling through every stage since. Disgaea 4 has hundreds of hours of gameplay and it really is up to you how much time, effort and tea you put into it. Aside from the main dungeons and all the fiddling about with character upgrades, you can also enter something called the Item World. Choose an item and get through as many stages as you can to level-up a particular weapon. Take a Level One Common Sword, level it up as high as you can and give it to a weaker character. In theory you could spend an entire weekend just doing this for each of your character’s weapons. Naturally, the more powerful the weapon is to begin with, the harder the dungeons will be and the more likely you are to hurl your Vita through an open window.
Do also consider forming a political party. Want extra experience points, higher level items in the shops? Want to change a character’s name? Choose a representative, call a senate meeting and bribe opposing party members to push your bills through. Place evil buildings, make your own map, or send characters to a support group. It’s all in the cam-pain HQ screen, and it’s all very odd indeed.
If someone held a sardine to my head and forced me to make one complaint, it would be that during combat, the stages are a little small and occasionally get crowded. This makes the controls a tiny bit fiddly. It’s not even nearly a deal-breaker,though, so please lower your sardine and slide it slowly towards me. Disgaea 4 is a beautifully polished game. The cartoon-style graphics are lovely – colourful, clear and everything you would expect from such a well-respected developer. It’s gorgeous and absolutely perfect for the Vita.
I love this game. It’s addictive, beautifully weird, and I may have to miss my sister’s wedding. Whether you are an experienced SRPG player or a newbie to the genre, you will lose substantial chunks of your life to this game. Tell your friends and family it’s all for the power and good of sardines. I’m sure they’ll understand.