"Even if you just choose to play through once, it's well worth your gaming dollar."
When the Disgaea series began, I was oblivious to it. My first introduction didn't come until Hour of Darkness was ported to the PSP. Since then, I've played all of the games at least once, and although I enjoyed them all, I liked number three the least. When the fourth was released, I was concerned that its quality would continue downhill, but now that I've played it, I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded. In fact, there are ways in which the latest Disgaea is my favorite yet.
Disgaea 4's main character is a vampire named Valvatorez, formerly known as Tyrant Valvatorez, now reduced to the lowly position of Prinny instructor in the Underworld prison. He has his faithful werewolf servant, Fenrich, but not much else. He was once extremely powerful, but he made a promise not to drink any more human blood, the source of his vampiric strength. This has left him a shadow of his former self, but Valvatorez holds promises sacred, and he refuses to break one. Still, he's noticing that the Underworld no longer runs the way it should, and as things get worse and worse, he decides to take matters into his own hands and fight his way to the top of the Corrupternment to set things right.
It wouldn't be much of a story if things didn't get more complicated than that, though. And thankfully, Disgaea 4 doesn't disappoint. As the game progresses, we learn more about Valvatorez and Fenrich's relationship, as well as what kind of promise could keep a vampire from drinking blood. The several other characters who get introduced along the way each go through satisfying arcs too, and I appreciated that the developers didn't let anyone fall by the wayside. For the most part, the story is one of my favorite things about the game. It's complex enough to entertain without becoming so complicated that it's difficult to follow, and it retains the series' typical sense of humor, which I've always liked. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this Disgaea 4 has the best story yet. Unfortunately, it starts telling you that you're on the final chapter once you reach Episode 7... of 10. That little joke got old really fast, and it went on longer than it should have. But I enjoyed the story enough that I was still very interested in finishing the game even when I got to the fourth final chapter.
In terms of gameplay, if you've played a previous game in the Disgaea series, you'll know most of what you can expect from this one. There are some new elements as well, including a level (and base) editor and a number of optional ways to interact with others online. The online item I liked best is the ability to create your own set of pirates to invade other players' Item World battles, either to hinder or to help.
If this is your first time visiting the Underworld, you've got a lot to look forward to. Disgaea 4 is an incredibly deep game, yet its learning curve is fairly gentle. Although the action starts out from a central hub, I would describe this as an open-world strategy RPG. You don't randomly wander the countryside encountering enemies, but you do have complete freedom to move forward in the main story or simply goof around. You can replay any story mission you've beaten as many times as you like, and you can improve your equipment through random battles in the Item World. Either way, you earn XP, money, loot, and "mana," a word that Disgaea uses differently than most games. Once you beat the game, you unlock a set of challenge levels, giving you even more bang for your buck. The beauty of the Disgaea series is that you can play any of its games for as long as you like – the level cap is 9999, and you can reset any character back to level one for a stat bonus at any time.
I love the gameplay in this series, but I do have one complaint about this specific game: there are a few noticeable spikes in the difficulty, and you go from surviving one battle without much trouble to having no chance whatsoever in the next. The worst instances seem to come as the game nears completion. I had to stop before the chapter nine boss and twice in chapter ten to take my entire team up at least five levels. This combined with the "final chapter" story issue to make the last few chapters a bit difficult to power through. I soldiered on, though, because I really wanted to get to the end of the story. This isn't a problem that turns a good game into a mediocre game – it merely turns a great game into a great game with an annoying issue.
Disgaea 4 features a significant graphical upgrade over its predecessor, which had PS2-era graphics despite being on the PS3. The style hasn't changed, so it's instantly recognizable as a Disgaea game, but it's a Disgaea that looks a lot better than its older siblings. The character sprites look really good in battle, and their portraits look great in dialogue. The portraits animate slightly during dialogue, and while I've always wished for full animation, that's not the way the genre works. Attacks, normal and otherwise, animate well. This is no Uncharted, but that doesn't mean it's not a good-looking game – the Disgaea series' visual strength is its art, not its tech.
Sound-wise, this game is the proverbial "mixed bag." I really like the voice acting... or perhaps I should say that all of the voice actors do a good job. I'm not a big fan of Desco's voice, but she sounds exactly like she's supposed to. On the other hand, I was very disappointed by the music. It's not that it's bad, it's just that it seems to be exactly the same music from previous games. When I learned that the game actually has its own soundtrack, I was shocked almost beyond belief. Regardless of its degree of sameness to the previous games, the music's okay. It sticks in my head more than I'd like, but that is my biggest problem with it. RPGFan has a soundtrack review coming soon, which will provide more details on the individual tracks.
The only thing left to mention are the controls, and there's little to say there. Everything's simple and logical, and if you've played a previous game in the series, you'll probably remember exactly how to do everything from the moment you start playing. Strictly speaking, this may not fall under the heading of "control," but I've always really appreciated the degree of freedom that the Disgaea series allows its players over the way the game works. Any turn-based game involves a lot of repetition, and as I mentioned earlier, this one encourages players to keep going for as long as they'd like. This makes options like turning off battle animations and speeding up motion on the battlefield extremely welcome. I'm not sure any other series has followed this example, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why.
It's trite but true: if you liked earlier Disgaea games, you'll like this one, but if you didn't like the rest, this one won't change your mind. If, however, you've never played the series, Disgaea 4 is a great place to start. The characters and plot are enjoyable, it looks better than any of its predecessors, and the controls are just as good as they've ever been. This series has always been fun, and Disgaea 4 doesn't break the trend. Even if you just choose to play through once, it's well worth your gaming dollar.