"As always, the portable version is good enough that I almost wonder why the home console versions exist at all."
It's been seven years now since I joined RPGFan's staff and almost immediately started my first Disgaea game, Afternoon of Darkness. I've loved the series ever since, and the PS3 version of Disgaea 4 was probably my favorite entry yet. So when the inevitable portable remake was released, I was first in line to offer my services as reviewer. And while playing a game the second time around is never quite the same as it is the first, I think it's an even better game on Vita than it was on PS3.
Disgaea 4's main character is a vampire named Valvatorez. 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, and instead of being a Tyrant, he is now a mere Prinny instructor in the Netherworld prison, helped only by his faithful werewolf servant, Fenrich. Still, he takes both his promises and his duties as Prinny instructor seriously, and when he notices that the Netherworld no longer runs the way it should, he decides to take matters into his own hands and fight his way to the top of the Corrupternment to set things right.
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 other characters introduced along the way go through satisfying arcs as well, and I appreciate that the developers didn't let anyone fall by the wayside. For the most part, the story is one of my favorite things about this 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 Disgaea 4 has the best story in the series.
In terms of gameplay, if you've played a game in the Disgaea series before, you pretty much know what to expect from this one. There are some new elements, however, including a level (and base) editor and a number of (optional) ways to interact with others online. The online feature I like 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 Netherworld, you've got a lot to look forward to. Disgaea 4 is an incredibly deep game, and yet its learning curve is fairly gentle. Although the action all 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 on the main story or simply goof around. You can replay any story mission you've beaten as many times as you like, or you can improve your equipment through random battles in the Item World. Either way, you'll earn XP, money, loot, and "mana," a word that Disgaea uses differently than most games. Once you've beaten the game, there are a number of post-game activities available to you, 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 1 for a stat bonus at any time.
My only complaint about Disgaea 4 is one that I've had at least once before in the series: there are a few points in the game at which the difficulty level spikes noticeably, 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 9 boss and twice in chapter 10 to level my entire team at least five levels. 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 a few annoying interruptions.
Visually, Disgaea 4 on the PS3 was a big upgrade over its predecessor, and it's still quite attractive on the Vita's smaller screen. The character sprites look really good in battle, and their portraits look great in dialogue. There's a little animation, and while I've always wished for full animation, that's not the way the genre works. Attacks, normal and otherwise, animate well. It's not a technical powerhouse, but the Disgaea series' visual strength is its art, and it still shines brightly in that respect.
Sound-wise, Disgaea 4 is the proverbial "mixed bag." All the voice actors do a great job, and the developers even managed to include both the English and Japanese voices, which I know will make many players very happy. On the other hand, as I mentioned in my PS3 review, the music is extremely similar to that from previous games in the series. That said, the DLC deserves some bonus points for its use of music. In the scenes in which you recruit characters from other NIS games, you hear music from those games.
As I alluded to earlier, the portable remake of a Disgaea game is as predictable as the tides, and as always, the portable version is good enough that I almost wonder why the home console versions exist at all. The nature of the game is perfectly suited to the handheld experience, with battles that usually aren't too long and a break at the hub between each one. And even if your time is too short to play a full battle, the system's turn-based nature means that you can put the game on standby whenever you want. If your interest lasts longer than the length of the original storyline, the Vita version of Disgaea 4 includes not just the DLC and post-game content from the PS3 version, but also a new storyline called Time Leap. This features a jump back in time several hundred years, and as often happens in these cases, it's a messy affair. But I find it difficult to penalize the game for a not-so-great optional post-game storyline, particularly when the rest of the game is so worthwhile.
I was willing to recommend Disgaea 4 on PS3 to just about anyone, and that willingness has only grown with the Vita version. It's got all of the gameplay from the PS3 version, plus all of its DLC, and you can now carry it in your back pocket. If you already played it on PS3, I don't know that the bonuses are enough to make it a must-buy the second time around, but that's about the only thing that would make me tell anyone to skip this game.