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Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten (PlayStation 3) artwork

Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten (PlayStation 3) review

"While the story is new and its high-quality presentation is a delight that long-time fans by now take for granted, youíll likely be surprised by some of the other improvements. For instance, itís now possible to assemble your own pirate ship so that you can raid the Item World. On trips to your own Item World, youíll find parts that you can use to customize your ship, plus youíll battle more pirates than ever before. You can even have your custom pirate crew head online and raid other folksí worlds, or help them out if you prefer."

Disgaea 4: A Promise Forgotten is the latest game from Nippon Ichi Software, a development team that routinely turns out games so unique and refreshingly niche that youíd expect it to have gone out of business years ago. Here we are, though, a mere week ahead of the release of a fourth game in a series that conventional wisdom says should be a commercial flop in a world obsessed with digital headshots and online farming empires. Itís clear that at least a few consumers still appreciate deep and addictive SRPGs.

Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten asset

If youíre one of the people who canít get enough of the genre, perhaps youíre already familiar with Disgaea, a series that initially drew comparisons to Final Fantasy Tactics on the PlayStation but which has since earned a reputation as a very different beast. The series debuted on the PlayStation 2 with Hour of Darkness. That first title told the story of a demon named Laharl who awakened from his slumber following the extraordinary efforts of his loyal(?) and flat-chested vassal, Etna. What followed was a charming and unexpected tale, one that mixed angels and humans and broke the fourth wall whenever it liked, all in the name of humor. When the game wasnít making players chuckle, it was taking a break to startle them with seemingly limitless customization options and devious maps.

For better and perhaps for worse, time hasnít done much to change things. Though Disgaea 4 appears now on the much beefier PlayStation 3 (like Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice before it) and boasts sharper visuals and more vibrant environments than any of its predecessors, thereís nothing that immediately hits you over the head and reminds you that what youíre playing never could have been executed on the PlayStation 2. If youíre looking for a technical leap, youíre missing the point.

The real point of any Disgaea game is to give you an interesting sandbox to play in, and then to let you break it. You can always count on a unique story and there will be a bushel of carefully designed stages that start to feel more like puzzles than they do battlefields. There will always be grid-based combat and numerous skill trees and a slew of weapons and armor and other items. Most importantly, though, there will always be the key to it all: the Item World.

Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten asset

The Item World is a fantastic place that exists within each piece of equipment. Letís say that you buy a sword and it adds 247 to your ATK skill. Thatís pretty cool, and it can help make your character powerful enough to survive encounters with dozens of enemy types. What if itís not enough, though? What if youíre getting owned like a granny playing Halo? Well, then you can dive into that weapon by visiting its internal world. After venturing to that magical realm, you can complete one floor after another and then when you exit, the item that played host to those stages will have improved. You might clear 20 stages in that sword and come out with a weapon that now deals twice the damage.

While itís nice that you can use the Item World to improve a single weapon so quickly, though, the unique play mechanic also serves other purposes. As you travel deeper into each piece of gear, youíll encounter increasingly powerful enemies. Their presence makes level grinding a simple process, if thatís your thing, and it also allows you to amass a fortune in hell (the gameís currency) and mana points so that you can create new characters and unlock new skills. Before you know it, youíve stayed up all night turning your pathetic little mage into a wizard who can level half the map without even taking a step from the base panel.

This review will go on forever if it spends too long detailing every feature in the game, though (especially those that have been true since the very first installment), and thereís still a lot of new ground to cover. Onto whatís new, thenÖ

Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten asset

The most obvious and expected new territory is the all-new plot, which predictably takes place in one of the many thousands of Netherworld planets that previous games in the series have informed us fill the universe. This time, the tale revolves around Lord Valvatorez, a reformed vampire who draws his strength from sardines rather than human blood. His scheming vassal, Fenrich, hopes to help him return to power (ďAll is for my lord,Ē he says with one too many a flourish), but itís clear that the once-powerful tyrant is more than content to live out his life as a prinny instructor. Then things change, and suddenly the pair find themselves embarking on a grand quest that will forever change the face of the Netherworld and--eventually--the human and celestial worlds. A lot of your opinion of the overall quality and originality of the story will come down to personal taste and your experience with the previous games, but returning veterans may be interested to learn that in general the narrative is neither as melancholy as it was in Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories nor as over-the-top silly and borderline pointless as it was in Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice. Dialogue and events find a happy medium somewhere in between those two extremes, much like Hour of Darkness did when it kicked things off so memorably in 2003.

As you would expect from the series, the tale is told through generous use of skillfully voiced dialog accompanied by animated character portraits. Thereís actually very little dialog in the game that isnít voiced this time around, to the point where the occasional lines that donít have actors delivering them always come as a bit of a surprise. The project as a whole seems to have received more than the usual level of interest and attention from the people responsible for bringing it to North America, as evidenced by many of the lines, character names and item descriptions placed randomly throughout. Some of the humor and pop culture references are so obscure that you might not catch them unless youíve watched ďWalker: Texas RangerĒ or a lot of commercials for cotton or any number of other random things, but many of the jokes are basic enough that anyone will spot them. Everybody wins.

While the story is new and its high-quality presentation is a delight that long-time fans by now take for granted, youíll likely be surprised by some of the other improvements. For instance, itís now possible to assemble your own pirate ship so that you can raid the Item World. On trips to your own Item World, youíll find parts that you can use to customize your ship, plus youíll battle more pirates than ever before. You can even have your custom pirate crew head online and raid other folksí worlds, or help them out if you prefer. Not only that, but you will unlock pieces of architecture as you play through the game that can then be used to build your own custom mapsÖ which you can of course share online, if you so choose. Depending on your interests, this can add hours to an adventure that is likely to consume at least 40 hours of your time even if you donít let yourself get sucked into all of the distractions in the main campaign (to say nothing of post-game content).

Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten asset

Disgaea 4 also lets you play a more political role in the Senate. You can appoint characters to posts in your political cabinet and position them on a map that then determines certain boosts they receive in battle. For instance, you can position four characters so that they all gain experience points from one another if any of them defeat enemies in combat. There are other twists, such as the campaign speeches new friends will give, or the discipline room and such, but again there is the risk of extending this review beyond the point where it remains readable.

If you look at Disgaea 4 screenshots, itís easy to conclude that little or nothing of substance has changed. Even after you play the game for a few hours, it can feel like the only real change is the new storyline. The important thing to take away from this review is that there definitely are tweaks to the formula, and they definitely work as intended without changing things so much as to break what fans have always loved. None of the adjustments are likely to make you love the series if you hated it previously, of course, but they do add enough to the experience to keep everything fresh for another go-around. A Promise Unforgotten has evolved just enough to justify your investment whether it marks your first experience with the franchise or your eighth (letís not forget Disgaea Infinite and the ports of the first and second game for DS and PSP). The Netherworld has never been better!


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 30, 2011)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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overdrive posted August 31, 2011:

Strong review. One of my minor regrets is trading in the original Disgaea. I'd bought it when I was married and got overwhelmed a bit, as there was so much stuff to do with item worlds and mastering how to use the different floor tiles and whatnot and I just didn't have the free time to really get into it. And now, as I have more free time, something like that would work well for me. Or, it would after I get finished with a few of my time-consuming projects like Baldur's Gate II and whatnot.
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jerec posted September 03, 2011:

The Disgaea games are awesome, and the mechanics pretty much stay the same between games with a few new features. So far the original game had the best story and characters. I really miss the Laharl, Etna and Flonne trio.
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overdrive posted September 04, 2011:

Yeah, I was looking online to see if replacing the first would be affordable via Amazon a few days ago (for whenever I get into a purchasing mood...likely after I beat a few of the games I'm currently working on) and was disappointed that due to having a 360 instead of a PS3, I'll only be able to play the first two in the series. At least there's about four other Nippon Ichi strategy games on the PS2 that I'll be able to get to make up for this horrible slight against me personally.
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jerec posted September 04, 2011:

Jason will probably disagree with me, but I found those other strategy games really poor next to Disgaea, gameplay-wise. Well, I only played Phantom Brave and La Pucelle and gave up on non-Disgaea games from them after that.
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honestgamer posted September 04, 2011:

I really enjoyed La Pucelle Tactics, but it was developed before Disgaea and it's not as advanced. Disgaea did represent an improvement over it, just not (I didn't feel) as significant a one as some suppose. I still need to finish Phantom Brave, but I prefer Disgaea over it based on what I've experienced so far. Makai Kingdom was quite enjoyable and you'd probably dig it if you gave it a shot, Jerec. Still, Disgaea does seem to be the best thing going. I still want to try Soul Nomad (which I do own) as time permits.
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threetimes posted September 06, 2011:

Really good review. It helped to have the game put into the context of the other ones and you whetted my appetite for another Disgaea game with your excellent description of the Item World. Wasn't sure about this one as I didn't like D2, copy of D3 never even arrived, and I've been put off with all the myriad versions released, but the pirate ship sounds fun.

And La Pucelle is fantastic!

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