If you’re a Disgaea fan, you already know that you’re buying Disgaea 4. You might even have it by now, given NISA’s tendency to ship out games early. If you’re a Disgaea fan, you can even skip this playtest if you want (I won’t mind, honest!), content in the fact that your new game is more of what you love in a more beautiful package.
However, if you’ve never played a Disgaea game before, this game might actually be a good place for you to start. Despite being the fourth title in the series, Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten requires absolutely no familiarity with its predecessors.
The game centers around Valvatorez: a vampire who has sworn off human blood in favor of sardines. Formerly a powerful tyrant feared across the netherworld, he has one particular character trait that led to his downfall: he’s staunchly devoted to every promise he makes. As a vampire, his promise not to drink human blood has greatly decreased his powers, and he now works in Hades as a Prinny instructor. Essentially, he teaches the corrupt human souls how to get used to their new peg-legged, penguin-like form (and to say "dood" at the end of every sentence; it’s the first rule of being a Prinny).
Valvatorez is joined by his somewhat shady and occasionally openly-defiant werewolf vassal Fenrich. While Fenrich often claims that "all is for [his] lord," he’s constantly trying to convince (or trick) Valvatorez to consume some blood and restore some of his lost powers, and even makes the decision for Valvatorez to usurp the Corrupternment. He’s a nice foil for his relatively single-minded master, and the banter between the two often put a smile on my face.
These two eventually gather up a crew that includes a failed Prinny (essentially a dead ninth-grader in a Prinny hat who has deluded herself into thinking that the entire Netherworld is a dream of hers, which is rather grim if you take the time to write it out like I just did), a very friendly final-boss-in-training, and the wannabe gangsta son of the Netherworld’s president (who also happens to be the grim reaper).
If the story sounds silly, that’s because it is. Disgaea eschews the traditional po-faced RPG clichés for something closer in tone to a comedy series, complete with "on the next episode" segments that are full of inaccuracies and generally devolve into discussions about sardines. Did you know that they’re part of the Clupeidae family? I sure didn’t!
While Disgaea 4 is technically a turn based strategy game, battles are just as much about abusing little exploits in the battle system as strategy itself. Battles take place on a giant grid, often covered in glowing Geo-Panels that imbue certain squares on the grid with special properties, some helpful, some hurtful. These panels are given their effects by Geo-Blocks, throwable blocks that grant their particular traits to all panels of whatever color they happen to be resting on. If they’re destroyed, they’ll change color of their current Geo-Panel I know this sounds a bit complicated, but bear with me.
Each turn, in the player’s phase, they can move all of their characters about freely (assuming the tile they wish to send the character to is within their movement range), and then choose to attack or use an ability. Unlike Ogre Battle or Final Fantasy Tactics where simply choosing to attack generally brings immediate results, Disgaea’s commands stack, waiting until the player selects "Execute" or "End Turn" to activate.
This stack-and-execute system is the crux of Disgaea’s combat. Attacking the same enemy with multiple units will create combos, and each successive hit in the combo gets a damage boost. However, this isn’t the only way that it can be used to deal out heavy damage. If teammates are next to each other (in the four cardinal directions) when one attacks an enemy, there’s a chance that a team attack will occur. These team attacks are ludicrously over the top, ranging from characters opening a black hole and absorbing their target to four characters donning carapaces and locking together as a giant centipede (octopede?) to crawl over and attack their enemy.
These team attacks are one of the many places where the ability to abuse the set-up-and-execute battle system comes in handy. In a team attack, only one character needs to attack (and use up their precious action for the turn), so they are the only people who get locked into place after the attack is executed. Characters who only use the move command can cancel their movement even after they’ve been a part of a team attack. You can potentially have the same character in multiple team attacks in a single turn!
Is it cheap? Maybe a bit, but you’re playing as a demon! You’re allowed to bend the rules a little. Besides, it’s helpful when you need to level up some of your lower level characters without running the risk of being counterattacked (only the person who initiates the team attack will be countered). The game is full of little exploits like these (which the AI just ignores), and learning to use them makes grinding and defeating higher-level enemies much easier.
I know that to the SRPG uninitiated, my excitement over the ability to abuse the battle system might seem a little unfounded, but every attack in Disgaea 4 is so over the top (the sprites flip and fly around the screen in ways that , and the joy of leveling up multiple times after a single kill is so great, that finding new ways to take down higher level enemies becomes a thrill in and of itself.
Besides, there’s so many ways to fight! Do you play your battles like a puzzle game, setting up and destroying the aforementioned Geo-Blocks and creating a chain reaction that eliminates all of the Geo-Panels on the field, damaging anyone standing on them in the process? Or do you use the Geo-Panels’ status effects to your advantage, placing your counter-heavy fist fighters in the middle of four "deathblow" panels, letting yourself get surrounded and attacked only to insta-kill the poorly-placed foes with your counterattacks?
In a way, despite the fact that you’re always stuck in a grid, Disgaea is about freedom in combat. Aside from just the moment-to-moment combat in battles, you also have the ability to petition the evil Senate for certain modifications to battles. These changes vary from simply making enemies stronger or weaker to fighting on a field full of Prinnies. If you pass the right motion you can even make your own maps!
Between the hand-drawn art, the breezy story that doesn’t rely too heavily on previously-established characters, and the sheer variety that the combat system provides, it seems as through Disgaea 4 is more open to newcomers than its previous, more fuzzy siblings have been.