Disgaea has been around for some time now, over a decade in fact. Yet, during its ten years on the strategy role-playing scene, few games have come close to replicating its success. Employing a combination of tight mechanics, transforming battlegrounds, and a growing roster of larger-than-life characters, Disgaea has continued to maintain dominance over the genre with little standing in its way, especially outside of Japan.
The series’ latest mainline instalment, Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten, proved just as popular among fans back in 2011. It comes as no surprise then that Nippon Ichi Software has decided to port the game to PlayStation Vita, just as it did a couple of years ago with Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention.
If you’ve yet to immerse yourself in the Disgaea universe, there’s one thing you should know first: it’s completely barmy. Within the first few minutes of A Promise Revisited, players are introduced to the game’s outlandish hero, Valavatorez, a vampire ex-tyrant who has a queer obsession with sardines. Accompanied by his werewolf man-servant, Fenrich, he vows to keep a promise sworn four hundreds years in the past. It’s a nonsensical backdrop made only stranger when Valvatorez forsakes his powers to become a Prinny Instructor, tasked with training a platoon of pea-brained penguin-like demons.
For those who are only vaguely familiar with Disgaea, the above will no doubt sound like an anime-infused Twilight fanfic conceived in the midst of a fever dream. However, for returning veterans of the franchise, this is pretty much standard fare. Naturally then, Disgaea 4’s quirky tale of demons, underworld politics, and age-old promises isn’t for everyone. Fortunately for those who aren’t too keen on all on the melodrama you can skip the majority of the fluff and get straight down to gameplay.
Unlike conventional Japanese role-playing games, Disgaea shrugs off vast open worlds and random encounters for something much more streamlined and controlled. Players will start out in a hub where they can access a variety of vendors and other NPCs offering upgrades and additional content. From here you can access a pool of replayable missions and by picking one, you will be immediately beamed to a pre-set battlefield.
These are grid-based and come in all shapes and sizes, the designs becoming much more varied as you advance through the game. Verticality is common as is the presence of both Geoblocks and Geo-panels, both of which lend an important mechanic to game flow. Whenever entering a battle, much of the grid will be covered in coloured panels, each conferring unique bonuses to whichever units stand within its area of effect. These can range from small stat boosts to rule changes such as the disabling of lifting or ranged attacks.
When you combine the Geo system with other features such as combo attacks, Towers (where two or more players stack up), Fusions, and Magichanges, Disgaea 4 can start to feel a little overwhelming. Even when outside of battles there is much to do with equipment and abilities needing constant upgrades. An hour or so in, the game even drops a new Cam-Pain feature into the mix, presenting players with a political map and the ability to call senate hearings. It’s a lot to take on board, especially if you’re trying to keep track of Disgaea 4’s story, though the bombardment eventually subsides, allowing players to experiment with everything they’ve learned.
After a handful of battles, the game’s combat mechanics will become familiar as you deploy units and strategically move them around the battlefield. Though there isn’t much information given in regards to the numerous character stats, there’s enough for players to recognise which units are suited for which combat scenario. This connection with your team will continue to develop over time and, with the ability to create new characters, you’ll eventually be able to lead your own custom force into battle.
In terms of visual style, little has changed since Disgaea’s debut way back in 2003, with its hand drawn characters and 2.5D battlegrounds still enduring. The game carries a quirky, distinct art direction which permeates throughout, bolstered by its strong pool of voice talent with Troy Baker (The Last of Us) starring as Valvatorez.
Games like Disgaea 4 are what the Vita was built for. Although the console has recently been rebranded as the home of indie gaming on-the-go, there are dozens of stellar Japanese imports to be had, A Promise Revisited being one of them.
With that said, this isn’t a game for everyone, especially those who favour linearity and plots that take themselves a little more seriously. Although it may not be an ideal entry point to the series, returning fans and those who missed out on Disgaea 4 will find themselves right at home.