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Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten
Score: 90%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: Strategy/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
As a long-time fan of the Disgaea series, I was predisposed to like Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten. That's not to say it is a perfect offering - as always, there are problems - though the game has an undeniable charm and hundreds of hours of strategic depth, making it a must play for fans of Strategy RPGs.

Disgaea 4's biggest upgrade is the visuals. The low-res sprites have been completely replaced with hi-res sprites. It is something fans have wanted since Disgaea 3, and it is wonderful. Mind you, animations are still a bit stiff and short-handed, but considering the gameplay, you really don't need overdone animations, just a few basic movements. In the event you find yourself nostalgic for the original look, you can always flip back to the old-style sprite work, though I don't see many fans going back willingly.

The new look doesn't fix what has been a problem with the series since the first game - the camera. Your view is locked into an isometric angle, so objects and enemies are sometimes blocked from view, or hard to find. The battlefield is usually clear of any obstructions, though it can be troublesome when units begin to bunch up during battle. You could always try to keep units separate, but then you lose out on the cross-attack bonuses. It is just something you need to learn to work with.

Both the English and Japanese tracks are available through the Options Menu. As always, purists will hate me, but I preferred the English track to the Japanese one. Neither is particularly bad, but the Japanese track is a little too hyper-Japanese for my tastes.

Outside the visual upgrade, Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten is pretty much the same game as past releases. Although a few new mechanics have been added or tweaked, the core strategic gameplay is largely untouched.

For those new to the series, here's what to expect. The core gameplay is based around marching units around a grid-based map with the goal of wiping out the other group. The idea is simple, but loads of strategic goodies are tossed in, making it one of the most insanely deep - and complicated - SRPGs on the market. It is also one of the best. In addition to moving troops during battle, you have to consider their placement on colored panels called "Geo-Panels," which grant different statistical adjustments (both good and bad) to whoever is standing on them. You also have to consider troop placement, since nearby units can team up, leading to multiple attacks per turn.

Disgaea games are known for their off-kilter stories, and Disgaea 4 is no different. You play as Valvatorez, a "reformed vampire" (he refuses to drink blood) who gives up his position of Netherworld Tyrant to work as a drill sergeant in a Prinny prison. For the newcomers, Prinnies are demon penguins birthed from the souls of corrupt humans. Think of them as a living purgatory, but armed with knives and with a propensity for exploding when hit.

Prinnies are the absolute bottom rung in Netherworld society, yet Valvatorez has developed a bit of a bond with his trainees. When a group goes missing just before graduation, he decides to set out and find them. Eventually, Valvatorez's search develops into a quest to rid the Netherworld of corruption, putting him at the front of a coup against the President. As with other games, the story is packed with twists and turns, along with a cast of odd, yet amusing characters. The game is also genuinely funny. Although it doesn't hit the same satirical hot spot as the original, Disgaea 4 is incredibly smart and funny.

What happens on the battlefield is only a small part of the entire experience. You'll spend just as much time off the field, navigating through various side-options, like the monster builder and new Cam-pain Headquarters. Building on the game's political theme, the Cam-pain Headquarters shows an overview of your conquered territories. Here you place facilities on parts of the map, applying bonuses and other boosts based on where things are placed. It's tempting to randomly place structures, but bonuses are incredibly important later in the game.

Unfortunately, the Dark Assembly, a voting sequence where you need to "convince" Senators to help you get things done, is still a major play element. Now, however, you can stack the odds in your favor by placing your troops in positions of power through your Cabinet. Depending on where you place characters, you can unlock additional abilities and features. Again, you'll spend just as much time making decisions off the field, as you will on.

Another noteworthy addition is the network features. Although you can't battle other player's battles, you can jump into other player's games similar to Demon's Souls. You can send a character to infiltrate another player's Dark Assembly, or create a roaming band of enemies to disrupt players in the Item World.

Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten will challenge you, though you're never dropped into a situation you can't handle. Most problems are fixed after a few level gains on your troops, though you'll still have to make the most of your army. Difficulty is based primarily around how well you're able to order your troops around the field and, more importantly, make sound tactical decisions. This is harder than it sounds.

For instance, bunching troops together lets you unleash multiple attacks on single enemies. However, bunching up everyone in your group leaves them open to multi-panel attacks. It's about knowing when to press an attack and when to keep your units spread out. If anything, Disgaea 4 is more overwhelming than difficult. The game piles on the options and asks you to make a lot of decisions. It is possible to skip out on some elements, though you might be placing yourself at a disadvantage.

A full slate of tutorials are available at the start. They cover all of the basics, but are a bit dry and too forced. It is a problem that has plagued the series from the start, so it is disappointing to see nothing has changed. I understand there's a lot of ground to cover, but I think the basic tutorials could be better integrated into the story rather than offering a series of meaningless, staged battles.

Game Mechanics:
Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten doesn't stray far from the core mechanics found in previous games, but there are a couple of big additions and tweaks to systems.

New to the game is a monster fusion system where you take two units and join them together, creating a brand-new unit with aspects of the original two. The new creation is usually a beast of a character, though you only have access to that unit for the duration of the battle. Unfortunately, you won't get much of a chance to play with the system until late in the game.

How long you'll have to wait is completely up to you. One of the most endearing elements of Disgaea 4 is the amount of freedom you're allowed. You can take a small crew through the Story Mode, or you can create a custom crew of units and spend hours upon hours leveling them, building an unbeatable army. You can also spend time exploring Item World, playing through battles that let you upgrade your equipment.

The only other massive tweak involves character skills. In previous games, any class could use any weapon; it just took a little longer for them to learn certain skills. Now, some classes can't learn certain skills. It's a drastic change, but I actually like it since it forces more strategy on the back-end. In addition, skills must be purchased in stores.

Disgaea 4 is a great entry in the main series and, at least in my opinion, the best game in the series since the first game. It's a bit of a slow burn at first, and it is easy to get quickly overwhelmed by the number of available options, but there's a lot of game here (easily in the triple-digit count). The anime look and charm may turn a few players away, but if you're into strategy games, Disgaea 4 is the game for you.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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