Are you ready for the grind?
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation 3
Game Title: Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten
Players: 1-2 (Online)
ESRB Rating: T
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Release Date: 2011-09-06
It is the crutch of the hack reviewer to try and somehow quantify the value of a video game by formulating an equation that multiplies the quality of the experience by the number of hours of unique content, then dividing that product by the game's cost. Given that the concept of "value" is entirely subjective, the more enlightened writer will offer a critique bereft of faux-statistical analysis, instead offering an attempt at describing the experience in such a way that the reader can decide how much that experience might be worth on the way to a purchasing decision. Where such enlightenment falls apart, however, is in the discussion of a game like Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten, an SRPG whose entire raison d'être is the number of hours put in by its small but extremely dedicated audience of players.
Disgaea 4 is a dizzying thing, to be sure. Many SRPGs of late spin the word "innovation" into a means of throwing a bone to players more casual than the genre typically allows -- the increasingly-wretched-in-hindsight Record of Agarest War series offers skimpy outfits as rewards and a combo system predicated entirely upon troop placement, while the upgrades in the redone version of the already quality Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor largely serve to make the game easier. Disgaea 4 throws that out the window. This is a game for the hardest of the hardcore, for players who don't mind sitting down for a three-hour play session and not participating in a single battle or advancing the plot whatsoever. Walking around to various shopkeepers, debating the merits of equipping any member of a surprisingly large party with this busted dagger or that busted dagger based on differing stat buffs, or you can petition the game's Senate(!) to allow for better items or more favorable battle conditions. Disgaea 4 rewards the patient, as meticulous preparation will allow for the best chance to succeed in battle.
Disgaea 4 is a grind, and those who view the grind as a relic of the past should stop reading now and assume that the score at the bottom of this review is a 1. Experience is not gained as a team, it is gained by individual characters as they defeat enemies, which means you can't just have your weaker characters hanging out and gaining levels while your stronger guys lay waste to opponents. You actually have to send your healers, magicians, and grunts out to do some legwork, repeating some of the easier scenarios for the sake of beefing them up enough that they won't be laid to waste in a single hit down the road. Considering that you have eight members of your party to start -- and you can start recruiting many more extremely early on -- it's easy to see how grinding quickly becomes the driving force behind the gameplay.
This is even more the case when you consider the "item world". Every weapon and item in the game can be "entered" via the gateway to the "item world", in which you battle your way through randomly-generated maps for the sake of leveling up your equipment. Every player has four equipment slots, all of which should be filled if you're going to hope to compete at all beyond the first of ten long chapters.
So you're grinding every one of your party members. And you're grinding every one of your weapons, and every piece of armor. And you're even grinding for the sake of being able to buy enough items to bribe the senate into passing a resolution that will, of course, feed into more grinding.
The Disgaea veteran is familiar with this; the grind is Disgaea's core play mechanic, and fans of the series are necessarily fans of the grind.
It's easy to be critical of the series, and Disgaea 4 in particular, for its reliance on grinding; there is obviously strategy to be employed here, as the game employs a fairly complex combo system and features a glut of various abilit-- er, evilities, but even the most thought-out strategies will be quashed by underpowered party members. Still, it's also hard not to admire Disgaea 4 for its stubbornness. Where other hardest-of-the-hardcore series in recent years have made some concessions to more casual players (see: the Wii incarnation of Shiren the Wanderer), the developers of Disgaea put all of their energy into catering to their core audience. They know that no amount of casual pandering is going to make the grind worth it to those not accustomed to the repetition. They would prefer to put their energy into rewarding the most patient of the grinders.
The rewards, of course, are great. The writing of Disgaea 4 is as absurd as one can imagine; where some games may occasionally wink at the player, making a joke at the expense of a well-worn genre cliché or JRPG gameplay trope, Disgaea 4 spends its time in the realm of the absurd. The game starts by introducing a vampire with a sardine fixation, and it only gets more ridiculous. By the time we start learning the intricacies of the political hierarchies in the Netherworld, the player rightly starts wondering what is going on. Really, the story exists as a framework for a series of wisecracks meant as rewards for the patient. Levity is the best medicine for monotony, after all -- nobody really wants to watch an angsty blond-haired "hero" whinge his way through a futuristic rewrite of Lord of the Rings when every bit of story progression is separated by two hours of experience farming. The dialogue is uniformly odd, sometimes hilarious, and mostly well-delivered, even in the English dub, with aforementioned vampire Valvatorez a theatrically virtuous standout.
The game's own press states that "Level 9999" is just the beginning, and that's entirely true. Between a truly time-consuming campaign and a wealth of post-campaign content, it's clear that Disgaea 4 does not exist to be a mere pastime. It exists to take over your life. Those inclined to let it will be thrilled with what they find.