How many more new things can a thoroughly detailed and complex franchise like Disgaea add in its fourth iteration? We took a full version of the Chinese-subtitled copy of the game for a spin and found out that developer Nippon Ichi added in a lot more than just a shiny new HD coat of paint to justify a sequel label.
Speaking of which, the graphics this time around are just like BlazBlue: Continuum Shift's high-resolution sprites. Suffice it to say, it's easier on the eyes after seeing them pixelated in the last game. Nippon Ichi also added slight details and tiny animations during the conversation segments. If you still prefer your Disgaea characters pixelated, there's an option for that too. We have to confess that series artist Takehito Harada and the rest of the art team pulled off a bang-up job here from the character illustrations to the fireworks during combat.
The game's story casts you as the vampire Valvatorez, who is a Prinny drill sergeant in Hades, a prison located in the Netherworld. He was once an Overlord tyrant who voluntarily gave up his title for reasons unknown. The story begins when Valvatorez hears that one of his Prinny teams was kidnapped just before their graduation ceremony. Bounded by honor to free them, the vampire sets forth alongside werewolf vassal Fenrich to explore beyond Hades and into parts unknown of the Netherworld while attempting to change up the world's corrupted politics from within.
Along the way, you will meet esoteric characters like Prinny Exterminator leader Fuuka, the Netherworld president's boss Emizel, and rejected boss character concept DESCO. While still keeping the zany underworld theme going, Disgaea 4's plot is grounded with some level of drama and political agendas. It's also refreshing to see that at least a few Underworld denizens do not treat Disgaea's mascots like punching bags and/or slaves.
One new feature that will complement Disgaea staples like team attacks, stack attacks, and lifting/throwing is fusion. This new system enables you to combine two different creatures to form one big monster with buffed-up stats--essentially a less complex version of Shin Megami Tensei 3's monster-fusion mechanic. The game's magichange system, introduced in part three, now lets you combine a fused monster with a humanoid to form a megaweapon. Having fused monsters combine together with megaweapon-equipped humanoids allows for some epic dual-wielding in which they have their stats boosted exponentially and can attack twice per turn.
In keeping with the regime change theme, Disgaea 4 introduces the cam-paining system. It's essentially a glorified party-management system, and you gain more territory on the cam-paining screen as your characters level up. The more territory you have, the more party members you can add in your team. You can place evil symbols earned from battle or from shops onto different spaces of territory to provide passive bonuses to surrounding allies. Some rare symbols even allow a party member to throw allies onto an enemy panel and even knock out whoever is in the way, while some add bonuses during non-combat sequences like the Disgaea senate sequences.
You can now capture hostile units by throwing them into the base panel. Using the "educational coaching" system, you can torture them to become new allies or extort money and items from them. We suspect that bigger and badder enemies later in the game will yield better loot when captured, with the obvious trade-off being that it will be harder to keep them alive, especially if they deal a lot of damage easily.
New classes of characters for SRPG aficionados include the professor, the android, the bouncer, the yin yang technician, and the battle suit. The professor specializes in using either a gun or a staff and has a boatload of evilities (passive abilities specific for characters and classes) that boost attack and speed, as well as stretch out the duration of stat-effecting magic by two turns. The bouncer is only unlocked later in the game, but he serves primarily as a tank that can take and dish out damage thanks to his high counterattack rate. His evilities also help boost up nearby allies; one of them gives an adjacent ally a 20 percent boost to all stats for three turns if he bites the dust.
As if those weren't enough changes, SRPG fans can now duel with each other online via Pirate Runs. They can bring characters from their own party, head off online to another player's game, and choose to either help them out or screw them over. As all battles are turn-based, lag isn't much of an issue, but it all depends on how patient both players are in taking their time deciding their plan of action.
It's safe to say that Nippon Ichi isn't relying too much on its fresh coat of paint to stand out. With an interesting plot that revolves around a Prinny-honoring captain (a rarity in a Disgaea title) and a bevy of tweaks and additions to its existing design meant to cater to OCD-laden SRPG fans, the franchise still has a few tricks up its sleeve.
While the Japanese and Chinese-subtitled versions of the game are out, English-speaking gamers will have to wait until September 6 for their latest trip into Netherworld turn-based chicanery.