The Disgaea series has always fused wickedly humorous storylines featuring ostensibly evil heroes with deeply strategic and rewarding battles. The good and bad news about Disgaea 4 is that very little has changed. A smart and funny tale invigorates this quest: the vampiric Valvatorez is perhaps the series' most likable hero yet, and he stars in what is almost certainly its richest and funniest story. But the battle system has seen little change since the previous entry, so as satisfying as the combat is, a feeling of sameness pervades this adventure. Still, Disgaea 4 gives you plenty of absorbing tactical concerns both on and off the battlefield, making it an enjoyable way to spend anywhere from a few dozen hours to a few hundred.
Some promises are harder to keep than others, but for Valvatorez, a promise is a sacred thing, to be honored no matter the personal sacrifice it requires. For reasons that aren't immediately clear, Valvatorez has sworn to no longer drink the blood of humans. He was once fearfully referred to as "The Blood-Soaked Valvatorez of Absolute Evil" and "The King of Carnage and Atrocity," but his power has diminished tremendously since he made his vow and forswore the empowering delights of drinking human blood. Now, he works as a prinny instructor, just another cog in the wheel of the vast netherworld bureaucracy. But he doesn't let the lowering of his station dampen his spirits, and he has even found a new culinary treat to adore: sardines. Valvatorez sings their praises at every opportunity, going so far as to interrupt story sequences to shower you with facts you didn't care to know about sardines. He's a great central character for this tale, and the large cast of friends and foes is composed of similarly strange and delightful characters. Valvatorez's sycophantic werewolf servant Fenrich manages to convince himself that his master's most glaring mistakes are actually acts of incomprehensible virtue and brilliance. Former middle-schooler Fuka can't accept that she has died and been sent to the netherworld, so she maintains that everything that happens is just part of an elaborate dream she's having.
Disillusioned by the corruption that exists at the highest levels of the netherworld's government, Valvatorez builds a team and sets out to overthrow that government and usher in a new era of evil. Concerns about government corruption, labor exploitation, freedom of speech, and other weighty issues abound, but they're woven seamlessly into Disgaea 4's slyly humorous tale. The cutscenes are unimpressive, with character portraits that make the occasional dramatic gesture but mostly stand still. However, the writing sparkles throughout, and lively voice acting conveys the character's emotions even when the visuals don't.
Redrawn, high-definition sprites make this the sharpest-looking Disgaea yet, but the series' style hasn't evolved at all, and this is still a visually simple game. However, what it lacks in technical prowess, it makes up for to some degree in charm. Although these battles involve vampires, werewolves, demons, and other denizens of the netherworld, cute designs make the action lighthearted and the characters endearing; it's a delight to see these little sprites perform elaborate attacks that appear to rend the fabric of space.
The core of Disgaea 4 is in the turn-based strategic battles that have defined the series. Viewing the action from an isometric perspective, you move your characters to tiles on the field of battle and strive to vanquish your enemies with physical attacks and magic. You need to consider your characters' movements carefully to maximize the amount of damage they can do on each turn. For instance, by placing teammates on adjacent tiles prior to an attack, you create the possibility for them to join forces and perform a more powerful team attack. You can exploit this system by maneuvering squad members into positions to maximize team attacks, then retracting their moves to have them act elsewhere, thus expanding your tactical possibilities.
The geo blocks introduced in Disgaea 3 return here; these cubes convey special properties onto specific tiles across the battlefield, often making your struggles much more challenging. They might create clones of an enemy with each passing turn, for instance, or make enemies on certain tiles invincible. These force you to consider whether to focus each character's efforts on fighting the enemy monsters or on eliminating the troublesome blocks.
Very little has changed since Disgaea 3. The ability to temporarily fuse your monsters together into larger monsters gives you a new option on the battlefield, but this is mostly the same well-worn battle system the series has employed since day one. Disgaea fans may find that it feels a bit too familiar, and the shoddy, superficial tutorials mean that newcomers will have a difficult time familiarizing themselves with its complexities. But the variety of strategic concerns that you're presented with at each turn keep it absorbing, and the hours can fly by as you claw your way from one victory to the next.
Speaking of hours, Disgaea 4 eats them up by the dozens. In addition to fighting battles as you advance through the story, you can enter the randomly generated dungeons of the Item World at any time. Here, you select an item from your inventory and venture to the world inside of it. Advancing through these stages not only makes your characters more powerful and better able to face the challenges of the campaign; it also levels up whatever item you have selected. It can be a time-consuming process; the more time you sink into it, the more your characters and your equipment grow. It's rewarding to reap the benefits of your party members' increased capabilities when you return to the campaign, or to use a weapon that's now much more powerful thanks to your adventures in the Item World.
When you're not battling, you can venture to the Cam-pain HQ, which serves many of the same basic functions that the homeroom did in Disgaea 3. As you advance through the campaign, you open up territories on a large map. By placing evil symbols on this map and then dispatching your party members as evil deputies into adjacent territories, you bestow certain advantages on those characters. Placing characters next to a training ground, for instance, grants each of them 10 percent of the amount of experience earned by any other character who is adjacent to the same facility. You can also submit bills that benefit you to the senate and then bribe unsupportive senators into seeing the merits of your legislation. And eventually, you can appoint party members to your cabinet. Your foreign minister might appear in other players' senates and bring back items with which he or she has been bribed, and your defense minister can make use of a red phone to call on other players' characters in battle, to name just a few of the positions you can fill. These systems give you strategic considerations off of the battlefield, and it's fun to tinker with these options and try to maximize your characters' growth.
There are also a few systems more peripheral to the core game that some fans will enjoy spending time with. At a certain point in the campaign, you unlock the map editor, which lets you design your own battlefields and upload them for other players to experience. Building a map is easy, so if you're inclined to put time into it, you can construct any Disgaea map your imagination might conjure. And you can build a pirate ship, assign your team various roles such as attack and support, and upload them to the network, at which point they may invade other players' Item Worlds. It's interesting to view the records of your uploaded pirates and see what they've been up to, but the lack of direct control over these uploaded characters keeps this process from being all that involving.
Thankfully, as familiar as they may be, the battles you fight in Disgaea 4 are involving, and the charming characters who populate this humorous tale are a pleasure to spend time with. If previous Disgaea games didn't light your fire, nothing here will bring you into the fold, but if you enjoyed the evil exploits of earlier series heroes, Valvatorez's crusade to overthrow the corrupt forces of the netherworld is sure to entertain you. And to teach you a few things about sardines, too.