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No other developer has toyed with the tactical RPG formula as eagerly as Nippon Ichi. Disgaea, released in 2003, reinvigorated what had become a stagnant genre, pairing a riotous story of petulant demons and simpering angels with a deep and wide statistical playpen. Meanwhile, Phantom Brave and Makai Kingdom took the fundamental building blocks of the TRPG and rearranged them in bold, adventurous ways, even removing the gridded, chess-like boards in an effort to bring yet more freedom to what has always been one of gaming’s most ordered avenues.
But of late that pioneering spirit has somewhat left the developer, which has reined in the risk-taking and settled into iterating within its most popular series. In many ways, Disgaea 4 is exactly the sort of incremental update that Nippon Ichi sought to challenge with its early titles, a game that offers tweaks to an established framework rather than a rebuild from the ground up. Nevertheless, it is a robust, engaging framework, and one that has become only marginally less potent through reiteration. Protagonist Valvatorez, a vampire who’s given up human blood in favour of a diet of sardines, may lack the sharp bite of the first game’s anti-hero, Laharl (who makes an appearance in Disgaea 4’s latter stages), but has enough character and voice to make the story colourful and enjoyable. Disgaea 4 may slot new names and faces into the archetypes established by the earlier games in the series, but the plot contains enough absurdity to obfuscate its underlying adherence to formula.
The previous iteration’s school theme has been discarded in favour of a political one here, with Valvatorez and his aide, Fenrich, seeking to mount a presidential campaign to seize power from the Netherworld government. It’s a poignant choice of framing for a series that has always been about power, dominance and the claiming of territory, and as a result the plot marries mechanics with some success. As the story – once again divided into chapters that are structured like seasons in a Japanese anime show – develops, the writers take to the theme assuredly. A President Obama-alike even makes an appearance, complete with his ‘Yes we can’ slogan.
The fundamental structure remains unchanged. Battles play out on grid-based environments and charge you with defeating a team of opponents using your own handmade group of fighters. You take turns with the AI to move your team, casting spells, executing attacks and linking up into combos with adjacent friendly units. Strategy derives from the fact that a character’s turn is finished only when they attack. This makes it possible to move your units back and forth around the map, positioning them for team combo attacks (earning valuable experience points as they do), before returning them to their starting position for their own attack. Flexibility is where Disgaea’s appeal lies, and few games reflect the sum of players’ choices with such clarity.
Evilities – abilities that improve a character’s performance in battle – make a return from Disgaea 3, as does the ability to Magichange, which transforms friendly monsters into weapons that can be used by human counterparts. Likewise Geo Panels and Geo Blocks are present, and Geo Symbols that add status effects to the terrain also return, along with all of the mind-bending puzzle elements that come as you try to clear stages in the most efficient manner possible while securing the greatest rewards. The vertical colourbreaking Geo Block puzzles are more fussy than the flat, 2D Geo Panel puzzles, but for those who posses the kind of logical mind needed, they’re no less rewarding.
Novelty comes in the form of Demon Fusion, an ability that allows multiple friendly monsters to merge together into one giant unit, taking up multiple squares of the board. This move allows you to attack numerous enemies at once with huge sweeps of a paw, the drawback being that the engorged unit becomes a much easier target for enemies. Magichange and Demon Fusion can be combined to create devastatingly powerful weapons, although, as with so many of Disgaea’s subtler systems, it’s entirely possible to play through the game without touching either.
A hub world offers a place to upgrade weapons and armour, heal teammates and explore the Item World, in which you may ‘enter’ a weapon or piece of armour and increase its stats by clearing levels. Weapons contain specialist characters that, once recruited, offer statistical bonuses that can be transferred between arms as you work to create the perfect arsenal.
By far the most interesting addition here is the campaign room, an abstract meta-board on which you arrange symbols of each of your characters. Units that are placed adjacent to one another are more likely to engage in combo attacks in play. As the game progresses, you earn the ability to place enhancing towers on this board, and characters within their sphere of influence enjoy statistical benefits in battles.
This is without doubt the most comprehensive entry in Nippon Ichi’s once-trailblazing series, packaging its accumulated ideas alongside a clutch of innovations of its own. And yet repetition has dulled the appeal, with the complexities acting as a tall barrier to newcomers while the innovations are simultaneously too meagre to sate any but the most eager devotee. Sad, then, that a series born from explosive creativity and an eagerness to dodge the straitjacket of convention should have become a slave to its own winning formula. Disgaea 4 may not have settled into the genre stagnation that its forebear sought to do away with, but there is a growing necessity for reinvention.