When someone mentions “hardcore gaming,” your mind probably either springs towards the image of an overweight shut-in with poor hygiene and an obsession with the evils of Call of Duty or, failing that, one of those Korean chaps who inexplicably play Starcraft for six weeks straight. You probably don’t think about a cutesy vampire with a perfectly logical addiction to sardines, but, as Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited on Vita perfectly demonstrates, perhaps you should.
Welcome to the Netherworld — an afterlife filled with political strife and the penguin-like souls of our dearly departed loved ones. Don’t be fooled by their exterior, though, as these birds, called Prinnies, were once human, but must now work off their sins. They can’t just be expected to get on with it, however. Training is important, and those tasked with getting the Prinnies up to snuff take their work very seriously. This is where Lord Valvatorez comes in; once a despotic vampire tyrant, now a sardine sucking servant trainer, the one thing he wanted was to share his favourite fish with his class on the day of their graduation, but unfortunately, the party is cut short and all of his pupils are kidnapped.
A vampire is only as good as his word, though, and so Valvatorez begins towards bringing down the government that wants to destroy the Prinnies, so that those he promised to introduce to the beauty of sardines can enjoy them as they repent for their sins. But it’s not that easy: there are many layers to the Netherworld’s ruling body, and you’ll need to smash your way through each one.
You’ll do this in regular tactical RPG fashion, by moving your characters across a grid and hitting individual enemies with special moves and various attacks. Space is important: where you move and how close you get to the enemy, and the wide variety of ways you can interact with things in the environment, mean that you always have to be aware of what’s around you. It’s far slower paced than even the turn-based action in the older Final Fantasy titles, but it’s also far more rewarding in many ways.
Disgaea 4 takes things far further than most other games in the genre, too. When in battle, you’ll be able to command your characters to pick one another up, creating a large chain of people to use as a weapon. Even monsters are able to magically merge with one another, and demons are able to use lesser creatures as weapons on the fly. If this sounds like it offers incredible depth, it’s not even touching the surface of what you’re able to do across the game as a whole.
The story alone will take you more than 30 hours on your first playthrough, and there are hundreds of hours more content once you’re done. With countless weapons, characters, side missions, and skills to master, Disgaea is a franchise for people who want games that’ll last them till retirement age. As such, if you want to see and do everything, we’re talking hundreds upon hundreds of hours of game time. For this reason alone, the Vita version is vastly better than the PlayStation 3 original. Playing on the move, being able to place the system in standby and pick up where you left off — all of this helps towards making it a smoother, more enjoyable release, especially during those post-plot grinding sessions.
Yes, this is a title that expects more than its fair share of grinding. While it’s probably the least repetitive in the franchise, there’s still going to be quite a bit of going over old levels while you bulk up your regrettably weak followers. It’s going to be an issue if you’re purely story driven, but the fun of customizing weaponry and purchasing new skills means that no battle has to be exactly the same twice. Things you struggled with earlier suddenly feel more sided to your favour as you gain access to new parts of the game.
And that’s perhaps the biggest issue; there’s so much of A Promise Revisited, and it’s not always especially well explained. You could finish the story without visiting half the shops, or without playing around with the political system, which allows you to place units in specific areas so that you can access perks in battle. They’re all optional, so long as you're happy working harder than you need to, and unless you put the time and effort into learning how to best make use of them, the occasional tutorial probably isn’t going to pique your interest.
Speaking of which, the tutorials rather miss the point of what they’re supposed to be doing. While that’s a massive negative for people who don’t know much about what they’re supposed to aim towards, it’s a problem born out of a positive, in that every cutscene is about building character. This means that occasionally, exposition comes at the expense of the actual substance that you'd expect from a tutorial, which can certainly be a little annoying.
You might have gathered that the story is more than a little kooky, but it’s done in a way that works. Other titles have tried to mimic Disgaea’s style and have come across as sickly sweet or overly shallow, and unsurprisingly, not one of them has managed to come close to the original, which can be funny and childish without ever becoming predictable, or going too far over the line. Sure, those that can't enjoy a game that doesn't turn every conversation into a zombie-fuelled, post-apocalyptic episode of EastEnders will struggle to absorb the more light-hearted dialogue, but those able to get into something a little less serious should have no complaints.
While the PS3 original was knocked for its relatively poor graphics, on the Vita, the design choices pop. Stylized and attractive, the best thing about the visuals is the attention to detail. For example, if a character’s animated portrait moves its arms during a section of speech, the sprite in the background usually does exactly the same thing. Without the comparison to the more realistic style that's favoured by many of the bigger PS3 titles, Disgaea is allowed to stand on its own legs, and stand it does.
Addictive, deep, and just a little bit crazy, Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited is the perfect companion for someone looking for some on-the-move RPG greatness. Few people are ever going to see it all — a fact made truer by the often vague introduction of features — but what they do see is going to knock them over. Either that, or give them a very real addiction to sardines.