Over the years, I have struggled with my lust for character building. This isn't the character building you get from shoveling snow or pulling weeds. "Leveling," "farming," "grinding," whatever word applies is the one that best describes how I spend the majority of my gaming time. While I grew up in the arcades and still respect a game that requires skill more than anything, I have no shame in admitting that most of the time I pick up a controller with one purpose in mind: to look at those pretty numbers. Maybe I should be like my roommates and get into CityVille, CradleVille, or whatever it is they do on the computer these days. Or maybe I should stick to what's aesthetically pleasing to me and doesn't require that I annoy people on Facebook with constant requests. In any case, while I've had a bit of experience with the Disgaea series in the past, it wasn't until the fourth entry that I noticed just how good Nippon Ichi has gotten at hooking me in and never letting go.
As a mere mortal, I'm not so sure enough time exists in the world for me to see everything in Disgaea 4.
This time around, the story follows a vampire by the name of Valvatorez. He was once a tyrant who could have become ruler of the Netherworld, until a promise he had made left him almost powerless. His hunger for human blood became a hunger for sardines and he is given the lowliest of duties as a mere prinny instructor, dood. A human that has committed sin usually ends up in the Netherworld as a prinny, and will spend many long years in Hades performing the cruelest labor imaginable. Despite this, humanity has been involved in more sin than ever, and that has led to prinny overpopulation. This is beginning to take its toll on the Netherworld, so an order is made to eliminate all of the prinnies. Valvatorez won't allow this to happen because he promised them sardines after they finished their training. Through the assistance of many colorful characters and quite possibly a lot of grinding, Valvatorez will save the prinnies and maybe the world.
While Disgaea is commonly referred to as a strategic RPG, I prefer to think of it as a strategic-sandbox RPG. While the typical S-RPG is defined by its rules and limitations, the SS-RPG gives the player freedom to follow those rules or break them to fit his best interests. Nearly every aspect of the average Disgaea game can be tweaked in or out of your favor and you decide the direction that your aspiring tyrant heads in. This can include any combination of the tons of classes, flying solo with your favorite character, or creating anything that comes to mind - like a squad of Prinny Rangers. Furthermore, other aspects such as the difficulty of the battles can be changed at almost any point in time.
A lengthy tutorial covers all of the basics for party organization, combat, and other aspects of Disgaea 4, such as lifting/throwing party-members, combination/special attacks, and solving those wacky geo-puzzles. Fans of the series will find themselves skipping through these. The one thing to keep in mind throughout when it comes to combat is that whoever has the most awesome stats usually decides the outcome. The enemy AI isn't exactly inspired, since they focus on the weakest party member or whoever happens to be the closest. They do hit hard, however, so the key is to wipe them out before they get the opportunity. Sometimes that isn't always an option due enemy-boosting geo-panels, so at times those must be dealt with before the battle can be won.
While the option to create characters is unlocked very early on, the characters I created never saw much use in my active party. For the most part, I rolled with an overpowered Valvatorez and a Cat-girl. I only brought in other members when it was necessary to solve geo-puzzles.
The Cam-pain HQ is where evil symbols can be erected and the Senate can be called. This is essentially a revision of the classroom in Disgaea 3, as these buildings organize party members into groups so that they'll share powers with each other.
I started by setting up a training center that awards 10% of the experience Valvatorez receives to party members that are stationed at the same location. There are many other evil symbols and they can assign a host of abilities provided the space is available. I felt a little like I was playing with Resident Evil 4's inventory system as I tried to make every space count and give Valvatorez leadership of as many of them as possible. As more missions are completed, more spaces are freed up to fill with evil symbols and representatives. The senate is where all of the law-making and changing goes on in Disgaea 4. Bribery and bullying are keys to getting your way.
Before long, I also gained access to the item world. Another trademark of the Disgaea series is this odd and wonderfully random place where items are given power in exchange for free time. The process is simple: each item has a world within itself that is filled with enemies and geo-shenanigans. By completing levels, the item powers up. The appearance of reward-bestowing innocent demons and secret rooms adds just enough to make every floor worth looking forward to. Also expect the occasional pirate invasion. It isn't hard to fall into an endless cycle where you go into the item world with the intention of powering-up a particular item only to find something even more powerful within. This really isn't good for my health.
Eventually the story missions are completed, which should take thirty or so hours for the average gamer. However, this is may as well be just the first step. The post-game is where Disgaea comes into its own. This is also where I started to gain an appreciation for all of the different methods by which my foes can be smitten. Monster fusion and magichange can be combined to produce giant monster-weapons, which have expanded ranges for their special skills. In fact, I can go even further and dual-wield monster weapons. That's practically overkill, maybe, but it is there.
If that isn't quite enough for me, I can turn towards reincarnation and the chara-world. While reincarnation means starting over again from level 1, I receive a portion of my original character's stats and his aptitudes are improved so that when he levels up he grows more powerful at a faster rate. The chara-world, like the item world, allows me to further develop these characters with hidden evilities and aptitude level-ups. This is also how certain other stats like movement range and critical hit rate can be improved. Why go through all this trouble? I can't quite figure it out myself. Sure there is always a demon more powerful than myself to contend with, but it has more to do with my addiction to level-up jingles and numbers that spiral ever upwards.
New to this edition of Disgaea are a slew of online-enabled functions. There isn't any competitive multiplayer, but there are a number of new modes and features for giving some interesting social elements to the game. For example, I can make one of my characters a foreign minister and he'll enter other players' senate meetings with the sole intention of being a nuisance. This can happen to me as well, so if need be I can shut off the online functionality through the main menu. This system goes both ways in other modes as well. I can create my own party of pirates to invade other player's item worlds and vice-versa. The creation and sharing of custom maps is also available, though pretty limited. Mostly I just use it to create my own grinding maps, since I don't really have an eye for creative level design. Many of the functions, such as different geo-stones, have to be unlocked through spending CP. This type of currency is only gotten through online interaction. Like with online modes in many other games, there are ways to exploit the system and get tons of CP easily.
All told, aside from some the online modes, the new monster abilities, and a very nice graphical update, Disgaea 4 isn't that different from its prequel. That goes without saying, since the Disgaea series has always headed the same direction. I give the nod to this game, however, due to a better storyline, less-annoying characters, and just a more refined experience altogether. The story is important here because it is what drew me in, and that led to wasted weekends and sleepless nights. Valvatorez is a good protagonist, and while some of his allies get repetitive and annoying with their one-track minds, they drop a good line every so often that makes me glad they're around.
Yet even now I'm still so far from anything resembling completion of this massive game. I haven't even cracked level 1,000, let alone hit level 9,999 and reincarnated multiple times over for those increased stat gains. Value-wise Disgaea 4 has more than earned its spot in my rotation, and the consistent sense of progression means I have something to throw in if I ever feel the need to build some levels. Sure it's nice to have the story and characters to follow, but when it's all over all I'm going to remember is all the time I spent upgrading some throwaway sword and organizing my party so that all sorts of great stat bonuses are doled out. This isn't a knock on the game, since despite the work put into the world of Disgaea, in the end it will always play secondary to the grind.
That's not to say that is only about the level grabbing. Yes, that's the part I enjoy the most, but there is enough flexibility in the classes and enough options for designing an experience that suits your taste. I spent most of my time playing almost solely as Valvatorez, not even considering the multitude of other playable characters and possible class combinations. If I ever get over my one-dimensional style of play, maybe I'll begin to dig into the incredible depths of this fantastic entry. Though, as a mere mortal, I'm not so sure enough time exists in the world for me to see everything in Disgaea 4.