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Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten review: A premise unchanged

The Disgaea series is a tough nut to crack. With its dated gameplay and recycled graphics and music, each new entry in the franchise has flown in the face of convention. Nevertheless, whether owing its longevity to quirky storytelling or staggeringly deep and complex mechanics, the franchise has found favor among strategy role-playing game enthusiasts.

That storied tradition looks to continue with earnest in Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten, a testament that, all things considered, developer Nippon Ichi definitely still knows its audience.

Gallery: Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten (8/22/11) | 24 Photos

Once more set in the Netherworld, Disgaea 4 tells the story of Valvatorez, a vampire and tyrant-made-teacher with an obsession for sardines and an uncanny sense of loyalty, particularly when it comes to his students, the Prinnies. To use his own words, Valatorez aims to "pound Prinny pride into opponents' heads through lessons of fear and punishment."

Wackiness ensues as Valvatorez and his werewolf counterpart, Fenrich, embark upon a campaign to deliver sardines promised to the Prinnies prior to their graduation ceremony. Faces new and old are encountered along the way in a politically-grounded story that, while not as zany as Makai Kingdom or as morose as Phantom Brave, never stops short of entertaining.

At its core, Disgaea 4 is a typical turn-based strategy RPG, but whereas most games of this type are content to offer multiple character classes, level grinding and grid-based combat, Disgaea ups the ante with numerous other features and tons of customization options that truly make the long hours needed to complete the game a rich and rewarding experience.

How much you enjoy these features, however, will vary directly with your willingness to endure or overlook many of the series' long-suffered shortcomings. For example, battlefields in Disgaea 4 can become exceedingly cramped as sprites bunch up together in a fight. An inability to rotate the map beyond set intervals only compounds this issue, and can turn even the most epic slugfest into an annoying ordeal.

Fortunately, the sprites themselves aren't too difficult on the eyes. While Nippon Ichi has gone back and redrawn characters in glorious high resolution, what we're left with is still much of the same artwork we've been looking at since 2003. Even so, the characters are now extremely crisp, though purists have the option to revert back to the old, pixelated artwork should they be so inclined.

As it has been from the onset, however, it's gameplay, not graphics, that makes Disgaea so endearing. In addition to series staples such as lifting, throwing and team attacks, the game now allows monsters to be fused together to create a single huge monster with combined stats. If you think a normal sized Prinny is cute (or horrifying), one that's been super sized is outright adorable (or doubly horrifying).

Adding to this, the magichange system returns from Disgaea 3, and now a fused monster can be combined with a human character to multiply their combined stats and create an imposing super weapon to deal massive damage.

Even so, most battles in Disgaea are as much about learning how to exploit the battlefield for the most points as they are about winning outright. More points net more rewards. Puzzling out the most efficient and lucrative way to dispatch opponents using a combination of abilities and environmental hazards is the quickest way to ensure success in future battles.

It doesn't hurt to bring a big sword to a fight either, and once again characters are able to grind their way through randomly generated levels based on items in their possession, from candy bars to pointy daggers. Completing enough levels in this Item World makes items more powerful, and can often spell the difference between a hard fought victory and bitter defeat.

That said, defeat is seldom an end in Disgaea 4. (This is the Netherworld, after all.) Lost battles are met with an actual ending, complete with dialog and credits, rather than a boring 'game over' screen. Afterwards, play begins anew, with levels and items intact. And while previous battles will have to be completed again, this is an excellent opportunity to level up characters found wanting the time before.

Much of Disgaea 4's labyrinthine game design is aimed at scratching gamers' OCD itch, and nowhere is this more apparent than Disgaea's new campaign map. Dubbed the Cam-Pain HQ, the map opens up into a grid-based overview of all of the battles that have been won. Characters are arranged on the map such that those adjacent to each other will be more prone to assisting with combo-attacks during a fight.

In addition, different symbols can also be placed on the map to add further benefits to adjacent characters, such as mana and experience bonuses as well as entirely different rules governing play, provided you can garner enough sway with the Netherworld's senate to pass a vote. Added focus is given to the senate found in previous titles, with a greater variety of bills allowed to alter gameplay as well as the opportunity to create characters with individual personalities that dictate how they are perceived on the senate floor. The senate can even approve a bill allowing characters to sit in on another senate over the PlayStation Network. These characters eventually return home with items in hand used by other players to bribe them into helping to pass bills of their own.

All of this combines to make Disgaea 4's learning curve one of the series' steepest, a stark contrast to that found in the previous title. Disgaea 3 was notable for being a decent jumping on point for novices, a claim that hardly describes this latest release as battles can seem to become impassable without exploiting the game's seemingly infinite suite of mechanics.

As another worthwhile and entertaining entry in the franchise, Disgaea 4 is still just another Disgaea game. Fans will love it for everything it is, while detractors will ignore it for all that it isn't. This is a game, and series, that isn't out to win over gamers by changing its stripes -- though its fans probably wouldn't have it any other way.

This review is based on the review version of Disgaea 4 provided by NIS America.

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