Posted on September 6, 2011 AT 01:37am
Change Japanophiles can believe in?
The original Disgaea: Hour of Darkness released in the summer of 2003—an entirely different gaming epoch, really. To give you an idea of how long ago that was, I hadn’t even landed my first post-college job at that point. Unemployed and penniless after freshly graduating amid the dot-com bust, I charged the Nippon Ichi strategy-RPG to my credit card—justifying the purchase as “research” for potential employment—and proceeded to pour over 100 hours into the experience, endlessly amused by its clever parodies of Japanese RPGs and enthralled by the intricate strategy that saw my party leap inside weapons to level them up.
I mention this simply because the gaming landscape’s changed wholesale in the time since the series debuted—Japan’s been literally and figuratively shaken by a massive earthquake and crippling recession. These days, my inclination isn’t to chuckle at Disgaea’s genre-tweaking gags but instead mourn the long list of favorite Japanese RPGs that have seemingly perished since its debut: Suikoden, Wild Arms, Breath of Fire, and so on…
Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten revolves around a political theme. The story sees Valvatorez, a sardine-obsessed Prinny instructor—for the uninitiated, Prinnies are the series’ dopey, penguin-like mascots—who, like most Disgaea protagonists, is amusingly oblivious to his place in the Netherworld and finds himself embroiled in a vast political conspiracy with the government. Or, in Disgaea’s naturally parodying parlance, the “corrupternment.” I don’t know if the problem lies in the original Japanese script or the localization—Disgaea’s obscure otaku parodies and linguistic puns are admittedly tough to translate—but I found myself less amused with this entry’s humor overall.
Disgaea’s core strategy gameplay still entertains, though, and its wacked-out storytelling remains novel enough that you’ll want to keep playing to see what happens next. And here’s the part where you might expect me to say, “And, of course, Disgaea 4 includes more than enough new tweaks to satisfy fans of the series.” But you know what? It really doesn’t. At least not for me. Instead, it’s got the same cumbersome menus, the same tired classes, and the same sprites as it did in 2003. Sure, those sprites may finally be high-res in Disgaea 4—but the fact that it took until 2011 to get them there reveals a lot about Japanese design these days.
Eight years ago, overwrought Japanese RPG narratives deserved a scathing parody, and Disgaea delivered in spades. But these days, it’s dated Japanese design decisions that need a good, swift kick in the pants—and on that end, Disgaea’s as guilty as anyone. In that sense, the strategy-RPG parody has now become a parody of itself.
SUMMARY: The core strategy elements are still addictive—but with ridiculously dated design elements, this RPG parody’s now become a parody of itself.
- THE GOOD: The series finally gets some high-res sprites
- THE BAD: They’re the same ol’ graphics…and menus…and classes…and…
- THE UGLY: The long list of dead Japanese RPGs Disgaea once parodied
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