Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories

Year: 2018
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Granzella
Genre: Adventure
Review Date: 5/28/20
Rating: ***

Wow. How do you even begin to review a game like "Disaster Report 4?" If you've played the original "Disaster Report" (2003) or "Raw Danger" (2007) then you know what to expect, which is a preposterous story, poor gameplay mechanics, mind-blowing dialog, a bizarre juxtaposition of horror and humor, and lots of melodramatic nonsense. The games in this series are by no means good, but they definitely serve up rich and unforgettable experiences. DR4 was originally a PlayStation 3 title that was supposed to be released in 2011, but it was cancelled several days after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. Developer Granzella resurrected the game in 2014 and rewrote it from scratch to be a PlayStation 4 title. Ironically, it was released in North America in the midst of another natural disaster: The COVID-19 pandemic.

You start the game taking a bus to Hisui City when a large earthquake hits and sends you reeling. Surveying the damage, you make your way to a park and listen for updates to the situation. Aftershocks are a constant threat, which can cause you to fall down and take damage, or bury you in falling debris and kill you. Ultimately, your character just wants to get back home, but there are numerous adventures and side quests that must be fulfilled along the way. Once you trigger enough story events, you're allowed to move on to the next part of the city. Backtracking is prevented by additional earthquake damage that blocks your way. Throughout the game you visit several different urban and rural environments, both new and old, and encounter over 90 people that drive the story forward. There are dozens of other random characters that are simply reacting to the disaster in a wide variety of ways, which helps flesh out the chaos and confusion that people experience during catastrophic events. In general, the game's recurring message is that disasters bring out the very worst in human behavior, and that everyone has a moral breaking point.

The game has a lot in common with the previous entries. There's a backpack system that limits your inventory, there are dozens of collectible compasses, and the save menu is amazingly awkward and clunky. The localization is actually quite good, and the dialog (as crazy as it often is) does an excellent job of embellishing the characters and creating an oppressive atmosphere of devastation and loss. One of the first characters you meet is Natsune Higa, a high school teacher who has lost her students. Astute players will recognize her as Kelly Austin from the first two games in the series, which makes her dialog about surviving previous disasters make a lot more sense. Unfortunately, the presentation is weak and visually reminiscent of a low budget PlayStation 2 title. Even though the game utilizes the Unreal Engine, it's only as good as the assets you give it. In a way, the unsophisticated graphics are part of the charm of the game, along with its decidedly Japanese flavor and the story's outrageous B-movie sensibilities. The game also takes a lot of graphical shortcuts, and many story elements are told with text only. For instance, at one point you find a cardboard box on the sidewalk, and if you investigate it you get a text box that says there's a cat inside. And if you choose to interact with the cat, you just get a text box that says "You pet the cat." You never actually get to see the cat, which is a huge disappointment. Similarly, you encounter a ghost on several occasions, which is explained with text and never shown. That's also a serious letdown. The canned sound effects are overly simplistic and often unintentionally funny, and in one instance the looping cries of weeping students were so hilariously awful that I had to leave the scene as quickly as possible. However, the voice acting is quite good and I'm glad that the US version decided to keep the original Japanese voices, which makes the experience feel much more authentic and sincere.

Unlike the previous games, DR4 is extremely easy to play, which makes it more of a walking simulator than anything. In the original "Disaster Report" you had to constantly remain hydrated, while in "Raw Danger" you had to stay warm and dry. In DR4, you only have to stay clean and fed, which offers no challenge at all given the number of restrooms and convenience stores that you encounter. You also get a nice little song every time that you use a toilet, and bathroom mirrors allow you to change your hairstyle if you want. Additionally, there's no sense of urgency like the previous games, and the amount of danger that you encounter seems much less. In "Disaster Report" you're trying to escape an island that's sinking and in "Raw Danger" the town is being wiped out by a flood, whereas in DR4 you're just traversing a city and trying to get home. The aftershocks stop happening after a few hours of gameplay, which effectively lowers your risk to nothing. The earlier games were also known for their multiple endings based on what actions you took, but as far as I can tell, DR4 only has two possible outcomes. They're both totally bonkers, but the airport ending is MUCH better than the frustrating and infuriating City Hall ending. The game definitely pushes you towards the airport, so it's curious why they even added the bizarre alternate ending. In hindsight, I wish I hadn't even bothered going back to see the City Hall ending.

The biggest challenge in the game is figuring out how to trigger certain game-progressing actions, and some of the puzzles have an early 90's sense of logic. For example, one of the first things you encounter in the game is a convenience store. A line of annoyed people want to buy things, but there's no cashier in sight. This is hilarious in its own right, and representative of the game's off-kilter sensibilities. The store manager is locked in the bathroom without any toilet paper, and a store employee is cowering in the office, afraid to deal with the angry crowd of customers. He'll tell you where the toilet paper is, but only if you put on a store uniform and ring up all of the customers first. Then you can find the toilet paper and free the manager from the restroom. After that, you have to buy an overpriced bottle of water from him and give it to an injured man who's hiding in the back room in order to move to the next area. The key to these puzzles is doing everything in a particular order, so even if you know where the toilet paper is and have walked by it several times, you can't actually interact with it until the clerk explicitly tells you where it is. Sometimes these conversation traps require talking to everyone in the area multiple times in order to make something happen. For instance, you can't just walk up to Joe and ask him a question. You have to first ask someone if Joe is working today, and then ask someone else where Joe is, even though you've already talked to him a dozen times and gotten nowhere.

There are certainly plenty of things to do in the game, and it's possible to miss a lot of things, no matter how careful you are. I missed a couple of cues early in the game, which kept me from rescuing a fashion designer and saving an Italian restaurant. Another late game cue caused me to miss getting closure with the president of an IT company that was facing financial hardship due to the quake. I've also read online that the fashion designer will sell you clothes and makeup, but I've yet to see the game offer those options. While the number of choices that you're presented with gives you the feeling that you're in control of your destiny, the game is frustratingly linear. There are certain things you can't do, along with things you don't want to do, but have to in order to progress the story. The most heartbreaking is your interaction with a foreign exchange student, who is beaten and run out of a shelter simply because he's a foreigner. And no matter what you do, you can't help him or save him. The paramedics refuse to provide aid and the police and firemen completely ignore your pleas. This is an intentionally strong commentary on racism, prejudice, and mob mentality, but leaves you feeling helpless and unable to do anything about it. Like many of the characters in the game, their lives are ruined and there's no happy ending for them. There are several other characters in the game that you can't save no matter what you do, which makes the choices you're given meaningless.

Speaking of choices, the game offers a crippling number of them up front when you're creating your character. You can choose to be either male or female, which is something I always appreciate, and there are a limited number of faces and hairstyles to choose from. But then you're hit with the following questions:

How will you react to a massive earthquake?
    · I'll probably stay calm, of course.
    · I'm scared. I may not be able to move forward...
    · I want to help others and survive.
    · I'll protect those important to me, no matter what.
    · I'll try to rescue as many people as possible.
    · I come first. Doesn't matter what situation I'm in.
    · I see it as a catalyst for change in my life.
    · I won't know how I feel until it actually happens.
    · I don't care. I just want to experience things.

I'm taking this bus because...
    · I'm on my way to a job interview.
    · I'm on my way to a company business meeting.
    · I'm going to Suiren Park to walk around.
    · I'm going to Suiren Street to do some shopping.
    · I'm thinking about going out and meeting some people.

For someone like me, these choices are impossible to make, and I must have spent about ten minutes fretting over what consequences my actions would have. But as far as I can tell, what you choose makes absolutely no difference in the game at all, and merely gives your character a back story. You also get to give your character a name, which always annoys me, because audio cues leave your name out. Like "Hi! My name is _____." Why is naming your character important if it's not going to be used anywhere? The game is obviously geared towards a male protagonist, and in keeping with tradition, it often plays out like a dating sim where you can attempt to make romantic connections with the women you meet. If you want to play the game like a real slimeball jerk, you're given the option to hit on every woman you encounter, including underaged schoolgirls. You also have the same options if you choose to play as a female, which makes things even more perverse, but the reactions are the same as if you were a male. Based on your actions, you can receive moral points or immoral points, but much like the rest of the game's systems, they don't seem to have an affect on anything. This ultimately reduces the game's replay value, but maybe the only point of having the options is to see how the characters react to your moral or immoral behavior.

Up to this point, I've described "Disaster Report 4" as a clunky, dull, and visually unattractive game, and based on its production values and presentation alone, I wouldn't recommend it. But just like the other games in the series, its real worth lies in the crazy narrative and the oddball characters that you encounter. If you have an appreciation for sincere, but off-the-wall storytelling, then the game offers a ton of gonzo entertainment value. Of course, I can't go into that without giving away spoilers, but I'll just say that the mind-boggling climax left me slack-jawed in disbelief. There's also a downloadable epilogue that takes place several months after the quake which cleans up some story threads and offers even more wackiness, including a delicious chance to punish some bad guys. Masayuki Sudou (Keith Helm from "Disaster Report"), Ryoko Honda (Sophia Briggs from "Raw Danger"), and Saki (from "Disaster Report 3") show up as guest characters, which does a nice job of tying the whole series together. One character reading a video game magazine at a convenience store even teases about the possibility of "Disaster Report 5." The epilogue also features a maid cafe, which I was tempted to just stay in forever.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!