I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Natural disaster stories are underrated. Beyond the power fantasies, what is the largest appeal of the action blockbuster? Personally, for me it has always been the grandeur and the scale. The movement, and the stakes on levels that far exceed the mundanity of everyday life. They can easily bypass the questionable desire of wanting to revel in the worst impulses of humankind by making us marvel and fear at the doings of mother nature herself. A good disaster story will put in focus things like the environment, man’s constructions in it, and how flexible societal structures are when it is truly required.
The original Disaster Report games back in the PS2 days, developed by Irem, were about as pulpy a take on that sort of story as it got. They usually were some pseudo-detective affair, where the titular reporter would have to investigate the government inadequacies that let the disaster happen the way it did. They weren’t exactly Raymond Chandlers, but they understood what makes a mystery story compelling and did their best at it. The rest of the game would usually see such over the top sequences, like platforming your way up a collapsing tower engulfed in flames, that even the often goofy writing could be taken in stride as part of the exaggerated tone of the world.
Granzella’s Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories, on the other hand, seems to want to take a stab at a more sober tone. Seemingly an attempt to document the human reaction under a truly frightening display of the earth’s magnitude, inspired by Japan’s very real experiences with earthquakes in 2011. Unfortunately, this more serious tone, removed from the original PS2 game’s silly conspiratorial action romps, also takes away a lot of the charm of the series. One would expect an endeavor like that to be fairly somber, touching, and dramatic, but sadly the writing chops are simply not there to deliver on such a feat.
A lazier version of myself would call that the review right there. If you’re asking whether you should play DR4 then the answer is probably not. To be the kind of person for whom the experience would mean something, you have to go in already willing to work for it and meet it halfway. I showed up with my running shoes, ready to go to the halfway point and maybe further for this game, and let me tell you that at many points that felt like a really thankless task.
The game isn’t without its high points, mind you. The traversal experience is extremely unique. And it really manages to make you feel like you’re in a real disaster. Whenever you are transitioning between areas, having to brace for an aftershock at any moment makes the situation feel authentically perilous. If you take refuge in the wrong spot, a lamppost, sign, or even an entire building may fall on you. You find yourself calling upon all of your real-life earthquake-safety knowledge in these moments, which really lends gravitas to the experience of simply walking around the crumbling city.
It’s also downright funny a lot of the time. In a silly way, to be sure, but it made me laugh nonetheless. The fact that your character has the chance to declare their undying love for every female character you meet upon your first interaction gets pretty humorous by the third time and it just keeps going. It is a bit stale, to put it generously, that this option is only available for females, but if you’re feeling charitable it can lend the game a lot of levity. But there are equally ridiculous options for anything from impersonating a CEO’s child or rubbing the situation in annoying people’s faces if you’re feeling like a jerk that day. It is a very wacky game, with such a commitment to providing you ridiculous dialogue options that at times I wonder if the entire thing is not one big joke. Like a sort of, all-jokes, not-spooky version of The Twilight Zone. But I think it is supposed to be read as a “serious game with lots of funny bits” rather than as outright farce.
Sadly, the positives really end there for me. Most of the game can be reduced to 20-minute vignettes where you simply stumble into cutscenes and humiliatingly didactic dialogue until you’re able to proceed to the next area. The character writing in this game is truly atrocious, sometimes even beneath the standards of the original PS2 title. I struggle to even find a word to describe it without it being demeaning to whatever I’d compare it to. I mulled over calling the characters “muppets” or “cartoons” but even the last game I reviewed, which featured anime representation of warships meant to get players horny, had characters more multifaceted and nuanced than the entirety of DR4’s cast. And that’s not even mentioning the emotional depths that Jim Henson’s puppets could achieve sometimes. Caricatures, I suppose, is the most fitting term, when all but a couple of storylines in this game wouldn’t feel out of place in a children’s storybook starring talking animals.
I spent roughly 90% of my time with the game looking for the main story to kick in, navigating through goofy vignettes that were sometimes funny, sometimes interesting, but often shallow and underdeveloped. When the “main story” actually revealed itself for what it was, it turned out my character had barely been involved in it and had run across its main players roughly 5 times over the last 15 hours or so, none of which had been particularly remarkable. A couple of hours later it ended on a twist that was unrelated to anything else that had happened in its own subplot anyway.
Which is not to say it’s all terrible. Most of this seems to spring from a relatively strong commitment to what is, essentially, a testimonial lens to the narrative. Disaster Report 4 seems to have no thesis, instead choosing to present a bunch of mini-stories with the implied tone being “these are many of the ways humans react to disaster”. This is a really unique angle for a game to make as its central conceit all by itself, and it does make playing the game an experience like no other. Unfortunately, there are so many of these, and there is so little time spent with each character, that there is very little opportunity to develop them at any depth beyond the most basic of understandings. Sometimes it might come across in poor taste, due to how quickly, and lightly it touches on things like murder or racism before moving on. In the end, the value you might get from it depends on how much you appreciate running into a vignette that shows you something you hadn’t considered would happen in a situation like this. And there’s bound to be at least a couple of ‘em, given the dizzying amount of them you burn through every hour.
The gameplay can be reduced to going from point A to B, sometimes fetching an item a couple dozen metres away, which will be the only thing you can get said location so it’s not like you could have gotten wrong anyway. The game is entirely linear too, making exploration not a factor. Stumble into a random city square, rub yourself against a few walls pressing x, talk to the only NPCs that have cutscenes dedicated to them, and you will find success and progress with little obstacle. This structure is largely shared with the old PS2 Disaster Report games, but it’s been greatly simplified. In those titles, there would be key items for you to hold onto and collect throughout the story, waiting for the moment where it would become important. And the gameplay, whilst simple and forgiving, at least tried to translate the situation into more traditional gaming platforming. Disaster Report 4 eliminates all platforming, instead of making all climbing entirely contextual and eliminating jumping entirely. This makes it so the only thing required to get to the end is to hold the stick in the direction you have just been told. At least when you are not put upon the task of navigating what are, respectively, the worst vehicle and stealth sections I can recall playing in a video game. And don’t get me started on the dizzyingly slow and monotonous pre-baked platforming sections, which are impossible to fail and take way too long to get through.
Previous Disaster Report games had a somewhat aggressive thirst gauge that would make inventory management an important part of the game. It would force you to keep an eye out for beverages and to maintain enough room in your backpack for your supplies and quest items. DR4 would seem to double down on this with a hunger and a bladder mechanic on top. In practice, however, these are almost entirely cosmetic. I tried to go an entire in-game day without tending to any of them out of pure curiosity and I never once ran into any negative effects. An additional gauge to keep track of: the stress meter, would initially seem to be more concerning, given how it shrinks your available health proportionally, as it grows whenever you are exposed to uncomfortable situations. This one is easily done away with at any of the many checkpoints that are available whenever you finish the aforementioned 20-minute vignettes, though, so… yeah, it’s also completely ignorable. I can’t imagine a situation where you could be submitted to enough stress to reduce your life bar enough to matter without the opportunity to rest at a checkpoint in between.
Perhaps the game’s most intriguing idea is its odd commitment to roleplaying. The game opens asking you how you would act in a disaster situation and gives you a fairly thoughtful gamma of answers to choose from. Throughout, you are given the opportunity to reflect on what your character would be feeling in that particular moment, often with little to no actual consequences in the game world. At the bookend, it asks the opening question again, which would obviously prompt the player to reflect on their experiences and give a slightly more informed answer on how they believe they would approach a real disaster. It is interesting, and it shows at least an honest attempt to make the player truly live the situation. It is undercooked but kinda nifty.
Technically the game is an absolute mess, at least on Switch. I looked at some footage of the game on PC and PS4 and it seemed to perform better, but for me, frame rate drops and chugs were constant throughout the experience. Not to mention atrocious camera work whenever I had to work within confined spaces, which made a mid-game incursion to an apartment complex completely nightmarish.
The game is going for a very realistic look so there’s very little to comment on. Certainly buildings look very impressive when they collapse, and the trails of smoke that they leave behind, sometimes lingering for up to a minute, can be genuinely intimidating. At times it would seem like the game is going for a fully cinematic look, but the cinematography and choreography of the in-game models is quite poor and lets down what are otherwise some pretty good vocal performances. They feel especially underdeveloped when it’s time for one of the several musical montages of the game when an emotional and actually affecting insert song sees itself paired up with cookie-cutter pans and fades over clumsy and stiffly animated models.
Also I swear a recurring character, who tries to scam people to pay exorbitant prices for essential items during a disaster, is supposed to be played by a recognizable Japanese actor that I am just unaware of, as a westerner.
Disaster Report 4 is kind of a mess, but it is a very unique experience that can be very special to those who would appreciate it, and at some precious few moments it can actually prove an interesting lens to human reactions to an act of nature. But all that sees itself constantly buried under unengaging gameplay and VeggieTales level writing. It is extremely disappointing to see a returning series fail to reach the standards of the 20-year-old game that it’s bearing the name of. If you want to play this game, truly want to play it, you’ve already bought it and played it so this review is more of a critical conversation for you. But if you’re feeling doubtful I’d say skip it.