There’s rubble everywhere, aftershocks are knocking me off my feet, everything is on fire, and that’s just the game.
I thought reviewing a game like Disaster Report 4 during an actual global pandemic would be the biggest challenge I’d face today; I was wrong. Reviewing Disaster Report 4 at any time presents a cloud of confusion and mayhem that defies traditional review. This is a confoundingly bad game, so much so that if it were any other series, it would never see release in this state. This isn’t a game that’s bad so the devs could cut corners; rather, it is a game that puts in the extra development effort to create confusing or tedious objectives that make playing the game worse. Normally, that would be enough to write an abysmal review, but this is Disaster Report.
In Disaster Report, left is right and up is down. In Disaster Report, an earthquake turns into the opportunity an octogenarian-led gang has been waiting for to diversify into the lucrative slavery business. Disaster Report 4 is madness, delivered with none of the technical proficiency or skill you’d expect of a game coming out in 2020, or even 2010. It’s a game that makes you laugh, makes you confused, but mostly makes you frustrated.
Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories, to use its full title, is an escape game. Tokyo, or something resembling it, has been struck by a massive earthquake. Our hero, a visitor from an unstated “elsewhere,” is now trapped in a crumbling and burning city. The basic goal is to escape, not just the fires and the debris, but also the crushing hopelessness of the refugee sites; the goal is to get home. This is a perfectly serviceable premise for any game, but Disaster Report uses this as the canvas for a more psychotic narrative. Our hero meets other survivors, carries out quests in order to assist those who remain, and evades mortal danger of falling concrete and rogue cultists.
Did I neglect to mention the cultists? I guess it would be more appropriate to call them shinshukyo (“new religions”), but they’re just cultists masquerading as a salvation movement. Look, this review is going to be littered with spoilers, but it hardly seems like it matters. There are moments of Disaster Report 4 where the game shifts from rote, but acceptable, disaster movie plot to nonsensical mania. One minute the morality system is rewarding you with +5 Morality for not scamming a woman trying to feed their infant, and the next it’s penalizing you with -300 Morality for sinking the aforementioned slavers’ ship with a bomb. Me telling you these things happen doesn’t deprive them of their power, it amplifies it. Denial is a weapon, and I am taking it from you.
If you’re thinking something like “I like the Yakuza series, and this sounds similar” then I have to dissuade you. The older Yakuza games are janky and primitive, but they’re old. Disaster Report 4 is not old. It plays like it’s from the early PS2 era, and appropriately it most closely resembles an early PS3 game. But this isn’t the PS2, or even the PS3. It’s the Switch. And while this game started development back on the PS3, it’s gameplay wouldn’t feel any less primitive if it hadn’t been delayed by The Great Tohoku Earthquake.
Mission objectives generally involve our hero entering a section of town, often just an intersection of two roads, and then rubbing against every surface until the event required to advance the plot triggers. Sometimes it also involves schlepping back and forth across the intersection to move things between survivors that they could easily move themselves. Sometimes you’re slowly rowing an inflatable dinghy surrounded by partially submerged briars and ruined apartment blocks. Sometimes your hands and feet are bound and you’re dragging your butt across the floor in a stealth mission with AI kidnappers that literally cannot see you. It’s tedious, and that’s when you know what you’re supposed to do.
Often you’re dropped in this little section of town with zero guideposts or objectives. Then it's just a matter of wandering around until something, anything, happens. Maybe a teddy bear needs to be rescued from underwater or a bullied teen needs to be rescued from a suicide attempt. This game swings wildly in tone, but so much time is spent just trying to find the next point that much of its roughly 10-12 hours is not knowing what to do.
I don’t think anyone would be upset if the game just served up the moments of madness, the morality questions, or the characters that you can genuinely connect with over the course of the adventure without all the aimless wandering. But without it, how would you use your useless call button? Yes, there is a button that makes our hero shout “HOI!” to find survivors, but despite pressing it constantly in order to amuse myself I never really saw that it did anything. Simply put, the game feels needlessly aimless for what ultimately is a fairly linear game. Not knowing where to go is by far the most common and frustrating feeling.
It’s not the only frustration. The game is just unpleasant to look at, with visuals that would have been unimpressive a decade ago. The game itself seems to agree, as the camera often seems intent to not show you anything of value. It so frequently ended up inside the skull of my hero, showing me a brief image of the back of his eyes, that at some point I stopped noticing. Load times between areas can be shockingly long, and even after control is resumed often many textures are still loading in and until they do the game devolves into a stuttering mess. Overall, it just feels like Disaster Report 4 is on the edge of exploding at any moment. To be fair, it never did crash, but that’s not something I normally feel like I need to call out.
Update: While playing the epilogue I experienced a game crash.
Even when the game is doing a good job, it seems to act in spite of itself. I became genuinely attached to the friends you make along the way. If one of them met an untimely demise or betrayed me, I felt genuinely hurt. But the game just moves right onto the next scene. Friend kidnapped and sexually assaulted? Give it a minute of quiet to set in (or just choose to walk away if you’re a jerk) now swing wildly into comedy and replace her torn clothes with any outfit you found throughout the game. Baseball uniform? That’ll make her feel better. Carry an old lady to a refugee camp and bottle water from a puddle, calling it a “miracle cure”. Get exposed, run off by your new worshipers, and then take a tour through an orphanage where most of the kids died in a fire. You can make a game with these scenes but it often feels like two different teams were writing this game. And how they’re set against each other weakens both. There is no shortage of character twists that were nothing but “they’ll never see THIS coming.”
The game is fully voiced, in Japanese, and the cast seems really invested. The insert songs, vocal tracks that play at key moments, are lovely. And the only other song of note, an airy piano track that plays when you use the toilet, is nice, I suppose. This is Disaster Report: the fact the game doesn’t play music unless you’re “taking care of business” is wonderfully on brand.
That really is the challenge in reviewing this game. I see what the team wanted to make, and it is exactly the kind of thing I go for. I did enjoy the comedy, and some of the drama was touching if occasionally tactless. But there are so many technical issues, so much dated gameplay design, so many dubious writing choices, and so much grinding tedium that it just eclipses the things I enjoy. I could deal with the technical issues, the weird story hiccups, and even some of the gameplay stuff if only I felt like I always knew what I needed to do. The tedium and the madness are the two things that stick out. And sadly, the tedium just outweighs the madness. I would love to recommend this game to new-found fans of games like the Yakuza series, because there is a tonal similarity, but I just can’t. Early games in that series were primitive, but they weren’t aimless.
There aren’t many games in the world where an NPC rewards your good deeds by offering to, among other things, “end the game” or “rename the game.” I picked “rename,” because I didn’t believe that even a game as wild as this would do that, and from that point forward the game called itself “Disaster Report 5?”. I don’t know why I doubted him, because at that point I had already concluded that some very creative and funny people worked on this game. And when the real Disaster Report 5 comes out I’m going to keep an eye on it, and if the absurdity I described excites you then you should too. But this one, there are just too many things that got on my nerves. Some people will still have a good time, and for sure there were moments where I went from delighted to dumbfounded and back in seconds. But the best I can say is proceed with caution, falling debris ahead.