Disaster Report 4 is, in so many ways, a complete failure. Its objectives are an illogical botch, the frame-rate tends to lurch down to single figures, there’s an eternal haziness that makes it look like you’re viewing its world through petrol fumes while character models look like they’ve been picked fresh from a PlayStation 2 game that’s been sitting unloved on a CEX shelf for some years. I absolutely implore you to try it.
There’s every chance you’ve played something like it before, if your tastes were a little bit more esoteric during the early noughties. Known as Zettai Zetsumei Toshi in Japan, the first game in a survival series that places you in the aftermath of a natural disaster made its way to these shores under the name of SOS: The Final Escape in 2003 before its sequel was given the title Raw Danger upon its western release. Since then the subsequent games have never been localised, with original developer Irem shifting away from video games leaving its developers to start splinter studio Granzella to carry on the flame.
It’s a slightly convoluted history that gets more convoluted still when it comes to Disaster Report 4, a game whose development began under Irem’s watch before the great earthquake of 2011 in Japan saw the project put on hold, with Granzella and original director Kazumi Kojo returning some years later to see it all through to completion. Which might go some way to explain the shabbiness of Disaster Report 4. To say it plays like a game from almost a decade ago would be overly polite; instead, this plays like a PS2 game that’s been put in a tumble dryer that’s just been thrown down several flights of stairs.
And it’s frequently brilliant. Disaster Report 4’s set-up is painted in broad strokes – you’re visiting the city in the grip of a summer heatwave, the soundtrack a constant hiss of cicadas as you’re on your way to a job interview when the earthquake strikes. On that first bus journey, you’re given an inkling of what’s to follow – an elderly lady looks to take a seat, and you’re presented with the option to do so, or not if you so wish. Much of Disaster Report 4 plays out like this – it’s a grounded adventure where you’re picking your way through the aftermath of a tragedy, and where human motives and frailties are laid bare. It’s where schoolteachers suffer a crisis of confidence as they guide their pupils through rubble, or where profiteering shop owners move to exploit the situation.
It’s a slightly new twist on the series’ formula, moving away from the increasingly overblown disaster movie histrionics of older games (the last spin-off, sadly never localised, threw in Godzilla, Gamera and UItraman amongst others into the mix) into something more personal, and for the most part it works. You’re repeatedly given multiple options as to what to do next, all marginally similar and none of which seem to have much bearing on what happens, but just as often they’re delivered with an earnestness and silliness that’s plain endearing.
Indeed, it’s a flavour that’s carried throughout the rest of Disaster Report 4, with Granzella mixing together sadness and stupidity for a combination that feels perfectly prescient. You’re often met with surreal situations – a queue of customers waits in a freshly destroyed convenience store for a clerk who’s understandably abandoned the till – with solutions that are often just as equally logic-defying. It speaks to the truth that common sense often gets lost in a catastrophe, and all you’re left is humans pinging about with their maddening impulses.
Which is quite the feat for a game as humble as Disaster Report 4, though I can’t really pretend its merits outweigh its faults. Your path is mostly linear and often impossible to parse, the systems which made past Disaster Report games hum along – your stress bar, your need to relieve yourself when you come across a toilet or even the state of your appearance – are present, but have been dumbed down so much they have little bearing on play and may as well be completely absent. There are also tonal shifts that end up far more jarring than dropped framerates (and, for all its promise of a more grounded adventure there remains a late lunge towards melodrama which was, as a fan of the over-the-top nature of the originals, entirely welcome).
Technical deficiencies are one thing, but you can go out and find any number of games with impressively smooth frame-rates, reliable controls and draw distances that stretch out beyond the horizon. The thing that’s slightly rarer is finding a game with this much heart – and for all its failings elsewhere, that’s something Disaster Report 4 has in abundance. What a beautiful mess this is.