“In Zetsu 4, I tried to depict the hope of ‘signs of recovery’ and the ‘shadow’ that the light creates. The emphasis is on the fact that the real difficulty of a disaster is ‘after it’.I thought it would be nice to have such a game in the world, and I still think it is.” – Kazuma Kujo
In creating the Disaster Report franchise, Kazuma Kujo sought not only to entertain but also to educate. In 1995, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the Kobe Fire Department contacted Kujo intending to produce a video game that would teach safe practices during earthquakes and other natural disasters. The games are not action-oriented but are about deliberate puzzle-solving and resource gathering, anticipating the Survival game craze that took over in the early 2010s. The franchise is inseparable from its setting, Hisui City’s decimated urban environments populated by civilians who have lost everything and need a helping hand. However, just as Disaster Report was born out of a historically damaging earthquake, the franchise met its foreseeable end as a result of natural catastrophe. Development of the franchise’s latest title, Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories, ceased entirely three days after the 2011 Touhoku earthquake and tsunami.
Due to the optics of releasing a game about natural disasters in the aftermath of an atrocity, as well as developer Irem’s decision to become a slot machine and pachinko developer, the Disaster Report franchise was adrift for years. There was no expectation that Disaster Report 4 would ever see the light of day, until Granzella Inc. a video game developer comprised of former staff of Irem announced in 2014 that they had acquired the Disaster Report IP. In November 2015, it was announced that Disaster Report 4 would be re-developed from scratch while adhering to the original concept of living in a sprawling city for a week in the aftermath of a natural disaster. With help from the Kobe Fire Department once again, Disaster Report 4 was remade.
As Disaster Report 4 switched platforms from PS3 to PS4, its console-centric gimmicks changed. Disaster Report 4 nixes the originally intended inclusion of 3D output and Playstation Move compatibility in favor of a virtual reality mode. Nonetheless, the game’s restrictive movement speed and inability to run at 60 FPS unless you play the game on a PS5 makes immersing yourself into Hisui City in first-person unpalatable. The game in its remade form was built in Unreal Engine 4, losing the slightly cartoonish character models from when the game was unveiled in 2010. The environmental textures are often muddy and the gray of the asphalt sets a tone that much of the game’s color palette follows.
Despite being pieced together from the concept stage in 2010 and a development cycle between 2015 and 2018, the game is not dated so much as it exists outside of the traditional video game landscape. The game is not open world but allows you to wander between hub worlds at a leisurely pace chatting up dejected NPCs and completing sidequests that are mostly contingent on finding supplies or helping civilians get out of precarious buildings. The division of the game’s environment into sequential hub worlds separated by loading screens does hinder immersion. However, walking around the ravaged environments, no matter how enclosed they ultimately are, captures a gloomy tranquility well equipped to playing absent-mindedly at night. Disaster Report 4‘s preoccupation with meandering exploration creates a uniquely soothing atmosphere further distinguished by a variety of quirks.
The Disaster Report franchise has always been restrained with regards to challenging players, but Disaster Report 4 accommodates a degree of passive play that is arguably to its detriment. The survival mechanics that were once important to the franchise now boil down to eating and drinking for health bonuses, not managing a constantly depleting level of hunger. The impact of your cleanliness meter is illusory. The meter can be ignored entirely and does not affect your survival in the game. Maintaining your cleanliness simply boils down to using the bathroom, a mechanic that is as amusingly illogical as it is pointless.
Mandated stealth sequences are clunky but short-lived, while vehicle sections are practically on-rails. The game’s open environments are so deprived of conflict that it can feel like wandering through a multiplayer map with an empty lobby. The atmosphere is awkwardly vacant albeit occasionally eerie. NPCs stand idly waiting to be spoken to, your aural environment is comprised of just the sound of your footsteps and the chatter of cicadas fleetingly interrupted by booming earthquakes. With the abundance of text on the screen and the absence of reflex-testing gameplay mechanics, Disaster Report 4 is more comparable to a visual novel than it is an open-world survival game.
Disaster Report 4‘s mundane gameplay is to some extent redeemed by its absurd sense of humor. A focal point of the Disaster Report franchise has been its dialogue trees where choices range from melodramatically self-serious to laughably alienating. Disaster Report 4′s approach to multiple endings and malleable character relationships is scaled back in comparison to its predecessor Raw Danger, where you played as multiple characters whose choices impacted each other’s campaigns. However, it is undoubtedly amusing to respond to the widow you have sworn to protect by trying to “convince her to be my lover instead”, or to find yourself at the center of a witch hunt over an arsonist on the run and prematurely end the game by admitting to false accusations.
What compels about Disaster Report 4 is its preposterous plot developments: becoming beloved and then scorned on an encampment for claiming that rainwater from the gutter has mystical healing capabilities; rising through the ranks of a cult capitalizing on people’s desperation; witnessing unanticipated meta moments like an NPC overlooking the damage from the disaster and saying they hope Disaster Report 4 still comes out.
A surreal sense of humor coexists with earnest, slow-paced drama. The game is not preoccupied with the explosive display of natural disasters but the hopelessness left in their aftermath and attempting to help a society rebuild. The instant you escape being chased by a procession of cultists, you are thrust into a navigational puzzle, carrying an elderly woman on your shoulders so she can find medical assistance.
The dissonance between the game’s two tones is most comparable to the one-off side missions in the Yakuza franchise if those were the full ten-hour game. The game is structured throughout as if to lull you into a dull hypnosis, navigating ordinary urban landscapes only to jolt players with a bizarre plot development. The game’s cycle of anticipation and payoff does not revolve around any sort of tension, but instead the expectation that your wandering will lead you to another unexpected comedy beat. The game’s competing tones do not really gel with each other, but its propensity for insane plot twists is the game’s most entertaining facet, preventing the bulk of the game’s reliance on speaking with NPCs from becoming unbearably boring.
It would be generous to even call Disaster Report 4 a puzzle game, as its fetch quests boil down to pixel hunts, picking up whatever you’re prompted to in fairly confined environments. To be entertained by the game is to resign yourself to the amusement of nonsensical dialogue choices, strange collectible costumes, and a relaxed pace that makes the threat of aftershocks seem like an afterthought. As a follow-up to Raw Danger, a game with demanding survival mechanics and intense escape sequences, Disaster Report 4 is a letdown. As a belated continuation of the Disaster Report franchise, it is still one-of-a-kind, inspiring hope that the upcoming Disaster Report 5 retains its baffling tonal shifts but offers more inspired gameplay.