Review by Matt S.
You can learn a lot about a culture based on the response that it has to a natural disaster. How people respond – both individually and as a community – to the abject terror of Earth itself turning against them gives you an insight into their cultural morality, sense of community, and spirituality. Japan suffers from more natural disasters than almost anywhere else in the world, and the Japanese culture, over the millennia, has developed a perspective on disaster and the human response that it is rightfully proud of. Disaster Report 4 is, in theory, a game about surviving a natural disaster. In practice what it actually is in a rich, evocative look at something intensely core to the Japanese mindset and culture.
As Duke University professor in Art, Art History and Visual Studies, Gennifer Weisenfeld, noted in her book, Imagining Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923: “Natural events are not inherently disasters; disasters are made… In Japan, earthquakes historically have been considered transformative, even numinous events associated with contemporary social and political circumstances. they could be both devastating and renewing. And as Kitahara Itoko one of the foremost scholars of disaster in Japan, as emphasised, the study of disaster should not just be a historical chronicling of damage and loss; it should be an interdisciplinary exploration of the dialetical relationship between destruction and reconstruction in the context of social formations.”
That quote is of particular relevance to Disaster Report 4, which is a game that depicts a massive-scale earthquake, but only in the opening minutes. After that there are regular “aftershocks” that form a gameplay component (i.e. you need to crouch down and make sure a bit of roof or overhead road isn’t about to hit you), but those quickly fade to become a distantly secondary feature. Instead, the bulk of Disaster Report 4 is focused on viewing how people respond to the events that have so completely disrupted their lives… and there’s a real mix of melancholic tragedy and uplifting celebration in there. It’s all very human, however, and Disaster Report 4 offers a deeply sentimental, empathetic narrative.
Right at the start, for example, as confusion about what just happened has sent everyone reeling, one of the first conversations that you have is with an aging businessman, who tells you that he’s lost his job, and for the past month had been hiding it by going to the park and simply sitting down for the day. Thanks to the earthquake, however, he’s now lost his lunch, and is staring at it pitifully as it rests on the ground. The immediate question that you’ll probably ask is why this story would be in the game at all, let alone front-ended as an introductory narrative moment, but over in Japan, since the economic bubble burst, there’s a very real problem with people losing their jobs and then doing anything they can to conceal it from their families. As you come across similar stories such as this it all becomes clear why these stories are there – the Japanese culture doesn’t allow itself to fixate on disasters. The Japanese know they’re coming and, when they hit, they take them in their stride as much as possible. Life doesn’t end when the house burns down, and nor does a person’s problems.
Many of the stories are uplifting, too. One long chapter, for example, depicts a Romeo & Juliet-like love story in which a son on one side of the train tracks is in love with a daughter on the other, but thanks to the earthquake community tensions on either side of the tracks are running high, and the respective communities are particularly antagonistic towards one another. Your task there is to find a way to help reunite the two, at which point both communities are also able to overcome their differences and come together. Once again, the actual disaster itself is almost a backdrop to the human stories about how people can come together and discover a renewal in survival and restoration. Disaster Report 4 doesn’t shy away from highlighting those that do try to capitalise on disaster – the looters, those that look to profit from shortages in food and water supplies, cultists and rapists are all present in the game, but they are always depicted as individuals acting outside of the rest of the community who, shellshocked as they are, get on with the task of living life. It’s a game that tells stories of perseverance and resilience, and in doing so offers a rich tapestry of humanity, morality, and community.
All of this might well come across as a bit alien to those of us in the west. We are so used to our “disaster stories” being of widespread destruction and action that some of the stories presented in Disaster Report will come across as surreal. The idea of a running sub-story in which a CEO and his executive team are so focused one preserving their company’s stock price, the job security of their staff, and dealing with a mole/defector to a rival company, seems so strange to us, when Roland Emmerich taught us through 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow that the only thing you can do through a disaster is run or die. But, again, this story speaks to the Japanese perspective on disasters – they happen, and it’s incumbent on those that survive to dust themselves off and move forward for the good of themselves, those around them, and society itself. One of the most poignant moments that I encountered through the game was at one point, after a couple of in-game days, you needed to cycle back to the park where it all stated for you. You meet many familiar faces and notice that, within days, the entire city was making rapid progress in removing the debris and making those trapped in places comfortable. Those stories of the Japanese repairing massive sinkholes in just days are no joke – this is a culture for which raw perseverance is one of its most admirable qualities.
I must admit, going into Disaster Report 4, I was expecting a great deal more action than I got. I was expecting to have to frequently run from collapsing buildings, or clamber over dangerously unstable infrastructure. There’s almost none of that. What you do instead is run around, looking for the right people to talk to, and picking up the items that you need to move on to the next area. For example, at one point you need to figure out how to get a key off a convenience store clerk to access the toilet, when he’s loaning it out for a a ridiculous price, in order to climb out the window of the toilet and cycle around some rubble. Another point has you trying to escape the clutches of lewd drunkards, and in another area you need to wander around town looking for people to join a very odd cult. Each new area offers new stories and “puzzles” to explore, though calling them puzzles is a bit of an overstatement – it’s really a trail of breadcrumbs that lead you from narrative moment to narrative moment.
Those narrative moments are the highlight of Disaster Report 4, for a number of reasons – firstly, as I’ve outlined above, they’re all incredibly well written, deeply human stories. Secondly, Disaster Report 4 really wants to challenge your sense of morality. Frequently within conversations you’ll be presented with as many as a dozen different dialogue options, and some will net you “morality” points, while others will score “immorality points”. Those points are more an indicator of how you’re role-playing your character, rather than something that has an impact on the gameplay, but what I found interesting was that even when I was trying to play things “nice”, I would often get those immorality points. The point here being that in surviving a natural disaster the rules do change, as do the consequences of your decisions, and the decisions that those around you make.
As a game, Disaster Report 4 is deeply flawed. Whenever you’re in tight spaces, for example, the camera likes to be disorientating and unhelpful. The “trail of breadcrumbs” can be frustratingly obscure and there are times where you’ll need to talk to every single person in an area (and there can be dozens of them) to find out which is the next “key character” that you need to meet. Even when you do know what you need to do, the game likes to make it difficult for you. For example there was one scene where I needed to swim through a flooded apartment, looking for a key item. I was swimming around and around with my “panic” meter rapidly filling and my “health” meter rapidly declining, before I finally found it tucked away in a corner – the icon indicating that I could pick something up didn’t pop up until I was right on top of the item.
Disaster Report 4 also has a number of systems in it that are simply unnecessary. In theory you need to manage your character’s hunger, thirst, and bladder levels, but either the game was so generous in not punishing you for ignoring them that I never had an issue with these (even when I went an age without going to the toilet, for example). It’s entirely possible that those systems simply don’t do anything. Either way, it doesn’t add anything to the experience.
The game is also quite primitive in terms of its presentation. The art direction is spot on, and the developers have perfectly captured the tone and aesthetic both of summer, and the crumbling infrastructure of a disaster-hit city. However, on a technical level, Disaster Report 4 shows its heritage as a game that was originally intended for release a decade ago on a previous generation of consoles. This is even more evident on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which has a poor frame-rate to boot. The frame-rate’s not going to affect the playability of the game, as the number of times your character’s life is at any kind of risk based on quick reactions can be counted on one hand, but it’s still visually distracting, and frequently so.
As a bonus the PlayStation 4 does get a VR mode, and structurally that is really impressive. There’s not much to it in terms of play, as it’s basically a first person tour through the game’s various scenes, while you’re also tasked with looking out for stickers that can be used to obtain bonus costumes in the main game. However, limited as it is, watching the city crumble around you in virtual reality really is both impressive and even mildy stressful. Having experienced mild earthquakes in Japan, and combining that experience with a sense of what a large earthquake experience must mean, I certainly found this VR mode to be high impact.
For all its technical issues, Disaster Report 4 is a truly astounding bit of video game art and a true reflection on something that is important to understand about the Japanese culture and mindset. It is nothing like the disaster stories and games that come from western creatives, and the more melancholic, sympathetic, and people-focused themes of the game might confuse those that expect a disaster experience at first. Embrace it for what it is, however, and the game is so much better than any of that blockbuster trash. There is something very subtle, but very powerful at the core of Disaster Report 4, and, even as I’ve had the likes of Animal Crossing and Resident Evil 3 to play this past two weeks, I’ve found myself coming back to this one, and reflecting on it to a far greater degree. It’s not necessarily fun, in a traditional sense, but it’s culturally insightful and intelligent, and that makes it valuable.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.