Making video games is a difficult endeavor at the best of times, but spare a thought for the people behind Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories, which finally came out last month for the PC, PS4, and Switch in the West. I first played it at a game show in Osaka in 2009; it was running on a PlayStation 3, and I was wearing 3D glasses. They were different times, of course — and the final release still manages to feel like a throwback.
Disaster Report 4 was originally set for a March 10th, 2011, release, but it was delayed until later in the spring at the last minute. Then, on March 11th, a devastating earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, causing a tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people and triggered the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster. Disaster Report 4, a game about survival in a quake-stricken Japanese city, was canceled for good three days later. Its developer, the legendary studio Irem, never released another game of note, and many of its staff left the following month.
It was a sad end for one of Japan’s more iconoclastic developers. Irem was best known for creating the R-Type series, which it ended with the ultimate mic drop in the 2003 classic R-Type Final, and had more recently produced titles like the uniquely charming PS2 RPG Steambot Chronicles. Its most enduring creation from its final decade, however, was the Disaster Report series.
Known as Zettai Zetsumei Toshi in Japan, which roughly translates to “Desperate City,” the games are about surviving natural disasters. The first title, known as Disaster Report in the US and SOS: The Final Escape in Europe, sees you play a reporter attempting to escape an earthquake. The sequel, Raw Danger, is about a pair of waiters trying to escape apocalyptic flooding on Christmas Eve. Both of these games were released on the PS2; a Japan-exclusive follow-up, Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3, came out on the PSP in 2009.
These games were perhaps not what I would describe as “good” by conventional metrics. They were technically inept, with performance crawling into the single digits whenever a building comes down. The localization was bizarre. Disaster Report inexplicably dyed the original Japanese protagonist’s hair blond and named him Keith, with shambolic voiceovers acting out an already convoluted plot. The puzzles, menus, and inventory systems made the PS1 Resident Evil games look breezy and progressive.
And yet, I love this series. Raw Danger, in particular, is an incredible exercise in shooting far beyond a team’s capabilities, bursting at the seams of its ambitious structure and multicharacter narrative. Even in 2006, the game was a lo-fi disaster, but it was hard to fault it on its inventiveness and soul. The closest analog to the mixture of drama and humor is perhaps Yakuza since both series revel in the surreal pathos of helping regular people with mundane tasks amid life-threatening situations. There’s no street-fighting machismo here, though. Your only real enemy is the environment itself.
Disaster Report 4, revived by a new company called Granzella that was founded by ex-Irem employees, is entirely within that tradition. It doesn’t for a second hold up as a modern big-budget game, but that might not stop you from falling for its quirky charms. The game begins with your created character riding a bus — your purpose for doing so is up to you, chosen by one of many multianswer questions — before an earthquake strikes and the city is thrown into chaos. Thus begins Disaster Report’s offbeat loop of exploration, survival, and chatting to random strangers.
It will not surprise anyone familiar with the series to learn that Disaster Report 4 is not a technical marvel. Despite the simple graphics, the frame rate often stutters even on a powerful PC; the Switch version is even more of a PS2 throwback, if that’s your thing. And while looking at screenshots might give you the impression that this is a game of considerable scale, set against the backdrop of a vast collapsing city, the environments are broken into tiny chunks separated by loading screens. Progressing through the game is more of a puzzle than anything else, requiring you to find the right person to talk to or object to use.
Despite this, Disaster Report 4 achieves a certain degree of verisimilitude through its attention to detail and the clear passion that has been put into it. This is a believable rendition of Japan, no matter how shaky the frame rate is or how crude the character models are. The writing is often clumsy, but it’s earnest and heartfelt, and it’s hard not to root for a game that gives you so many opportunities to build up your own character in your mind. Disaster Report 4 gives you explicit freedom to say and do ridiculous things in the middle of a crisis, which isn’t always handled delicately but has the unusual effect of making the obviously sensible choices feel more meaningful. It’s a far cry from certain RPGs that limit your decisions to “succeed” and “succeed while being an asshole.”
I suspect where Disaster Report 4 will fall down for most players is in its baffling internal logic and arcane puzzle solutions straight out of early adventure games. It’s nothing a walkthrough can’t solve, but if you choose to go in unprepared, you’re probably going to have a frustrating experience if time is not on your hands.
Let me give you an early example: after escaping a fiery situation, you’ll find yourself out in the streets without any clear objective. You enter a destroyed convenience store where products are strewn across the floor and angry customers are lining up at an empty counter; one worker is hiding in the staff room. You make your way to the bathroom — you have to go to the bathroom in Disaster Report 4 to relieve your stress, after all — only to find it locked with someone making loud noises inside. (At this point, you can register your disgust or cheer them on.) They tell you that they’re out of toilet paper, so you go look for some. Poignantly, for our current situation, there is none on the shelves.
You go back to the stock room, where you find an injured man on the floor pleading for water. Despite there being several bottles of water in the store refrigerators, you can’t just give him some; instead, the shop worker from before gives you a store uniform so you can wear it and serve the angry customers. (You can overcharge them and pocket the cash, earning yourself an “Immoral Point.”) Only then will he tell you where the toilet paper is in the stock room, and only then can you give it to the guy in the bathroom — who turns out to be the store manager, sort of (that’s another story) — and only then can you buy water from him and give it to his own employee. For 10 “Moral Points.”
Does any of this make sense at all? I would say no. But the satisfaction of Disaster Report 4 has little to do with feeling like you’ve solved a well-designed puzzle. It’s more to do with existing in its world, relating with your character, and doing your best to help. There are no random battles or magical spells to equip, but it’s a roleplaying game in the purest sense of the word.
This certainly isn’t a game for everyone, but it’s one that deserves an audience. Though Disaster Report 4 went through just about the most protracted development cycle imaginable, Granzella is still continuing to support it now that the game’s finally made it out the door. The developers even added VR support to the Steam version last week after making it compatible with PSVR, going above and beyond the original plan to make it playable in 3D on the PlayStation 3. It isn’t exactly the sleekest of experiences, but the attempt to immerse players further in Disaster Report 4’s scenarios matches the game’s intimate style.
There’s a good chance you’ll play Disaster Report 4 and write it off as a mess that shouldn’t have been put out in 2020. But there’s also a chance it’ll connect with you on a personal level and reinforce why Irem was one of the most beloved developers of the PS2 era. Granzella’s next game, the paradoxically titled R-Type Final 2, will be one to watch.
Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories is out now on Steam, PS4, and the Nintendo Switch.