I reviewed this game for Nintendo Life! Stop by and check out my thoughts over there, then pop back here for a more in-depth look.
In video games, we’re accustomed to having some sort of concrete “villain” to fight — usually a personified antagonist of some description.
But what happens when you don’t really have an “enemy” as such — you’re just struggling against natural forces that have no feelings about you one way or the other? And how will your experiences interact with those of the people around you?
These are the questions that Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories attempts to answer. So let’s take a closer look at how it does that.
A bit of context and history for the unfamiliar, first. Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories is the fourth installment in the — wait for it — Disaster Report series, which is known in Japan as Zettai Zetsumei Toshi, or The Desperate City. This is a set of games that started back on the PS2 in 2002, and which was originally developed by Irem.
The first two Disaster Report games on PS2 came West thanks to former ASCII Corporation subsidiary Agetec, a company known for localising some of the more obscure, “risky” Japanese titles in the early PlayStation days.
The first Zettai Zetsumei Toshi was named Disaster Report in North America, inadvertently creating what has become the official Western name for the series, but it was rebranded to SOS: The Final Escape in Europe. Second game Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 2: Itetsuita Kiokutachi (The Desperate City II: Frozen Memories), originally released in 2006, was renamed Raw Danger! in both regions upon its 2007 localised release. Sadly, third game Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3: Kowareyuku Machi to Kanojo no Uta (The Desperate City 3: Damaged Town and Her Song), which released for Japanese PSPs in 2009, never made it over here. And Disaster Report 4… well, there’s a bit of a tale to tell there, too.
The fourth Zettai Zetsumei Toshi game was planned for release on PlayStation 3 back in 2011. However, after the devastating effects of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami — the most powerful earthquake that had ever hit Japan, and the fourth worst quake in the world — Irem cancelled the project, along with most of its other video game work at the time. The company ended up pivoting back to a focus on pachinko and slot machines — the business it was in prior to getting into arcade games in the late 1970s — and, understandably, a number of employees, whose experiences lay in video gaming rather than gambling machines, decided that they didn’t want to be a part of this.
One of these employees was Kazuma Kujo, designer of the Zettai Zetsumei Toshi series, among other things. He took a number of former Irem people with him to form Granzella, a company which draws its name from the Granzella Revolutionary Army faction in Irem’s 2009 strategy game R-Type Tactics II: Operation Bitter Chocolate. There was seemingly no real ill will there; Kujo and his new team simply wanted to continue creating video games, and Irem was going in a different direction.
The company pootled along for a few years developing content for PlayStation Home, the massively multiplayer social space for PlayStation 3. In 2014, Kujo managed to acquire the rights to the entire Zettai Zetsumei Toshi series from Irem, and proceeded not only to make the older games in the series available on digital download services — only in Japan, sadly — but also to resume development on the cancelled fourth game, which fans had apparently been eager to see completed. Or, more accurately, Kujo and company decided to completely start over from scratch, this time developing with the PlayStation 4 in mind.
Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 4 Plus: Summer Memories, as the game was now known, finally released in Japan at the tail end of 2018, and was brought West as Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories — including a new port for Nintendo Switch — by NIS America in April of 2020, at which point it received mixed reviews from the Western press — with negative comments mostly stemming from its considerable performance issues — but was praised by some (including yours truly) for its unusual and compelling take on the adventure game format.
In Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories, you take on the role of a customisable male or female player character who is coming to the fictional (but rather Tokyo-esque) conurbation of Hisui City for a job interview with trading company Glitnir Inc. During the introduction sequence, you have the opportunity to reflect on a number of aspects of your character’s background, including where they came from, what they’re hoping to do in the city and, purely theoretically of course, how they might respond to a sudden, terrible, disastrous crisis of considerable magnitude.
Moments later, a sudden, terrible, disastrous crisis of considerable magnitude strikes as a powerful earthquake hits Hisui City and the surrounding areas, causing the bus you’re riding to crash and devastation to the surrounding area. Crawling out of the wrecked vehicle through a broken window, you take to the streets, and from there your attempts to survive begin in earnest.
Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories unfolds as a quasi-open world game. I say quasi- because the game is very much divided into discrete areas rather than a contiguous open world, and there’s a relatively linear path you take through these regions as the story progresses. While you’re in any of these fairly large areas, however, you’re free to wander around and explore as you see fit, interacting with any of the myriad people who are in the same situation as you, or just looking for stylish compasses and backpacks to add to your ever-growing collection.
Each area typically has a number of distinct story triggers that are marked by a transition to a cutscene rather than the otherwise text-based dialogue. During these sequences, you’ll be introduced to a number of major characters, each of whom has their own story to follow over the course of the several days the main narrative lasts. Not all of these are essential to find in order to progress; indeed, it’s possible to completely miss some characters altogether if you don’t run into them early on.
Upon encountering these more major narrative moments, you’re usually given quite a few choices on how to react to the person you’re dealing with. These range from being the person we’d all like to think we’d be in a major disaster situation — optimistic, helpful, altruistic — to someone who is only interested in their own wellbeing, via the horniest person on the planet who thinks the middle of an earthquake is the ideal time to hit on people. Regardless of your respective genders, in most cases, too. Take that, inclusivity.
The wide range of dialogue options you’re given throughout Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories is one of the most interesting things about the game, because even if different options don’t necessarily result in a different outcome for the scene in question, their mere existence makes one reflect on the situation and ponder how both you, the player, and “you”, your character, would react.
The fact you’re provided with the option to be a deeply unpleasant person, while doubtless uncomfortable for some, is entirely in keeping with many of the game’s themes as a whole, too; one of the key points that the game’s various narrative threads continually refer to is that a dangerous crisis situation tends to bring out both the best and worst in humanity in all manner of strange ways. And what might immediately seem like the “right” thing to do isn’t necessarily the “best” thing to do.
There’s a particularly potent example in the late game where a friend of your character’s is raped, and video game logic dictates that the “right” thing to do is chase down those responsible and Make Them Pay. However, this causes the victim to believe that you don’t really care about them — particularly as the perpetrators are nowhere to be seen — and ultimately means that they play no part in the eventual conclusions to the story. Instead, the “best” thing to do at that point is actually to sit down next to your friend, say absolutely nothing, and let them react however they want, however long it might take for them to muster up the courage to do so.
Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories is full of quiet, reflective moments like this — though thankfully not all of them deal with such severe atrocities. Indeed, each distinct section of the game explores the many different ways in which people react to the devastation of their everyday lives: some try to make the best of things; some do their best to help others; some become ruthlessly selfish; some use everyone’s need for survival as an excuse to justify hate and prejudice; and some believe that the suspension of normality also means the suspension of society’s laws and moral codes.
There’s some interesting commentary on the uniquely Japanese attitude towards disasters like this, too. Japan has, unfortunately, more than its fair share of experience dealing with devastating natural disasters thanks to its situation on the seismic “Ring of Fire” that encircles the Pacific Ocean, and this has led to some people almost becoming “desensitised” to what is going on around them when the worst happens.
Throughout Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories, you’ll run into a number of people who seem more concerned about not being able to get to work than the fact a sinkhole that leads directly to Hell has opened up on the crossroads outside their local convenience store. Your first reaction to this may be to feel that it’s silly, even unthinkable — but, for better or worse, it’s a part of culture that Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories chooses to depict and allow you to interpret yourself rather than forcing a specific moral viewpoint on you.
On a more positive note, though, Japan’s awareness of and preparedness for natural disasters is often singled out for particular praise. Speaking with The Independent in 2018, shortly after Typhoon Jebi hit the nation, the World Bank’s disaster risk management specialist Marc Forni noted that “there is an awareness among the entire population about what to do in the event of an impending disaster, and there is a respect for natural hazards.
“Working through the education system, it has become part of the identity of Japanese students to know how to respond,” he added. “All the exercises and drills create a cohesiveness that is needed for a stronger response [when disasters do happen].”
We certainly see this throughout Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories. A group of high school students you encounter in the first area of the game are a fine example of this; they seem largely unconcerned by the destruction around them and are taking everything in their stride, because they’re prepared for this sort of thing. Meanwhile, their teacher — who has lost track of them at the time you encounter her — is doing a fairly good job of remaining calm despite the obvious stress she’s under, since she has first-hand experience of previous disasters and thus has a reasonable amount of confidence that she will be able to handle herself and her charges. Assuming you can find them for her, obviously.
We see it in different forms elsewhere in the game, too.
During a sequence where you’re running back and forth between a traditional shopping street district and the wealthy suburb on the other side of an underpass, there’s a heartwarming moment where both communities — usually at each other’s throats — come together to deal with a fire that has broken out, and to help feed everyone who has had their living situation upturned by the earthquake and its aftershocks.
A less positive example comes when you arrive in at a shelter in a fairly xenophobic small town on the outskirts of the main conurbation. At the time, you’re seeking medical assistance for an old woman you happened to run across on your journey, but are rather rudely rebuffed on your arrival. In practical terms, this makes sense, since the shelter’s resources are already stretched to their absolute limit, but it’s hard not to come away from that initial interaction wishing that people weren’t such dicks about it.
Throughout the game, there are a number of areas you visit several times, and it’s always interesting to see how things have progressed — or not — on your subsequent visits. You come across a well-regarded Italian restaurant early in the game, for example, which has not only been damaged by the earthquake itself, it has also been flooded due to liquefaction from the hotel next door catching fire. When you first meet the staff, they are at their lowest ebb; by the end of the game, which is less than a week later, they’re reopening for business, providing a much-needed place of relative normality for people to “escape” to for an hour or two before they get back to sleeping in a box in the local park.
Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories is full of absolutely fascinating, very human moments like this throughout its complete runtime. Not all of them are comfortable or pleasant to witness, because not every human being is a good person — particularly during times when “normality” goes out of the window. But this is a game that constantly makes you think and reflect on the things you’re witnessing — and sometimes participating in. And at times, you have to ask yourself some very difficult questions about whether or not it’s possible or even desirable to be the “hero” in a particular situation. You are just an average human being in every respect, so it’s not necessarily in your power or interests to try and make a significant change to what is going on somewhere. But if you do happen to be provided with that opportunity… what should you do?
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the earthquake itself all that much. That’s because in many ways it’s the least important part of Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories. Outside of being the catalyst for the whole narrative, it actually only rears its head in practical, mechanical terms very occasionally; in these situations you generally have to make a decision between bracing yourself and hoping you don’t fall flat on your face (or, depending on your current circumstances, end up plummeting to a watery demise or crushed beneath a building) or running like hell in an attempt to find the closest approximation to a “safe” location in your immediate area.
This side of things becomes less and less important as the game progresses — the narrative unfolds over the course of several days, after all, and aftershocks do eventually calm down — and this allows you to focus on the more important and interesting things going on around you. How are you handling the situation? How are the people important to you — if there are any, of course — taking things? Can you trust the people around you? And is it any of your business if you happen to accidentally witness things you find questionable, horrific, reprehensible or otherwise uncomfortable?
Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories is an utterly fascinating game that challenges its players in a variety of unexpected and intriguing ways. If you’re after something that is about as far away from “the norm” in gaming as it’s possible to get without veering into visual novel or abstract art game territory… you owe it to yourself to give this wonderful game a try.
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