Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately. It’s by far the least interesting thing about Granzella’s Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories, the revival of a PlayStation 3 title originally set to come out in 2011, but your reaction to it will likely be the biggest factor in terms of whether or not you’re on board with what this fascinating game has to offer. Ready?
Disaster Report 4 is, by far, the worst-performing Nintendo Switch game you will ever see. Running on Unreal Engine 4, it certainly looks decent enough in static screenshots, but the game never even makes it to 30 frames per second, let alone anything higher. In some areas – usually busy cutscenes rather than gameplay – the frames-per-second figure drops so low you can actually count it by eye. Thankfully, there are no points in the game where the graphics performance is actively detrimental to your ability to do what is expected of you, and to the game’s credit, it actually runs reasonably well – perhaps even better, due to the lower resolution – in handheld mode.
If all that’s a dealbreaker, as it can be for some people, you’ll probably want to steer clear of Disaster Report 4. If you’re willing to deal with technical jank and have an open mind, however, there’s a seriously compelling and incredibly memorable experience to be had here.
In Disaster Report 4, you take on the role of a customisable male or female protagonist as they arrive in the fictional (but distinctly Tokyo-inspired) Hisui City, ready for a job interview. Before you’re able to arrive at your destination, however, a massive earthquake strikes, causing the bus you’re riding to crash and the adventure proper to begin.
Prior to the earthquake, you’re presented with a wide range of options that encourage you to think about what your priorities might be on visiting a big city, as well as how you might react if something terrible happened. And this continues as something of a pattern throughout the game: you typically have a broad range of possible reactions to the various situations in which you find yourself rather than simple binary “good or evil” moral choices. Though many of the decisions you are able to make might result in the same outcome or even have no impact on what is unfolding whatsoever, the fact that you’re presented with regular opportunities to really reflect on what’s happening gives the game a real feeling of role-playing and ownership over your character.
Once you escape the wreckage of the bus, you’re able to freely walk around, talk to any of the dozens of people in the area and try to figure out what you should do next. Should you attempt to help people, since you got away from the initial disaster without injuries? Or should you prioritise your own safety and look into escaping the city as soon as possible? It can be a little overwhelming to know where to begin, since the game doesn’t offer convenient floating waypoints and mission objectives for you to follow. Instead, you’re trusted to investigate and explore for yourself – though triggering a cutscene is generally a signal that you’re on the right track to uncovering something useful or important. And as you progress, you’ll visit a wide range of very different areas – from the busy, built-up city centre to the wealthy suburbs, and beyond to the more rural, very insular and incredibly xenophobic neighbouring communities.
The actual earthquake is one of the least important things about Disaster Report 4 – while it’s the catalyst for everything that follows, from that point on, it only occasionally rears its head as a gameplay mechanic, forcing you to determine the best course of action when an aftershock starts. Stand still and brace yourself, or rush out from beneath the large heavy thing you’re inevitably passing beneath when the shaking starts? Decide quickly, because despite the fact you have a life bar, in most of the game’s actively dangerous situations you’re either alive or dead, no in-betweens. And there’s no one catch-all answer; what works when you’re standing out on the open road most certainly won’t serve you well while you’re gingerly shimmying across windowsills in an attempt to reach a neighbour’s patio.
Instead, the focus of Disaster Report 4 is on people – specifically, how people respond to a situation that throws normality out of the window and forces them to live their lives in a way they might not be familiar or comfortable with. This is explored in a number of ways. The distinctly Japanese cultural attitude of just getting on with things even when the unthinkable occurs is shown through the random passers-by you interact with, many of whom seem more frustrated that they can’t get to work than terrified by the huge sinkhole that opened on the nearby crossroads.
The human desire to help those in need is shown particularly potently during a sequence where two neighbouring communities in the midst of a vicious feud come together to put out some fires before they become worse. And, throughout the narrative as a whole, we’re given plenty of reminders that a disaster situation, regrettably, tends to bring out the worst in some people as much as it encourages the best in others – whether that be through taking advantage of vulnerable people, using the situation to justify prejudice, or simply assuming that the normal rules and laws of society don’t apply when everything is in turmoil.
As the player character, you’re not exempt from all this, either. You can approach most situations as someone keen to help, someone reluctant to assist because they just want to escape, someone keen to make a fast yen off the back of people suffering or someone who is just a genuinely horrible person. Your choices result in “Moral” and “Immoral” points; these have no gameplay function whatsoever but serve as a simple numerical indication of how you’ve been living your virtual life amid the chaos. Decisions you make have long-lasting consequences, though; in some cases, characters live or die based on your specific actions, while in other cases the various sub-plots that are weaved around the main story of your escape come to various conclusions – or not, in some cases.
The narrative comes to one of several very different finales according to the path you take, and is followed by an optional and fairly lengthy playable epilogue that sees you revisiting the city several times in the six months following the disaster. This serves a couple of purposes: firstly, to tie up any loose narrative ends that had been left hanging by the main game, and secondly, to give you an indication of some of the sidequests, stories and characters you might not have run into on your first playthrough – which will take you about 15-20 hours, by the way. You can then start a second run, using what you learned from first time around to perhaps make some different choices along the way and see what else you can see.
From a technical perspective, the Switch port of Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories is an absolute mess. Narratively and artistically, however, it’s one of the most fascinating games in recent memory. Its emotionally engaging exploration of a disastrous incident’s human aftermath is about as far as it’s possible to get from the Hollywood blockbuster treatment – and it’s all the better for it. If you can fight past the technical shortcomings – which, it's worth stating, are pretty considerable – then you'll find an experience that's totally unique on Switch, and that's no mean feat when you consider the depth of the console's library.