At a crossroads

  • Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
  • Publisher: NIS America
  • Original Release Date: January 28th, 2021 (Japan), June 29th, 2021 (most regions), July 6th, 2021 (Australia and New Zealand)
  • Available On: Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4 (Japan only), Playstation 5 (June 2022), Windows (June 2022)
  • Genre: Strategy RPG

This post has spoilers for the entire story of Disgaea 6 – you have been warned!

On August 27th, 2003, my life was changed forever. On that day, I walked out of the store with a game called Disgaea: Hour of Darkness for the PlayStation 2. All I knew about it was that it was some kind of RPG and that it had cool box art, but as a 10 year old who gobbled down RPGs with reckless abandon, that was all I needed to know. It didn’t take long for me to realize that giving this game a chance was one of the best decisions I had ever made – from this point on, Disgaea was an institution, a pillar on which I could lean whenever I needed its lovable characters and ocean’s worth of mechanics and customization in my life.

I consumed Disgaea, I lived and breathed Disgaea, and I devoured every last bit of it as if it was the finest meal I had ever eaten. The immense variety of customizable characters, the ridiculous special moves that only increased in power and flashiness, the nuance that came with delving into the randomized Item World and solving Geo Symbol puzzles, the immediately engaging story with some of my favorite characters in gaming, it was all catnip to my tastes then and now. I was in so deep I practically begged my RPG-loving friends to give it a shot. They did, and the institution only grew. We’d all go to school, come home, and pick up where we left off, going ever deeper into its comical yet saccharine narrative. Once we had reached the end, we learned just how little we truly knew.

Post-games weren’t a new thing at this point, but we had never seen anything like this. Legendary items that could only be found on the toughest of foes! Unlockable characters from other games that we had never heard of! A level 4000 boss!? You’ve gotta be kidding me! Naturally, reading about this stuff on the internet wasn’t enough for curious kids like us, and thus the post-game grind began. It got to the point that one friend and I had two TVs in my room with Disgaea going at all times, with some sessions lasting well beyond what would be considered healthy. After hundreds of hours, the deed was done and Tyrant Baal had fallen to my team. By the end, I knew that this game was an all-timer. To this day, it’s easily one of my favorite games of all time and would have no trouble making a top 10 or perhaps top 20 list were I to make one. Considering that I’ve seen nearly 1,700 games to their conclusion, that’s an incredibly impressive place to be.

From there, my friends and I were on the Nippon Ichi Software train for the foreseeable future. While the likes of Disgaea 2, Phantom Brave, La Pucelle, and Makai Kingdom never quite hit the same highs that the original Disgaea did (Makai Kingdom came pretty close though!), nor did we ever get into their post-games as intensely, we still happily scarfed them down and had a great time. We made sure to replay the original Disgaea every time it was re-released too, using the opportunity to try out different characters or do bizarre gimmick runs. My friends missed out on Soul Nomad and the World Eaters for some reason, perhaps due to it being a late PS2 release, but I’m glad I didn’t because that game is easily one of the best RPGs on the PlayStation 2 (and the Nintendo Switch as of 2021, go check it out). It really seemed like NIS was unstoppable, capable of putting out games that could compete with the likes of Squaresoft/Square Enix as the best RPGs on the market.

Like all good things, their reign had to come to an end eventually. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were notoriously unkind to Japanese developers, RPG developers in particular, and the lackluster PS3 launch and high price point meant that none of my friends bothered with one until several years after its launch. I had gotten one in 2008 to play Metal Gear Solid 4, so I naturally gave Disgaea 3 a shot when it came out a couple of months later. It was a fine game overall, but something didn’t quite feel right – the characters were a bit too goofy even for NIS standards, the story and setting failed to engage me, and the gameplay was full of elements that felt extraneous. Imagine if someone made an Opposite Day joke and then kept repeating that joke for 30+ hours as the basis for an entire game’s worldbuilding and multiple character arcs – that’s the story of Disgaea 3 in a nutshell and it’s exactly as annoying as it sounds. Geo Blocks felt unnecessary, I could never really figure out what to do with the Magichange system, and the Class World just felt like an excuse to tack on some extra grinding. This was the point where it feels like Disgaea started to lean harder into its “look at these huge numbers!” marketing and as a result lost sight of that precious balance that made me fall in love with it in the first place.

Disgaea was so perfect to me because it was the best possible marriage of story and gameplay. Stories aren’t usually the reason I play games, but I adored the cast of the original in a way that I seldom do with other games and I sat on the edge of my seat for every cutscene with bated breath to see where things would go next. Most games weren’t as weird or funny as Disgaea was and its tone was so refreshing to me when combined with its pitch perfect pacing that gave every character a chance to shine. I clearly wasn’t alone in thinking this either; it wouldn’t have gained the cult following and eventual Greatest Hits labeling that it did on numbers alone. I did spend over a hundred hours on the post-game of the original, but that wasn’t because I wanted to see numbers go up. The beauty of Disgaea‘s gameplay is that you can try whatever you want.

There are dozens of characters, some of which have unique moves, and each weapon type offers a suite of skills suited to certain character builds. Since it’s a strategy RPG that lets you deploy ten characters, you have a lot of room to plan out strategies and builds that involve utilizing all of your characters or supporting a smaller batch of powerful ones. You can stick to what the game recommends or you can try something weird, like giving protagonist Laharl something that isn’t a sword (the box art makes it very obvious he’s supposed to be using swords!). If you wanna go hog wild like I did, you can even go through the entire game using nothing but weak classes like rogues. It’s not efficient or smart, but boy is it fun, and that laissez-faire attitude to team building in general engrossed me like little else. To boil down the appeal of Disgaea exclusively to its larger than usual numbers is a disservice to the craft that went into it, and I had begun to resent things for turning out the way that they did. It reminds me a lot of what happened with Diablo – by the time Diablo III had released, Diablo became known as “that game where you click on stuff to kill it and get loot so you can kill more stuff”, a reductionist approach that neglects the exceptional atmosphere and carefully planned lore of the first two games. Games are more than just a single element and in order to better understand them, it’s essential that you look at them holistically.

Needless to say, I started skipping out on Disgaea games, with the exception of the two Prinny games for whatever reason. I guess the approach was refreshing enough to me and I loved the PSP enough to buy pretty much anything for it. The first Prinny was legitimately a lot of fun and a great change of pace compared to the company’s usual output, even if it was terrifyingly difficult, but the second Prinny game was a stark disappointment for a variety of reasons (even the name is downright unappealing!), and I once again fell off the ever-marching NIS train.

Things changed once the Nintendo Switch came out. NIS apparently wasn’t doing so hot prior to it, with stories coming out about how they had lost money during the previous generation. Disgaea 5 had also come out in 2015, but I hadn’t heard anything about it and wasn’t compelled to buy it even though I already had a PS4 for Metal Gear Solid V. However, the Switch hype levels were high, high enough that people were buying whatever was on it, and a Switch port of Disgaea 5 was doing serious numbers for something in a genre that had dramatically fallen out of favor with the populace since the days of the PS2. So much so, in fact, that my friends had gotten back on the train. They both praised Disgaea 5 as a proper return to form, with gameplay and characters that kept them engaged all the way to the end. I was pleasantly surprised, but not quite ready to commit lest I suffer disappointment, so I missed out on the train once again.

Some time later, I had a change of heart, but decided to play Disgaea 4 instead of 5 on my Vita, since I already had a copy laying around “just in case” (I’m weird, I know). Immediately, I knew my 2011 self was an idiot for passing on this game when it originally came out. I was enchanted by how fun the cast was (Valvatorez in particular is just delightful), the gameplay flowed in such a way that I could approach it like I would the original Disgaea, and the story once again struck a proper balance between comedy and serious moments. Finally, after all these years, I was back on the train. 

I no longer binge franchises the way I used to (can you believe I once completed every US-released Suikoden game in a month? Neither can I!), so despite loving Disgaea 4, it still took me a long time to get to Disgaea 5. In fact, it wasn’t until a bit after Disgaea 6 came out that I decided to finally play 5. The same dear friend who binged the original with me had just played 6 to completion and had a fascinating arc with it, going from disappointment and confusion to enjoying it greatly by the end. He wanted my opinion on it, but I wanted to play 5 first, so I did exactly that and had a blast (The time for D2 and Infinite will come… eventually). 5’s story isn’t as strong as 4’s, but the package as a whole is impressively robust, offering an absurd number of things to do, and it felt like a proper send-off to Disgaea as we knew it. Based on what I could tell, for better or worse, Disgaea 6 was a new era for the franchise.

There wasn’t much discussion about Disgaea 6 going around during the time of its release. All of the conversations that you could find were just people complaining about the framerate, the new 3D graphics, and the absence of the PS4 version outside of Japan. While these complaints aren’t ~wrong~, they are a prime example of something I strongly dislike about internet discourse in general – if a game makes some kind of mistake or is deficient in a way that’s deemed a bridge too far by enough people, the conversation surrounding that game will forever be about those things, even if they’re a small part of the bigger picture, get resolved later on, or are easily avoided/ignored by the majority of players. Take Mass Effect – despite offering 90+ hours of quality sci-fi action and storytelling across three games, every conversation about the series is bound to end up at the ending and how Mass Effect 3 was a bad game because of it, despite all of the good things about Mass Effect 3 prior to that ending. These initial impressions alongside the general decline of the reputation of JRPGs in North America that aren’t big budget affairs meant that Disgaea 6 didn’t stay in the public consciousness here for long. Heck, the Wikipedia page’s plot summary of the game is still incomplete more than a year after its Japanese release!

See what I mean?

Despite NIS stating it was one of the series’ best selling titles, it doesn’t seem to have resonated much at all with fans and that’s a shame. That’s also part of the reason I’m covering this game here – Disgaea has a special place in my heart and I want to give this game its fair due and really understand what it does well and what it does poorly, entirely divorced from surface level complaints that ignore the emotional highs and lows of the experience itself. In general, you’ll be seeing newer JRPGs like this show up on the blog every once in a while since I want to make it a mission of mine to give them a bit of proper “justice”. So many interesting JRPGs coming out nowadays get completely dismissed due to nebulous complaints like “too much anime” or “tropes bad!” and it drives me nuts! The genre is so diverse and interesting and yet even on dedicated places like the JRPG Reddit, you see plenty of complaints about how so many of them are actually and how Chrono Trigger or *insert other widely beloved classic here* is still the only good one. Someone’s gotta do a bit of proper research and represent these games in a more useful, celebratory way, so it might as well be me! Ok, rant’s over now, I promise – let’s dive into this fascinating beast of a game and learn what it’s all about, shall we?

Right away, you can tell things are different. The animated intro that has become a series tradition is missing, and the game starts in medias res, a storytelling angle that’s certainly not new to video games, but is new for Disgaea. Protagonist Zed has crashed his way into the party that is the Darkest Assembly, and he’s determined to prove to the surprisingly goofy Overlord Ivar that he has defeated someone known as the God of Destruction. According to Zed, he was able to do this through Super Reincarnation, a spell cast on him by his buddy Cerberus (a talking pug with only one head and the brain of a sage, naturally) that allows Zed to reincarnate every time he dies, becoming a little stronger in the process. By reincarnating an excruciating amount of times, he was able to go from a weakling to a godslayer through sheer determination. As a zombie, the type of demon that’s on the bottom rung of the Netherworld ladder, his assertions are initially rejected purely on the basis of what he is, but each chapter has Zed and his comrades adding onto the story and slowly enrapturing and convincing Ivar with their experiences.

I found this direction to be immediately refreshing, both in its structure and the way it tackles a perspective not often seen in the franchise. Typically, Disgaea protagonists and their allies are already established as powerful overlords or notable figures with exceptional abilities while weaker characters are delegated to jokes or early chapter cannon fodder. By making Zed a “normal” demon who becomes more powerful and accepting of others over time because of the tragic situation he finds himself in, he becomes more sympathetic to the audience. As someone who loves a good underdog story, I’m a sucker for some good old fashioned determination in the face of impossible odds, so I was immediately interested in seeing more of Zed’s character arc and what exactly would be the motivation behind his determination and the cost for sticking so firmly to it.

Super Reincarnation isn’t just a plot device, it’s woven into the gameplay as well. The concept of reincarnating characters has been around since the first game as a system that lets you reset your character’s level in exchange for better stats over time, but Super Reincarnation makes the system even more powerful than before while encouraging its use outside of post-game optimization. By accumulating karma from completing D-Merits (think Xbox-style achievements tied to each character), characters who Super Reincarnate can elect to gain permanent perks that include things like increased movement range and a boost to all damage done. These buffs become significant fast, and you’ll notice a tremendous difference in your character’s strength after just a few reincarnations, so I found myself doing it multiple times throughout the main story just to see how powerful it could make me. Some Evilities (passive skills) become stronger with additional Super Reincarnations too, allowing Zed in particular to (fittingly) get even more out of it than anyone else. Getting things like 50% damage increases and enough throwing range to cover any map design thrilled me in a way that none of the progression systems in the previous games did, all the while selling me on its use as a means to an end in the plot  – it’s no joke!

Disgaea 6 intentionally settles into a pattern of repetition – you fight through five battles in a world, encounter the God of Destruction, die, and then get Super Reincarnated into a different world. This approach has its problems, seeing as how every chapter’s end boss encounter is exactly the same (can’t deny it’s a pretty clever way to get around the low budget, though), but it’s all in the interest of the bigger picture, and getting jettisoned between different worlds results in you amassing an interesting band of weirdos. The characters you’ll follow here aren’t immediately friendly to each other and their quirks make it clear they’re flawed individuals. Their ideals and personalities are elaborated upon and confronted in different ways through various character interactions, showing the player where their strengths and weaknesses lie. If you’ll allow me to get weird(er) for a second, it’s like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure – a desperate protagonist ends up in a situation that brings him to disparate places where he recruits multiple individuals with vastly different backgrounds and perspectives that initially conflict with each other, but they ultimately learn to get along and aid the protagonist in achieving their original goal. And like that movie, Disgaea 6 gets by on its entertaining characters, comedic dialogue, and genuinely heartfelt moments rather than through complex storytelling or dense worldbuilding.

People who are familiar with Disgaea 5 will recognize some structural similarities, namely how each character gets an introductory chapter and then a chapter where their story reaches its conclusion, resulting in a power-up and a new outlook on life. These moments weren’t always placed well in Disgaea 5, since several early and middle chapters were spent repeating things like fending off smaller groups of the Lost and watching the team fail to defeat Bloodis for the umpteenth time instead of giving the main cast more to work with when interacting with each other beyond their starting traits. Putting all of Seraphina’s character development in the third to last chapter was a Choice, alright… Thankfully, Disgaea 6 learns from this and accelerates the process by implementing a two act structure not previously seen in the series. The first act is made up of the first ten chapters, which are entirely dedicated to establishing the cast and going through their arcs. The second act has the team chasing down the mastermind behind everything, amending a tragedy and proving to the world that destiny is nothing more than a wall to break down in the process. Act two is half the length of act one and foregoes its unusual structure for something more conventional but emotionally powerful, focusing heavily on the differences between the lives led by Zed and the mastermind.

In between battles, you can oftentimes chat with your teammates, allowing you to get to know them better or see what they think about recent events.

Your first recruit is Misedor, a medieval king who’s similar to King Lorik from the original Dragon Quest. He offers Zed a stick and 500 gold to defeat the God of Destruction, and he makes it clear that his rhetorical cup runneth over with wealth if that’s not enough. Zed, while not normally the type to care about money, realizes that Misedor’s money could allow him to buy whatever weapons and armor he needs to win, so Zed brings him along as his personal wallet. He’s a classic example of the arrogance that comes with wealth, throwing money at people to get what he wants and also at problems to make them go away instead of finding a lasting solution. This comes to a head when the two encounter Yarmada, a previous hero of the realm that was defeated by the God of Destruction 100 times. Shaken by his losses, Yarmada now lives a life of leisure, feeding off of Misedor’s fortune without a care in the world because of his unique ability to be resurrected endlessly via a connection to Misedor’s royal bloodline, a reference to how you’d get resurrected in front of the king in Tantegel Castle whenever you fell in battle in the first Dragon Quest. It is here where you learn that Misedor wishes to become a hero like Yarmada used to be, since he’s well aware of how hollow his current existence really is. Initially, he planned to save the day by proxy, letting Zed do the hard part, but Zed’s determination compared to Yarmada’s inaction inspired him to take action and seize his dream.

The twist here is that Misedor learns his lesson in a comically half-assed way. He doesn’t stop caring about his finances at all nor does he attempt to reshape his personality to be closer to how Yarmada used to be, he just resolves to find a way to leverage his money specifically for his goal of becoming a hero and deems himself the “Hero King” as if he already accomplished something. This does lead to him helping the team out by using his money in a handful of situations later on, but he still doesn’t ever try to project the qualities of a hero or propose solutions that don’t involve money, so it doesn’t really feel like he changed much as a person. Rich people don’t learn lessons or change their ways when confronted with their shortcomings though, so I got a good kick of how clever and painfully fitting this all was. Art imitates life, you could say.

Your next Super Reincarnation brings you to the musical world in which you encounter Melodia, who’s basically a conniving Disney princess that loves to turn her sentences into songs. She’s seeking her prince charming, with a “happy ending” being her final goal. All of her previous candidates have fallen to the God of Destruction, which is why she’s convinced that Zed has to be her one true prince. This belief isn’t something she’s entirely happy about though, since she makes her disgust towards his species immediately clear and plots to use him to defeat the God of Destruction for her. As the story goes on, she struggles as she becomes more captivated by Zed’s actions, his courage and consideration for his teammates earning her genuine adoration.

When the team returns to her world in Chapter 7, she’s confronted by her twin sister Naive, who seeks a tragic but equal ending for all through the God of Destruction. This motivation stems from a combination of Naive living in the shadow of her sister and the contempt of the princes who Melodia threw aside in pursuit of her happy ending. Having her selfish behavior confronted causes her to despair, but she’s brought back to reality by reassurances from her allies, who encourage her to… not care about what others think? Convincing Melodia that her dream is still valid allows her to overcome Naive and go back to lusting after Zed even more aggressively than before, making her supposed growth come off as stagnation instead. The lesson was clearly supposed to be something along the lines of “do what makes you happy, keep following your dream” and she does start being more honest and caring towards her allies, but without doing anything to atone for her past mistakes, it feels like she got away with murder (or manslaughter, I guess…). I sound like I’m criticizing this, but I actually find it appropriate within the context of Disgaea – it makes sense that the Netherworld and the ruthless demons that inhabit it would encourage individualism over all else, not to mention the crew needs Melodia around to fight and would only be harmed by ostracizing her, meaning that rolling with it is the more pragmatic choice. I appreciate having flawed characters that don’t always make choices you agree with, so to have questions about some characters even after their storylines conclude makes them feel alive and more interesting than just a rote puzzle to solve or a forgone conclusion that I’m supposed to expect based on the usual conventions of storytelling in the medium.

The third Super Reincarnation puts you inside a TV world where ratings are the most important thing. The particular show going on revolves around the Prism Rangers (a reoccurring group throughout the series that’s based on the Power Rangers), led by a girl named Piyori who’s all alone now that the God of Destruction wiped out her allies. As any superhero would, Piyori seeks the meaning of justice. She’s impressionable to a fault though, so Zed’s offhand comment about winning being justice immediately sends her down a dark path. With your help, Piyori raids the compound of a villainous organization, beats the crap out of them, steals their secret weapon of mass destruction, and uses it to hit the God of Destruction where the sun don’t shine. This predictably fails and Piyori has nothing to show for it, having learned nothing while the ratings of her show plummet further.

It’s revealed that she became a Prism Ranger in order to carry on the legacy of her fallen brother, who sacrificed himself to save her. Through a combination of being reminded of her brother’s past accomplishments and discussion amongst the group, Piyori realizes that justice is a combination of strength and compassion. Piyori’s arc is more straightforward and much less ambiguous than the previous two, but it nonetheless presents an interesting theme in a realistic way. A lesser story would simply stop at the compassion part, portraying friendship and love as something that can conquer all without sweating the details. But Disgaea 6 understands that life doesn’t quite work like that; you need empathy and kindness to understand the problems that need to be solved and have the desire to solve them, but you also need enough strength to cause legitimate change, since oppressors will seldom bend to words alone.

Words to live by

This time around, Super Reincarnation brings you to a magic academy run by a 10,000 year old woman named Majolene. She’s initially hostile, but once she learns of the incoming threat of the God of Destruction, she decides to work with you and brings out a magical wand that once belonged to a legendary witch. Utilizing this wand has a cost though, and Majolene is cursed with the appearance of a magical girl that’d fit right in with the genre as we know it. At first, she’s naturally distraught by the change and is deeply embarrassed by the outfit she’s forced to wear, but by the end of the chapter, she learns to put that aside in order to try and protect her students (her built-in Evility even changes accordingly, a classic case of storytelling through gameplay!). Her story arc is the shortest and least substantial of the cast, to the point that she feels like a late, debatably unnecessary addition – it’s strange how rarely she chimes in during cutscenes and she doesn’t have any foils to confront the way the previous three characters do, which gives her little to do during act two.

When you revisit the academy, it’s revealed that Lemisera, a previous student of Majolene, was murdered by a dragon that she summoned in order to impress her teacher. The team tries to fix this by trying to kill the dragon before it kills Lemisera, but they fail and learn a harsh lesson: Super Reincarnation doesn’t allow you to change the past, only relive it. Zed doesn’t let this bring him down and the whole situation only reaffirms his desire to change his fate through Super Reincarnation, which in turn motivates Majolene to find a way to live with her failure while also searching for a solution. This storyline ultimately does more for the central theme than it does for Majolene, serving as the impetus for the crew to confront the concept of destiny when it comes up again towards the end and reinforce the story’s emotional core.

With everyone’s arc completed, the time comes to finally defeat the God of Destruction in Zed’s homeworld. The team succeeds in doing so, but things aren’t so simple – it turns out that the God of Destruction was Zed’s sister Bieko all along! The game tries to trick you into thinking that Bieko has been dead since the game’s beginning, but it turns out she was just the catalyst for the God of Destruction, the reason for this being explained later. After the fight, the game once again tries to trick you by making you think Zed killed her, but it turns out he had a plan all along and everything works out just fine. Rather than dwell on this attempt at a plot twist that gets resolved shortly after, I want to focus on the decision to keep Bieko alive as a character that joins you during Act 2. Some may see this as an anticlimax, a denial of a dramatic, sad ending, but her presence ties everyone together towards a common goal and it works quite well. She’s essentially the polar opposite of Zed – extremely sweet and gentle (also a brain surgeon in training despite looking like she’s 5, apparently) – and that level of purity compels everyone to want the best for her. She quickly earns everyone’s trust and adoration and she serves as motivation for them all to unite and keep pushing on against their upcoming foe. Having her around and letting the cast get to know her helps everyone sympathize further with Zed too and better understand why he’s been going through such a struggle.

Ahead of the curve, Overlord Ivar has become obsessed with the idea of Bieko since he first heard her tragic tale in Act 1, and so he makes it clear he’d do anything for her to a degree that constantly annoys Zed. This does motivate him to join Zed at the start of Act 2, so it’s to his benefit, but that doesn’t stop Zed from thinking he’s a real weirdo. No wonder he fits in with the crew so well! Throughout Act 2, you learn that Ivar’s obsession isn’t just him being weird; it turns out that she reminds him of a sister he once had who also unfortunately passed away, so he takes it upon himself to prevent anything from happening to Bieko as a way of atoning for his failures in the past. Ivar is probably the most pleasant surprise of the cast – initially, he seems like nothing more than a joke for the other characters to react incredulously to, but he’s a genuine guy who can hold his own in battle and he truly wants to do his best and help save the day. His authenticity shines through to a point where he eventually earns Zed’s mutual respect, which is pretty impressive considering all the trouble he put Zed through prior. If you’re familiar with Axel from Disgaea 2, he’s quite similar in nature, so it’s no coincidence they’re two of the best characters in the series!

There’s a reason I’ve been highlighting each character’s story arc here. If you look at it all in a sequence, you can see one very vital through line – every character in Disgaea 6 makes some kind of mistake, suffers some kind of loss, or has a character flaw that they have to live with the repercussions of, but they eventually overcome it and learn to better themselves and find new purpose. Knowing this is vital going into act two, which deals with two vastly different interpretations of how to cope with failure and loss. Nobody is perfect and everybody needs to learn lessons in order to become their best selves, and moreso than the action itself, this is where the emotional peak of the experience lies. At this point, the gameplay itself has arguably gotten rote (something I’ll go into more later), but the “true” story is really just getting started. It’s an exciting yet daring way of handling pacing, knowing that things are about to hit the fan and that everything you’ve done has just been buildup for something bigger. This kind of thing doesn’t always work for me (boy was I not able to get into Trails in the Sky‘s way of doing this kind of thing, for example), but here the characters have been enjoyable enough that I want to see their story through.

In Act 2, the player learns that everything has been orchestrated by the super sage Misual, who has been creating Gods of Destruction in order to bring an end to the world that has forsaken him. Misual was once stuck in a Super Reincarnation loop himself, with his goal being to save his lover, the great witch Releiza, from dying. He tried and tried in much the same way that we’ve been seeing Zed try, but where Zed was able to eventually break the loop with his resolve, Misual gave up and was driven to despair by his failure. Posing as Cerberus in order to rope Zed into all of this by using his younger sister Bieko as the catalyst for the creation of a God of Destruction was all part of the plan too – it turns out that Zed has the DNA of a Majin inside of him, a demon discovered in ancient ruins that has enough power to destroy everything. Thus, the plan was to make Zed Super Reincarnate over and over again until the burden of it all drove his body and mind to the breaking point, turning him into the strongest God of Destruction of them all.

It’s a pretty sadistic plan befitting of a manipulator who believes he has nothing left to lose, trying to force someone to experience the same sensation of crushing failure until it drives them mad, but the big twists introduced in this chapter felt unintentionally harmful to the overall story that I had grown to enjoy. What made the first act compelling to me was seeing Zed’s gradual rise to power and his emotional development as a result of determination and learning to embrace his allies. By introducing an arbitrary source of power like the Majin DNA, you strip away the previous emotional high of seeing Zed (and the player) succeed at finally defeating the God of Destruction and cast doubt on the whole thing. Is determination really that powerful? Were Zed’s teammates really that helpful? Or was it all a forgone conclusion since Zed had a unique, secret power source inside of him the entire time? The game doesn’t really dwell on the topic too much, asserting that his comrades and his love for his sister were in fact the sources of his power, but sowing the seed at all cast a lingering shadow on the finale that I wasn’t too pleased about.

Where the narrative of act two does succeed is in establishing Misual as a source of tragedy worth learning from, not just a villain for the sake of having one at the end. Throughout the story, in both the present and in flashbacks, Cerberus was depicted as a mentor figure of sorts for Zed as well as a vital member of the family, providing a voice of reason to counteract Zed’s rashness while comforting Bieko in a world that was endlessly cruel to them both. It was obvious that he knew more than he was letting on and he knew that Zed would eventually have the power to save Bieko and later defy the rules of Super Reincarnation. At any point, he could have reached out to Zed and asked for his help in righting the wrongs of the past, but through a combination of pride, despair, and delusion, he resigned himself to his destructive machinations. The way this is brought up before the final fight is impeccably elegant; Zed confronts Misual, states that he could have asked for help at any time, Misual agrees, and the fight begins without any further rebuttals or words. Normally, you’d expect a heartfelt speech from our hero or a long winded explanation from the villain at such a pivotal moment, but in this case, the two understood each other so well that they knew any such pretenses would be pointless and hollow, a kind of chemistry rarely depicted so concisely in a genre known for its wordiness.

Ultimately, Disgaea 6 is both a lesson on confronting hardship and a cautionary tale about knowing when to confide in family and friends. Through Zed and Misual, we see the toll that struggling alone can take on a person and the difference that having others around to help can make. It’s important not to give up on your goals, but by understanding your limits, you can accomplish more by letting those who care help you in your times of need. Be open with yourself and others; Nobody deserves to bear impossible burdens entirely on their shoulders, as such pressure can destroy even the strongest of people over time. While Misual gets a chance at redemption and an opportunity to return to his life as Cerberus thanks to Zed’s learned generosity, circumstances are rarely so forgiving in real life. Disgaea 6 teaches us not to value the empty, monotonous grind, but rather the people in our lives that elevate us with their presence, a lesson that has more and more value in today’s increasingly isolated society.

Using Disgaea 5 as a base, Disgaea 6 offers a significantly streamlined experience via several tweaks to every aspect of the Disgaea formula. “Streamlined” isn’t necessarily a compliment here though, because not all of the changes feel properly implemented or thought out. Some services have been automated, which while convenient, eliminates their purpose or appeal in the process. Previously, you’d have to go to the hospital to heal your characters after every battle, but now you’re healed automatically upon returning to base. This leaves the hospital as nothing more than a prize dispenser for hitting milestones based on how much you’ve healed over time. Why not just make quests to turn in for hitting these milestones instead of having a facility dedicated to it? The Item World used to be one of the defining elements of Disgaea‘s post-game, but the Research system (previously featured in Disgaea 5, albeit in quite a different way) allows you to passively delve into Item Worlds using reserve characters without having to do anything yourself. Equipment in general also feels less valuable due to the accelerated power curve. Stats start in the tens of thousands and increase exponentially before long, so when the new sword you can buy only increases your attack by 4,000 points, does it really even matter that much? Some may appreciate shedding some of Disgaea 5‘s sheer breadth of systems, but I was bummed to see things like the prisoner and curry cooking systems gone, since they gave you ways to quickly expand your roster and find uses for your outdated items.

All of these changes make Disgaea 6‘s hub feel disappointingly small. It still has some of the things that make Disgaea hubs special, like the NPCs that get new dialogue every chapter and a music track that flawlessly captures the melancholy of Zed’s mission, but there are more times where I found myself ignoring its facilities than in past games. Bizarrely, there’s a bunch of empty space surrounding the main facilities that you can walk around in, but it’s never used for anything and it doesn’t expand at any point either. There’s still the usual Dark Assembly stuff where you can pass laws to gain new gameplay features or tweak things to work in your favor, but these features are far from necessary unless you go deep into the post-game. The newly added juice bar is meant to be a way to quickly give your characters experience, but this too is entirely unnecessary. In Disgaea 6, leveling up is simple and most of the main story is pretty easy, so needing to pay exorbitant prices to do something I could do for free just seemed pointless. Again, this is very much a feature meant for post-game, but ideally, NIS should be adding features that enrich the experience of every player, not just the ones deeply interested in the post-game.

The amount of characters has been cut down significantly compared to Disgaea 5 as well. Some of these cuts are reasonable in the face of a tight budget, such as removing the opposite gender versions for some of the old classes, but the vast majority of the monsters have been axed with no replacement, which is a tremendous blow to me as the kind of person who loves using them. I believe this is also the first entry to have zero playable angels aside from Flonne in the post-game, which is just plain weird to me. I suppose this makes sense, considering this is a rare case in the series where angels have no place in the story, but it still stings to not have the option. At least the new classes are pretty cool, including things like a giant crab that can shoot its pincers like a rocket punch attack, a robot that’s evenly balanced in all stats and weapon proficiencies, and a demon cow girl with frantic, feral attack animations.

Time for crab

Skills also suffered from significant paring down in the pursuit of leanness. In previous games, humanoids learned skills by leveling up their weapons, but in Disgaea 6, all skills are tied to character level and proficiency only affects stats. This means that your choice of weapon comes down to which one has the best stats or preferred attack range instead of choosing based on which skills you think would be most useful. This has the negative effect of making skill lists far too small; skill lists quickly filled a page or more in Disgaea 5 if you wanted them to, but most characters in Disgaea 6 will struggle to have more than three skills prior to the post-game. Skills are also less powerful than they’ve been in past games, to the point that basic attacks tend to outperform them unless you invest significantly in leveling them up. Discovering this was such a dumbfounding thing – for most of the game, I was regularly using skills because that’s what you do in Disgaea, right? Well, when talking to my friend about the game, he offhandedly mentioned that his characters always did more damage with regular attacks compared to anything else, even his mages! I tried this out afterwards and sure enough, I started doing more damage. I was secretly handicapping myself this whole time! This is such a frustrating design choice to me because unlocking ridiculous skills is a big part of what makes leveling your characters fun. Knowing this, I felt even less desire to explore the post-game despite all of its additions like a stronger version of Baal and a “Rakshasa” difficulty mode.

The biggest and most likely to be controversial addition to the game has to be the new auto battle system. With the press of a button, your team will act on its own, working its way through anything in their path. By default, you have a few preset AI behaviors you can assign to characters, but it’s possible to unlock more individual options and customize your team’s behavior to an impressive degree. If you’re familiar with Final Fantasy XII‘s gambits (or just basic programming in general), it’s a very similar system of combining if, then and conditional statements based on the goal you’re trying to achieve. Under normal circumstances, this addition would be a clever one that allows for players to grind fights without having to pay attention, something that synergizes well with Disgaea‘s traditional post-game character building. To me, however, it really feels like every aspect of the game’s design was altered to accommodate auto battling and I don’t think this was the wisest decision.

Maps in Disgaea 6 are simpler than ever, being both smaller in size and offering fewer Geo Symbol problems to solve. The default AI routines have no idea how to handle Geo Symbols or terrain that requires throwing to access, so you’ll have to interrupt the auto battle for a minute while you resolve any terrain or Geo Symbol roadblocks, but once you get in position, you can just let it rip and watch your team take care of what remains. The earlier Disgaea games had some really smart (and sometimes cruel) level designs, so this felt like a pretty big step down for what’s supposed to be a “Strategy RPG”. The overall difficulty level is significantly lower as well and I found myself massively overleveled for most of the game without even trying. I kept up with equipment purchases and Evility learning because that’s just how you play RPGs well, but aside from one very bizarre fight that basically requires poison immunity, I probably didn’t need to do any of that to win. Being able to punch through Gods of Destruction in one turn (they get reused constantly in Act 2 for sensible story reasons, but it’s still a bummer that they’re so disposable) without even controlling the game if I wanted to felt like a slap in the face to the story that drew me in. This is supposed to be the story of Zed’s struggle to save his sister through painstaking effort and training, a journey filled with highs and lows, but every battle can potentially be won without having to think about anything, so it becomes harder to accept the narrative’s message of needing to work with others to overcome impossible odds.

Disgaea 6 is a game stuck at a crossroads, conflicted between two different experiences it wants to convey. Its story is one of the strongest in the franchise, offering entertaining characters with a heartfelt message about overcoming hardship that resonates strongly and is concisely told. On the other hand, it also wants to be as approachable as possible, providing a method to allow anyone to breeze through the game and witness the story even if it means betraying the themes of said story and offering shallower gameplay to the dedicated fans who have been there since the beginning. Accessibility is a good thing to strive for in the world of video games, but I can’t help but wonder if some kind of compromise would have worked better here. Making auto battle something to unlock in the post-game or limiting the benefits of using it would have been a way to encourage players to engage with the game and allow for more complex map designs and a difficulty level more in line with the rest of the series. Perhaps forgoing auto battle entirely and adding things like (more) difficulty modes or options to assist with team building would have been a better solution that would have still allowed for newcomers to appreciate the game’s mechanics instead of tempting them to push them aside.

Conjecture aside, I have to admit that blaming my issues with the game entirely on the auto battle isn’t totally fair, since many of the design choices were likely a result of the game’s budget as well. NIS apparently went through a whole lot of financial trouble thanks to their Disgaea mobile game, so it’s safe to say things like cutting characters and shifting to 3D were necessary compromises to stay afloat. Even with the looming shadow of auto battle and the budgetary growing pains, Disgaea 6 is still a worthy entry in the series with plenty to say, one that I’m pleased to say gives me enough faith in Disgaea‘s future. Just try to show some restraint in order to avoid contradicting the game’s message, ok?

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