If you believe the game clock then there were 22 hours played of Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny when I saw the true ending. And you should believe it! It isn’t broken or malfunctioning. The issue is instead with the word, “played.” Disgaea 6 is a game that is happy to play itself, with only occasional intervention required from the player to keep it advancing through the story, and so I wonder, how many hours of Disgaea 6 did I actually play up to the point that I finished the story? And I say “play” as in the act moving my units manually around a battlefield, making strategic decisions and otherwise engaging in the combat of a strategy role playing game.
Disgaea 6 is a strategy role playing game… isn’t it? It certainly looks like one! Battles are played out across a grid with squares of varying heights and characters are moved around it to attack each other with the goal always being to wipe out the enemy forces. Spells and abilities have specific attack ranges, there are heals, ailments, and everything else you might expect from a game of such a genre. It’s all there, just like the best games in the genre!
Those famous and acclaimed SRPGs–such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Fire Emblem and Xcom–provide the player with the thinnest of margins of error from map to map, making every decision excruciating, but more importantly, meaningful and interesting. Some even include permadeath, where fallen characters can be lost forever! They put strategy at the forefront of the gameplay, and do everything they can to emphasize the importance of decision making on the battlefield. It can be argued that this is what really makes the best games of the genre amazing experiences.
Disgaea 6 has an engine that, in theory, should be perfectly capable of providing such experiences, but the game wasn’t really designed for that. Instead, its focus is on the power fantasy of seemingly infinite potential for character growth. Like its predecessors, Disgaea 6 allows the characters to get to level 9999, but that’s only the beginning. Through reincarnation, characters are returned to level 1, with the total levels of all of their previous incarnations being remembered, and each time the character becomes far stronger than it was the previous time it leveled up to 9999.
As such, it is depressingly rare for the strategy RPG gameplay of Disgaea 6 to matter. Far more often than not, the player’s army will be entirely overpowered compared to enemy. There are precious few opportunities for moments of heroism, or eking out a victory against all odds. Instead, the player just has bigger numbers, and the need for strategic gameplay entirely evaporates. Sure, the player can optionally make battles more challenging through 20 different difficulty increments. A player trying their best to preserve some sense of balance in the gameplay might finetune this setting religiously. But should it be up to the player to make sure they are playing a balanced strategy game? In the end, adjusting the difficult setting is just another tool for making the player’s army all the more overpowered.
This still doesn’t answer our questions though. How many strategic hours of Disgaea 6 did I actually play? And is Disgaea 6 really a strategy RPG? If there were no more to the story, I might still say yes to the latter. Surely all of the previous games in the franchise qualified as strategy RPGs, right? The original Disgaea: Hour of Darkness provided plenty of challenging maps. Yes, there were methods of power leveling for players that wanted to overpower everything, but for a casual making their way through the story, there was relative balance throughout the game. As the series moved on, more and more features were added to aid the player in their quest for bigger numbers, but it was always up to the player whether or not to actually become overpowered compared to the current story content. And more importantly, there was still a game to play, battles to be won, and strategy to really put some thought into.
But Disgaea 6 is all about the power fantasy. Even its story, one about a zombie named Zed that has to constantly reincarnate to become stronger, is perfectly aligned with abusing the game’s systems to become as powerful as possible, as quickly as possible. And there is one new feature in particular that really makes leveling up easier than ever before: autoplay.
With autoplay on its default settings, your characters will seek out the nearest enemy and use a skill on it, or otherwise attack it. If your numbers are bigger than their numbers, you win. That’s it. That’s the game. Begin a battle, activate autoplay, go pee, wash your hands, and enjoy the victory screen for your hard-fought battle. Didn’t win? Go to one of the maps designed with experience bonuses and autoplay that one, and then turn on autorepeat, another feature designed to take the grind out of the grind. Enjoy a nice meal. You’re winning countless battles; you deserve it! Afterwards you will be hundreds or thousands of levels stronger (particularly if you decided to temporarily increase the difficulty for better rewards), so when you go back to the map you previously lost, your characters will barely take damage, and you can autoplay through the next several episodes of the story.
On occasion you may encounter a map where autoplay doesn’t work. There may be a gap that you need to throw your characters across with the series’ infamous lift feature. There might be a geopanel (a designated square or series of squares on the battlefield) with an effect on it that makes some micromanagement of your forces necessary. But these instances are few and far between, and usually lead into just pressing autoplay anyways once the effect is removed. Time to resume winning!
If you’re a fan of the gambit system from Final Fantasy XII or if perhaps you’re a programmer of sorts, you might enjoy diving into the game’s Demonic Intelligence (aka artificial intelligence) feature where you can go into incredible detail for each and every one of your characters. Have a healer and want them to check to see if anyone is injured, and then cast a heal spell, or otherwise go attack something? That’s pretty easy. Want a magic user that specialized in ice spells to always try to find a target that’s weak to ice? No problem. The level of detail in this system is actually really impressive! There’s enough room in there that a dedicated player could create an AI that pretty much acts exactly how the player would want them to under most circumstances. If only it mattered! Alas, the fact remains that bigger numbers win fights, and Disgaea 6 makes it exceptionally easy to get bigger numbers, reducing the brilliant AI system to fruitless micromanagement.
And that’s really where the bulk of the gameplay in Disgaea 6 really is. It’s not in combat, it’s in preparing for combat. Good micromanagement alongside bigger numbers is unstoppable.
Beyond the basics of leveling up from gaining experience points and occasionally reincarnating, each character can be enhanced in several ways. Generic characters, which includes many of the humanoids and monsters from previous games in the series, can rank up through multiple tiers of their class through reincarnation. Gear can be equipped, and the gear itself can also be leveled up via the Item World—a random dungeon that exists within every item in the game—and with Innocents, residents that live within the items (who can also level up). The skills that your characters acquire can be individually strengthened, both in a literal sense by increasing the power level, but also in terms of how many tiles the skill affects, and how far away that range can extend from the character’s position. There’s an entire passive system where you can change a character’s Evilities to provide additional bonuses. Characters can join squads, with the lead member of the squad usually providing some sort of buff or bonus to the rest of the members. And there’s also the juice bar, which is stocked with resources throughout the game by winning battles or by having leftovers when reincarnating characters. These resources can be directly added to a character, and can be anything from straight up experience points to stats in the most literal sense. A single serving of juice can give a character thousands of levels or inflate their strength exponentially. I could go on and on in tedious detail as I have in the past for this series about each and every one of these systems, but I’d rather sum it all up in a simple sentence: they make the numbers bigger so that you can autoplay away to victory.
So, is Disgaea 6 a strategy RPG? Not really. Perhaps if you put in a considerable amount of effort into preventing yourself from becoming overpowered while also tinkering with the game’s difficulty, it may then resemble one. But when almost every fight in the game involves overpowering your enemy into oblivion, there’s very little strategy left to speak of. Instead, the game itself is about becoming overpowered. It’s about the menus. The menus are literally the game, and when it’s time for battle, you might as well walk away while the game plays itself on your behalf.
You might think a boss battle could make things interesting. Alas, autoplay makes short work of every boss in the game. The final boss fight was over in less than a minute in my case, and the bosses themselves are frustratingly monotonous. You literally fight the same boss over and over again throughout the entire game. The midbosses from episode to episode can be slightly more interesting, but when the game plays itself, it just doesn’t matter that much.
Disgaea 6 is very much at odds with itself. It claims to be a strategy RPG, but constantly encourages the player to override the need for strategy with brute force and automation. I asked earlier how many hours I’d spent making strategic decisions and engaging in strategy combat over the course of the 22 hours I spent getting to the end of the main story, and my answer is maybe one or two. One or two hours of dealing with gaps in the terrain, of removing damaging effects from the battlefield and of making a decision to stop the autoplay long enough to force a specific action beyond “go smash stuff.”
The rest of the time was spent in menus and viewing the story, which like previous games in the series, plays out mostly through visual novel style dialogue boxes. Occasionally towards the end of a scene the enemies will spawn in using the character models of the battle engine, but it’s all exceedingly basic.
The story itself is one of persistence, where no obstacle is insurmountable with enough perseverance—or bigger numbers through reincarnation, as the case may be. There’s synergy in this that I appreciate, but it only goes so far to tie everything together. The main characters, while charming enough, are walking talking tropes that are spectacularly committed to adhering to said tropes. Many of them fall in line with what we have come to expect from the Disgaea franchise, such as a hero who acts like he doesn’t care about anyone but helps everyone anyway, or an over-the-top justice obsessed super heroine, or a king who believes all problems can be solved with wealth. These characters do develop a bit throughout the tale, and everyone learns a lesson by the end, but for a series that began by setting a high bar for interesting characters and surprising emotional depth, Disgaea 6 never lives up to its earliest predecessor in that regard (though few Disgaea games ever have; the original trio of Laharl, Etna and Flonne was so wonderful).
Disgaea 6 is held back further by technical hurdles and the limitations of the Nintendo Switch hardware. For example, many special moves in the game as many as three, four or five seconds to load before the battle animation is displayed. For such an otherwise snappy battle engine, this really destroys the flow of combat, and that resulted in me disabling animations throughout most of my playthrough.
The game also has a “Graphical Quality Mode” setting with three options. The first choice is Graphics, which offers by far the most detailed visuals, but a framerate that I can only describe as unplayable (my best estimate puts it at 10-20fps). Then there’s Balanced, which is probably closer to 25 fps, but is still so choppy that I couldn’t enjoy it, and also makes the visuals noticeably pixelated while sacrificing the fine details of Graphics mode. Finally, there’s Performance, the mode I spent the most of the time playing. It might actually hit 60 frames per second, but the characters become highly blurry. I can’t say any of these settings feel great on the Switch, and I can only hope an upgraded Switch comes out soon to take better advantage of these settings.
All of this makes me question why the developer would choose to debut Disgaea 6 exclusively on the Switch and choose this particular game as the moment to render all of the characters with 3D models rather than using 2D models that the series has been comfortably using since 2003. The jump to 3D would have made a lot more sense on stronger hardware, but instead it causes Disgaea 6 to look significantly downgraded from its predecessors, except perhaps while in Graphics mode and zoomed in as close as possible. In that specific case, the character models are quite nice; it’s just a shame you can’t enjoy them in that quality during regular gameplay without sacrificing the smooth framerate. The visuals also look impressive during battle animations, but as I mentioned before, the gameplay flows much better with those animations disabled.
Fortunately, one thing that has maintained its quality throughout the years is the music. Tenpei Sato is back again as composer, and so at the very least the soundtrack maintains its quality in relation to the previous games. There’s definitely a recognizable and whimsical sound style to the compositions that can only be described as very Disgaea, and several lovely vocal pieces are present throughout the game as well.
But as a whole, Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny gets lost in itself, often rendering its own best features irrelevant or redundant. Its battle engine, one that represents strategy RPGs, exists only to influence the player to use the game’s other systems to basically override the need for any actual strategy in the combat. Further held back by the underpowered hardware of the Switch, it’s hard to recommend the game over any of its predecessors. While the Demonic Intelligence system is fascinating, there aren’t a lot of gameplay related reasons to utilize its potential. And despite the countless ways there are to make characters stronger and the wide variety of abilities and skills that are available in combat, none of it really matters when you simply have bigger numbers.
Thanks very much to NIS America, Inc. for providing a product key for this review.
+Another great Disgaea soundtrack
+Countless ways to strengthen and customize your army
-Combat is more about bigger numbers than strategy
-Limited by the platform hardware
-Very tropey cast of characters
-Formulaic within the franchise
Available on: Nintendo Switch
Version reviewed: Nintendo Switch