Disgaea faces a big problem, which Disgaea 6 exposes; when you’ve got a series that has parodied JRPGs through raw exaggeration, how do you keep that series’ energy going? How do you take something that is already hyperbolic to an almost grotesque degree, and build further on it? For Disgaea 6, the developers of Nippon Ichi have decided to simply roll into it even further. With Disgaea 6, the hyperbolic use of numbers tips over into the grotesque.
Now, I should say upfront that I don’t mean this in a pejorative way. Disgaea has always been a series that has highlighted how fundamentally ridiculous the focus on numbers and systems in JRPGs is, and it has chosen to do so by taking them to the most extreme lengths possible. Disgaea 6 is simply a reflection on the fact that the developers can do more now, and so they have, but in the process, the game has hit a really weird, almost transcendent level.
So, to be specific; the level cap in Disgaea 6 is 99,999,999, and each individual statistic can reach 100 billion. Furthermore, each attack can now exceed one quadrillion damage. Characters, at level 1, have statistics in the tens of thousands. Now, before you say to yourself “it’s going to take me a million years to get anywhere near that level cap,” understand that while Disgaea 6 is certainly a long, drawn-out game, it’s not nearly as long as that. your characters will get tens of levels after each battle. Beat a boss and the number of levels gained can jump into three figures. The deeper you get into the game, the faster these experience levels seem to accelerate, and with that, the numbers for everything else just keep going up, and up, and up.
This is where the transcendence comes in; as I played those numbers actually got so big, and grew so rapidly, that they started losing all meaning to me, very early into the game. They’re just so big and the enemies were scaling in-kind, that I settled into a rhythm whereby if I found a level too difficult, then I knew I simply needed to grind up for an hour or so before trying again. I never paid attention to just how far behind or ahead I was in terms of levels or damage-dealing abilities, because there were just too many numbers to track. It didn’t take long before the only gauge that I used to compare the strength of my characters to my opponents was the health bars above their heads.
But again, none of this is a criticism. I loved the inherent humour of it all. Disgaea’s extreme-to-the-point-of-pointlessness with its numbers ended up coming across as a kind of transgression. We often think about transgression as being “things that offend” or, at the very least, the stuff that resides at the edges of good taste – it’s a statement designed to make people uncomfortable to challenge them. But that’s a limited view on transgression. Really, transgression, as defined in the arts by theorists like Foucault and Bataille, is simply that which breaks through the “limit” of a “taboo” (a.k.a. rule), to then turn back and look at that taboo, potentially either redefining or upholding it. It’s a technique for the critical assessment of assumptions, in other words.
So what are the rules that we assume and take as standard with JRPGs? The biggest one is that the numbers and levels matter. That carefully “levelling up” characters and paying attention to every little number that we see on the screen is somehow an integral part of the experience, and without it, the genre is lacking. There are two ways that you could critically examine that assumption within the context of a game. You could produce a JRPG that deliberately de-emphasises numbers, or alternatively produce one that subjects the genre to a good-natured ridiculing by hyper-exaggerating the numbers. That’s what Disgaea does. I would argue that if you try and min-max your way around Disgaea 6 as you might a more traditional JRPG, you’re going to quickly send yourself batty trying to remain in control of all these numbers. The way the game wants you to play it is to let everything wash over you and just indulge the satirical and pointless excess of it all. It is in its own little way a far more subversive JRPG than people will credit it as being, because the final great trick that Nippon Ichi plays with Disgaea is convincing people that it’s quite earnest in all those systems.
Whether you are inclined to try and master its systems or not, what everyone would agree is undeniable about the Disgaea series is that the explicit narrative is out-and-out parody. Disgaea 6 continues that tradition, just as you’d expect, as you take control of a formerly powerless (now very powerful) zombie as he embarks on a quest to slay the most powerful God of Destruction ever. Along the way, he meets all kinds of bonkers characters (including some old series favourites), and amasses a huge army of his own. An army that you’ll see in an all-new light because, while the narrative concept hasn’t deviated too far from tradition, when it comes to the visuals, for the first time in the series, all the characters are rendered in 3D and… truth be told I’m not that sold on it. The 2D art of previous Disgaea has always been exquisite (and remains so in the visual novel-like “story bits” here), while the 3D stuff in Disgaea 6 is colourfully rendered but lacking the eye for detail that we see in the 2D art. This didn’t affect my enjoyment of the game in any way, but it is a useful reminder that sometimes technical upgrades aren’t for the best.
One area where there have been improvements for the better, however, is with regards to the systems at play. For a game that has menu after menu after menu (after menu), there’s a level of streamlining to Disgaea that fans of the series will appreciate. For example, there are some minor quality of life refinements, such as no longer needing to head to the “hospital” after every battle to heal characters up. That was never anything other than a formality in previous Disgaea titles, since you always had more than enough resources to cover the costs of the hospital trips, and so in Disgaea 6 they simply give you rewards instead and automatically heal your party after a battle.
And then there’s the big streamlining feature – the ability to auto-battle. This feature will almost certainly be controversial among fans because you just know they’re going to hate anything cribbed from mobile gaming, and auto-battling is a time-saving feature in most mobile games. But it is an entirely optional feature, you can turn it on and off at will, and you can play the entire game without auto-battling once if you want to. What’s more, and being completely blunt here, anyone with obligations like a family, a job, or a house to keep clean is only going to hit those level 99,999,999s with the help of the auto-battle for the grind. Overall I appreciated having it there, and here, too, the transgressive deconstruction theme that runs through Disgaea 6 is at play, challenging the notion that manual control over characters is in any way valuable to the grind experience that “hardcore” JRPGs like to put forward.
Otherwise, for fans of Disgaea, we’re at the point now where you know what you’re getting. Whether you indulge the auto-battle option or not, you’ve still got all the many and varied Dark Council systems in place, there’s still the ability to “reincarnate”, resetting your character’s level to 1 in order to get a stat boost, and over time massively increase your character’s statistics that way. There’s still a hub environment outside of battle with dozens of different “shops” and features, to take advantage of, all the special ability systems are there to play around with and, of course, there’s the item world that allows you to play through a series of stages to increase your item levels (and therefore stats) too. If you’re new to Disgaea, then blessedly all of these features are explained to you one at a time, otherwise, it would be overwhelming. I do think the ridiculously high numbers that fly around during combat will still be offputting to newbies, but if you’ve ever been intrigued by the series before, this is actually a perfectly fine place to start.
As an existing fan of Disgaea, this new one is, despite the incredible focus on big numbers, more of the same, and that is fine by me. The extended level cap is hugely indulgent and entirely unnecessary to the tactics JRPG format, but at the same time it’s part of Disgaea’s inherent self-awareness and genre-transgressive humour. It very much wants you to see it as a silly indulgence. Couple that with the genuinely funny, satirical script and the rich tactical core that, once you peel back the excess is as compelling as always, and Disgaea 6 shows that the developers at Nippon Ichi still know how to get a player both deeply invested and laughing along with the thing. I want to say that I don’t think there’s much more that can be done with Disgaea. To me it seems that the hyperbolic potential of the series must have peaked now. But then I thought that exact same thing after Disgaea 5 and this new entry has certainly corrected me on that count.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb