Disco Elysium Review
Disco Elysium is a game which is relentlessly challenging, not just in its gameplay, but in every stitch of its tapestry. It oozes intellectualism, each conversation brimming with nods to cultures and concepts both real and imagined. When we interviewed lead designer Robert Kurvitz about the game, he told us that its origins are rooted in the pen-and-paper roleplaying games he explored with friends, including many in the ZA/UM studio — and they went “really highbrow with it”.
That is an understatement. It’s clear that the game is the result of a desire to realise his world-building sufficiently in narrative form; spending even a couple of hours exploring the city of Revachol will attest to that. This is an RPG which lets you speak at length with a racist who truly believes that his lineage is the pinnacle of human evolution and can offer what he believes is biological, ancestral and cultural proof to that end. You’ll banter with a homeless grandmother who casually spits out snippets of Portuguese. You'll listen to a wheelchair-bound woman wax lyrical about cryptozoology in the hope that you’ll be sufficiently interested to go in search of her missing husband. You will have arguments with your neck tie. And if you’re a fan of sublime writing, you’ll enjoy almost every second of it.
In both roleplaying and storytelling Disco Elysium sparkles. Your protagonist, a bloated, alcoholic mess with amnesia, is the perfect vehicle upon which to stamp your unique identity. Just as the similarly wordy Planescape: Torment framed the story around the Nameless One’s origins and his missing memories, here your detective’s self-inflicted stupor means he needs to relearn everything about the world he inhabits, as well as his past. In doing so, you will not only get to craft the person he is but the person he once was, rewriting his backstory to make him fit the kind of cop you want to play.
Your partner Lieutenant Kitsuragi, ushered in from a different district, acts as the game’s moral centre. He grounds your cop’s excesses brilliantly, sometimes playing along, sometimes putting his foot down, but rarely stopping your actions. Despite being an NPC, he is written so subtly that I often found myself worried that I was upsetting him. Kitsuragi is a calming soul in a filthy city filled with rotten people, and potentially the only friend you have. Sure, you can piss him off if you want to — the game will let you explore almost every avenue — but only the most hard-minded players will try.
Revachol is an odd place where the ideologies of capitalism, communism, moralism and liberalism are smashed together in a messy glut of intellectual theories, like a coked-up TED talk. It’s a city under the thrall of various mobs, but one which is overseen by a civilian police force. The main plot involves investigating a murder under the shadow of union action and workers’ rights, and at the outset feels like a weak link compared to the rest of the writing. However, as you unearth more details about the killing and the players involved, you’ll begin to realise that what seems like a mundane detective trope is actually a fantastic spine from which more outlandish stories cling.
All well and good, you might be thinking. But how does one actually play the game? Essentially, Disco Elysium shares more in common with a visual novel than a standard RPG. This isn’t an open world adventure — regardless of what marketing may have said to the contrary. There are time-based quests and the freedom to tackle leads in any order you want, but you’ll be confined to only a few areas of the city and its underbelly. You play by developing your detective, responding to NPCs in the manner you feel is appropriate to his personality, and choosing dialogue options which may require you to pass a skill check.
Checks can challenge any of the four main skill classes (Physique, Motorics, Intelligence and Psyche) and any of the twenty-four individual skills you’ll select when you build your cop’s stats at the start of the game. It may be tempting to spread your skill points evenly, but as with tabletop roleplaying, the more interesting stories emerge when you’re ridiculously high in one skill and horrifically weak in another. My cop didn’t have enough strength to rouse a sleeping man from his slumber in a cafe, but his encyclopedic knowledge on even the most trivial facts about the city was second to none, and the paths these stats opened (or closed) provided him with real personality rather than being just another bland avatar.
What’s more, the skills you choose have personalities. Not only do they open up new lines of questioning or options for tackling your case in different ways, but they are active participants in your detective’s conversations. If you’re grilling a subject, Logic may interject to point out a flaw in their statement, Empathy might offer advice on getting them on your side, and Drama could encourage you to pull out your best theatrical performance to pull at their heartstrings. You can follow their advice if you wish, but exhausting every dialogue option in rote style — as BioWare’s games have trained players to do over the last decade — will often be counterproductive. NPCs often remember what you said previously; there’s nothing worse than choosing a different opinion and being seen as a fence-sitter, or worse, unreliable or untrustworthy.
Failing certain skill checks may harm your Morale — one of your two energy meters. Morale is the essence of your identity, so learning something unpleasant about yourself, or just finding out something sad can knock off a point, while solving part of a case or getting praise from Kitsuragi can pep you up. Health can be damaged by failing actions such as jumping from balconies, smoking cigarettes, or punching a telephone in anger. Run out of Morale points and you’ll give up being a cop; run out of Health and you’ll give up living — but these can both be recovered with consumables, or by sleeping overnight. More importantly, failed skill checks may lock you out of retrying them, until you’ve learned something crucial about their nature, or put enough points into a skill to retry them. The simple act of having a conversation can improve your likelihood of passing a skill check too; you’ll be told up front the percentage chance of success and from there it’s up to you.
Your skills will also offer up quests of their own for you to accept or decline. Electrochemistry really, really wants you to find and take drugs. Savoir Faire suggests you fight indirect taxation and stick it to The Man. Other skills may task you with different challenges. Alongside your log book of leads to follow up, your addled brain will uncover Thoughts as you learn more about yourself and your environment. These are added to your Thought Cabinet — think of it as a special items area — and offer bonuses and penalties to your existing stats and require you to “internalise” them over the course of hours of in-game time to make sense of them and unlock their final form.
The resulting breakthrough after completing a Thought may ultimately be positive or negative depending on what kind of cop you’re playing, but there’s space in the Thought Cabinet for twelve out of the fifty-plus Thoughts available to discover in the game. Experience points are gained for uncovering information, completing quests and, in many cases, doing unusual things. Levelling up provides you with skill points you can either invest in any of the twenty-four skills, unlock more Thought Cabinet slots, or “forget” a Thought that you don’t feel is appropriate for your detective’s build. You’re unlikely to want to stick with the first Thoughts you ruminate on, especially since you don’t know what kind of benefits or penalties they’ll provide until after the gestation period. They’re like a loot box, but free and with actual personality.
All of this means that there is a staggering amount of potential to finely hone individual elements of your character here. I may have been a ruthlessly intelligent, almost supernaturally perceptive specimen, but my strength was pitiful. However, I was still able to plough points into the Physique subset of Electrochemistry so that I could explore the bizarre quests handed out by that skill. The flexibility the game offers means that if I wanted to replay the game as a buff meathead, I’m almost certainly going to experience a completely different playthrough. While it may be tempting to save scum your way through some of Disco Elysium, I would encourage you not to. Failing skill checks can often lead to more interesting outcomes than passing them.
The murder you’re tasked to solve feels like a side note, at least at the beginning. The first act saw me completely ignore the body I was there to inspect until it was 2AM game time and I’d exhausted almost every other avenue of investigation. I wanted to learn about Martinaise, the area of Revachol you start in. I wanted to debate with its people, learn about its history, explore its underbelly. I wanted to craft my detective into a feeble, delusional superstar with an addictive personality, someone with an uncanny ability to recreate a scene purely in his mind, as long as there’s enough booze and speed flowing through his veins.
The game lets you do all of this and more, or the entire opposite. You can be a strait-laced, by-the-numbers officer, or someone who apologises all of the time (Boring Cop and Sorry Cop are two stats which are genuinely measured). You can offer withering criticism of people’s achievements, or utter “I AM THE LAW” in your best Dredd voice, and your profile will take note of your choices accordingly.
More importantly, you’ll learn. While I wouldn’t consider myself well-read when it comes to political or social history, I was staggered to realise how little I actually knew about the main tenets of liberalism, fascism, socialism, communism, and so on. There are no punches pulled here; each political philosophy is often skewed wickedly by a team with a sharp eye for satire. It comes at a cost though: the mountains of text you’ll be hit with contain ideas which can often prove dizzyingly complex to unpick without a dictionary and Wikipedia ready on a second monitor. Thankfully, you can click out rather than alt-tabbing in a multi-screen setup, something I suspect was a deliberate design choice created just for my method of absorbing information, though that might just be the delusions of a Superstar Cop.
The lessons you’re given are mostly told through the NPCs you meet. Whether it’s unpicking the supply chain of a drug cartel in order to understand its economic impact on local society or listening to pétanque players bicker about whether the revolution that stamped out communism decades earlier was actually beneficial, each dialogue goes to places you wouldn't expect, and possibly won’t understand. The text is dense and the subjects often impenetrable on first reading, thanks to the substitution of real world examples for fictional ones. Will that impact your overall enjoyment of the game? Possibly. However, for all its complexity there is a general through line in each conversation which contains enough information for even people ignorant of — for instance — economic theory or critical thinking to make a judgement on how you want your detective to respond.
The base layer of good / bad / indecisive / crazed is often obvious, even if the words leading into you making those decisions are not. Just as Aaron Sorkin managed to package US politics into an accessible and entertaining format in The West Wing, ZA/UM takes challenging intellectual concepts and folds them into a thoroughly enjoyable RPG. Sure, you can trade banter with a rich yacht owner about moralism, but you can also go dumpster diving and then spend half an hour inspecting your hilarious, grime-encrusted case files, or while away time talking to a dicemaker about the perfect tetrahedron. I did all of these.
Outfitting your character is also a lot of fun, since each item of clothing has its own impact on your stats, as well as being reflected accurately in your avatar. It also gives you the chance to hard roleplay. In my case, being a “hobocop” slotted in neatly with my almost compulsive need to collect recyclable garbage in a plastic bag before returning it to a pharmacy for cash. The city’s currency, réal, is hard earned. You might stumble across a few coins here and there on your travels but to make enough money to afford anything of use, you’ll need to get creative. Begging people for cash is always fun, but you could also try coercing them with hints of “favours” in exchange for a financial downpayment.
Revachol isn’t a huge place to explore, but it would certainly have benefitted from a wayfinder on the map rather than a static screen, even so. Though it may feel like the number of locations pales in comparison to modern RPGs, the sheer depth of activities you can carry out (including secret quests, hidden objects and unlockable conversations) is astounding. Reading one of the many books you come across can lead you down paths of exploration which may take half an hour. Other interactive items are similarly involving, while there are side tasks which appear to have been thrown in for the hell of it. Want to sing karaoke at the cafe? You’ll need to track down an appropriate song first. Want to go off in search of a mystical invisible being which only takes the form of a sound? Go ahead. And do you dare pull back the sinister yet alluring curtains at the back of the weird bookstore? Do it. Or, at least try. Failing is fun.
Traversing the city and uncovering its secrets is a delight in no small part due to the wonderful oil-painted environments. The rough brushstrokes give Revachol a worn feel, befitting a city covered in wartime craters and rusting coin-operated binoculars. The skill portraits are equally brilliant; if you ever wondered about the best way to depict a person’s Savoir Faire, worry no more. Though there is partial voice acting for most of the NPCs, it’s best ignored where possible — while the variety of regional accents is impressive, the talent is variable and the actual recording quality is questionable, as if the actors were taped in a broom cupboard. Fortunately the snippets of incidental music accompanying you across town are far, far better and really drive home Disco Elysium’s emotional core. It might have the tinges of steampunk, but stripped back it’s a desperately sad (and occasionally optimistic) game about broken people surviving in a shattered society.
At times the game is openly meta; one subquest sees you stumbling upon the remnants of a vast game created by a basement studio in a country which is technologically up-and-coming, a clear nod to ZA/UM’s Estonian heritage. The writers revel in Disco Elysium’s development and their own intelligence, sometimes to the point of smugness. Whole rafts of ideas are dissected and discussed through the mouthpieces of NPCs, as if Kurvitz and his crew were desperate not to waste the decade-plus of world building they’d established in their pen-and-paper sessions. In some places this verbiage feels unnecessary. In others it’s downright odd, distracting from whatever task you’re currently working on in favour of a lecture on one ideology or another, resulting in some characters feeling like overeager philosophy professors. The game would certainly have benefitted from a less indulgent editor to help trim some of its word porn.
Yet it’s hard to begrudge the team its achievement. This is one of the most refreshing, exciting and downright enjoyable RPGs to be released in years. It offers a wealth of content (well over 40 hours for my playthrough), sublime roleplaying, and the potential for hugely different playthroughs depending on your character build. It’s simply remarkable that this is the studio’s very first title, especially since it’s a strong contender for game of the year. It might have a glimmer of Black Isle’s beloved template in its design and execution, but it has layered far more interesting ideas, mechanics and secrets on top. That the richness of its experience comes from mere words feels like an anomaly in the age of mindless violence, instant gratification and blasts of dopamine. Disco Elysium is more measured, delivering its payoffs when you’ve truly earned them. It’s the gaming equivalent of a bottle of decent scotch whisky: rich, complex and well worth the investment.
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