Game name: Disco Elysium
Release date: October 15, 2019
Available on: Steam
Three years ago, a small indie team named Fortress Occident revealed No Truce With the Furies, a role playing game where we wouldn’t be in charge of saving the world or anything like that, instead playing as “…an almost irreversible, unmitigated failure… both as a human being and an officer of the law”. The idea wasn’t completely original if we are willing to veer into literature or cinema (hard-boiled detective adventures of the 1920 were an obvious inspiration) but with the exception of a few outliers, I can’t really see anything like that in the realm of gaming. Over the years, Fortress Occident would be renamed to ZA/UM (and see different faces come and go), Humble would be signed as publisher and then dropped, and the game itself would go from No Truce With the Furies to Disco Elysium. Its weirdness and originality were never up for debate though, and the final version that will go live later today is undeniable proof that there was still room for improvement in the RPG world after Planescape: Torment.
So, with that long introduction out of the way it’s time to talk about Disco Elysium (after all, you are here for my opinion on the game, and it doesn’t really matter how unqualified I feel when trying to form one, it’s still my job to deliver something, right?). Since this is a dialogue-heavy RPG, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, only using a few sections that have been showcased in the few gameplay trailers we got whenever I need to give an example of the way something works.
The basic gameplay loop will be familiar to anyone who’s played an isometric RPG before, with click-to-move controls, easy to access hotkeys, and, as I said before, a heavy focus on dialogue and text-based interactions. At the start of the game we can either create a new character or pick a predefined archetype, though none of these options will affect our looks (our detective’s age, gender, voice and initial clothing are pre-set). There is a day-night cycle that will affect our ability to perform our job in-game (people might go to sleep at night, certain places could get busy during the day, etc.). Time only passes when we talk to people or interact with stuff, so we won’t be juggling everything while we explore the world, but we should always be mindful of any tasks we set out to do before calling it a day, since the investigation will move on whether we like it or not as the week goes by. Regarding the flow of the game, there are certain key story beats that will be experienced by everyone, regardless of their choices (but the way they play out can be quite different), while everything else will vary wildly from play-through to play-through, leading to a highly replayable adventure that will require a lot of time should we wish to see every possible outcome. An AI-controlled partner will be by our side for most of the adventure (he goes to sleep at certain times and we can also send him away if we do certain things), but overall, we are in charge of our own actions, and he will only intervene to set things straight if we are getting too crazy (and we can even prevent this if we think things through and send him away before going down that path).
Remember that line about playing as a failure, both as a human being and an officer of the law? Well, that was there because the protagonist of Disco Elysium is an alcoholic cop that has lost all memory of himself (and the world he lives in). It’s a brave new world for our hard-boiled detective, and we are the ones who get to shape it (well, our body will definitely chime in to do its thing from time to time, but that’s to be expected, right?). How does that work? Simple, at the start of the game we get to assign points to 24 different attributes, and that will start to shape the way we interact with our surroundings, deal with the different situations that arise as we try to investigate a case, or communicate with other human beings. Aside from points allocated at the beginning of the game, we’ll get more each time we level up, and different clothing items will provide bonuses that might enhance our capabilities on certain areas, while maybe negatively affecting others (by the way, having too many points on certain skills might even lead to its own set of issues, since it turns out you CAN have too much of a good thing here). Oh, and there’s also the option of doing drugs, because that’s just the kind of thing an alcoholic detective who can’t remember a thing about his past (or anything else, really) DEFINITELY needs to get into in order to fix his life.
So, how do these attributes affect our actions on Disco Elysium‘s world? Glad you asked, because I was getting a bit impatient there. As an example, let’s take a detective who’s decided to specialize themselves in Empathy and Rhetoric, but doesn’t really think much about their physique. That kind of character build will lead to lots of situations where the only way out of a pickle is to get other people to see your side of an argument (and hopefully convince them that you actually had a good point). An empath can feel other people’s emotions easily, opening up new dialog choices that might be exploited in order to manipulate other people to do our bidding. This is accomplished through skill checks (dice rolls that compare our stats to the other person’s, or the difficulty of whatever we are trying to achieve). That’s not all, of course, since a high enough Empathy rating can also tell us whether someone might have an issue with a certain investigation, or if they are about to cry, or a million other very useful things. Not your play-style? You might be glad to learn that there are countless other ways of getting around Disco Elysium‘s sandbox. Want to spin-kick a dude in the face? Totally an option. Want to smooth-talk your way out of 99% of the dicey situations you might find yourself in? Knock yourself out! Drug-fueled supercop? Go for it! The possibilities might not be endless, but chances are you WILL find your “thing” in this game, because the developers have seemingly thought about everything. Having a low rating on certain skills can also affect our interactions with the world in often unseen ways, as our brain might not warn us about dangers that would otherwise be detected, or lies that someone skilled in Drama might have unearthed with ease, for example.
Considering the way most games seem to work now, those systems alone would make for a pretty interesting adventure, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s all there is to Disco Elysium‘s core gameplay. You’d be wrong though, because there’s a lot more here. Aside from the twenty four skills I mentioned before, our amnesiac detective can also unlock “thoughts” for his Thought Cabinet, which further alter our perception of the world, or give us bonuses when we perform certain actions (and often add negative effects for some skills). For instance, after selecting what one might consider “left-wing” options in a few conversations, my brain decided to chime in with a helpful suggestion: I should start building Communism again! I dutifully complied, and while I gained a whole new insight on the world, my Visual Calculus skill was also severely impaired, leading to some awkward moments every time I wanted to form a mental image of what might have happened at a crime scene. There are sixty different thoughts (and when I say different, I really mean it, there’s enough variety to keep you busy for dozens of hours, trying to find new things to think about both in the TC and in real life). Some might be really helpful to your cop career, others might be there as an amusing thing that can come in handy when you less expect it to… If you decide that a thought isn’t really worth the space it’s occupying on your TC, you can choose to forget it (which will require the use of a skill point). Skill points will also be required if you wish to have more than three thoughts in action at any time, since that’s the initial brain storeroom allotment for the Thought Cabinet, and any more slots need to be unlocked first.
Our thoughts and skill point allocation will also deeply affect how we deal with the world, even when we aren’t facing obvious skill checks. For instance, during exploration sections, small orbs will pop up around our head, and should we click them, we might get a description of something we’ve sensed, or a chance to talk to certain parts of our brain. Yup, you read that right, our brain can communicate with us, and it’ll ask all sort of questions or come up with crazy ideas from time to time. As an example, upon investigating a bottle of rum, our sense of Electrochemistry might get funny ideas and ask us to lick the liquid. Or we might come across karaoke equipment and a different part of the brain will start a quest to find the saddest song in the world and perform it in front of a live audience. This system might not sound like much from just reading about it here, but trust me that it can lead you to wild places and ask you to perform feats you didn’t think you’d be doing in a videogame anytime soon. Honestly, I can’t really remember the last time I’ve smiled as much as I have while powering through Disco Elysium over the past week. My in-game brain is always coming up with new ideas, and sometimes my real life brain agrees with it, and everything just “clicks”.
While we are in the subject of things just “clicking” with me, the world of Revachol (the city-state that serves as the game’s setting), is another exponent of that, thanks to the great care the writers put into creating an alternative history that takes enough things from our world to feel familiar while also being its own thing. Historic events that defined the past century went in a different way for the people of Revachol, but their struggles are the same people all over the world face in our reality. The same thing goes for the way governments work, or even how the police works (I’ll admit that last one shouldn’t come up as a surprise for someone who hasn’t played the game, as weird as that sounds). No matter your background, there will always be something you can connect with as you play Disco Elysium, because the people who made it went to great lengths in order to ensure that (I guess you could say they put a lot of points into Empathy).
Now that most of my thoughts on gameplay and world building are finally here, committed to digital paper, it’s time to pay some attention to the technical aspect of the game. Unsurprisingly, I seem to only have positive words about this as well, since it would seem that the good people working at ZA/UM are not only incredibly skilled when it comes to writing a great RPG, but also have a keen artistic eye for everything else. As it’s the norm with most isometric adventures, Disco Elysium features pre-rendered backgrounds for the game world, with 3D characters rendered on top of these. A beautiful art style brings everything together as if we were watching an oil painting, and if that wasn’t enough to immerse us in the game, then there’s the sound design, which is also quite masterful, with perfectly fitting tunes adding even more personality to important scenes, ambient noise filling in the blanks when needed, and some truly impressive voice acting providing even more personality every time we meet a new character (from my experience with the game, the number of fully voice acted lines might be around 25%, which is quite impressive considering the scope of the whole thing).
So, you might be asking yourself, is there anything even remotely wrong with this game? And to be honest, I can’t really come up with a single negative thing, unless I have to wade down the good old tech issues part. Is that your thing? If it is, then know that I experienced a few soft locks that were solved after saving and then loading that same save file (seemed to be caused by the game getting confused after my detective woke up from a good night’s sleep), and that I also lost the HUD a few times (the solution here implied a full game restart, but no progress loss of any sort, so not a big deal either way). Do keep in mind that these issues might not even be present in the version of the game you get to play, as I was playing an earlier build for review purposes.
Aside from these two very minor tech issues, my time with the game has been pretty much perfect. Disco Elysium is an unforgettable journey that shouldn’t just be experienced by all RPG fans, but by anyone who has ever played a videogame. I can’t think of a single thing this game does wrong, and for all intents and purposes, ZA/UM‘s debut release has dethroned Planescape: Torment as the best RPG I’ve ever played. Don’t sleep on this gem!
10/10 – Excellent.