Platform: PC (reviewed)
Disco Elysium is one of those rare games that manages to be both retro and nouveau. It hearkens back to the late 90s golden age of isometric RPGs while pushing the entire genre forward. And it’s funny as hell.
Disco Elysium is the great grandchild of Planescape: Torment. All the narrative DNA is there: deep dialogue trees; a unique, off-kilter world; an amnesiac protagonist with a dark past. But that DNA has mutated and evolved in a petri dish of vodka and human suffering into 2019’s strongest candidate for Game of the Year.
Setting and character
Disco Elysium is set in the city of Revachol, in a world not entirely unlike our own. It is a part of an archipelago of islands that attempted to rise up in communist revolt that was mercilessly crushed by other nations, who now run it from afar and profit off of the suffering of its people. Much of the city is a bombed out husk that was never fully rebuilt. Adherents to ideologies of capitalism, communism, moralism, monarchism, and fascism throw elbows and jostle for space inside of a few city blocks.
You play as an alcoholic, middle-aged cop who just finished the mother of all benders and woke up in a trashed hotel room. His memory has been drowned in a whiskey tide. He doesn’t even remember his name, what he’s doing here, or why there’s a body hanging from a tree outside of his window.
This is brilliant for a number of reasons. In most RPGs, you, as the PC, spend the first few hours of the game asking questions that would seem idiotic to anyone who heard them. “Where am I? What city is this? Can I get a brief history lesson? What is reality? Is magic a thing?” But as an amnesiac, you have a reason to ask these absurd questions (or to not ask these questions, to avoid making a fool of yourself - play it however you like).
Amnesia also creates a situation wherein the player gets to build the character they want to build, while still forcing them to reckon with a blighted past that they had no hand in creating - your PC is still inherently part of the world. He was a lousy, selfish drunk who hurt people, and the game barfs his mess into the player’s lap. One of the core questions of the game is “How do you handle the morning after?”
Speaking of which, that body? It was your job to investigate his murder, and instead of doing your job, you got hammered and left him there to rot. For a week.
Writing and Visuals
Before I go any further, let me say that this might just be the best written game I’ve ever played. The dialogue is hilarious and your PC can make truly absurd choices. Live on the street as a hobocop? Go for it. Lick a rum stain off of a cafeteria counter? Why not? Punch a mouthy cockney teenager? Sure!
Throughout the game, your PC can offer political opinions on what’s going on in Revachol. Regardless, the game mercilessly satirizes pretty much every political position that you can take, and does it well. The game’s developer, ZA/UM, knows what they’re talking about, and take no prisoners.
You can be a good cop or an absolute disaster of a human being, and ZA/UM manages to make both choices poignant, funny, and fascinating. The game’s central murder mystery is a massive stanky, violent onion that gets more rancid the more layers you peel back, and I am hooked. I don’t want to know who did it. I need to know.
The folks you meet in Revachol feel real and multidimensional. They carry their secret hurts. They try to live up to their ideals while surviving just one more day. They do bad things for good reasons. Disco Elysium’s writers are cruel to ideologies and kind to people. In 2019, this is the kind of game we need.
Contemporary AAA games blow massive budgets on fully animated characters but never come close to the level of depth we see in Disco Elysium’s NPCs. Let me say it loudly for the folks in the back: PRETTY GRAPHICS CANNOT COMPENSATE FOR BAD WRITING! But great writing renders fully animated characters unnecessary.
But Revachol and its residents are beautifully hand-painted. I’ll take these brushstrokes over a thousand mo-cap recording sessions and a billion polygons. You can’t see their pores in 4K. But you can see their world, their lives, and how it all fits together. ZA/UM stays laser-focused on what matters and ignores what doesn’t. I’m grateful for this; you will be too.
Disco Elysium’s mechanics play like a tribute to the tabletop role-playing game experience. Skill checks involve rolling two six sided dice and adding your skill rating. The game even plays a cute little die-rolling sound effect when you make a check. Unlike other games, which try to hide the resolution mechanics from you, the game shows you actual die faces, which, as a lifelong TTRPG gamer, I adore. Succeeding is one thing. Actually seeing your critical hits and misses is a whole different level of joy.
Failing a check also doesn’t stop the game in its tracks, forcing you to grind side quests until you can re-attempt it. The game keeps going, and you’re forced to make due with partial information or the consequences of failure.
Like in TTRPGs, conversation and investigation are the core of Disco Elysium. If you play this game, expect to do a lot of reading. Almost everything in this game is handled via dialogue trees, including physical conflict.
There's no "combat" per se. However, you still have hit point tracks for health and morale. Lose all your health and you’re a dead man. Lose all your morale and you quit being a cop, live under a bridge, and the game ends. At one point, I looked at the wrong bit of graffiti, and it reminded my character that only he alone can rebuild communism!! He had a nervous breakdown, entered a fugue state, and quit the force.
I love this, but I’m also tired of RPGs that place story behind difficult fights. I’m not here for combat mechanics. If I wanted that, there are a million other games to play. I’m here for the story.
Character generation: your skills get mouthy
Your character’s stats start with four broad attributes: emotional, mental, physical, and motoric. You have enough points to be strictly average in all attributes, which means that if you are going to be exceptional in any particular field, you have to be deficient in another. Each attribute contains six skills, and skill ratings are capped by their base attribute. If you took four in your mental stat, your mental skills can only go up to four. This radically changes how you approach the game; I created a brainy, chatty cop, which means that physical solutions were almost always a dead end for me.
You get expected skills like Empathy and Endurance, but you also get more bizarre stuff like Electrochemistry, which is your ability to take drugs, be tempted by drugs, and party hard. Half Light allows you to physically defend yourself and clap back against insults. Savoir Faire makes you slick and helps you steal things. Drama allows you to lie and detect lies. One of my favorites, Inland Empire, is a measure of your imagination. It allows you to get hunches and make wild conjectures, which can hurt or help you.
But that’s not all. Each skill acts as a voice in your head. When you succeed at a skill check and get more information about a scene or character, the game doesn’t just hand you additional data. No, the skill actually has a conversation with you - the skills are characters riding around in your head. Inland Empire is a mad poet. Electrochemistry is a hedonistic party animal. Rhetoric is a prudent thinker.
As you move through the game, your character comes upon notions like “Rebuild Communism!” or “Work out a lot!” or “Be a hobo!” and you can slot these thoughts into your Thought Cabinet. At first they provide skill penalties, but once you’ve dealt with these penalties for a while, these thoughts are “internalized” and the penalties transform into bonuses, with an occasional side order of drawbacks. Unfortunately, you never know what bonuses or drawbacks you’ll be left with, and it costs a skillpoint to forget an internalized thought. I love the Thought Cabinet, but I’d love it more if I could add or drop thoughts once they’re internalized. No one likes paying for a respec.
Clothes can also provide skill boosts or penalties. Dress for your skill checks for best results. Also, every item has a colorful, amusing description to go with it. Don’t expect “plate mail +3”, but do expect snakeskin shoes that you threw through a window while drunk.
Also, you get a hideous tie at the beginning of the game, and it constantly tells you to do drugs. Like I said, Game of the Year.
Don’t expect to hear disco music in Disco Elysium. Most of the music is melancholy and electronic - a reminder that the post-communist world of Revachol is still fighting the post-war hangover.
The voice acting gives you a nice feel for character and setting. The variety of accents and races lets the player know that Revachol is just as diverse as our real world; kudos to ZA/UM for that.
For some reason, Disco Elysium is marketed as an “open world” game. I feel like someone in the marketing department saw that the term “open world” gets lots of hits and tried to ram this square peg of a game into a marketing round hole.
Do not show up to Disco Elysium thinking that you’re going to climb and reactivate radio towers or clear enemy strongholds using stealth. It’s not Far Cry or Shadow of Mordor. Disco Elysium is a massive story game with a ton of great sidequests and phenomenal writing. It gives you fewer options than you would have in a standard open world game. But those options feel well-integrated into a greater whole, rather than busy work created by a dev creating “content” to conform to a design document.