Genre: Isometric RPG/cRPG
Developer: ZA/UM
Platform: Steam, GOG, iOS, Epic Game Store
Release Date: 15th October 2019

Introduction

I’ll get right to it. This game, while brilliant, is not made for people who dislike reading. It involves reading a lot of in-game text, and as there’s no traditional combat it resorts to old school DnD dice rolling mechanics as a substitute to progress through skill-check dialogues. This game offers everything fans of text-heavy RPGs could ever want (other than combat).

On the other hand if you love reading, this might very well be one of your most fulfilling time spent in a digital media. You learn life lessons, politics, uncover mysteries and hunt strange, pseudo-fictional creatures with equally bizarre characters.

If you’re only mildly opposed to reading in games, I’d still suggest you give it a try. The writing is very good: succinct and dynamic. Having said that, let’s being with a short story….

Once upon a time there was a game called Planescape: Torment. It was deep and rich with atmosphere and very high-quality writing. Then came a game called Torment: Tides of Numenera. A spiritual successor which, without going into too much detail, dived into the very deepest ends of the video game nostalgia pool and then remembered it did not know how to swim, nor was it wearing pool floaties.

Fast forward to the present. A game called Disco Elysium boldly wears the same familiar trappings – numbered dialogue choices, faintly orangeish red text color for your set of choices, and the sheer volume of text. But unlike the aforementioned entry, this game does not simply wear a photocopy of the original’s skin and claim victory. Disco Elysium is not Planescape: Torment, but also is. Different skin, different body, different identity, but the same soul. A soul of contemplative awareness and observation. And a passion for taking the player on a journey and subjecting you to an experience you are unlikely to forget.

disco Elysium time

source: TIME Magazine

Setting

Disco Elysium is a narrative-driven isometric RPG for adults, the old school term for these kind of games is cRPG . It has some sci-fi but mostly deals with darker adult topics (addiction, existential dread, failures in life, murder mystery, politics etc.) in a pseudo-realistic world. The game also has an extremely expansive lore and history, which can be a little overwhelming at times.

The place where the game takes place is called Revachol, a dreamy industrial town that reminds one of the 70s. The game’s name is an allusion to the disco sub-culture of the 70s which was composed of flashing lights, drugs and style. Disco clubs were also associated with the sexual revolution of that time and were a huge proponent for sexual expression.

Despite all the doom and gloom it is also one of the funniest and engaging games I’ve ever played. It had me laughing out loudly at many moments, and is a fun entry into a blissful world of escapism. I’d like not to spill all the beans just yet but just know that I can barely remember being that invested in a video game story in a while. You play a cop who is trying to solve a murder in a crap-sack world, that’s all you need to know beforehand. And so begins a thought-provoking personal journey about life and moving on, yet a pretty bizarre journey into the unknown…

Joker dancing disco elysium

Credit: u/dreamcast5

Character Creation

The first time you start the game, you’re greeted with a few pre-made characters. I would suggest to skip past these and create your own based on the character creator screen you get, but it’s up to you.

character creation disco elysium

To deal with the fragmented nature of our protagonist’s mind, the player has various types and schools of thought, which are divided into elements such as physical, psychological, intellect and motor skills (shown above). You can put points into any of these starting out and create a combination that reflects your real self for true roleplaying value. Some of the skills seem pretty standard- Perception, Endurance, Logic – but there are more outlandish ones as well, like Inland Empire (a skill that allows you to be in tune with your gut feeling and also talk to objects sometimes) and Shivers (a skill that allows you to feel the surrounding you’re in) and so on.

Each of these aspects is represented by an entity that has its own dialogues and perspectives on how best to deal with a situation, and options for dialogue and special actions – based on a digital data roll – whose success rate depends on how many points you devoted to a particular mindset.

With this system, the player can define the essence of who this individual you control, as well as how they treat people and investigate the crimes and problems around them.

It is through these foundations that Disco Elysium shines: every conversation or internal monologue, however inconsequential it may seem, offers something new, whether it be about Revachol, Martinaise, its inhabitants or the world around them, or their own character.

Disco Elysium is a medium that can tie great text to a gameplay with a simple system at first glance, but allows for interesting situations and new perspectives depending on the type of character you have shaped. Further pushing what video games are able to accomplish, which sometimes traditional mediums like movies and books aren’t able to.

The Journey

disco Elysium beginning

You start the game as a detective who has totally lost his memory after consuming an absurd amount of alcohol and drugs, and now the player’s main goal is to uncover who is responsible for the murder of a man hanged from the tree at the back of the hotel where you are staying.

You wake up disoriented in a hotel room with barely any context, jolted up by your nervous system talking to you with it’s dreamy voice. You’re slowly pulled out from the existential dread as your brain returns to normal functioning. And your first task is to get your tie dangling from the fan above, the results of attempting can unexpectedly be fatal depending on your luck. Once you manage to get it, you gather rest of your clothes and after some deep introspection in front a mirror you head out.

A person standing outside your hotel room provides some of the context of where you had been, who you are and what your job is. After some recollection, you realize you’re knee-deep in a murder mystery case. The partner in crime that accompanies you in your case is detective Kim Kitsuragi, who might as well be one of the coolest cop buddy in video game history.

This main case, however, is only an excuse for exploring a plethora of other complex narratives and themes, which include, but are not limited to: the class conflict between workers and corporations in the form of a docker strike against the owner of the port of City; the fall and failure of communist movements and revolutions, and the mastery of a moralist and liberal model that, in the long run, brought more misery and the popularization of fascist, racist and eugenicist thoughts; and the social and environmental decay of the world around Revachol , the city where these events take place.

As this is a non-spoiler review, I will not delve too deep into the story of the game which is best experienced without any prior knowledge of it. Accompanying the main mystery of the game are also lots of side quests and weird characters to meet. Some of which are often social or political critiques of the world we live in.

The overarching story and the little side quests are brilliantly written, although the game can sometimes be rather self-indulgent and too heavy on it’s in-game lore. I found the first two-thirds of the game to be much stronger than the last one-third when it comes to writing, the slight dip in quality I perceived might just be the result of the mysteries narrowing themselves as the game progresses leaving less to the imagination.  But regardless, the actual quality of the writing and world-building stays consistent throughout and is exceptional in most aspects.

Depending on your skills and choices  you might experience a completely different playthrough than someone else, and here lies one of the greatest things about DE, something I’ve been missing from most recent RPGs: You can really roleplay here! Develop the main character in any direction you want, physically, morally, fashion-wise etc. Since combat does not really play a role you can customize your character far beyond the usual combat focus.

thought cabinet

Thought Cabinet: An in-game mechanic

This is a big and cerebral game, without really trying to be. It’s as much a detective game as it is an RPG, as much a point and click as a visual novel, as much an acid trip as a self help book. It’s wholly and entirely unique, I can’t say I’ve played anything quite like it. It wears it’s hipster badge close to the vest, and is not afraid to be depressingly dark, oddly humorous, drunkenly philosophical, or even grotesquely macho. The sheer amount of freedom in how to tackle situations, the endless and sensible skill checks, the wildly realized universe, it’s all very impressive.

The game also features a mechanic called Thought Cabinet which allows you to internalize certain thought after a specific amount of in-game time. These result in you donning a more permanent aspect of personality and gives slight buffs or debuffs to your character. It is more of a passive ability that you choose and forget about, but ups the fun of roleplaying.

Politics and Emotions

This game is very political in nature and as such is best experienced adopting a political agnostic attitude or with an open mind. There are caricatures of characters of every political ideology, and the political choices presented are usually exaggerated which aim to be satirical rather than sincere.

The political spectrum within the game is somewhat complex; but when boiled down, they mirror real-world ideologies. Shortly:

Communism: an idea of better, more socially just society that led to bloodshed and political fundamentalism. Romanticized because of a failed revolution that did not get enough time to have a full impact.

Liberalism: Everyone is equally free to pursue happiness and success, money is the measure, pursuing profit makes society better as whole. Tends to ignore that some people end at the bottom and can not have same starting conditions as, for example, rich heirs.

Fascism: Comes in monarchist-conservative and racist flavors which often combine. Strong leaders and loyalty to your country and race are good, foreigners are inherently worse and dangerous.

Moralism: A centrist philosophy that prefers slow, gradual change based on your conscience. Dislikes radicalism, but tends to conserve status quo.

The place where the game takes place used to be a corrupt but culturally influential authoritarian kingdom that fascists remember fondly. It was swept by a communist revolution that was defeated by a coalition of states adhering to moralist philosophy officially, but backed by liberal capital-holders. It currently has no strong local government and is a sort of international protectorate, a bit like Bosnia after Yugoslav wars.

Disco Elysium is pretty balanced in its portrayal of politics. Communism is shown sympathetically, but one of the most prominent communist NPCs (Evrart) is an utter tool who murdered his predecessor to get where he is. Meanwhile the effects of capitalism on the people are shown to be harsh, but one of the NPCs, Joyce is probably the most reasonable character in the whole game. There’s more to the game politics but they’re best experienced first hand, as mentioning them here with little contextual knowledge wouldn’t be very helpful. The game overall, however, does tend to lean more into leftist ideologies than right or central ones.

But at it’s heart the game is largely humanist or empathetic towards failure and the way that people fall short, where even the antagonists and the political figures that you pose as your enemies are so compassionately seen as human. And Harry (the player character) is the emblem of that – the game revels in his smallness, his flaws, his failures, his weaknesses and fuck ups but it didn’t feel cruel, it felt deeply compassionate. It didn’t seem like it was saying a person’s beliefs and hopes are bad and worthy of mockery but instead that even when your beliefs and hopes fall short, even when you know there are things that people make fun of you for believing and they echo inside you, aren’t you still a human being? And that compassion for Harry is reflected into the other characters too.

The sincerity in the game lies in finding beauty and meaning in a world full of flaws. To me that’s a very sincere positioning, rather than an ironic one. Places where the vulnerable humanity of other characters that first seemed like monsters or shitheads shines through with a kind of sincerity that you don’t often get in video games.

The game is also full of heartfelt and sincere revolutionary sentiment – the hug with the working class woman, having to tell a working class woman bad news, the entire sentiment around the revolution being one of terrible, aching loss and failure, and the eventual rediscovery of beauty and fantasy in a world seemingly beaten down by material realities.

Emotions are captured amazingly in the context of the setting the world takes place in. It made me stop and ponder for a while in my breakthroughs. There are little conversations with side characters or your partner that feel very relatable.

dialogue

Technical

The game runs on Unity Engine and had quite high graphic requirements during initial release but with subsequent releases the developers have managed to lower it and it is vastly more accessible as a result, possible to run even on low-end PCs.
The Art design of the game completely fits the game atmosphere, the unique oil painting art gives it a very distinct expression not found in many other similar games. Games act as a gateway to a universe other than your own, and the first impression is usually the art. If it speaks to you, the game is further elevated and is a much more enjoyable experience.
With over a million words of dialogues, it is a gargantuan task to attempt to voice them all with limited resources from a small indie team, hence only some of the central parts of the game is voiced. While sparse, it’s done brilliantly and pulls you in everytime. There’s no problems I encountered technically in my playthrough and the overall experience was fun.

Conclusion

disco elysium meme

Credit: u/Grindstone_Cowboy

Disco Elysium just walks the line so perfectly between irony and earnestness, and ultimately lets the humanity of its characters shine through, even though the game is set in a largely cynical setting. I sincerely wish more video games like Disco Elysium existed, which tell interesting stories and explore significant themes through the use of interactive storytelling. I would highly recommend this for fans of old school RPGs, or even casual fans fine with text-heavy games. It will be a fulfilling and amazing experience you don’t get very often from a piece of fiction.

I haven’t talked much about the flaws of the game and that is because, for a game like this, it is largely subjective and you should play it and form your own mind about it. Personally, there wasn’t much I disliked about it– other than thinking that the ending could be slightly better and at some places the game can lock you out of choices because of the luck-based dice roll mechanic. Anywhow…

I would highly recommend this game, it takes around 20-30 hours to beat and let me know your thoughts down below in the comments if you’ve already played it. As a huge fan of RPG gaming, I would put this in my top 3 RPGs of all time, up there with Witcher 3 and Divinity: Original Sin 2– my other two personal favorites!

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