Disco Elysium Review — Superstar Cop Confronts Reality
Disco Elysium is an impressive RPG that eschews combat for conversations and introduces an engaging world that rewards inquisitiveness.
Role Playing Game
Review copy provided by the publisher
Disco Elysium is an open world RPG that is more concerned with conversations than it is with turn-based or real-time combat. You’re likely to play the entire game and never fire more than a single shot. Instead of a vast array of party members, you have one, and instead of a large sprawling map, you have a few blocks of Martinaise, a town within the larger city of Revachol, in which to conduct your murder investigation to find a hidden killer. Ongoing is a union strike between the workers headed by corrupt twins and the billionaire corporate owners of the dock and its equipment. Smaller drama exists throughout the streets, backyards, and dilapidated buildings of Martinaise. You have a wealth of skills to help you, and you’ll have to min-max them if you want to pass significant skill checks. There’s no maxing out everything in this game, though.
Disco Elysium contrasts itself from other RPGs by those elements, as well as by portraying the failure of individualist thinking in the face of conflict that includes and affects so many more people than one skilled detective. It cleverly adapts the trope of an amnesiac player character, endears the player with its often comedic dialogue text, presents an impoverished land without devolving into hopelessness, and gives you an engaging world full of tasks large and small for you to work out yourself. It’s a very impressive RPG that allows the player to make mistakes and force them to deal with the consequences, and is certainly one of the most unique and ambitious RPGs being released this year.
“[Disco Elysium] is certainly one of the most unique and ambitious RPGs being released this year.”
Playing Disco Elysium mainly means reading, lots and lots of reading. This is a very text-heavy game which will disappoint those who are looking for more of a voice-over heavy game in the vein of modern Fallout and Bioware games. An advantage of text-based over visual-based presentation means there is much more variety and depth to the people and topics at hand. Much like how books supersede movies in terms of conjuring a larger and deeper image of events, Disco Elysium’s reliance on text means it is able to describe things to the player that they would never be able to render, as well as allow the player character to have a constant internal dialogue with themselves.
Every type of skill comes with its own voice and unique portrait that will often chime in during dialogue or while simply observing the world. The flexibility and ease of writing and displaying text means variations in conversations are much simpler than if every piece of dialogue was spoken, though the game does still have voice acting for the portions everyone is guaranteed to hear. It allows Disco Elysium to have much more varied playstyles than the generally binary good/bad found in role-playing games that include some kind of moral point system.
While there is a form of point system, its less about binary morality and more focused on ideologies: communist, fascist, moralist, and ultraliberal. There is also a similar point system for the type of cop you are: superstar, apocalypse, sorry, and boring. While these unlock specific thoughts (more on those later), they mainly exist to add texture to your player character. What your detective chose to say as opposed to my detective when it came to the type of government they preferred, their opinion on the union strike, and so on is what, alongside obvious things like specific character/plot thread endings, will differentiate your detective from mine.
The main focus of Disco Elysium is a murder mystery surrounding a corpse you find hanged in the backyard of the hostel you are staying at. As the investigating detective, you are joined by Kim Kitsuragi, a lieutenant from another precinct who is also investigating the murder, in order to find out the who, what, where, when, how, and why of the murder. Along the way, you’ll also engage with many, many other tasks, some of which will loop back around to your main investigation in surprising ways, and others that are tangential but satisfying to pursue in their own right. Kim is the other major character aside from your many internal dialogues and is a very endearing person. Some of the best dialogue comes from his reactions to your choices. He is willing to put up with your shit, and it’s hard not to try and keep him happy or, at the very least, not be an outright asshole. Most everyone else is the same, they have their own shit to deal with, and being the worst cop I could be was hard to do, especially because it was the beginning of a second playthrough where I already knew them and their wants and history.
Martinaise is an open world but not with the vast expanse of modern third-person action RPGs. Instead, it is much more focused on depth of place and people than on creating a large, mostly empty, space to spend dozens of hours traversing. This depth means conversations will sometimes have about 10 different options of inquiry, some leading to subtopics. Asking certain questions or deducing certain facts will require a skill check. Due to the large number of different skills, you are pretty much guaranteed to have more than a fair share of low rated checks that are failed. Your journal will keep track of failed checks, as well as highlight ones that can be currently retried. Conversations are also the way by which the game largely proceeds time and rewards experience points. Time stands still as you move about the areas and explore, but will proceed according to predetermined measures when you talk with yourself, others, or read books. Eventually, you will have to sleep, and people will leave to go to bed when it gets too late. Exhausting conversational options is also the most surefire way to earn experience.
“ThoughDisco Elysium is largely a noir in that it delves deep into moral ambiguity, it avoids becoming nihilist through its characters and humor.”
That experience builds up to a skill point that can be used to level up a specific skill, which will also unlock white checks tied to that skill, or to open up new thought slots or forget an existing thought. Each skill check is a literal dice roll that you pass or fail based on the difficulty of the check and your total skill points from both your base level, and bonuses offered by item use, clothing, and active thoughts. Thoughts are passive bonuses that require a time investment to internalize and a hidden prerequisite to be reached before it unlocks to internalize. The bonus you get isn’t listed beforehand, but are largely very good and worth the time and skill investment, even if it reduces a specific skill sometimes while you internalize it. My favorite thoughts were ones that granted healing for failed checks, as well as granted experience and money for common things such as engaging with the many observations and thought points that appear as you move about the town.
Though Disco Elysium is largely a noir in that it delves deep into moral ambiguity, it avoids becoming nihilist through its characters and humor. There are a lot of great small moments of text that will appear and cause a small chuckle. One of my favorites is after you have internalized the “Actual Art Degree” thought that results in a deduction to hand/eye coordination because, “Hands shake from anger how shit it all is.” Humor much like that is found pretty often, and conversations with others will always include bringing up a specific quote from the game we enjoyed.
The art of the game, though, is definitely not shit. It is hard to describe, but the colors, the impression the landscapes cause, the various portraits of characters and skills, and especially the grotesque art of the thought cabinet is very good. Something I didn’t care for was the music, as the overworld theme got old fast and so instead a majority of my playtime was with background music of 1940s jazz playlists on YouTube, which worked quite well. It knows when to commit to the bit as well, such as when you proceed to ask for the number of variations possible for a game-within-a-game that went defunct during development (involving obvious meta-commentary to indie game development in general) and are met with a long section of scrolling numbers with an occasional “Continue” click requirement.
Amnesia is often a trope within role-playing games that allow the player to fill the blank canvas of their in-game character with whatever they want. Having an amnesiac playable character is much like a silent protagonist in a first-person shooter, in that its a device used to allow the player to inhabit the character as much as possible. As opposed to the silent shooter, the amnesiac hero talks and makes decisions, they are just more the player’s decisions than that character’s.
With Disco Elysium this trope is narratively justified in a way that works very well within the fiction. You had a previous life, but the pain of a breakup and the stress of detective work became too much for you to handle so you eventually succeeded in obliterating your mind with drugs and alcohol after a significant bender. The player is introduced as the character wakes up from this obliteration knowing next to nothing of his past life and world history. Flashes of it do appear through muscle memory and bits of encyclopedia that filter through passive conversation checks. It also helps that your amnesia is not simply dropped early on once you have a bearing on the world and conflict. Instead, it persists throughout the entire game, even to the very final conversation. It’s a very nice inclusion that differentiates the detective from the traditional amnesiac heroes we think of. I refer to the player character as simply detective because you even forget your own name, though you can find it through certain tasks or conversations.
One message Disco Elysium makes clear is that you will not be able to do everything you want in a single playthrough, or even multiple ones. While skill checks often result in different outcomes for pass/fails, very rare specific ones will not, for narrative or thematic reasons. The most pressing example is a door to a bunker you discover after more of the world opens up on Day 3, Wednesday. You try to open it and your partner asks why. You can respond that opening doors is your thing and he’ll inform you that not every door has to be opened, which unlocks a new thought about the door and forces you to confront the fact that not everything you come across will end the way you want it to.
Mechanically, this means sometimes you’ll fail a skill check and will be cut off from it forever. Thematically, it fits with the noir genre the developers were going for, in that you’re not always going to be able to change the world into the thing you want it to be. While you can obviously change small scale lives for the better, larger things like the union strike are actually beyond your influence as an individual. Even an individual such as yourself, a detective with power and authority above the average citizen, is not actually capable of solving all the world’s woes, and it’s something you have to accept and embrace.
Even if you aren’t going to pass every check you want, it doesn’t make the action of pursuing every task and white check (meaning it can be retried even if failed) isn’t satisfying. The world of Disco Elysium is so rich and interesting that running down every task, talking to every person, exhausting every dialogue option, optimizing your outfit for the current skill check, and determining what thoughts to internalize are all things I wanted to do and enjoyed doing. There is no deception in regards to the percentage chances as well, as it happened often enough that I would fail a >80% check and pass a <20% check that I believed they weren’t faking the dice rolls for things like being able to lift some barbell weights or work up the courage to ask a rich woman for money outright.
“Disco Elysium is a very ambitious game, and I think it largely pays off.”
During the game, there is a scenario you are surprised with that causes a major shift and directly pushes you towards the final confrontation. Some may view this as the game railroading you down a specific path to the ending, but I was fully invested in seeing it through because of that surprise. Requiring a game to signpost every major point within it robs it of its ability to surprise you, something we allow to happen in movies and books all the time (from “jump scares” to Fight Club).
Disco Elysium will sometimes warn you when a character is leaving soon or an option has no turning back, though these are less consequential than the major surprise confrontation and its following skill checks which can result in some major differences in people’s endings. This major confrontation is even warned, but only if you happen to have a specific skill high enough and are paying attention to the thought circle that appears over your head while running around. There are earlier misdirections as well: people who are lying to you, information being withheld without a hint as to how to bring it about, hidden objectives you accidentally fulfill. Part of the marketing of the game was “make mistakes” and “face the consequences.” Warning the player before the major event, as well as allowing you to simply reload a save until you passed a specific skill check, goes against what the developers were trying to accomplish. Things like making mistakes and living with them as well as having consequences for actions you do, “uninformed” or not, is something more games should do instead of just letting you have access to everything all the time.
Disco Elysium is a very ambitious game, and I think it largely pays off. There are some typos and technical issues, but none of it impeded my enjoyment or interest in playing this game through to completion. I really enjoyed my time with it, especially because of the characters, the mechanics of the inner dialogue, and the overall fiction of the world from its history to the small part of a church that absorbs all sound. I was hoping Disco Elysium would end up being the 60 hours the developer talked about beforehand, but 25 hours is still great, especially since it means more people are likely to finish and talk about their detective and their decisions compared to my own.