The time has come! You all have read me rave, no DISCO, about the detective RPG Disco Elysium. From the moment I saw the original trailer, I knew I had to get my hands on this game. Sitting down at PAX East to play, I forgot I was even at PAX for the hour I explored the world that Studio ZA/UM created. Disco Elysium endeavored to take on the seeming impossible, create an RPG centered around investigation and social interaction with countless conversation options, information to intuit, things to discover, and OH GOD IS THAT MY FACE!? WHY IS IT DOING THAT? While accomplishing this for an hour is still impressive it wouldn’t be until the full release would we see if Disco Elysium could keep up the momentum for an entire RPG experience. I’ve been waiting nearly two years for this, so lets dig in,as in discover feelings you didn’t even know you had dig in. Who even are you? Who am I?
Disco Elysium starts with nothing. The sweet, sweet promise of nothing forever and ever. Your ancient reptilian brain promises the call of eternal darkness is a worthwhile endeavor. That is until your limbic system gets involved and it pretty much goes downhill from there. You wake up in nothing but your underwear, convinced your head is trying to murder you. No recollection of who you are, where you are, or why you are where you are. What you do know is you did this to yourself, for some reason, and that you should probably find your clothes. (Though technically it is not required.) It doesn’t take long to realize that you are apparently some sort of superstar… It doesn’t take long to realize that you are apparently some sort of general… It doesn’t take long to realize that you are apparently some sort of detective. You are here because there is a dead body hanging from a tree. You’ve been here for three days, and it is still there. Which is good news, you know why you are here, but you still seem to be missing your name and any relevant information to your apparent investigation. I won’t go too much more into the story because there is so much to discover and moments to experience that I don’t want to spoil for anybody.
These moments and interactions change quite a bit depending on what stats you decide to start out with. The wide variety of stats and huge number of options for solutions points to some great replay value as there will definitely be things you won’t experience or achieve in a single playthrough. This is one of those games where the writing makes you just really want to see everything possible
These stats are broken down into four attributes Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics. Each of those also have six skills that impact more specific areas of those core attributes. These stats will impact success in a variety of different skill checks. Luckily, the game does provide a percentage of how likely you are to succeed at any given check before committing to it. Many of the checks are one and done, meaning you will have to deal with the consequences of your failure. There are also many checks that allow you to return to them once you’ve invested more points into the applicable skill.
You gain points to invest through leveling up. You gain experience throughout your play for talking to people, finding important information, and completing tasks. It’s important to check your clothes, because each item of clothing grants bonuses and/or penalties to your various skills. For example, the Disco-Ass Blazer provides a bonus to Espirit de Corps. If you happen to come across a skill check that requires that skill you can back out, put on the blazer if you don’t already have it on, and then go for it with the bonus.
Additionally, there are ideas you can internalize into your “Thought Cabinet”. Once equipped for a specified amount of in game time the idea becomes a part of your character. Whether it’s centered around a philosophy or history, these ideas can shape conversation options and give bonuses and penalties to stats. These ideas range from “Volumetric Shit Compressor”, “Finger Pistols (9mm)”, “Some Kind of Superstar”, and many others.
Controlling through these interactions and skill checks is relatively simple; clicking with the mouse the person or item you’d like to interact with and then clicking on your desired conversation option is how you’ll spend 90% of the game. However, much of the game is in your head as you try to piece together all of the information you’re gathering to not only solve the murder but the mystery of you as well. Deciding the best way to solve a problem is based on your various stats. Do you try to muscle your way past that guard or talk your way into his good graces?
On top of the brilliant writing, the game is presented in one of the most unique and amazingly done art directions I’ve seen in a game. Inspired by Gothic oil paintings, everything seems a little grimy, dark, depressing, and somewhat stylized. It was the art that caught my eye back when I viewed the original trailer and I knew I wanted to see more and play this game. Even from the main menu and overall UI design I love what I see and wanted to see more! The character portraits capture so much information from facial expressions, to colors, and their overall design gives insight into their personalities. Every color in the game seems to have at least a little brown in it which pushes the downtrodden and depressing feeling the setting exudes. The result is any color that lacks that touch of brown really pops out and shines. While everything has a base, even lighting to it, dynamic lighting will impact scenes when applied. The characters flashlight will shine where the cursor is and cast shadows behind objects it hits for example.
Adding to the ambiance of the setting is the sound. Crowds chattering, ocean waves, music, all perfectly tie into the immediate vicinity of every location. While there isn’t a particular track that really stood out to me in the soundtrack, it did its job as background music. The voice acting did just as much to add to the characters as the ambient sounds added to the setting. Selling further characters’ personalities, age, histories, and mood on top of their respective portraits. While not every line of dialogue is voiced, a vast majority of characters are introduced with a voice. While more would have been nice as they are well acted and recorded, this is enough to accomplish what is needed.
One of the shining achievements that Disco Elysium manages to pull off is how it handles failure.
Failing a check doesn’t necessarily mean game over or even that you are stuck. It just can determine what your playthrough can look like. Failing in one way usually results in requiring that you seek another solution. Even losing all your health or psyche results in entertaining end screens detailing what happened rather than simply providing a “You’re Dead” or “Game Over” screen. One of the reasons I love Tabletop Role-Playing Games, or TTRPGs, is that failure can add to a narrative and experience rather than take away from it. The result is I didn’t dread failing checks like I do in other games of the genre. While you can definitely just save before and continuously reload a check until you succeed, there was less desire to do so with Disco Elysium. Perhaps this method would be great for subsequent playthroughs to see what happens to ensure you see more of what the story and setting have to offer.
Where Disco Elysium falls short though is load times. Loading a save, or traveling between areas of the game result in some pretty lengthy waiting periods. It’s been quite awhile since I’ve actually taken note of how long I’m waiting during a load screen, so I would sometimes find myself getting impatient. Modern gaming has also spoiled me with certain quality of life things. One of these things is Autosave, and the feature seems to be only semi-effective in Disco Elysium. While this is certainly more error on my part as a player for not saving more regularly, I definitely would lose progress at times needing to reload due to a “end game” and then not having a recent save to load from. Autosave activating regularly is a pretty expected feature in games these days and the inconsistency of the feature in Disco Elysium was noticeable pretty early on. I’m sure I’m not the only person to fall into this blunder with the same expectation.
Disco Elysium is a wholly unique game and lives up to its tagline of “A Detective RPG”. Its focus on investigation and social interaction, combined with its clever writing, dark sense of humor, and incredible Gothic oil painting inspired art direction help it stand out from the crowd. Just like a superstar cop with his superstar grin, finger guns, and oh-so-deep soul that must be heard by others over a PA system.
If you are a fan of RPGs and want to play something that mixes up the genre, I cannot recommend this game enough.
More information about Disco Elysium can be found on the official website. A Steam copy of the game was provided for the purpose of review.