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Disco Elysium is described by its developers over at ZA/UM Studio as a groundbreaking open world role playing game with unprecedented freedom of choice, countless tools for role playing, and a revolutionary dialogue system. I don't think I have to tell you how easy it is to be skeptical of such grand claims, especially when they're coming from a team with little to no game development experience.
Still, there was something about Disco Elysium, back when the game was still known as No Truce With the Furies, that piqued my curiosity. What if this is the one? What if these crazy Estonians actually manage to bring some real innovation to the RPG genre? And now that the game is released, we can take it out for a spin and find out.
What Can Change the Nature of an RPG?
Before the game starts you have to decide what kind of cop you want to be. This means choosing one of the three available cop archetypes, or creating your own character. As opposed to a lot of RPGs where the system is designed to work with multiple character classes or a variety of skill sets, in Disco Elysium you play as a detective, and the role-playing system is built around that.
You have a total of four attributes, each of them with six corresponding skills. And behind their fancy names and gorgeous icons, these skills represent the essence of a good detective. Perception, for example, allows you to spot easy to miss clues and details, Visual Calculus lets you reconstruct the crime scene in your head, and Inland Empire governs your intuition and gut feelings. The base value of your skills, along with their learning caps, is determined by your attributes. And while the attributes are pretty much set in stone after your character is created, you can keep inching your skills towards those learning caps by leveling up, wearing specific clothes, or (ab)using various controlled substances.
The system is also designed to represent a character who, before the game starts, was gainfully employed as an officer of the law. So, if you decide to designate, Intellect as your dump stat and leave it at 1, you'll end up with a character who, while not the sharpest tool in the box, is still capable of doing his job, as opposed to something like Fallout where you get a character who can't say “scorpion” right. Same goes for pumping one attribute all the way up. It will make certain tasks easier, but it won't completely safeguard you from failure in tasks related to that attribute.
The skill system takes this one step further and makes it so having high skill values comes with adverse side effects. Say you make a character who's a real tough guy. This will result in you constantly thinking about fighting other people and belittling them for their perceived weakness. Or take things in the other direction and put a few points too many into the aforementioned Inland Empire. This will turn your character from a cop who follows his gut into essentially Fox Mulder on crack who blames the supernatural for every gust of wind.
And this leads us to one of the central ideas behind Disco Elysium. This game tries to innovate in an area of CRPGs that's been stagnant for a very long time. Dialogues. Whether it's keywords, branching dialogue trees, or the oft-maligned dialogue wheel, the purpose of dialogues in CRPGs usually lies in dispensing quests and burying you in lore. Disco Elysium attempts to challenge this and turn talking into actual gameplay reminiscent of pen and paper RPGs.
See, in Disco Elysium your very skills will be talking to you, offering advice, and sharing their perspective on things. Not all of it is useful or even trustworthy so you will have to use your head when deciding which thoughts to listen to, and your character build determines which skills will have the most to say. It's all very seamless, too. While you're talking to NPCs or investigating the world, the virtual Game Master will be rolling lots of dice behind the scenes to determine what extra bits of info you'll be getting at any given point. This is one of the three main types of dice rolls in the game.
The second one are the so-called white checks. At certain points you'll be able to actively exert your skills to get what you want. You do this by rolling two six-sided dice, adding the appropriate skill modifier as well as all the situational bonuses and penalties, and then comparing them against the target value.
The situational modifiers deserve a separate mention as they play into the game's engaging dialogue model. Some of them are fairly simple. You have the right tool for the job in hand? You get an easier roll. But say you're dealing with a tricky suspect instead of a locked container. Then, depending on the dialogue options you choose you can either unbalance the suspect and be rewarded with an easier check, or you can present yourself as a fool and make things harder. This seemingly little thing makes it so you consider what and when to say, instead of simply going down a list of options.
If you fail a white check, you can retry it once you put more points into the related skill, or by meeting some other requirements. This creates a situation where you may be tempted to hoard your skill points and use them to retry failed checks. In a way, this is similar to Iron Tower Studio's Age of Decadence, but because instead of huge chunks of content, in Disco Elysium these checks usually lead to optional clues that can help with your case or additional insights about your character, saving skill points for later use doesn't feel quite as impactful or game-breaking.
Then, there are the red checks. These work similarly to the white ones, but you can't retry them. On the flip side, failing these one-time red checks can lead to some unexpected and sometimes beneficial results. Win or lose, Disco Elysium's red checks are always entertaining and I wish there were more of them in the game.
Assisting your skill system is the Thought Cabinet. If you stumble onto a particularly puzzling idea you can go into your Thought Cabinet and mull it over, which then will give you an internalized thought. Once internalized, a thought becomes a part of your being and starts providing you with passive bonuses and additional dialogue options. Unfortunately, with some exceptions, these bonuses tend to be fairly lackluster and at times the cabinet feels like a bit of an afterthought. Still, while not amazing mechanically, the role-playing possibilities it opens up allow you to better define your character. Plus, if you don't want to spend your skill points on, well skills, you can also use them to unlock additional thought slots or to forget the ones you have internalized.
Coming into the game with a healthy dose of skepticism I was amazed to find out that it all works. At times things can get a bit wobbly, some skills tend to be underrepresented, the game's world isn't nearly as big or open as advertised, and some of the evidence you get by passing tough checks early, you can simply stumble onto later. But it works.
Unless you're someone who's incapable of treating a game as an RPG if it doesn't offer you plenty of tactical battles, you will likely be surprised by how engaging Disco Elysium can get. Don't get me wrong, I love tactical RPG combat. But there are countless games that already do it, and some of it even do it well. Disco Elysium is simply a step in a different direction, a direction where a lengthy conversation can feel like a tough boss battle.
Welcome to Revachol
Now that we've established how the game works, let's get back to what it's about. From the moment you wake up in a wrecked hotel room with no memory of who you are or how you got there, the game will present you with three separate but interconnected story arcs. Who are you and what made you into the mess of a human being grinning at you from the mirror? Who killed the corpse hanging off a tree behind your hotel? What's going on with the Dockworkers Union strike?
Early on, I was worried that the game won't be able to tie it all together into a coherent narrative. But boy was I wrong. There's this popular dramatic principle called Chekhov's Gun that basically states that every element in a story must be necessary. In my head, I like to modify it into something I call Chekhov's Minigun, a similar principle that states that for a story element to be truly satisfying, it has to be connected to multiple other elements. And while I never had any contact with the game's developers, they seem to be masterfully employing this principle in Disco Elysium.
Creating a story like this takes real talent. Making alterations to it is hellishly difficult, since if you try to change one thing, everything else that relies on it falls apart as well. And most of the time, the added effort isn't worth it. And that's why I can't help but commend ZA/UM's writers for actually pulling this off. Without a shadow of a doubt, Disco Elysium is one of the best-written games out there. It might just be the best, but that's not something I can say with any degree of certainty without playing through the game a few times over several years.
Now, usually, I like to provide examples that highlight my points when writing reviews, but in this particular case I'll be making an exception. The game's story, that starts you off as a middle-aged amnesiac alcoholic, goes places, and even minor hints as to what happens can ruin the plentiful jaw-dropping moments and revelations that put you on the edge of your seat and fill you with existential despair.
All I'll say is that Disco Elysium is a damn fine hard-boiled mystery with plenty of laugh out loud moments, a deep philosophical angle, and an ending that may prove fairly divisive, but if you ask me, it fits the game perfectly.
The game is set in a world that's quite similar to our own early 1980s but with numerous differences of varying subtlety. The cars all look funky, there's no television, which makes radio way more prominent, and on the edges of the world there's a mysterious substance known only as the Pale that drives people insane and threatens to at some point completely envelop the world. A setting like this is what people refer to as magical realism. I won't try to explain it to you as I'm no expert on it myself, but in layman's terms imagine if Wes Anderson created a world, Raymond Chandler wrote a story in it, and Hunter S. Thompson edited it. That's Disco Elysium in a nutshell.
This curious world is packed with NPCs that all have one thing in common. They feel deeply and profoundly human. In a game like this it would have been very easy to split the cast between the good guys and the bad guys, assign them appropriate stereotypes and call it a day. Disco Elysium avoids this pitfall and gives pretty much every character a distinct personality with plenty of flaws but a lot to respect as well.
If you dig deep enough, even the characters positioned as antagonists, or bumbling comic relief buffoons, have a reason to be the way they are, which makes it quite difficult to not sympathize with them on some level. And then of course there's Kim Kitsuragi, your new partner who plays the straight man to your cop of the Apocalypse. Ever helpful, Kim has a mind of his own and is always there to ground you in reality or interject in a conversation when he has something to say.
Your best friend while trying to navigate this weave of characters and their problems is your journal. Apart from listing available tasks, it also tracks a series of secondary statistics like the so-called copotype that's determined by your preferred approach to solving cases, the good cop/bad cop meter, and the mysterious Honor points.
The journal also contains the game's take on an alignment system. Instead of Law and Chaos, Disco Elysium has political leanings. And this is one of the few things where I think the game falters narrative-wise. There's already the Union sub-plot that shows off plenty of class struggle, hidden agendas, and nefarious machinations. It's done in a subtle and thought-provoking fashion. Why then, does the game feel the need to turn some of its NPCs into exaggerated poster boys for various fringe ideologies is beyond me.
And on top of that, you will often get dialogue branches that serve no purpose other than to let you express some dumb political opinion and gain some points for your character sheet. Sure, the game doesn't discriminate and makes fun of all available ideologies, but still, more often than not these political chats feel tacked on and completely unnecessary.
Still, while fairly annoying, this is just one minor aspect of an otherwise great game. A game that gets frequently compared to Planescape: Torment. And in a way, I feel that it's an apt comparison. You have your amnesiac protagonist with a mysterious past, an unusual and intriguing world filled with colorful characters, and then there's of course the high baseline level of writing. It all feels faintly familiar but at the same time fresh and not at all derivative.
What can change the nature of a man? You'll be pondering this age-old question while trying to figure out what put your protagonist into that hotel room. The game doesn't answer this question. It intentionally leaves things ambiguous. It provides you with a few possible explanations and lets you choose one for yourself. And seeing how I'm still thinking about this, days after I finished the game, the developers must have done something right.
Had I been more knowledgeable about all the different art styles and their practical applications, I probably could have told you all about Disco Elysium's visuals and the inspirations behind them. As is, all I can say is that the game oozes style and is an absolute joy to look at. Character models may be a bit too basic, but they fit the game's world and have a certain unmistakable charm to them.
The game's soundtrack was composed by British Sea Power. It's an indie rock band, apparently. I've never heard of them before playing Disco Elysium, but they do have a detailed Wikipedia page and a healthy number of albums. What's more important is that even though their music is not at all my cup of tea, the stuff they've put together for the game is simply outstanding.
Voice acting, on the other hand, can be a bit uneven. Some of the characters, you can't get enough of and just want them to never stop talking. Others sound perpetually tired, like their actors are just mumbling their lines into cheap microphones in some basement somewhere. Thankfully, the limited nature of Disco Elysium's voice acting means that the bad parts don't get enough screen time to get properly grating.
As a whole package, Disco Elysium is masterfully made and radiates charm. For a game that throws lots of text at you, it doesn't feel overwritten. You never feel like you're being encircled by pointless walls of text. The dialogues are punchy and flow naturally, and the lore dumps are only there if you go looking for them. And for the first time in I don't know how many years, instead of doing my best to skip all the useless lore, I was actively trying to learn things about Disco Elysium's intriguing world.
The game also tracks the passage of time, but it doesn't rush you. Time passes only during conversations, which leaves you free to explore the world at your own pace. On top of introducing a day/night cycle and timed quests, the passage of time also has the added benefit of gradually changing the overall mood of the game. On the first day, after you have just woken up, you're extremely confused and don't know much about anything. This opens up the possibility for learning about the world and leads to plentiful humorous, and oftentimes ridiculous, situations. Then, as you get your bearings and get a chance to sleep things off, the game's tone shifts ever so slightly and becomes more of a straight detective story with just some bits of craziness on top.
Unfortunately, the game can't keep this up and at some point it starts to run out of steam, putting you on a fairly linear path by the very end. Not knowing all the details, I blame this on a lack of budget, as it almost feels like there should have been more content in the final act. Prior to launch, the developers estimated the game's length at around 60 hours. In reality, it's closer to 30. If I'm being honest, I don't see a game like this maintaining the same level of quality over 60 hours, so that's not the problem. I just wish that the final act offered us a bit more freedom.
Another thing that may have suffered due to budgetary constraints are the animations. The ones that exist in the game are top notch. Tight, believable, and fun to observe. But while your character and his partner get plenty of varied animations, with some notable exceptions NPCs remain static and only move to new spots when you're not looking.
Then, there's the final showdown. While the game doesn't have a proper combat system, it has some instances of physical conflict that get resolved through text-based dice rolls. Near the end, you and your partner will find yourself in the midst of a volatile standoff. You'll be throwing dice after dice to try and diffuse the situation and once diplomacy fails and bullets start flying, you'll do even more frantic rolling to try and get through this firefight in one piece.
Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, this is the only such high-stakes fight present in the game. I wish there were more. But even so, the game doesn't feel unfinished, and that's perhaps the most important thing. And when you notice that your character's head follows the cursor as you explore, well that's just a nice bonus.
For being created by a bunch of artists, the game is surprisingly well-polished on the technical side of things. During my playthrough I didn't encounter any game-breaking bugs, or any bugs at all for that matter. The game crashed on me once, but that's it. Amazed at the fact that a game can launch in our day and age without being a buggy mess, I looked it up online, and as it turns out, others have been encountering some minor issues here and there, but nothing too major from what I can tell.
At the same time, I really wasn't happy with the Options menu. It's absolutely barren. You can't even limit the frame rate in-game, not even through Vsync. And with this being a Unity Engine title, you really need that feature, otherwise your graphics card will try to push the FPS to infinity and in the process get hotter than it has any right to be. In my experience, all Unity Engine games suffer from this problem and Disco Elysium is no exception. Thankfully, I was able to enable Vsync through the Nvidia control panel, but that's a workaround for something that should have been in the game.
There's also no way to rebind keys and in order to learn which key does what, you need to first start playing and then press F1. But hey, at least you can customize the font size. Plus, the game is fairly quick to save and load. And the save system is pretty robust, featuring manual saves, quick saves, and autosaves.
Finally, this being a text-heavy game, when it comes to typos, there are enough of them to be noticeable, but not enough to get really annoying.
If you decide to play Disco Elysium, chances are it will resonate with you unlike any video game that came before it. And if not, at the very least you'll be getting a great hard-boiled mystery powered by a unique role playing system. Sure, some things could have been done better and there's plenty of room for nitpicking, but at the end of the day, Disco Elysium is a fantastic game and a once in a lifetime experience that sets a new bar for video game writing. And as a result, I can't recommend it enough.