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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.
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