Review: Disco Elysium

Developer: ZA/UM
Publisher: ZA/UM
Genre: RPG
Platforms: PC
Rating: M for Mature
Price: $39.99

I have a confession to make. I think I might like RPGs! Shocking, I know. Perhaps more shocking if you were to know me in real life. I am always inclined to be moving, whether I’m tapping my feet, twiddling my thumbs, or just bopping my head to a beat only I can hear. This restlessness even tends to seep into how I approach big life decisions; I can only live somewhere for about four years before the wanderlust comes back, my foot starts tapping, and I have to force myself not to quit my job and buy plane tickets.

It’s really not a surprise that my taste in games reflects these characteristics. It’s not just that I play high octane shooters that don’t leave you with a moment to breathe (though I do enjoy those), but I also appreciate games that are paced well  and conclude in a timely fashion so I can zip ahead to the next experience. 

But for the most part, RPGs haven’t been like that for me. I often associate them with awkward, overdramatic cutscenes, endless grinding to make the game even remotely beatable, and complicated storylines that require you to play the last fifteen games in the series to have a chance at understanding the story. But once in a blue moon, I would find one that furnishes likable qualities. Games like Fallout New Vegas and The Outer Worlds provided something for me just under the surface that I enjoyed. That something inspired me to immediately start a new campaign in New Vegas right after finishing my first one, which I rarely do. As I started Disco Elysium, I slowly felt this extraordinary feeling creep back up as the hours passed. There’s something special about this game, and it might just have changed how I feel about an entire genre. 

Content Guide

Sir, did your mother allow you to go outside with that shirt on?

Language

Heavy. Frequent uses of f**k, d**n, H**l, f****t, s**t, d**k, c**t, b***h. Basically any word you can think of is used by everyone from the main character to local adults and even children. The Lord’s name is taken in vain frequently, both by your character and most other character’s in the game

Sexual Content

Frequent references to genitalia and sexual situations. The main character can attempt to unsuccessfully seduce someone, and characters sometimes talk in detail about sexual encounters. A nude corpse can be seen, though genitals are unclear. Said corpse is thoroughly examined, but details are provided mostly through text. The rape of one character is described secondhand, and several characters casually make reference to sexual encounters.  The main character can be extremely aggressive in their sexual pursuit of another character, but this will not result in actual sex. No explicit nudity, though some characters can wear low cut clothing. The game is played in an overhead perspective, so physical features are not very visible. However, characters are seen close up during conversations, and a few of them wear slightly revealing clothing. 

Substances

Many characters, including children, reference or are seen using drugs. These range from smoking to alcohol to hard drugs. The main character is explicitly addicted to tobacco and alcohol, and will have internal monologues concerning whether or not to give in to the addiction. Drugs and alcohol can be consumed, and will have both positive and negative effects. One of the quests involves the potential option of sharing hard drugs with a small child.

Just hanging around.

Violence

A corpse is seen hanged from a tree, and can be studied in vivid detail. Over time, the main character slowly discovers the events leading up to the lynching. Combat with other characters is possible, and can result in  gunfights or fistfights, though these occur rarely. The main setting has a history of violent revolution, and this can be seen or described by the main character. Your character handles a corpse during an investigation and gives detailed descriptions of injuries and bodily fluids. Two of the frequently seen characters are children, and both describe histories of child abuse and encourage the player to commit violent acts. The protagonist can aggressively strike one of these children, and lethally shoot another one in a very intense scene. 

Themes

Suicide, depression, death, child abuse, racism, sexism, police brutality, rape, substance abuse and others are all addressed within the game. The player can choose to lean into some of these themes, such as learning about and agreeing with a racist ideology or succumbing to drug addiction. As the game progresses, the player character can develop a variety of political identities, including fascism and communism. 

Spirituality

The setting is different enough to where there is no discernible Judeo-Christian religion, and most characters are not depicted as religious. However, some are very superstitious, and quests can involve the player investigating a perceived curse along with other paranormal instances. The main player deals with vivid hallucinations including talking to the dead and hearing voices that could be perceived as demonic. All these instances are implied to be the result of drugs or a mental condition, and in most scenarios it is not made clear whether supernatural forces exist.

Positive Content:

The game has a heavy focus on freedom of choice, so positive choices are entirely up to the player. If they utilize self-control, players can overcome alcohol and drug addictions, defend the helpless, care for children from broken homes, and generally bring kindness to a community that has fallen on hard times. You play as a police officer, and, while many characters will try to convince you to compromise on your morals, your partner serves as a constant guide to follow the rules and maintain your standards. Resisting temptation and instead choosing the righteous path is challenging, and provides the most positive content in the game. 

Review

Disco Elysium is a journey, to say the least. I think that’s probably the best word to describe it, as neither the beginning nor the end seem particularly noteworthy. On one side, you have an amnesiac “supercop” who is washed up and needs to regain his dignity by solving an impossible murder. On the other side, you have a case that is solved, someway, somehow. The above sentences describe an awful lot of well-loved movies, so what makes Disco Elysiumany different? Well, for starters, you have to play it; it dedicates itself to showing, not telling, a whole lot off the bat. You start off with a bunch of disembodied voices taunting you, and you have to respond to their confusing jeers and jabs before you even have any idea what’s going on. Eventually, you wake up in a hotel room, where you stumble around and realize you don’t remember anything: your face, your name, your occupation, none of it. 

Disco is back, baby!

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. In fact, I would argue that Disco Elysium executes this with the tough love attitude of a mama bird pushing her children out of the nest. It basically says “Hey, your character has amnesia, a drug addiction, and needs to solve a murder.  You seem like a smart kid, I’m sure you can figure it out”. Over the course of several hours, this core feature turns out to be remarkably immersive at some points and unbearably frustrating at others. Many games have used the “main character with amnesia” scenario before. Unfortunately, its rarely  fleshed out, and is often just used to create a character the player can project themselves onto. However, this protagonist’s amnesia impacts the world well before you start playing.

Many NPCs have already interacted with your character, and the impression he left is not always positive. In one early scene, a suspect will be hesitant to answer questions because she is frightened of you because of something you did. What seems like a routine interrogation quickly turns into a tense puzzle where the wrong answer can leave you with a traumatized woman and no information to show for it. For me, this hit like a splash of freezing cold water. When I start a game, I am used to friendly characters showing me the basic controls, giving me a gun, and pointing me towards something to shoot. What I am decidedly not used to is meeting my partner for the first time and awkwardly bluffing to keep him from realizing that I don’t have a gun, badge, or even a name. This reversal of what is usually expected from tutorials can be jarring, but it also provided one of the most memorable game openings I have ever played. The actions  I chose during this part of the game were awkward, bumbling, and often incorrect. But in the end, they form the building blocks of how your protagonist views the world, and, in turn, how others view them. 

They seem to be upset.

This story beat leads into one of the finest examples of gameplay and story integration that I’ve seen. The confusing opening and sudden reveal of the somewhat overwhelming UI immediately puts the player into their character’s shoes. The protagonist is confused, concerned, and uncertain of what to do next. So you make your first choice of the game: you take those first shaky steps outside and start slowly piecing together the world around you. The game’s writing shines as it maintains this relationship throughout: your journey to uncover bits and pieces of the game mirrors the protagonist’s own. Even hours into the game, Disco Elysium manages to skillfully avoid the decline these kinds of stories are likely to have. Often, the player will get used to the game mechanics, and the protagonist’s amnesia will slowly fade into the background in favor of showcasing how awesome the character is. In contrast, I never felt like I fully understood the situation here. Between grappling with lost memories, finding clues, and dealing with increasingly sketchy characters, settling for an uneasy feeling of having things under control  becomes the norm.

Totally in control. Yep, nothing to see here

Speaking of sketchy characters, we should probably address the usual suspects. Much of your time in Disco Elysium will be spent chatting with a colorful collection of characters, hoping to glean the next bit of information that could lead to a breakthrough in the case. On a surface level, the dialogue system doesn’t look too different from your average RPG. You work through a list of talking points, gathering information until you hit a skill check. For example, you might have an empathy check to get information from someone by relating to them. You have enough points in empathy, so you pass the skill check and then click on the next dialogue option, patiently waiting for your reward. To your shock, the character becomes standoffish and will no longer speak to you. This is another example of how Disco Elysium keeps the player on their toes. Rather than simply requiring the brute force of leveling up conversation skills, you need to pay careful attention to people and carefully pick your words. Allegiances, ideologies, and even upbringings serve to create verbal minefields that you’ll need to traverse if you want the case to get anywhere. 

Investigating

Though the story and dialogue system stand strong individually, they are heavily supported by the well crafted gameplay systems, each of which plays into how the player chooses to craft their character. As mentioned above, you will often encounter skill checks, ranging from strength to intuition to dexterity and beyond. You can try these skill checks at any time, though failing them may have consequences. For example, trying to fight a character and failing to pass the skill check may result in a loss of health and some embarrassment on your part. The brilliance of this system lies in how progression works. Though some skill checks permanently lock if you fail them, most can be tried again if you level up and put skill points into that particular ability. However, you don’t have to pass certain skill checks to succeed in the case. Instead, you could focus on putting points somewhere else and trying to solve the case from a different angle. This keeps skill points from feeling insignificant; rather, every time you level up a skill, you make a uniquely personal decision about how you want to solve the case. These systems affect every aspect of your interaction with the world, from examining corpses to interrogating shopkeepers, leading to a fully player-crafted play-style.

Getting those (stat) gains!

This all comes together to create a living, breathing, world that stares the player in the face and asks “how are you going to fix it?” The art style and music combine to create an atmosphere that is somehow grotesque yet hopeful. A young girl cheerfully reads in a brightly lit bookshop while children throw stones at a hanging corpse just outside the window. Upbeat music plays in a cafe while dangerous men plan another murder in one of the booths. This is the world you wake up in, and how you choose to fix it is up to you. Morality is as complex as anything else, and the dialogue system will often find you slipping down paths you never expected to embark. You might not want to work with shady characters, but you have no authority and they might have information. You might want to stay sober, but alcohol would boost certain stats. In the end, the game’s tagline summarizes it best: “Become a hero or an absolute disaster of a human being.” 

Well, at least my brain is organized.

Put simply, Disco Elysium is a masterpiece. I’ve played a lot of games that have better puzzles, dialogue, or story than Disco Elysium. But rarely have I found a game that managed to pull all of its elements together so cohesively. Over the course of my time playing, I took note of various things I found annoying or flawed. But as I sunk more time into the game’s world, it changed me. Those flaws became realities of the game that somehow tied into its narrative perfectly. They needed to be there, no matter how frustrating. I have rarely felt so invested in the journey of a character, and I believe that this game offers an experience more than anything else. If you’re an impatient, quick-minded person like me who normally scoffs at RPGs, push past the slow start and give this one a try. You won’t regret it. 

The Bottom Line

Disco Elysium presents an unforgettable experience that is only occasionally weighed down by pacing issues, but otherwise soars to new heights of interactive storytelling.

 

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Malachi Key

Malachi would like to say he's an aspiring actor, writer, and film maker. Realistically, he spends a lot of time playing video games and occasionally makes cool stuff at 3:00 in the morning. Born in Texas but raised overseas, he's doing his best to understand the wild and wonderful USA and learn to love all its people the way his Savior would.

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