There aren’t a lot of games that make you want to stop everything else you’re doing and play them. Disco Elysium is one of those games. Developed by ZA/UM studio, Disco Elysium takes you on a wild ride through an alt-reality world, where philosophies and ideologies clash, and conversation is king.
The philosopher’s stoned
Disco Elysium takes place in a world much like our own. There are governments vying for control, factions warring over territory, deeply ingrained racism. But all of this is the backdrop, created by the masterful strokes of a painter creating a world you can get lost in.
The story starts the morning after the bottom of a bottle. A man awakens in a room, naked but for his underpants, so catatonically hungover that he’s forgotten all sense of self and reality. He does not know his name, he has no idea where he is or what he’s doing.
This is the main character. This is you.
From here, the story slowly starts to unfold. You’re a police detective, sent to Martinaise, a small costal district in the city of Revachol, to investigate the hanging of a man. After collecting your clothes, you exit your hotel room and head downstairs where you meet one of gaming’s greatest companions: Kim Kitsuragi.
Kim is a fellow detective from another precinct and he’s the straight man to your funny guy. The wild responses you give during conversations will be made even more hilarious by how Kim reacts. But before I can dive into the impeccable writing, it’s worth understanding the core RPG elements.
The night before
Disco Elysium is a classic RPG. You start the game selecting the type of detective you want to play. Are you a thinker that likes seeing patterns in the world? Perhaps you’re more empathetic, able to read people and listen to your gut. Or perhaps you’re all brawn, able to get information out of people one threat at a time. Alternatively, you can pick your own stats.
This is where Disco Elysium first shows its brilliance. The stats page offers 24 different skills, each with frighteningly horrific imagery and equally subversive uses. Here you’ll find such skills as Inland Empire, which is all about gut feelings and your inner voice, and Electro-Chemistry, which is best summarized by its in-game description: Go to party planet. Love and be loved by drugs.
Depending on your style of police work, how you choose to place skill points when you level up will change dramatically. A line of questioning previously impossible becomes a bit easier if you place a point into Empathy. Or perhaps another point in Savior Faire helped you pick the right beat for a nightclub that’s started on the coast.
In terms of how these activities become easier, it comes down to how Disco Elysium handles interactions. Any special interaction has a success rate, which is altered by skill points, the type of clothing you’re wearing and any additional information you may have gathered. If you choose to attempt one of these interactions, the game will roll a 2d6, show you the results, and you will either fail or succeed.
In most games, failure is never wanted, but Disco Elysium subverts this trope. Failure is just as important as success. Oftentimes, failing a roll can lead to a new line of questioning or even a unique side quest. And the variety of quests in Disco Elysium is mindboggling.
It all begins rather innocuously too: investigate the crime scene. But after about 20 minutes, your quest log may contain such side quests as: sing karaoke, find and smoke cigarettes, pay for damages, and find your badge. As you progress further into the game, you might be asked to figure out what type of bird suits your personality, find missing grasshoppers, and inspect a bouy.
Completing a quest not only helps you understand the world but actively helps you level up. Instead of an XP system that exponentially inflates as you level, the system in Disco Elysium is constant. Each level requires the exact same amount of XP. You feel like you’re constantly making progress toward a new skill point or passive ability.
When Disco Elysium does something, it does it in a unique way. The same holds true for passive abilities. Called “thoughts” in Disco Elysium, these passive abilities are unlocked whenever you encounter a new way of thinking.
After talking to a homosexual man, I unlocked the thought “Homo-Sexual Underground”. This required 8 in-game hours to fully research, at which point my detective was able to figure out whether or not he was a homosexual.
Some thoughts are merely there to add more style to Disco Elysium but more often than not, thoughts are a means of improving the detective. During the research phase, the detective suffers some negatives, like a point loss to Authority, but once the thought is complete a host of benefits are enabled, like earning extra XP on successful Conceptualization rolls. All of this feeds into what is arguably some of the best writing in video games.
Chasing that tequila sunset
The writing in Disco Elysium is the type you want to scream about from the rooftops. Once it’s got you, it’s got you hard and it won’t let you go until you’re exhausted from laughing and crying, and you will either want to marry Kim Kitsuragi or drown your sorrows in tequila.
Everything in the game comes down to the writing. Even the skills mentioned above have their own voices. These voices talk to the detective, and each other. They battle for control, they vie for your attention, and they’ll do everything they can to get you to take their side.
There’s this sense of deep mental unrest. It’s incredibly raw. It’s mirroring the struggles of internal demons in a form that is approachable and digestible. Whenever the detective is battling with the numerous voices in his head, you can feel the anxiety of the situation.
Beyond the subject matter, the form itself is incredible. Disco Elysium has its own vernacular. You’ll be greeted with a land that’s created its own sayings, birthed its own derogatory terms, and evolved its own set of ideologies and philosophies – and each character you meet will have slightly different views on each matter.
When you first start, it’s like trying to make sense of another language. It feels at times as if you are the one with a hangover, struggling to get a grip on reality. The design allows you to learn about the world at the same pace as the main character. You both go on this journey together, discovering the reality in which you exist.
The whole experience is like a Harlan Ellison story come to life. There’s a violent energy coursing through Disco Elysium’s veins, and you just want to sink your teeth in. It’s wildly funny in parts and desperately sad in others. It’s absurd, and heartfelt, and dripping with soul.
The Shakespearean boss fight
The writing in Disco Elysium is more than just a tool for learning about the world, the characters and solving problems, it’s used in what can only be described as boss fights.
Major characters in the plot are the bosses and your words are the weapons. The conversations become the fights. A wrong word spoken offers a chance to strike with an accurate question. You will parry away queries with your own unique line of questioning. Then there are moments when you can try and work something out, ask an odd question, or try and sense something with your gut – some of these you can only try once using the 2d6 dice roll mechanic mentioned earlier.
The underpinning problem here is that you – and by extension the detective – know little about the reality of Revachol or the murder. If the person you’re questioning knows more than you, expect to be pressed. When I first met the union boss Evrart, he knew significantly more than I did, and it struck a blow to my morale – literally – the detective took morale damage.
Take too much morale damage, and the detective will give up, resulting in a game over. The same is true for the health meter. Just because you’re not firing a gun every few minutes doesn’t mean you won’t lose health. Kick a heavy dumpster, try to barge open a door with a shoulder slam, or sit in an uncomfortable chair and you risk taking health damage.
Disco Elysium also has a unique take on armor. In other games, you would slap on different types of armor to help against fire or physical damage. In Disco Elysium, your clothing has a direct effect on your stats. A jaunty hat might increase your perception skill but lower your empathy. It can feel silly to quickly swap around clothes before a conversation-fight, but to some degree it makes sense. We all have clothes that make us feel a certain way, Disco Elysium just takes it to the nth degree.
The color of sound
It’s not just the writing in Disco Elysium that’s impressive, the sound is a cut above the rest as well. Every first line of dialogue a character speaks is voiced, as well as some subsequent, critical lines. What this amounts to is getting a feel for the type of person they are, hearing the way they speak, and then inevitably hearing their voice in your head when you read their dialogue.
Every actor in Disco Elysium has done a tremendous job, but I wanted to point out Mikee W Goodman. Goodman voices the Ancient Reptilian Brain and the Limbic system – the first two voices you hear. It’s these two performances, and the dialogue that’s used, that sells the whole experience. It happens so fast you don’t even realize you’ve been hooked.
Then there’s the incredible soundtrack. Every area in the game has its own distinct, impactful theme. There’s the glorious brass section of the main street and the sombre and forlorn song simply titled, the Smallest Church in Saint- Saëns. It offers such a vast spectrum of emotions, that it’s likely you’ll wind up in tears at several points throughout the story.
Beyond the music, the vibrant artstyle of Disco Elysium is unforgettable, it’s otherworldly and ethereal. It’s like that of a dream. There’s detail to be found, pieces will stand out to you, but the edges are soft. It feels so precious that you dare not touch it, lest the image fades.
Plus or minus two
Disco Elysium does suffer from a couple of small problems. At times, the movement system can become tiring. In order to move, you must click to walk or double-click to run. You wind up clicking non-stop to move around.
It would have been nice to be able to move around with the WASD keys or some click-and-hold functionality. The isometric angle can also make it difficult to move to areas close to the bottom of the screen.
The problems with movement can also carry over to conversations. Part of how you might play a conversation is to stop and change clothes or level up to gain a bonus to a skill check. When you want to reengage in a conversation, sometimes the detective will not complete the action, simply shuffling in place.
To fix this, the detective would need to take a few steps away and then go back again. It’s a small problem, but when everything revolves around conversations, it can be bothersome to have to do this little dance repeatedly.
It’s not very often that a game of this calibre comes along. Disco Elysium is mad with psychedelic energy, unabashedly dramatic, and dangerously well-written. I wish, like the detective, I could forget all about Disco Elysium, if only to experience it again as if for the first time. It’s truly one of the greatest RPGs ever released.
This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Disco Elysium is available now on Steam and GOG.
- Extremely well-written dialogue and narrative
- Engaging and unique side-quests
- Detailed skills and RPG elements
- An incredible cast of characters
- Phenomenal soundtrack and voice acting
- Picturesque artstyle
- Slight difficulty standing in the right spot to reactivate a conversation
- Having to constantly click to move can be tiring
Sam Chandler posted a new article, Disco Elysium review: Drunk on ambrosia
Thank you! And I really do wish I could experience it for the first time again. It's just one of those games. I felt the same way about Dark Souls.
Have you had a chance to play Disco Elysium, is it the type of game you're interesting in?
Amazing, I'll have to go back through and read more discussion. I've seen a lot of people talking about it quite fondly. I'm glad it resonates with people. What patch are you waiting on?
I'm nearly done with this game but it's been a hell of a ride. I had to stop playing for a few days because i felt bad after i got a bunch of people killed (don't know if this always happens, but it wasn't my finest moment).
Played it pretty straight-laced this first time through, but the next play-through I am definitely going to be a right-wing, drug-taking, alcoholic fight-me asshole and see how that changes things.