Disco Elysium continues to stick with me after I’ve finished it. It’s one of the best things I’ve played this year, maybe ever, which is ironic because there’s not much that’s innovative about its core mechanics. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, too many games harp on innovation without actually offering a solid play experience.
Instead of offering visual spectacle, or branding some system as the next big thing in gaming, Disco Elysium’s excellence comes from its writing, and the way it applies traditional CRPG systems in inventive ways. Instead of worrying about combat, you’ll be making dice rolls to convince yourself not to vomit in front of a dead body, or to bluff your way out of telling someone you lost your police sidearm in a drunken stupor.
Some might not find Disco Elysium engaging enough to buckle in for the long haul. At times, it’s more like reading a fantastic choose-your-own-adventure book than playing a game. For the most part, it’s very much a “tell, don’t show” production that leaves a lot to the imagination, and the lengthy playtime can be a blessing or a curse depending on your perspective. However, this gamified novel is filled with enough personality and humor to bypass any shortcomings the relatively simplistic gameplay may present.
Disco Elysium Review | City on the Edge of Forever
Disco Elysium puts you in the shoes (though you have to find them first) of a detective who has drunk himself into amnesia (we’ll call him “The Cop” for short). When he awakens in a small tenament room inside the Whirling-in-Rags he has no idea who he is, how he got there, or what he’s supposed to do. Very quickly, you learn that he’s there to investigate a body that’s hanging from a tree in the yard outside the hostel.
The Cop is quickly introduced to his partner on the case, Kim Kitsuragi, who hails from a rival precinct. Though he’s skeptical of your amnesia, he takes it in stride and you begin the process of finding out who the hanged man is and who killed him. This case, and the mystery of who The Cop is are the center focus of Disco Elysium. However, those are far from the only puzzles found in the ruined district of Martinaise.
The thing that makes Disco Elysium so special is that even though it’s concentrated mostly in one area, the whole fictional world is fully realized. Like Star Wars or Halo, Disco Elysium is full of history and geography that help mold and clarify the happenings around The Cop. Martinese, the district where the game takes place, is just a part of a larger city called Revachol. This fallen place was once the center of the world, but after a failed revolution, it’s languishing in the tatters of its former splendor.
Martinaise is set on a port, and the Dockworker’s Union controls everything that happens there to the point where your authority as a member of the Revachol Citizen’s Militia (the city’s de facto police force) is barely recognized. The murder coincides with a strike by the union, which makes things even harder for The Cop. Because of the charged climate, you’ll find many of the district’s denizens on edge. This would make things difficult under the best circumstances, but The Cop’s missing memory can make the situation feel impossible at times.
Disco Elysium Review | Martinaise your way.
The Cop has lost his memory. Revachol has lost its nationhood. The man hanging from the tree has lost his life. Martinaise is a district full of derelicts and relics, and if it wasn’t for the humor, the game would be depressing.
Fortunately, the writing balances melancholy and hilarity perfectly. As you slowly reveal the forgotten events of the week prior to the game, you’ll laugh at The Cop’s audacity. The antics of the denizens of Martinaise reveal many of them to be almost comically evil. But beneath the humor is a sadness. Revachol isn’t a happy place, and the game skillfully weaves funny scenes like a wannabe gangster wearing a coat that says “FUCK THIS WORLD,” and The Cop verbally arguing with his various biological systems, with the careful and respectful examination of a body, or a boisterous child’s abusive home life.
There are a lot of heavy themes in Disco Elysium. Besides the general malaise that hangs over the defeated nation, there’s a large focus on classism, those who have and those who want, and politics. Fortunately, the game’s fictional universe prevents these topics from hitting too close to home. Instead, race, religion, and class are examined more philosophically than allegorically. Disco Elysium puts every controversial topic under the barrel, criticizing the failings of each, and not forcing you to make any sort of decision on what side you fall.
Ultimately, Disco Elysium is anti-racist and by extension anti-fascist. However, the plot allows you to be just as racist and fascist as you want. In fact, the game does a good job of illustrating just how easily it can be to be manipulated into going down one or both of those routes. In the desperate, fruitless, waste of Martinaise, where many don’t know where their next meal is coming from, the line between fascism, communism, nationalism, and traditionalism is often blurred. The people there blame whoever is the most convenient for their troubles, and the Dockworker’s Union, ostensibly socialist, puts on whatever face that lets them get and keep their power over the district.
Despite what The Cop and the denizens of Martinaise have lost, there is hope in this game. Beyond the melancholy and comedy, there are paths you can take to restore sanity to your surroundings. Or, you can do the opposite and be a huge swinging dick to everyone and drink and drug yourself into oblivion. Whatever you choose, just be sure that you’ll eventually have to face the consequences, sometimes when you least expect it.
Disco Elysium Review | Brainiac or brawn…iac
Fortunately, what physical and mental aptitude The Cop had before he lost his memory is still there. He may not remember how he knows something, or what he’s capable of until it comes time to do it, but the attributes and skills you choose shape the story in degrees I haven’t seen in any other game.
Like most CRPGs, Disco Elysium has attributes and skills that affect The Cop’s abilities. What’s different here is how these abilities are used.
There are four main attributes that affect your character: intellect, psyche, physique, and motorics. Each of these is divided into six skills which you call upon during the game to help you solve problems. When you begin Disco Elysium, you can choose from three pre-builds: an anti-social brainiac, an empathetic soul, or a meathead. Alternatively, you can make a custom build if you’re so inclined.
Throughout the game, you’ll be making constant checks against your skills. While each of these skills’ base level when you start the game is governed by the attribute it falls under, you can raise them individually by gaining XP while playing. The only restriction to this is that each skill is capped by the amount of points you have in the parent attribute. So, if you have a 1 in Intellect, you can only raise your Logic by a maximum of one point. This keeps you true to your initial build to a degree while still allowing you to mold the protagonist as the game goes on.
Instead of your typical CRPG stats, which mostly deal with combat-related actions, the skills in Disco Elysium are far more abstract. As you converse with NPCs and observe the world around you, there will be constant invisible checks against your skills. If you succeed, these will give The Cop a helpful tidbit or observation that will further your knowledge of the situation. This can be something like noticing someone is nervous or sensing a particular smell. Failing these doesn’t lead to any negative consequences, but it usually leads to your character’s misunderstanding, typically with comedic results.
Disco Elysium Review | Checks and balances
You’ll also get bigger checks, which lead to a visible dice roll. These are the checks that impact the story or block progress. A big one early on comes when The Cop tries to examine the hanging body. This requires him to perform an endurance skill check to not vomit. If you pass, he can hold back the bile and proceed with the investigation. Fail, and The Cop will puke all over the ground and kids nearby will make fun of him.
Of these major checks, there are red and white checks. Most of these are white, meaning that if you fail, you can rise the relevant stat by leveling up, and try again. Red ones are more tricky and are typically ones that can majorly affect the story or prevent you from getting an item. The game helpfully keeps track of the white ones for you, but if you lose a red check, you’ll never get to try again.
This game’s design lends itself to save-scumming, which takes a bit of fun out of the whole thing. Your decisions, and the checks you pass and fail, really make a difference in how the game will turn out for you. Though you’re free to play the game however you want, I wholeheartedly suggest leaning into the role-playing aspects of Disco Elysium and accepting whatever rolls you get.
Disco Elysium Review | Turning thoughts into reality
You’ll also have modifiers that can help or harm you as you solve the mysteries of Martinaise. Both the Thought Closet and items allow you to further buff your skills, often at the expense of others.
Some items you equip simply give you access to new actions. The crowbar lets you open certain doors and containers, while the shopping bag lets you pick up bottles to sell for scrap at the store. Others, like clothes, will increase some skills. The Mega-Bino’s Prescription Lenses for example give +2 to Encyclopedia (because you look like a nerd), but -4 to Perception (because you can’t see out of the damn things).
The Thought Closet is a system unique to Disco Elysium that lets you equip thoughts. When out and about certain actions will generate thoughts that you can then research in the Thought Cabinet. Each thought takes a certain amount of in-game time to “internalize,” after which you’ll get some sort of useful effect. For example, if you become homeless or refer to yourself as homeless, you’ll gain the Hobocop though. Researching Hobocop and internalizing it gives you the ability to make more money by selling tare (garbage bottles), and marks special collector’s edition tare bottles on your map. This comes at the expense of -1 Composure during the duration of researching.
The Thought Cabinet gives a unique look at the inner workings of The Cop’s mind and shows the power of thought. It’s here that you can lock in your political beliefs and gain bonuses from choosing dialog options associated with them. This reenforces the role-playing aspects of the game and rewards you for staying in character.
Disco Elysium Review | Discipline in play
The writing tunes the reactions you get from NPCs and the results you get in situations to your character build. So, if you’ve decided your version of The Cop is a fascist, aging, bodybuilder, or a genius, anti-social, ultraliberal, the story and the dialog makes more sense than if you’re flip-flopping back and forth.
So many games encourage completionism that Disco Elysium takes a bit of discipline. The game isn’t designed in a way that makes it possible to pass every check and explore every avenue in one playthrough. It can feel a little vulgar when so many titles want you to find every log entry and collect all 100 knick knacks to just let a major check fail, but Disco Elysium isn’t like that.
Regardless of what build you choose, The Cop will always have a weakness. During the course of the game, The Cop’s weak points develop his persona as much as his strengths. While there are certain similarities he shares in all playthroughs — namely being an amnesiac, alcoholic, mess — if you decide a certain persona for him and stick to it, you’ll be rewarded with a very coherent and cohesive story.
However, if you try to do everything, pass every check, and save-scum your way through, things aren’t as clear cut. The story gets a little muddled if you play The Cop all over the place, and that’s not really the developer’s fault. It’s obvious that ZA/UM has designed this game with a bit of “honor system” in mind. You’re allowed a lot of free rein when it comes to dialog choice, but you should also keep in mind what your version of The Cop would say and what he wouldn’t.
The Cop is a loser, and it’s your choices that determine whether he stays that way or pulls himself up out of the gutter. Regardless, there’s a sense of loss that’s prevalent throughout the game that you only really get the full effect of by giving yourself entirely over to role-playing.
Disco Elysium Review | Painting a picture (and hearing it too)
Although much of the gameplay takes place in dialog boxes, Disco Elysium does have an incredible art direction. The aesthetic resembles watercolor paintings and does a great job of evoking the transient feeling of the game. The case and Martinese itself feel like just a drop in the bucket of troubles Revachol faces. The muddled, sometimes disturbing, art brings forth the depravity and lack of sanity that you often encounter.
Disco Elysium is played in an isometric view, in traditional CRPG fashion, which is unfortunately one of the game’s greatest weaknesses. There’s a lot of telling instead of showing here. It shows some of your actions on screen, but for the most part, you’ll be reading what people are doing instead of seeing it performed. I didn’t have a problem using my imagination to fill in the blanks, but I do hope that an enhanced edition of the game comes out at some point that features more animations and interactivity.
The sound, too, helps this game a lot. With much of the action on screen taking place through text, the haunting soundtrack adds to the atmosphere. Sound effects are also used to good measure when necessary, which helps flavor the walls of text the story is presented in.
The voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag in Disco Elysium. Unfortunately, the game isn’t fully voiced, with only the most important parts receiving a narration. Some of the acting is very good. I especially liked Cuno and the ANCIENT REPTILIAN BRAIN. However, some of it is very lackluster. Again, this is an area where an enhanced edition would work wonders. A full voice cast and recasting of some weaker parts would do wonders for an already amazing game.
Disco Elysium Review | A masterpiece of literature and gaming.
Disco Elysium is one of those “out of left field” games that completely knocks it out of the park for me. It’s hard to believe something not on my radar ended up being one of my best games of 2019.
If you’re someone who doesn’t “like to read” or wants a lot of action in their games, Disco Elysium might not be the best pick. It does an excellent job of bridging the worlds of literature and gaming, and offers a unique blend on the venerable CRPG formula. However, its design does limit its appeal somewhat. It’s not a game that seeks to universally please, but that’s okay. Those who dig CRPGs and don’t mind some heavy reading with fall in love with Disco Elysium. I know I did.