I have spent weeks at the Disco Elysium, and when it eventually vomited me from its esoteric miasmic embrace, I was found myself disoriented but also fulfilled. Just like our dear protagonist, I am hungover, confused, and wrung out from the events preceding my blurry-eyed awakening. If I had known then what I know now would I have so gleefully run face-first into this grimy, cigarette smoke stained locale reeking of sour sweat and self-inflicted deprivation? Yeah, I would gladly return, hell I already have. I liked this trip so much I took it twice.
Before we begin, I should address the pink elephant in the room. This review is late, and the reason is mostly my own fault. Upon completing my first bender at the Disco, like any addict, I quickly felt a compulsion to return. In part, this was because I was unsure that the experience I was about to relay to you dear reader was accurate and also because I still had so many questions I needed answers to. Disco Elysium is undoubtedly an expertly mixed cocktail of ideas, emotions, and reimagined genre mainstays. But it is also not one that all who imbibe this heady mixture will enjoy. And truth be told as compelling as I found the journey I was not sure that I actually enjoyed it.
On the surface, Disco Elysium looks like any traditional CRPG, and for the most part, this is exactly what it is. But by traditional, I am talking more about the pen and paper forebears of what we collectively call CRPG’s today. Stats, dice rolls, and various skill checks are intrinsic to every aspect of the game, so much so that they can be distracting. It is also traditional in that you have a clearly defined goal to accomplish, and a wide array of skills to assist you. The journey to that point though takes some unexpected turns.
So what is Disco Elysium? In short, it is an isometric role-playing game with an almost exclusive focus on conversation and character interaction. The dour noir setting finds our protagonist awakening naked in a shambolically rundown hotel room, deathly hungover and devoid of any memory of the preceding bender, or in fact his any of previous life at all. He will soon discover that he is the lead detective in a brutal murder investigation that has the all tell-tale signs of a hate crime, but first, he should attempt to get dressed. I failed at this first step initially, critically failed in fact. So much so that it resulted in some severe physical trauma and the realisation that this game was not about to make my characters life any easier. And there are also the voices in his head he will need to contend with.
Disco Elysium leans very heavily on pen and paper mechanics. You have access to a daunting number of skills and abilities that represent your psyche, physical prowess, mental acuity, and emotional intelligence. As you progress through the game, you can assign points to these skills which will give you greater insight, more conversation options, or the ability to perform heroically acrobatic feats among others. You can build your character in whatever way you choose, but there is an opportunity cost for every point spent. As a result, many doors will close, or more accurately, you may find yourself in a situation where the best or most obvious course of action is not available to you. Perhaps the most unique feature of Disco Elysium is how many of these skills are portrayed. You will constantly find yourself in conversations with an aspect of your personality, intellect, or other representation of what makes this specific version of you. Maybe you notice something, and that part of your brain will then disclose it as in internal conversation that you need to navigate in order to realise it in the external space that is the reality your body occupies. And yes, that sentence does represent how the game plays out. At this point, you should know if you’re interested in reading more about this strange little game. So if you’re still interested, please continue.
My first playthrough was as a highly observant and intelligent detective with most points put into, Logic, Rhetoric and Visual Calculus (the ability to accurately visualise previous acts or events) to better enhance my detecting and interviewing skills. This made my first playthrough feel relatively straightforward. There were some deeply disturbing self-realisations my character made and some truly shocking events that played out during this playthrough, but in the end, I was able to play a relatively normal investigative game, and play my character relatively straight. My second game was much less so. I instead invested heavily into Inland Empire (imagination and intuition), Empathy, and Suggestion which added a lot of colour into my conversation options, as well as delusional thoughts, but also some useful insights. It led to some truly bizarre conversations and situations, but also demonstrated how well thought out the skill systems are, and how they can affect the overall tone of the experience. With names Esprit De Corps, Electro Chemistry, Shivers, Savior Faire, Volition, Pain Threshold and Drama among the almost 30 available skills you will need to spend a fair amount of time discerning what paths are open to you and which ones you want to take your detective down.
The downside of this system is that almost every action, reply, observation, or conversation relies on dice checks against your skills and as dice rolls are by definition random, you can and likely will fail in checks against skills you have invested a lot of time and points into. This was a constant frustration for me in both my playthroughs. I would fail to complete an action I was uniquely geared towards which would then close an interaction path I wanted to explore. When these rolls succeed or exceed, the outcomes are suitably entertaining and engaging, even failing a marginal roll feels ok, but missing out on a dismal roll for something as mundane as looking in a mirror feels artificially mechanical and give the player a far too open look at how the sausage is being made. Your choices here do matter and will change how your investigation unfolds, but as I discovered it will likely not affect the resolution as much as you would expect. This is definitely a game that focuses more on the journey than the destination.
On the plus side the world-building, characters, and conversations are for the most part expertly executed; with perhaps the best conversation system I’ve seen in an RPG since the much beloved and my own personal favourite Planescape: Torment. Twenty years is a long time to hold any crown, but I think Disco Elysium could make a viable claim to it. In many ways, Disco Elysium is far more the spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment than any game other that has attempted that to wear that mantle. The writing in Disco Elysium is strong, quirky, and often delves into esoteric observances or commentary on morality, mortality, existence, or the punchablity of bigoted tweens. Where it stumbles is in its tonal inconsistency and occasional meandering journeys onto philosophical trains of thought that expose that at least some of the intellectualism in the game is a distracting façade with no real depth, and is rather just the repackaging ideas you would expect from any 1 st year philosophy major who thinks they’ve just unlocked the secret of the universe by reading the first few chapters of their course material. For the most part, it works wonderfully, just don’t expect a lot of depth here.
When viewed from afar Disco Elysium appears innovative, provocative, maybe even revolutionary. In reality, it is none of these things which is not to say it is bad, far from it. Disco Elysium will be vying for those GOTY ribbons with the very best come years end, but there is a lot of sleight of hand, and misdirection at play here. This is not a negative, in fact, the team at ZA/UM should be applauded for the intelligence and effectiveness of their façade, but at a fundamental level Disco Elysium is not doing anything new here, but it is also not really trying to. In fact, they are going back to basics with how their systems work and interact with each other. The story is dripping neo-Noir atmosphere, has surprising emotional heft, and is expertly paced throughout. The world is dark, and many of the characters you meet are flawed, damaged, or just plain awful, but there is also a consistent thread of jet black humour that stops things getting so dark as to ruin your enjoyment completely. It does stumble ever so slightly in the very final stages, but for anyone wanting something a bit different and wants a game where combat is essentially absent you should at least have a peek through the door of the Disco Elysium.
+ Exceptional conversation system with wide variety of choices.
+ Fantastic characters.
+ Some of the best realised RPG skills ever put in a game.
+ Flavourful dialogue and conversational options.
+ Plenty of replayability.
+ Thematically dark.
+ Combat is absent to the most part (could also be a down).
- Many choices are rather superficial.
- Is extremely wordy, to the point of being self-indulgent.
- Not quite as smart as it thinks it is.
- Is a niche title even by RPG standards.