A game like Disco Elysium is incredibly difficult to review. On the one hand, it’s a unique experience that can transform into something memorable. On the other, it’s a time sink filled to the brim with an overly self-indulgent flair that muddles what the point of it all is. As an RPG, it is brilliant but plodding. As a game, it’s more an overt Fighting Fantasy gamebook than anything else. The sum of its parts is such a funky blend of ideas and concepts that I can’t help but find myself compelled to enjoy the overall experience, despite how pretentious it is.
Based on a customized Dungeons & Dragon’s setting made by the developers for a long-running campaign, Disco Elysium takes some rather bold strides in pushing the boundaries of role-playing. There is a history in this steam-punkish world, with the decaying city of Revachol, still recovering from political turmoil, being the primary focal point. Players play as an unnamed, amnesiac detective, tasked to solve a murder that he barely remembers due to his own drunkenness.
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Your character is a flippant, delusional figure; a police officer with no name and extremely flawed character traits. Heck, the first image we see of the player is half-naked on the floor, dealing with the consequences of an all-night bender. In many ways, developers ZA/UM pull from the same playbook as one of their primary influences; the ever venerable Planescape Torment from over 20 years ago.
One thing touted by ZA/UM in the press releases is how much more dialogue is in Disco Elysium when compared to Planescape. Every interaction is a challenge of your skills; some require you to select them as a dice-roll challenge, others are just automatic hidden rolls. In-game dialogue describes the outcome of each roll in glorious detail. Players have access to four different stats, with 24 skills that range from standards such as perception to more unique stats such as inland empire, electrochemistry, and savoir-faire.
Yeah, some of the skills are indulgent in their name and function, though ZA/UM weaves them into Disco Elysium in a tasteful fashion. Each skill governs the different racing thoughts of your detective’s mind, interacting with him as if they were whispers in your ear to guide your actions. Oftentimes, these skills do small, hidden rolls in the background that either pass or fail based upon your character’s build.
Using a simple 2d6 system, the skills add to your inner dialogue most of the time, helping the player obtain context or flavor in the current conversations. Other checks are simply one-time rolls, indicated with a red background, that offer a specific percentage chance to succeed. Modifiers depend on stats, skill marks, and even previous experiences or items in your possession, giving the player a ton of ways to modify their chances.
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It’s worth noting that everything in Disco Elysium ties directly into these dice rolls. Even the few combat scenes shun real-time tactical play in favor of segments of dialogue and a random roll here and there. It can become frustrating when a 90% roll ends in abject failure as you toss the dice. Ultimately, the use of the dice mechanic is less about your own control and more about managing your own expectations. Disco Elysium is pretty much a game about actions and facing the consequences of them, as self-destructive as they may be.
One early example comes right after you wake up from your drunken stupor, as you try to grab a tie hanging from a ceiling fan. Players can try to grab the tie while the fan moves, ignore it completely, or shut off the fan to increase your odds of grasping it. Failure in all cases causes a violent reaction that can lead to your character having an unexpected heart attack.
Heart attacks are just one instance of Disco Elysium taking a left turn out of nowhere. Sometimes, causing damage to yourself or your health is automatic and uncontrollable. It almost always boils down to dice rolls that determine your fate, but your skills can often lead you down destructive paths too, causing a high risk/reward mentality when putting points into certain skills.
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Spending all this time on mechanics just sets up the real meat of Disco Elysium, which is its writing and narrative. It’s sort of ironic that the experience begins to fall apart here, mostly due to pacing issues. ZA/UM craft a unique world to revel in, but a lot of its character comes completely divorced from the main plot.
Disco Elysium‘s biggest strength is how open it is to plot diversions. You can deal with racist street vendors, pick up cans for extra cash, sing karaoke for a morale boost, even take bribes and be as crooked of a detective as you want to be. Become rich, live like a hobo; the amount of choice in what to do is incredibly vast, allowing you to play your flawed detective with the flaws they choose to have.
Unfortunately, the main narrative (a mysterious murder case) ends up sacrificed in the process. Disco Elysium is, narratively, a “whodunit” with a colorful cast of side characters that can be tangentially related to the plot as suspects. The characters are unique and there are a few twists and turns here and there to keep you on your toes. Truthfully, the main narrative is uncompelling; compared to the world setting that ZA/UM established, it becomes just another distraction for the rich amount of role-playing specific side-content. It’s more fun to solve petty crimes or match wits for hours on end with illogical lunatics then to figure out how to correctly remove a hanging corpse from a tree and track down clues to follow up on.
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It also doesn’t help that Disco Elysium suffers from being overly pretentious. Paragraphs of dialogue, interactions, and memory interrupts just add more to the word count, giving the impression of a game that looks way smarter than it really is. The biggest sin is how overstuffed the writing is; with being overly verbose is just part of the problem. Everything suffers from a style-over-substance disparity that can be really jarring.
For example, the ‘Thought Cabinet’ mechanic, a collection of 53 random thoughts discovered as you investigate the murder, shows off the good and bad of Disco Elysium’s overstuffed writing. Oddball concepts, from trying to remember your real name or contemplating how invulnerable you are, are essentially thoughts you equip. Throughout the story, you contemplate them, which can lead to your stats getting either a bonus or penalty, depending on the nature of the thoughts.
Thematically, this fits the inner monologue of Disco Elysium well; you wrap your brain around concepts and thoughts that can bring memories to use in the future. Mechanically, it is kind of just there, adding bonuses and penalties to your nameless detective in the most basic sense of their function.
The Thought Cabinet gives you decent bonuses at the expanse of penalties. Outside of these bonuses, they serve little purpose other than to give more flavor to your inner thoughts. Flavor is fine when done well, but Disco Elysium often takes it down a path of being overly indulgent in its own writing, to the point of being obnoxious. ZA/UM purposefully avoids any dissonance between the narrative themes and gameplay throughout the whole experience, but this is at the cost of a tighter script throughout.
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If nothing else, a developer’s passion can go a long way to make a game like Disco Elysium even possible. Despite the pretentiousness, there is something compelling in how it all comes together as a unique package. Perhaps it is the constant back and forth of your inner thoughts that are the right flavoring to what is a humdrum narrative. Maybe it is the unique setting populated with oddball characters or the fact that developers ZA/UM really poured their hearts into the world for all to participate in.
There is no denying Disco Elysium is a game that needs to be played to be believed. It is frankly a refreshing take on detective-based RPG’s, and despite some unnecessary writing beats and a buried narrative surrounded by unique distractions, the oddball charm of Disco Elysium makes it one of the most refreshing role-playing experiences in years. If nothing else, Disco Elysium is a must for role-playing aficionados worldwide to really sink their teeth into.
TechRaptor reviewed Disco Elysium on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.