Disco Elysium

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Developer: ZA/UM
Release Date: Oct. 15, 2019


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PC Review - 'Disco Elysium'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Jan. 2, 2020 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Disco Elysium is a blend of isometric RPG and hard-boiled cop show set in a unique urban fantasy world.

Sometimes a game comes out of left field. Games like Shovel Knight and Undertale show how smaller studios (or even individuals) can do big things. Disco Elysium is one of those games. The first game from Estonian developer ZA/UM, it shows a confidence and capability that is absolutely mind-blowing from a first-time developer. Even in a year full of excellent games, Disco Elysium stands out as being one of the most well-made, engaging, and enjoyable RPGs I've ever had the pleasure of playing.

Disco Elysium is set in the fictional city of Revachol, which isn't a particularly nice place. It's dirty and grim, and poverty is everywhere. A failed revolution means the town is now a Special Administrative Zone in the grip of a conquering group of nations. Freedom is minimal. One of the few things Revachol is allowed to have for itself is the Revachol Citizen's Militia, which serves as the police force. Unfortunately, being a police officer isn't a respected or thankful job, so you don't always get the best people.

Cue your protagonist. When the game starts, he awakens in a hotel room, absolutely mind-blastingly drunk. (He's so out of it that it's possible to accidentally strangle yourself to death by pulling your tie off a ceiling fan.) He's so drunk that he can't remember his name, how he got there, or much about himself. He is a police officer, though, and before he can remember where he put his gun, he must attempt to solve a murder. He must do this while trying to piece together who he was — and hopefully to avoid getting fired along the way.

Disco Elysium is absurdly well written. The game has reams of text for everything and anything, with witty observations from other characters and within your protagonist's internal monologue. Don't mistake it for a comedy, though. Disco Elysium also tackles serious subjects, picking through the remains of a failed revolution and the conflict and strife that is part and parcel of it. Disco Elysium isn't afraid to be political, and that lends some much-needed bite and flavor to the fictional world. It's a game that's worth playing just for the absurd amount of worldbuilding and well-written text, even if the main story weren't engaging — but it certainly is!

Perhaps the most genius aspect of Disco Elysium is the skill system. Rather than the traditional RPG skill system, you invest in your personality, for lack of a better term. Some of these include physical stats, like perception or reaction speed, but others can include more metaphysical things. For example, you can invest in Esprit De Corps, which shows your loyalty (or lack thereof) to the police force, or Drama, which is your flair for drama. Each skill you invest in is effectively a character, a personality in your protagonist's head. The voices will chime in at various points and allow access to choices you wouldn't normally have. If you have a lot of Empathy, you may be able to coax quiet people to talk. On the other hand, Authority could give you the force of will to make someone back down.

The real genius of the system is that none of these things is without their drawbacks. These are personality traits, not just skills, and that matters a lot. If you take the Hand/Eye Coordination skill to improve gunplay, it may also make you more susceptible to shooting at a moment's notice. Authority gives you the force of will to win encounters, but it also makes you unwilling to stand people disrespecting that same authority. Sometimes a low skill can be more helpful than a high skill, and trying to min-max will create a volatile and extreme character.

This means that Disco Elysium is a role-playing game in every sense of the word. This also means that while the core story is set in stone, the way you investigate and learn about the story and characters change drastically, depending on if you're a genius who fails at social interaction, a high-strung but perceptive cop, or an overly dramatic conspiracy theorist. You genuinely and wholeheartedly make your own character and experience their trip through the world.

I think it's fair to say that Disco Elysium sets a new standard for role-playing as a character. This is helped by the absolutely fantastic writing, but it is also the fact that you can create a character with genuine flaws, foibles and quirks, rather than min-maxing your way through the game. Even excellent titles like Fallout struggle with this, but Disco Elysium knocks it out of the park. It's a game that is genuinely fun to replay two or three times with different traits because you get to see how much changes.

There are also more ways to customize your character. One is the Thought Cabinet, which is an extremely cool feature, akin to perks in other games. When you complete an action, you might unlock a Thought, which is placed in your Cabinet and can be researched. "Researching" means they unlock a passive bonus or penalty to your character. Keep them equipped long enough, and they'll become a permanent bonus that you must use Skill Points to remove. Sometimes, the Research is negative, but the outcome is positive. Other times, it is the opposite, and you'll have something that is a huge boon while researching but less positive when researched.

This might sound normal, but what sets it apart is the uniqueness of the perks. To unlock perks, you have to do something in the game. If you make feminist-supporting comments, you'll unlock one. If you pretend to have a gun when you don't, you can unlock one. Be honorable and refuse bribes, and you'll unlock one. You'll even get one if you don't do anything interesting. (Your internal sense of drama will call you out.) No matter what you do, you'll get a bunch of perks, and they'll almost all fun/interesting.

I mentioned guns earlier, but it's important to note that Disco Elysium doesn't have traditional combat. Everything in the game is done via skill checks. It's possible to finish the game without finding your gun, and even if you do, in-world combat boils down to your existing skills. This works perfectly for the game where you generally shouldn't be fighting anyway. After all, you're an overweight drunken mess of a human being and aren't exactly superhuman.

Most of my complaints about Disco Elysium are fairly slim. Sometimes, you'll find gaps where the game didn't anticipate certain actions, and that can break the immersion. These don't come up very often, and they're only noticeable on a second or third playthrough. It also is a game that lives and dies on its writing. I found it extremely engaging and often hilarious, but if the writing or the humor doesn't hit for you, then the game won't work. Considering how solid the writing is, I think it works for more people than it doesn't.

Disco Elysium isn't exactly a graphical powerhouse, but the art design is excellent. The simple isometric graphics give the entire game an old-school feel and assure that every area feels large and involved. There are a few times that I had trouble seeing things in the environment. The soundtrack and voice acting are quite good, and they help set the mood extremely well. It might not be an AAA title, but it works for what it is, and it never feels ugly (except, of course, when it's trying to feel ugly.)

In my opinion, Disco Elysium is the game of the year for 2019. It shows how you can make creative, engaging, and well-written games entirely using writing and player choice without falling into the simple "visual novel" style. It's biting, clever, and witty, and it deserves to take its place among Planescape and Fallout: New Vegas. It's a must-play for any fans of RPGs and a genuine modern classic that will hopefully set the stage for many things to come.

Score: 9.5/10

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