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February 2023

Disc Room

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: Oct. 22, 2020


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PC Review - 'Disc Room'

by Cody Medellin on March 9, 2021 @ 12:30 a.m. PST

Disc Room is an astronaut's reflex-testing venture through a fascinating and mysterious labyrinth of a alien vessel.

In almost every video game, dying is synonymous with failure. Miss a jump, and you could die because you either fell from a great height or plummeted down a bottomless pit. You can die because you were shot up more than your opponent or took more punches than you've thrown. You can come back to life, but there's usually some kind of setback. Disc Room is different in that it loves death. It requires it. For once, you'll appreciate having a high death count.

The tale is set in the year 2089 (or beyond, if you're playing this in a year or two from now), when a strange disc-shaped object appears over Jupiter. Instead of sending in soldiers to blow it up, the government send in scientists to study it to figure out what it is and why it appeared. That's about the only part of the story that's intelligible, as the rest of the cut scenes don't expound on what's happening and the endings make little sense. If you're into games with strong narratives, this isn't it.

The first level does a great job of setting up what to expect for the rest of the experience. The moment you enter a room, various saw blades appear. The look of each blade is different and corresponds to its behavior. Some blades may bounce around like a ball, while others move along the walls. Some of the saws curve, others are large but move slowly, and smaller ones occasionally break apart into even smaller blades. Without any offensive capabilities at your disposal, the only thing you can do is survive for as long as possible before being cut apart by the overwhelming numbers of metal discs.

As alluded to earlier, death isn't a punishment but a key, since dying means you can move on to other unlocked rooms. In fact, you can't move on until you die, since that's when the game checks to see if you've completed the necessary objective to progress. The objectives vary greatly, but a chunk of them ask you to survive a specific room for a set number of seconds before you can unlock another room. Others take your cumulative survival time into account over a set number of rooms or through specific areas. Some objectives ask that you die via several different blade types, while a few create puzzles out of it and force you to figure out the qualifications they're looking for before you can move on.

Aside from being the key to moving on, death also gives you the chance to obtain powers, depending on where you die. One power grants you temporary speed via a dash that also lets you be invulnerable for a short. Another power lets you bring up a field that slows down everything around you, while letting you move at a normal speed, but the field shrinks with each subsequent use. There's a power that lets you warp around the field, albeit in a way that takes some time and practice to predict where you'll land, and one ability lets you consume a blade without dying. The most intriguing of these abilities is one that lets you clone yourself, one for each button press. While it does great as a means of getting a second chance without retrying the level, it can also be detrimental, depending on the level. Abilities can only be armed one at a time, so there's some strategy and experimentation needed, as you must determine what's good for the situation.

With all of those factors in play, it doesn't take long for the formula to mix things up a bit. A few bosses task you with picking up orbs that act as automatic bombs, and they're also the only means for the room's timer to fill up. Some rooms have you running over tiles before time counts, and others ask you to stand in a large circle in the middle of the room before doing the same. A different set of rooms is played out in perpetual darkness, with the occasional red light being the only source of illumination. Some rooms also have no objective of their own, either serving as a means to get to a more cumulative objective or hiding secrets of its own.

The "bullet hell" nature of the rooms and the varying requirements for the objectives initially sound like an experience in pure frustration, but there are plenty of elements that make the constant deaths more inviting to players. Restarts are instantaneous, so there's no downtime unless you choose to not immediately restart. The game also features branching pathways and clear indicators about what room is unlocked when a specific objective is completed, so there's a good chance you can skip an objective that's bothering you and find an alternate means to reach the last room. The game can also be made easier via the options menu, which lets you tweak the disc speed or unlock every stage so you don't need to solve the more clever or obtuse puzzles.

The experience as a whole will only take players roughly three hours to complete, but the pick-up-and-play nature nullifies the importance of that time, since this is the kind of game you can pick up for short bursts and feel like you've made progress. Even if you reach the credits and unlock every level, the game comes up with a Hard mode, which tasks you with going from the final room all the way to the beginning. However, all of the rooms are now changed up, essentially making the roughly 52-level game into a 104-level experience. Each stage is also equipped with its own leaderboard, so score chasers can have a field day replaying to get the best times — a task that's helped out by the tight controls and great hit detection. Finally, there are a number of challenges built into the game, from a speed-run mode to one where you aren't allowed to revisit completed stages. It's perfect for those who prefer to squeeze everything out of their games before moving on.

The presentation in Disc Room works well with its novel premise. The music is a nice mix of horror sci-fi with some synth, placing the player in a constant state of dread without necessarily causing them to panic and break their concentration. Graphically, the hand-drawn and animated look makes it feel like an Adult Swim cartoon, although without an explosion of gore. It's cute in its own way, but it also makes what would be a boring space station feel more alive with different environments and various colors.

Disc Room runs with its easy-to-understand premise almost perfectly, so everyone can easily figure out the basics. The accessibility means that the initial ending can be seen by those who aren't deterred by constant failure. The puzzles related to some of the challenges are brain-teasers, and the simple analog stick and one-button controls are very responsive, providing more incentive for players to dig deeper into the game after the credits roll. Give Disc Room a try, unless you don't enjoy the evasive nature of bullet hell shooters.

Score: 9.0/10

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