I was stuck between choosing Jean-Paul Sartre of RPGs or Investigations in a Dying Culture when considering the subtitle of this review. I was kind of leaning towards the former first. But I consider Disco Elysium as an extraordinary shooting-star crossing decade-old RPG tropes. Death by cliches. Therefore, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make the late great Christopher Caudwell proud by basing it off one of his all-time best works. With that out of the way, let’s get to reviewing ZA/UM’s detective RPG, Disco Elysium. Oh, and If you haven’t checked out my preview of Disco Elysium already, maybe do that here.
Like I’ve explained in my preview, Disco Elysium is marketed as a ‘ground-breaking open-world detective RPG that’s going to revolutionize the genre. A bold claim by a newcomer studio. It’s not an uncommon marketing strategy. We’ve all seen it many times across decades of RPG history. Like most of you, I too had my doubts. But I was proved wrong. Well, mostly, Disco Elysium, is hands down one of the most enjoyable and unique experiences I’ve had in an RPG since Planescape: Torment. Disco Elysium nearly does what it set out to achieve and will probably go down in history as one of the all-time greats. Does this mean its the best RPG of all time? Not necessarily. But it actually comes pretty damn close.
The above paragraph is actually supposed to go at the end of the review but, this time, we’ll make an exception. This time, let’s deconstruct my assertion that Disco Elysium is one of the best RPGs of this generation throughout the rest of the review.
Story & Writing
Disco Elysium puts you in the shoes of a detective in an original yet familiar retro setting that is best described as a violent combination of post-modernism and magical realism. Sounds confusing? It can be, for the first few hours. The game throws you right into the action without 5-minute long exposition-dump and padding. It expects you to grasp the history and lore of this unique world where Capitalism, Communism, Neo-Fascism, Expressionism and all that ‘-isms’ not only just co-exist but often overlap each other.
Disco Elysium plays it safe and uses the ‘tried and true‘ amnesiac trope to get the story running. The game begins with the player character waking up naked in a sleazy motel room with a hair-splitting headache that doesn’t need further explanation. We’ve all been there. But in the case of our ill-fated hero, he’s been partying a little too hard and gets slapped with Alcohol Amnesiac Disorder (kids, don’t drink). He’s not just missing the last night but an entire lifetime of memories. Ouch! The broad outside tells you that you’re a detective and you soon find out that you’re a people’s detective in the city of Revachol and here on official duty to solve a murder. You’ve been here a few days but the body is still hanging and you’re missing your gun, your badge and official police documents. What a way to start a game!
What follows is a thrilling tale of self-discovery, existential dread, buddy-cop bromance, conflicting world-views, stealing boots off of dead bodies, post-modern philosophical dilemmas and a tense detective drama (if you choose to see it that way). It’s part True Detective and part Irvine Welsh. It’s a chaotic reply of a reactive RPG to the restrictive structure of linear story-driven adventures. It’s an RPG where your vertebra mocks you and your skills are impatient to start up a chat with you. By now, I realize that I’ve already failed to describe what kind of a game Disco Elysium is. It’s a dialogue-heavy RPG where you play as a pathetic piece of trash in a world filled with bigger trash. That’s the best definition I can come up with.
The writing is clearly the best I’ve seen since Planescape: Torment and being the Torment fanboy that I am, that is the best compliment I can give to Disco Elysium. The writing; comprising the story, world-building, characters and dialogues is absolutely fantastic and is of the quality you just don’t see every day. It’s a PnP Dungeon Master script made into a game and deserves all the praise it gets.
However, Disco Elysium makes the stupid mistake of stumbling down at the last few hours. To avoid spoilers, let’s just say the game railroads you down a particular path during its second half and culminates in an ending that feels very abrupt. Either that the developers ran out of money, feeling the need to wrap up or that they’re leavings thing open for the inevitable sequel. Don’t get me wrong, the main story arc will come to completion but leaves a lot of threads hanging. It’s the most rookie mistake for an RPG to make and I couldn’t help but feel that all I did up to that point was for nothing. This feeling lasted for about 30 seconds and I immediately fired up a second playthrough. Because everything up until that point is pure gold. A clear-cut case of the journey being more important than the destination. But it wouldn’t hurt the developers to add in a New Vegas-style epilogue.
Gameplay & Mechanics
Disco Elysium is an ‘open-world’ detective RPG with a heavy emphasis on dialogue-driven gameplay. So;
- If you’re a person who dislikes reading through walls of text in games? This game isn’t for you
- If you’re a person who prioritizes combat the most in an RPG? This game isn’t for you
Then who is it for then? Disco Elysium is best suited for people who like three things;
- Tabletop RPGs
- Actual ‘role-playing’ instead of +infinity power fantasy.
The game is said to contain more lines of text than Planescape: Torment and people lovingly consider the former to be a playable book.
So, if you don’t fit the above criteria, you may find Disco Elysium outright boring.
But if you’re a person who likes narrative-heavy RPGs and reading, then Disco Elysium will make you fall in love with it. The actual gameplay of Disco Elysium is rather simple. It’s an isometric RPG where you point and click the mouse to do basically everything. Since you play a downtrodden detective who can’t tell his head apart from the butt, the moment-to-moment gameplay involves walking around the city of Revachol, taking in the sights and talking to people. Talking- you’ll do that a lot in this game and most of the conversations can last anywhere between 15-30 minutes. Since the writing is so damn good, you’ll end up enjoying every moment of it.
Unless you chicken out to play as existing archetypes, Disco Elysium lets you customize your detective using a seemingly daunting character creator. There are 4 main attributes and 24 weirdly described skills divided evenly between them. You can mix and match as much as you please. There are the familiar strength, endurance, perception and persuasion skills here. But Disco Elysium effectively breaks the traditional RPG tropes by presenting the player with skills that let you be dramatic, be a walking lorebook, conceptualize stuff on the spot, increase knowledge and tolerance of drugs, maintain posture during intense situations and on and on. Since it’s a dialogue-heavy RPG, you can bet my third nipple that pretty much all of these skills will come in handy at one point or another.
Disco Elysium is a highly story-driven game and this comes at a price of player freedom at several junctures. Like Torment before, you’re forced to play a pre-defined character, in this case, a mess of a detective. There are fixed back story and personality to this character. But much like Torment, the game plays the amnesia card so that you may re-shape his personality and re-define his character. Whatever our detective once was, you have the power to decide what he will be. The Thought Cabinet trait system (which we discussed in the preview) lets you roleplay as a drunk cop, bad cop, slightly good cop, druggie cop, hobo cop, asshole cop, superstar cop or an apocalyptic cop, the choice is in your hands.
Skillchecks, Skillchecks Everywhere
Skillchecks is the bread and sausage of Disco Elysium. Everything from solving quests to interacting with items to engaging in combat takes place through dialogues with skillchecks being the determining factor. I screwed up the game once when my detective had a panic attack and broke into tears in front of a mob boss since a skill-check failed. Or suffering a cardiac arrest while trying to do a physically daunting activity (turning on the fan). However, it’s not like Torment in the sense that you will miss out on half the good stuff if you play a non-Wisdom build. When one skill-check closes in Disco Elysium, another way opens up.
You are also able to retry many of the failed skillchecks if you invest one more point in that specific skill. Since skillchecks are bound to RNG dice rolls, you may also save-scum to get favourable outcomes similar to Fallout 3. Although save-scumming is a personal decision and I try to avoid it as much as possible, it downplays the importance of builds and significantly reduces the challenge of the game. Not only that, but Disco Elysium throws plenty of stat-boosting items in your face to help out during skill checks. There are hardly any challenging sections in the game that needs maxed out skills, save from maybe one. Then again, the major focus in Disco Elysium is on role-playing as a real detective and not on min-maxing.
Time Waits for This Man
You’re on Revachol to solve a crime (assuming you even get pas the opening sequence), and since crime and time wait for no man, there’s an emphasis on doing things on time. The story of Disco Elysium takes place across several days and you’re initially given the impression that the game is time-bound. NPCs will go to bed after 9, shops will close down and the streets will be empty by 2 AM. So there is some time-management involved but don’t fret, you’re not under any real pressure.
For one, time only moves forward when you’re progressing in dialogue with NPCs or during key events. You can run around the town all you want and the clock won’t even nudge. Secondly, the clock freezes after 2 AM and you’re free to explore to your heart’s content before hitting the bed to end the night. I was able to finish my first playthrough on day 4 with most of the side content done. So this pseudo-time limit is just there in theory. Makes you wonder what was the reason behind it in the first place since it kind of breaks the immersion the way it’s done right now.
Flaws in Paradise
Despite what my writing above may have lead you to believe, Disco Elysium is not a flawless RPG, and that’s okay. The game is being advertised as a ‘sprawling open-world’ RPG while in truth, the exterior playable area is rather small and they all open up in a very linear manner. You can run from one end of the map to the other in like 3 minutes(citation needed?). Granted, not every game world needs to be 100 kilometres big, but considering how good the setting and level design is, it seems a waste of potential to have just 3 small zones to play around in.
Then there is the matter of length. While the developers have said that the average playthrough may last around 40 hours, I found myself completing the near-perfect playthrough around 25. I kept playing through the second half keeping the dev statement in mind and was very disappointed when the game ended abruptly, leaving me wanting for more. Quality over quantity always but this just felt like a harsh tease. For the game’s defence, the replayability is pretty high and it’s impossible to experience ‘everything’ in just one playthrough.
Even though the lack of emphasis on combat in Disco Elysium is perfectly fine, I feel as if there should have been more combat encounters. As it stands, I can only think of one fully-fledged combat scenario in the entire game. It would have been nice to have 2-3 more optional encounters in the game for the sake of multiple playthroughs.
Finally, there’s the need for quality of life improvements like an always run option (double-clicking all the time to run becomes tedious), ability to pan the edge of the screen, better pathfinding, more options to customize the UI, proper ultrawide support etc.
Visuals & Performance
Disco Elysium looks like it came off the canvas of a talented post-modern European painter. It’s that good. The environments are handcrafted and filled to the brim with minute details. Even the lighting and weather effects are neatly done. For a dialogue-heavy game, the amount and quality of animations present is surprisingly good. Visually, the game looks absolutely stunning.
Performance-wise, Disco Elysium runs ok most of the time. There are the odd dips to 50s when zooming out all the way on a 1070. My character ended up getting stuck on the terrain which forced a restart several times. There were also 2 or 3 crashes along the way. Plus, the load times are a bit long even on an SSD. Oh, almost forgot. I also encountered a bug where the shirt I was wearing wouldn’t show up on the PC model. Kind of annoying since our detective isn’t the most ‘pleasing’ sight to behold.
Music & Sound
Music- fantastic and fitting, even though most tracks get lopped a lot. The game features partial voice acting for some characters. And the voice acting ranges from ok to pretty terrible. In scenarios like these, some might people prefer the game to have no voice acting at all. If that’s the case, you’re free to turn off the voiceover volume.
Disco Elysium is hands down the best RPG I’ve played this year. It’s a kind of game that doesn’t come around often. Does that mean it’s the best RPG of all time? Not really. But it comes pretty damn close. A unique setting, great writing, an engaging storyline and hours of trope-breaking fun awaits you in Disco Elysium.