Disco Elysium is an insane detective story/role-playing game developed by ZA/UM. The studio grew from an art collective of writers and artists, beginning as a tabletop Dungeons & Dragons group that met regularly and wanted to simulate the creativity and depth of a good D&D experience. Unsurprisingly the tabletop origins and classic RPGs inspiration really shine through in this game.
The adventure is a slow, twisted decent into a damaged psyche of an alcoholic cop. Everything begins rather abstractly with two unknown voices trying to assure you that the oblivion-like sleep you are experiencing is far more favourable to reality, and they are not wrong. You awake in a trashed hotel room in disarray, near naked and suffering the worst hangover known to man.
Something awful has happened to you and apparently you have tried to obliterate your memory through drinking. Inanimate objects will talk to you, and voices from the deep dark recesses of your mind will whisper to you. These voices represent different parts of your personality and they chime in often with unpredictable consequences, giving you bizarre insights into the world.
You begin to get your bearings and suddenly realise you have amnesia, with no memory of where you’re from or what has brought you to this bleak place. After using your sleuthing skills to find your clothes you leave the room and meet police officer Kim Kitsuragi, who informs you that you’re in fact a cop and that you’re here to investigate the murder of a hanged man. While that sounds simple, it leads you down a rabbit hole of violence, death and corruption as you explore the decaying city of Ravachol and question its various inhabitants, with a little help from your broken brain.
This game is beautiful and simple. The seedy dirty world rendered looks like a cross between an old school RPG and a crazed graphic novel. You often feel like you’re wandering around a decaying post Soviet era area, with everything falling apart and barely functioning. The game uses a top down isometric perspective, which is standard for old school narrative driven RPGs, but Disco looks a little different.
Disco uses the Unity engine, which I’m not keen on due to how basic Unity games often look, but that is not the case here. The art style is unique, with an oil painted aesthetic reminiscent of the Arkham Asylum comic illustrations by Dave McKean. Characters and environments feature a hand drawn look which is dripping with atmosphere and goes really well with the noir world and fractured mind of the protagonist. The beautiful yet deeply unnerving portraits, character sheet and cover art were created by art director Aleksander Rostov.
When the game first blinks into existence you are met with a fascinating character sheet with disturbing but stunning illusions representing parts of your fractured psyche and a few initial points to spend. You have 24 strange skills that revolce how your mind works, how you will interact with the people you meet and the world. For example, Empathy allows you to relate to characters.
Another example is Drama which is the ability to lie and detect lies or an encyclopedic knowledge of facts regarding the world and even physical skills like raw strength, reflexes and the ability to take pain or stay composed when you mess up. These skills and voices really shape your experience, from dialogue options to what you notice about the world and its characters, which you can use to your advantage.
Much like a tabletop RPG your dice rolls are used to decide dialogue, actions and combat. These skill checks are modified by how many points you have in a particular skill and can even receive a bonus based on what you wear. My character was terrible at intimidating people due to looking and acting like a human train wreck. He often tripped over his flared trousers and snakeskin shoes when trying to get physical.
But he was great at empathising with whoever he spoke to and would often notice little touches like their accents, clothes or any number of other useful hints, that would help me out when interrogating. There’s also a day and night cycle which affects the environment, but time is only pushed forward when you are in a conversation or performing tasks.
These conversations play a huge part in the experience, and are usually compelling and very funny, often leading in strange directions. A combination of your booze addled brain, powerful detective skills and shattered mind allows you to notice things a normal mind would miss. This allows you to do crazy things like questioning a corpse, even though you suspect that your are just talking to yourself and it’s all in your head.
As a role playing game Disco Elysium features the ability to gain experience from completing tasks and progressing with your investigation. Like a standard RPG when you gain enough experience you can level up and spend skill points to increase one of your 24 attributes which will give you a higher chance to succeed in future skill based talks and even retake some previously failed skill checks.
Throughout your many conversations and musings you develop “thoughts” this give you a bonus to a particular skill. My partner telling me to “get my s*** together” lead to me gaining a thought called “Volumetric sh** compressor” that improved some of my attributes permanently and could be swapped out later. These take time to learn and you can use skill points to unlock more thought slots.
Combat is also dealt with in a strange way that may be a turn off for some. Fights take place in dialogue, while this isn’t as immediately gratifying as most games it can be really immersive due to how well written the scenes are and the amount of detail and tension the skill check system adds.
Disco wears its influences on its sleeve, looking and playing very much like the RPG legends that inspired its creation, such as Planescape Torment, Baldur’s Gate and the original Fallout. However it features enough innovation and originality to be considered its own unique game. With a complex and deep story, tonnes of insane and brilliant NPC interaction, a solid rol- eplaying system and buckets of atmosphere this game is something special.
One of my favourite things about Disco Elysium is that takes it place in a completely original setting with its own unique politics, races, history, technology and countries.. This alien world prevents you finding any kind of mental foothold or grounding and leaves you unable to assume anything. This helps you not only empathise with the main character but also makes it interesting and fun to learn about the world you’re experiencing.
No game is perfect but Disco comes so very close in my book. However, it’s not for everyone and won’t satisfy the itchy trigger fingers among you. This game is pretty slow paced and things take time to really get going. It suffers from the same problems lots of RPGs run into which is limited dialogue options, although I have to say the game gives you more than most. Repeating choices in a chat doesn’t produce different results or even questioned by other characters either.
It’s not a particularly upbeat experience, with an abundance of dark humour alongside the depressing setting and themes, but it all helps paint this fantastical world with a grimy coat of realism. With a game that revolves on chance and dice rolls there is the temptation to save scum (saving before taking an action and reloading until you achieve the desired outcome). I’ve done this with some games in the past (I’m looking at you XCOM, when you miss a point blank shot with a 95% chance to hit!) but I urge you to roll with it and continue because in Disco Elysium your mistakes can really take you down some weirder and more interesting paths.
Disco Elysium has the inevitable feeling of a one-way trip and it’s ultimately up to you to decide if it’s a redemption story or a tale of self-destruction. It is like putting classic noir, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, David Lynch films, Chernobyl and a dash of steampunk in a blender and downing the frothy goodness. If that sounds crazy, then your detective skills are working perfectly.
While it’s definitely not for everyone, Disco Elysium is one of the best RPGs I have played in a long time, and fans of the genre will enjoy it immensely. I’m seriously starting to wonder if the developers came in my room in the night, cracked open my brain and used the contents to grow my perfect game. While I admit that is unlikely, I will be investing in bigger locks just in case.
Disco is an absolute powerhouse of a game with strong writing, great performances and intriguing mechanics that meant I honestly struggled to stop playing. This game is destined to be a cult classic and deserves to be regarded as a peer of Planetscape, Baldur’s Gate and Fallout, which is the highest praise I could offer..
If you love RPGs, reading or fancy something different – and I mean really damn different – then track down Disco Elysium.
Godspeed you funky disco ducks.
Disco Elysium was released October 15 on Steam and GOG for £34.99. with no plans to bring it on to consoles at time of writing