Review – Disco Elysium
I took advantage of how dead the first half of January is when it comes to new releases just so I could play a few games I didn’t have time to tackle in 2019. The top priority of my list was Disco Elysium. I’m not going to lie, I knew absolutely nothing about it prior to the freaking avalanche of incredibly high scores it received a few months ago. Then came the Game Awards, and lo and behold, Disco Elysium ended up winning four awards, even managing to upset Kojima’s Death Stranding in a few categories we were expecting it to win, such as Best Story. Of course I was curious to check Disco Elysium out. After playing it to the very end, I can safely say that yep, critics were right. This is one amazing game.
Disco Elysium takes place in a fictional world full of invented nations which closely resemble many European countries from today. It might be an invented world, but you can clearly notice events that resemble important parts of the history of the world. Especially with regards the 19th and 20th centuries, like world wars, colonialism, early computer technology, as well as the advent of rock n’ roll, disco music, union strikes, guerilla warfare, and communist revolutions. In the middle of all this chaos, a mysterious murder occurs and it’s up to you, a detective, to figure out what happened. To spice things up, you’re a raging alcoholic who just happened to lose your memory due to the copious amounts of booze ingested over the past few days. This is not only a mystery surrounding a murder, but also a quest to uncover your previous actions, as well as a journey to remember who you are.
It’s hard to properly label what kind of game Disco Elysium is. It has elements borrowed from other established genres, but it definitely doesn’t feel (or play) like any other game I’ve tackled in recent memory. It has elements of a typical point-and-click adventure, but it’s a lot more complex than that. It’s a murder mystery game, but there’s more going on around you than just one main case, as you can tackle other smaller cases you can find. It has some very heavy D&D-esque RPG elements, such as stats and chances defined by dice rolls, but this can’t be described as a proper RPG, as there is basically no combat. Disco Elysium puts lots of genres into a blender in order to create something completely unique.
The first thing you do in Disco Elysium is define your “archetype”, either by choosing between three presets or by creating a completely customized character with various stats to manage. They are a bit more esoteric than the ones you would normally expect from an RPG. The types include “Drama” (the ability to convince people by lying at their face), “Visual Calculus” (the ability to recreate crime scenes in your mind like Sherlock), “Inland Empire” (the ability to basically talk to yourself like a lunatic), and “Electrochemistry” (your relationship with drugs and booze).
Every single stat is important, as it may increase the probability of an action succeeding when exploring the map. Your stats also “talk” to you and may suggest your next moves and the best dialogue choices if they’re high enough. Yep, you heard that right, you talk to your stats. Talking to your stats might unlock some extra passive buffs, known as “thoughts”, in which you spend a few hours with a reduced in stats while you’re researching an overall improvement for your character once that thought process is complete. You can also increase stats by wearing various types of clothing, ranging from hobo attire to a suit of armor. Your character is definitely not normal, as you can see.
Your character is a complete disaster of a human being, an alcoholic who wakes up with a massive hangover, no clothes, and no memories, in a completely destroyed hotel room. You have little ability to properly talk to people at first, and your dialogue choices clearly show that you’re scum. The more you play the game, the more chances you will have to determine your personality, and not only that, your political views.
I’ve read a lot of internet comments about how Disco Elysium is a “communist game” prior to playing it, but honestly, that’s just a half-truth. Yes, the game features tons of communist iconography, as well as union leaders and revolutionaries that spit out a lot of leftist ideology onto your face. But in no moment does the game try to convince you that they are good guys. In fact, Disco Elysium criticizes pretty much every single political point of view you can think of, either by showcasing a character with an extremist interpretation of said ideology or due to the fact that you can eventually adopt an ideology of your own and get slammed in-game for your choices.
If you end up becoming a communist, the game will criticize you. If you end up a fascist, the game will criticize you. If you end up a neoliberal, the game will criticize you. If you decide to act as a centrist, then the game will criticize you even more for not coming up with an opinion of your own. To sum it up, don’t take Disco Elysium‘s political messages seriously. It’s a side thing included to enrich the game’s world and setting, but this is still a murder mystery first and foremost, not political brainwashing of any kind.
The overall gameplay is pretty simple and intuitive. Everything is done with the mouse, from walking to talking to people and interacting with objects and menus. One click makes you walk to a desired spot, two clicks make you run to said place. Clicking on objects, selecting dialogue choices and chance actions, everything is handled with the mouse as well. Disco Elysium is very intuitive as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that the gameplay is perfect. I have one gripe with it; I don’t like this whole “moving with the mouse” schtick. I would have appreciated the inclusion of being able to move with the WSAD keys, as there is a lot of backtracking in Disco Elysium, and your character doesn’t exactly move at a fast pace. He’s old, fat, and hungover for crying out loud.
Technically speaking, Disco Elysium doesn’t reinvent the wheel with phenomenal graphics or animations, but it features such a unique art style that I can’t help but enjoy it. The entire game is comprised of hand drawn backgrounds and hand drawn character portraits contrasting with polygonal character models and interactive objects. I will say, I didn’t enjoy how simplistic the character models were, but I loved the backgrounds and locales.
The sound department is equally fascinating. The soundtrack has been composed by the band British Sea Power and it suits the game’s setting perfectly. The collection of tunes reminds me a lot of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós due to its heavy post-rock vibes. The tune played at the hostel ended up being my favorite. The game also features a ton of voice acting, and it is pretty good for the most part. The vast majority of voice actors deliver good lines, with only a handful sounding amateurish.
With that being said, what drives Disco Elysium forward isn’t the good gameplay, the visuals, or sound design; it’s the story. This is a magnificently well-written game that knows how to be funny without being comedic. It knows how to be tragic without trying to look like “Oscar bait”. It knows how to push boundaries with some subjects that are still a bit taboo in gaming, such as rape, underage usage of hard drugs, racism, and the aforementioned political ideology discussions. Nothing in here feels forced. The characters are iconic, either due to how disgusting they are, or by how friendly and layered they are, such as your companion Kim Kitsuragi. I don’t want to dive deep into the game’s plot, as this is best enjoyed if you know nothing about it, but trust me, it’s good. It’s very good.
Disco Elysium is worth the hype. It’s an unbelievably intelligent game with a fantastic story, some excellent plot twist and innovative gameplay mechanics that use elements from different genres in order to create something that feels truly unique. With the exception of a few graphical preferences and some small gameplay issues like the vast amount of backtracking, I can say I truly enjoy every second of it. If you have a PC that can run it (it’s not very hardware demanding), I encourage you to give it a try. It did deserve every single award it has been earning over the past months.
Simplistic (and ugly) polygonal characters are mixed with gorgeous hand-drawn backgrounds. Disco Elysium does have a very unique art style.
Everything is done with your mouse. The menus are intuitive and the game’s overall tabletop RPG-inspired mechanics are fantastic. Moving your character with the mouse is a bit cumbersome though.
A really good soundtrack by the band British Sea Power, as well as a lot of voice acting. A good chunk of it is well-acted, with just a fraction of it sounding amateurish.
There is a bit of backtracking in here, but Disco Elysium‘s engaging gameplay, unique mixture of genres, and absolutely fantastic story are more than enough to make you want to play it to the end.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Disco Elysium is available now on PC.
Reviewed on PC.