Well, I tell you, folks. This here game is it. In the past week, I have logged over 60 hours into Disco Elysium, the recently launched title by ZA/UM, and I’m in awe.
I’m going to break format a bit today. The old guy needs to mix it up, you know, keep it fresh. Gotta do that every once in a while, look cool to the kids. So right here, right now, I’m going to tell you if you are a fan of the CRPG genre, with a heavy focus on storytelling, replayability, and roleplay – buy this game. You don’t need anything else, don’t watch videos, don’t read reviews, just go buy it. It’ll be the best 45.49 Cannuck bucks you ever spent.
Am I shooting myself in the foot, telling you not to read my review? Maybe. Am I exercising my typical over-exuberance dunking myself into the great lake Hyperbole? Nope. Disco Elysium is nothing short of a masterpiece of heartache and self-destruction. You will creep through the murderously welcoming arms of Revachol for more than one life. You will need to know it all. What would have happened if you made that check? What if you had selected these skills? What if you left a door closed, rather than open it with questionable means and sanity?
Disco Elysium is one of those games that comes around every decade or two. It leaves a mark on the players, the developers, and the industry. I knew something was up when they sent me the game, nearly a week before launch, with no embargoes. That is a whole freezer full of confidence in a project. ZA/UM is proud of what they have made here, and they should be.
If you are still reading this, you likely want to know a more in-depth take on the game. I’ll do what I can, kids, but I don’t want to spoil the game for anyone. I’ll also go over what the game doesn’t have. Not saying it is lacking – gods above and below, no. It just doesn’t have some elements RPG hounds usually expect.
At the beating heart of the game, it’s a CRPG. An isometric role-playing adventure where you take on the role of a character who awakens with no memory of who they are or what they are doing. All he knows is he had a bad night and has the mental and physical scars to prove it.
This character is partially pre-made, just like The Nameless One from the venerable Planescape: Torment. This is the story of finding out who you are and what you did, and deciding what you will become. The keys here will be your starting stats, your skill investments as you progress, and what choices you make. All three of these work in tandem to create a truly unique experience.
Replay value. Honestly, it was because of my concern about replay value that the review is a bit late coming out – I just needed to know. So, as soon as I finished my Drug-Fueled, Commie Psychic play, I started another one: a sad, thoughtful, desperate guy who just wanted to be forgiven and do a good job. The events unfolded in surprisingly different ways, entire chunks of the game were different, and the endings both felt custom-tailored to my respective characters. So, yeah, you can get a pile of replay through this. But it is no small time investment. My first playthrough was 45 hours, and there were parts of the game I did not do simply because my character bungled things up. So yeah, play it, then play it again. I’m already cooking up my third character.
Character creation seems almost too simple at first. There are no hours of fiddling around with sliders, or skill trees, or whatnot. You could spend a great deal of time reading up on the various facets of your stats. Honestly, I do recommend that, since doing so will help you make the character you want to see in the world. There are four stats, and each of those stats has six abilities? Facets? Fragments? Hmm, I guess we can call them skills, but skills feels like a clumsy description of it. Like we saw something we’d never really seen before and were desperate to give it a name.
The skills are very much part of you. They are not only what you can do, they are active participants in the game.
There are three significant ways skills are called upon in Disco Elysium. First, there are the dreaded Red checks. These are checks that you can make once. You mess it up, and you can’t do it again. Sorry, bub. Next, are the White checks. These come up more frequently than Red checks. You can fail them, sometimes with a consequence, but you can also retry them later. Through exploration and conversation, you can trigger events that will grant you another shot at a White check. If that doesn’t work, you can spend a skill point to increase the appropriate skill and thereby gain a retry.
The third and honestly most bizarre aspect of skills is the secret checks. They are continually happening based on your skills. Your skills will talk to you and give you advice, sometimes good, sometimes insane, always entertaining. If your character has a high check in a particular skill, that skill may prevent them from doing specific actions. A small example, my character had too much pride to beg for money at one point. This left me feeling that even when left by themselves on the dirty streets of Revachol, my character was never truly alone.
Your stats do not improve after character creation. They are impacted through advancement and gear, however. How you want to play is up to you. Does your character have a strong sense of self and style, and sticks to a particular wardrobe because you like the look? Maybe because it projects the right feeling of who you feel they are? Or do you just madly change clothes before doing every single task or conversation? The choice is yours. Do not worry about failure, however. Unless it kills you, I say roll with it. You can always try the White checks again if you fail, and Red checks build character and twist things in exciting (and often hilarious) ways.
Can you save scum? Sure. But I do not recommend it. Let the dice fall where they may. And if it isn’t a game over screen, go with it.
So, let’s talk about violence. Or a lack of violence. For some of you, this might be the single most crucial part of the game. The question. The big question, how is the combat? Well, it is kinda non-existent. And by kinda, I mean there is no combat in a traditional sense. There are physical and violent conflicts that you can have. The gear, skills and choices you make impact the outcomes of these conflicts. But no, no turn-based tactical, no real-time pausable, no setting tactics for the NPCs in your party. Disco Elysium is a story-driven game, and a traditional combat system would have distracted from it.
(I see lots of folks concerned that without a combat system, the game is just a visual novel. It is not. Rest assured. A robust skill system, branching stories, and yes, you can die. I died more than once in my adventures. Sometimes for very stupid or mundane reasons.)
Character improvement is simple but profoundly impactful. You earn experience through completing a task, engaging in valuable dialogue, or discovering important things. XP awards range typically between 5 and 30 points, with significant accomplishments granting around 70. Every 100 experience, you get a new skill point.
There are three ways in which you can spend skill points. The first is to increase one of your skills, and in doing so making that facet of your character more powerful. Skills are limited in this way based on your stats. If you have a score of one in Psyche, your Psyche skills will have a natural cap of one, meaning you can only invest one skill point in them. This information is important to note because it is an indicator of how many times you can retry a White check of a related skill this way.
The second and third ways to spend skill points involves your Thought Cabinet. As you proceed through the game, you will have moments where a profound thought will strike your character. These may manifest in your Thought Cabinet and grant you the opportunity to internalize one of these thoughts, make them part of who you are, by sliding them into an empty thought slot. There are many things that accompany these gestating thoughts; time to process them, temporary effects on your character, and then the results of your inner dwelling.
You start with three of these Cabinet slots. You can spend a skill point to unlock a new one, or spend a skill point to forget one you had already internalized. Maybe your character had a change of heart? Perhaps the reality of the situation was just too much to handle? Perhaps holding on to that thought just made life too hard.
But the aspect of advancement that impressed me the most was White checks and their impact on my character. The character I streamed and gathered most of my info on the game with was a drug-fuelled communist. I set out wanting to play that, as soon as I heard about the different political factions. While hyper-aggressive, and motivated by his next fix, he had some lines he wouldn’t cross. He was against racism and tried hard to be against sexism. He slipped up a few times on the sexism part, but he did also become obsessed with the paranatural.
He was a mess, but he never backed down, he never showed weakness, and he never confronted the truth of his pain. That is, until a series of very, very unlucky roles had me completely stumped in my investigation. I had exhausted all my leads. I had run out of missions to do, and I was stuck with no way to get more retests on my White checks. I had three options. The first was to sit around and let time pass. It didn’t seem like something my beloved junkie would do, so I contemplated other options. I could give up, reload an old save, or start over. That would have been quitting, and I wasn’t about to do that. The third was to have my character shuffle around Revachol and talk to people. Have conversations he didn’t want to have or had avoided. Go places, dwell on things, and so on.
I went with the third choice, and it had a profound effect on my character. The bluster was gone as our exhausted boy shuffled his feet around the bookshop, desperately looking to talk to someone. He started having to see some real truths about himself. He had to open up to some characters and make compromises. Doing this was amazing. Yes, it gave me the experience I needed to level up and redo those White checks. But it also had a massive impact on the character I was playing. The second half of the game had our guy deflated – more open with his desperation, more worried about what people thought. And it was beautiful. It was an honest to goodness character arc. And I wasn’t forced to go with it; I could have done other things, approached it other ways, or just been luckier with my rolls, and it would have been so different.
In lots of RPGs, character arcs like this are forced, timed, or triggered. Not in Disco Elysium. If you want a story of redemption, that’s up to you, and it’s not a guarantee.
Yeah, yeah, yeah – the video games as art debate continues. Nuts to that, this game is a work of bloody art. The aesthetic is recognizable and unique. Any who dare ape it will be viewed as attempting an Elysium styled game. It’s a distinct, beautiful, tragic, alien, and comforting world all at once. The game excels in all fronts, from the UI choices which are unobtrusive and easy to navigate, to the excellent, funny, and often haunting voice actors. The set pieces are clear in my mind when I close my eyes. I can always go back to Revachol
The music is subdued enough to add ambiance to the setting, and the tracks are not random. Each scene has a particular sound to it. The music is a vast set of punctuation for Disco Elysium. When it strays from the standard melodic tunes, you know something is happening. If you enter an area with different music, it grabs your attention and makes you take notice of the scene.
My high praise of the graphics and music have to pale in comparison to the writing found in the story. Games that aspire to what Disco Elysium is will live or die on the script. With over a million lines of dialogue, it is an exceptional yarn. So much is an internal monologue. However, the descriptions of things you encounter and the speech of other characters you meet manages to be distinct. What I mean is that regardless of if you are having a conversation with one of your twenty-four skills, or if you are talking to that laid-back lorry driver outside the hostel, everyone feels different. Everyone feels like they received lots of love and care when they crawled out from the mind of ZA/UM.
The Precarious World
Disco Elysium is, without a doubt, the best RPG put out this year to date. With only a few months left of 2019, there is some decent competition for that title, but it will be a hard-fought battle for sure. The game has set itself as one of the best RPGs put out in the last decade, hell maybe even the previous two decades. I will be coming back to this one over and over. I want more. I need more. I want more stories from the world of Disco Elysium, and I want them as soon as possible.
Disco Elysium is a 10/10 from me. If I made a GOTY list, this would be the top dog for 2019.
Review by Joshua Smith (Old Man Mordaith)
Edited by Jesse Roberts
Game provided for review purposes.