Disco Elysium is an exquisitely-written RPG of external and internal turmoil, political unrest, and self-destruction, packaged into a detective noir.
The detective takes another drink to tune out the incessant noises of his past. His Shivers skill allows him to listen to the wind, that truest documentarian of the streets of Martinaise, as it jostles through war-pocked stonework taking garrulous notes. He woke up in the city with no knowledge of who he was or how he arrived; getting dressed and facing the public requires herculean effort. They tell him that he is a detective and a human trainwreck, and that he’s been prioritizing the latter role for a solid week. That tarred sense of shameful guilt torturing the morning after an intoxicated blackout? Disco Elysium often feels like the video game manifestation of this feeling (in a good way). Our detective has a name, but discovering it is part of the journey.
Indie studio ZA/UM spent many years developing their hallucinogenic alternate-universe detective-noir CRPG debut. Disco Elysium features a monstrously dense narrative, and although it’s somewhat simple when viewed from 30,000 feet above, the particulars of the plot are only available at eye-level, in conversations (and interrogations) with the citizens and interlopers in both the city and your detective’s own mind. What is known with certainty is that a man hangs dead from a decrepit tree behind your hotel, that your protagonist was and seemingly still is a detective, and that the neighborhood is teetering on the edge of a riot.
The Shivers skill joins 23 other abstract personifications of the human psycho-emotional interior. In a Freudian sense, the game allows you to construct and modify the basic id and superego, then clutch clammy hands to ego’s wheel for the remainder. While this is an extremely crude reduction, much of Disco Elysium’s charm resides in how much or how little you can effectively steer a conversation, how your internal skills bolster and interfere with those intentions, and then how the story reacts and molds around the creeping realization of an identity. Or, in much simpler and obvious terms: role-playing.
Those 24 skills might sound like a lot, but some of them seem more useful than others. There’s some conceptual crossover between the Endurance and Pain Threshold skills, though the former informs your total health (more on that stat later). The Encyclopedia skill relates to a human-computer-like ability to summon definitions and errata on a variety of subjects, but Logic, Rhetoric, and Drama appear much more useful during conversations. And still, every skill seemingly has some conspicuous placement or purpose, and all of them feature their own uniquely written voice. Those voices interrupt conversations and actions with incessant chatter as ongoing dice rolls determine their ability to advise and cajole the player.
Disco Elysium ominously front-loads this elaborate skill system, and it wouldn’t be unusual to lose many minutes thumbing through the three basic character builds and a create-your-own option before even starting the game proper. Early on, choosing where to allot skill points seems appropriately significant, but also stridently alien. Their terse descriptions aren’t much help, and it would be one thing if the game didn’t really care one way or the other, but foolish stat investments can hinder its initial hours. Some players have even reported soft-locking certain playthroughs with peculiar builds, and this seems possible, but the pre-built archetypes are a sensible start.
Then there's the Thought Cabinet system, a matrix where players can slot "thoughts" that they discover throughout the game. Equipping one of these thoughts costs a skill point, thinking about them usually adds a debuff, and completing the thought over time imparts a mysterious reward (or, occasionally, nothing). Certain thought rewards make the game notably easier, but you'd be easily forgiven for looking up a walkthrough to help maximize your skill point allotment.
Character creation hints at the overall writing quality to come, a sparse appetizer for a marathon meal. Disco Elysium is a smorgasbord of ineffably exquisite writing, both intellectually stimulating and emotionally insightful. Sometimes it’s bracing in its profanity-laden crassness, while other times a stray line might cut deep into your soul. Your soul, that is, not just the character’s. It’s tempting to call it too smart as a feeble critique, but that’s only because it so often seems to be one step ahead. An internal skill may interrupt a lazy stroll past a bookshop to check up on the detective, asking about your political leanings. It’s actually calling back to some specific responses you selected during several conversations (and probably forgot about), prodding at your inherent insecurities or class-conscious alignments. You can argue and deny these internal accusations, but these asides impart a strange paranoia, some proof that the game is “listening” to you...and, therefore, judging you.
It’s something like that old trend of character creation in RPGs, where a game would first test players with a lengthy series of logic and morality exercises, then roll up character stats as a summary, only Disco Elysium extends this concept through an entire 20-40 hour game. It’s a thrilling scheme that bucks some recent RPG trends and the pseudo-importance of choice therein. And, when it works, it imparts a magically unnerving intimacy. This is probably one of the game's best tricks.
Sometimes your skills bicker with each other, other times they find a situation impenetrable, and yet other times they actually lie to you or proffer terrible advice. They may even apologize for doing so, or excuse themselves. It really is like carting around 24 individual NPCs of various behavioral tendency—don't forget Electro-Chemistry, who incessantly reminds you to take illicit substances. While the atmosphere that this back-and-forth builds is truly dizzying for the first few hours, it’s eventually, amazingly, digestible. In our playthrough, we emphasized certain Psyche skills like Inland Empire which constantly fed supernaturally-sourced insights. When correct and helpful, these led to unexpected breakthroughs in the investigation, but other times they made the detective look like a drugged-out doomsayer babbling irrational portents.
The game is controlled with keyboard and mouse from an isometric fixed-camera perspective, and the nooks of the city and environs available to you are admittedly limited. Despite the constricted geography, it holds an unusually rich depth of experience...initially, at least. The first “day” of the game is overwhelming, with new characters and plot threads dangling for grasp at every juncture, each discussion bursting at the seams with new diversions. Aside from key scripted moments, much of the story progresses at your own self-directed pace, which does mean that you can take time to pick through it with care, while also seeing game-days featuring much less interaction than the first. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Disco Elysium has a pacing problem, but this may also vary greatly depending on a player’s rock-lifting orientation through the story.
You’ll also meet the game’s most magnificent character on that first busy day: Lieutenant Kim Kitsarugi. Kim mostly functions as a by-the-books Abbott to your protagonist’s crazy-eyed Costello, accompanying the detective on most all of his outings, interjecting in conversation when you’re too far gone, and taxiing the central murder case through its milestones. He’s also one of the finest and most well-realized NPCs of 2019, the perfect foil to a train-wreck hallucinating detective with a pocketful of amphetamine.
The Lieutenant also goes to bed at night, which allows you to operate without a chaperon, and some activities and pursuits benefit from the lone-gun approach. You’ll probably miss him when he’s gone, though; while he first comes off as a passive-aggressive buzzkill, there’s a rewarding depth to his character the further you get to know him.
Note that Disco Elysium has no true combat sequences at all. Unlike CRPG classic Planescape: Torment (its frequent comparative counterpart), tactical combat isn’t even an available option, with dice-powered skill checks serving each challenge. Yes, you can save-scum to your heart’s content to overpower them, though failures reveal their own productive results, and are usually not a true dead end. Interestingly, proper dead-end states do exist, which seems somewhat reminiscent of classic Sierra point-and-click adventures, and game-overs always occur if your health or morale gauges bottom out. Luckily, healing items can top off both of these reserves, and carefully searching the environment reveals them in abundance.
When BioWare released Knights of the Old Republic, there was something fascinating about an RPG with no apparent dice rolls. Of course, this appraisal is totally false, because they just baked those rolls into the character movements and combat, living under the hood, just as they did in their later games like Dragon Age. Similarly, Disco Elysium is constantly rolling its dice during conversations. At one point in our playthrough we met a young teen runaway prone to lies and obfuscation. The Drama skill rolled dice after one of these lies, and failed a check. “Everything checks out, sire!” it retorted. The conversation moved on, quietly transformed by this brief stumble.
On the visual front, Disco Elysium is messy but gorgeous. All character and skills feature fully painted portraits and the game world is 3D-rendered with a patina of impressionist brushstrokes. The aesthetic is something like a madly colorful mixture of Cézanne, Redon, Raja Ravi Varma, Francis Bacon, illuminated manuscripts, tarot decks, and more. It effectively makes Martinaise and its denizens appear uncannily antiquated and also slightly off, similar to the history of the world itself. Some good-looking weather effects change the timbre of the city, and although some character animations are a little stiff, they’re still readable from a distance.
Learning the current and recent events about the wider Revacholian culture is at least as important as your protagonist’s journey of self-re-discovery and law enforcement, and there’s a tremendous amount of lore and background text which fleshes out its most apparent political conflicts. Racism, sexual assault, and drug addiction are present topics, as are ones devoted to kindness, love, romance, and charity. Certain sensitive players may balk at some of the more disturbing content, and all should prepare themselves for an experience oriented towards mature themes.
By scoring a game, point by point, one can interpret quality as a set of building blocks which composes the entire experience. The thing is, Disco Elysium eludes a confident summary in this respect. It is genuinely simpler than its apparent complexity may lead you to think, and divergent play-styles change the journey much more than the ending. Certain flubs also mar the immaculate spell—for instance, actions that were committed without Ken by your side may be later referenced as if he was there in the first place. Difficult skill checks at 3% can be satisfied with patient save-scumming, and 97% checks fail an inordinate amount of times. During many, many portions of our playthrough, slowly trundling between the polar reaches of Martinaise felt completely dreary and boring, and a fast-travel mechanic would have been appreciated. Furthermore, while certain characters appear or change position between days, most all of them are relatively static, seated on a shipping container or leaning on a pillar forevermore. Lastly, the limited voice acting is wildly inconsistent, and the game would probably only be improved if it was text-only instead. The good ones are good, but the bad performances come off as amateurish, hammy, and/or forced.
There is little doubt that Disco Elysium is not built for all-comers. It features well-observed insights on substance abuse, relationships, and recovery from trauma—highly sensitive topics whose conclusions will hit certain people much harder than others. Those greatly affected by them will arguably feel recognized and less lonely—probably one of the highest mantles of praise that can be granted to a work of art. It feels crafted to elicit this specialized response, written with wisdom and frustration and anger and poetic vitality. On the other hand are the players who will feel stressed and hampered by its frequently opaque mechanics, the occasional bug or inconsistency, maybe responding coolly to certain qualities of its narrative. Still others, especially the impatient, may feel punished or just outright bored. It’s really an all-or-nothing gamble. Still, even for those inexperienced with text-heavy CRPGs, it’s hard to imagine anyone won't find at least something to admire in Disco Elysium. Highly recommended, and sure to be a GOTY contender.
Disco Elysium is available on Steam for PC only, though releases on additional platforms are apparently in the works. A digital PC copy was provided to Screen Rant for purposes of review.