Considering the nature of what has happened in the real world with George Floyd and the protests since then, public perception of the police has changed quite a bit. I’ve actually been sitting on this game since it came out late 2019 and wanted to do a review on it but never found the right words until now, when I decided to do a second play-through of the game. “Disco Elysium” is an isometric RPG developed and published by ZA/UM on Oct. 15, 2019, for Steam, GOG and the Epic Game Store, and released later in 2020 for current-gen. consoles (PS4, Switch, Xbox One).
You start the game as an amnesic detective with a hangover that had apparently attempted suicide at a motel room the night before; You lost your badge, car, gun and even memory of your your name and clothes, save for your underwear and socks. After gathering what little you can find, you are greeting by your new partner Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi and are told that you were meant to solve the case of a potential lynching in the backyard of the motel you were staying. The motel itself is located in Martinaise, the harbor district of the city Revachol which had been in the middle of a two month long union strike, with even more political revolutions stretching both recently and far back. As you can imagine, the case is not simple and leads you down further rabbit holes about tensions within the city.
You and Kim have a set number of hours within a set number of days to speak with the locals, find clues, and investigate locations. Doing anything aside from walking or talking to Kim will cause time to advance. Kim will head off once it gets dark and certain people and places such as stores will be closed as well. However, you are still free to explore for a time and might want to do so if your intended actions are something Kim wouldn’t necessarily approve of and new opportunities may open. The type of clothes you wear and drugs you take will have boosts and penalties on your skills and how you interact with the world at large.
The main unique gameplay feature are the Skills and Thought Cabinet. As you probably know in most RPGs, the player character’s abilities is largely influenced by the skills they invest in. If I invest a large number of skill points into energy weapons in Fallout for example, my character could do a lot of damage with a laser rifle in combat and probably would have some knowledge involving them that would suit me in combat. There is no combat system within “Disco Elysium”; instead an overwhelming majority of the game is handled through dialogue choices and interactions. Let’s say during my play-through I come across the opportunity to punch someone or analyze an object, it will come up as a skill check, which is governed by one of 24 skills within the 4 attributes of Intellect, Psyche, Physique and Motorics. Depending on how much I invested in a certain skill such as Physical Instrument in order to deal that proper punch, a 2d6 dice roll will occur and the results will be added to the Skill I’m attempting to use.
The Thought Cabinet on the other hand, are the thoughts that pop in your head through dialogue and actions through the game. Let’s say you keep apologizing for past mistakes, one of your skills will them recommend becoming a sorry cop as a dominant thought and part of your personality, which you can brush off or accept it. If you let it simmer in your head for a while, you might get a temporary skill change for the time it takes you to “research” the idea. Once that’s complete it’s replaced with a permanent outcome. You could change your mind and try to remove the idea, but bear in mind that it will cost you a skill point you could spend on improving Skills. Not all Thoughts are beneficial and to be honest, no one will blame you for looking up a guide to see what each thought does beforehand.
The art style sets the tone from the moment you start the game, you began in the black void of your mind contemplating oblivion before being brought back into reality with the colors and shapes of the world appearing before you. The usage of colors display the general theme and tone of the game: A crime drama full of pain, regret and abject misery with small moments of beauty and happiness underneath (the parts where you find your police car and dancing with Kim at the church come to mind). The character portraits are done in a watercolor style and show even more colors than what is in the actual environment, demonstrating how others tend to see the character or how they view themselves.
The voice acting varies. The voices in your head, like the Ancient Reptilian part of your Brain, has a deep raspy voice like drug dealers in those after school P.S.A. ads warning you to not do drugs (ironic given the context of your character) and are enticing to hear no matter how many times you’ve listened. Others like Cuno are high-pitched crimes against humanity (I get he’s meant to be an annoying kid but the voice actor did the job a little too well). The soundtrack is quite large, changing depending on the location, time of day, or if you are interacting with someone. Some are meant to blend with the setting and establish the mood of the situation rather than be songs you listen outside of the game, and others are great melodies that deliver a sense of existential dread or wonder even outside the game, such as the tracks “Seafort 2” and “Disco Inferno”. However, special mention should go to their selection of pre-existing songs mixed in as well such as British Sea Power’s “The Smallest Church in Sussex” and “Want to be Free” which makes great scenes in the game become even more memorable.
Disco Elysium is a tragically-beautiful game and one of the best more unique indie titles from 2019, It’s a great noir story, the gameplay encourages experimentation and repeat playthoughs, and the design just speaks to how the world is meant to make you feel a lot of the time almost as if the city is a character itself. I originally began work on this article back in November of 2019 but just never found the words to properly describe how I felt about it. I nominated this as one of the best PC games of 2019 in The First Annual Revvies: Best of the Year in Gaming | 2019 InReview Site Awards and described it in this blurb I wrote for the article:
“’Disco Elysium’ takes the premise of being a drug riddled dysfunctional detective solving a murder case and delivers on a game that is truly weird and quirky, with some melancholy in terms of presentation and gameplay. Much of said gameplay is you choosing options dictated by your stats and skills, which dictate your play style, as you navigate the game’s world of politics and crime. ‘Disco Elysium’ is one of the finest games that has come out in 2019, and is easily the best game to come out on PC.”
Needless to say you can see how much my thoughts have improved since then. Nevertheless, if you love narrative-focused RPGs or crime noir stories, you owe it to yourself to pick this up whenever you can.