Game review 🎮: Disco Elysium

Studio ZA/UM’s first game takes a literary/magical realist novel, wraps it in the gameplay mechanics of a cRPG, and creates something one-of-a-kind in the RPG genre.

This “novel” is a murder mystery. The setting is a fantastical, magical-realist world that somewhat resembles our own 20th-century Eastern Europe. You play a detective solving the case while struggling with his inner demons and past regrets — and these struggles forms the other half of the story. There are many mature themes involved: suicide, depression and other mental health issues, drugs, racial prejudice, and class warfare. The story presents those themes meaningfully, but pulls no punches. So be warned.

The detective character is named and has an established storyline. It’s a cRPG in the sense that you have a stat sheet/levelling up and skill checks at every interaction, but it’s also not a “typical” cRPG because it’s primarily a character story about the said detective. Half the skills are associated with detective-ing, the other half are personality traits which reveal a lot about the character himself, on top of contributing to the gameplay.

The RPG fun comes into its own as you discover the mystery of the detective’s background, and experience the story through the strengths and weaknesses of his stats. The former fun is the delight of a first playthrough, but the latter fun is what gives Disco Elysium great replay value, since your skills and the associated success/fail checks heavily influence how you progress through the story. Failing an initial skill check frequently opens up other ways to progress — and failure often gives more interesting downstream outcomes than initial success! So it’s worth replaying the story with a different “character build”, as you’ll use different skills to progress through the quest, and discover new details about the story/world in the meantime.

Compared to most cRPGs, the gameplay is slow-paced. You spend a lot of time walking around, talking to NPCs, investigating the maps for clues, and contemplating your thoughts (in the form of random events, which added flavour to exploration). The exploration maps are relatively small, and while they’re dense with things to do, it got a little boring toward the endgame. There is zero combat, but there is a single “fight scene” — and oh man, was that a white-knuckle experience and the high point of the story!

The graphics and music are another selling point of the game. In a word: Fitting. The painterly style of the graphics is gorgeous and makes you feel like you’re playing inside a painting. The soundtrack is composed by the band British Sea Power, and its slow, melancholy, atmospheric mood fits the setting so well. Everything about the graphics and setting contribute to the aesthetic of the game. I think it was done to perfection.

I call this a “novel in cRPG form” because something has to be said about the volume of reading in this game. Yup, be prepared to read a lot — however, this does NOT mean you’re reading a novel! Even for someone who doesn’t like books, I think Disco Elysium is worth the play, for two reasons:

Firstly, text/story is presented in small choose-your-own-adventure type chunks of text, and primarily through dialogue. Most blocks of reading are short, while longer stretches are mainly confined to significant quest events. The prose is also constantly broken up by skill checks and choice points. This is NOT your conventional cRPG lore word-vomit, or even a text-based game.

Secondly, the prose itself is engaging. All characters, from your sidekick Kim Kitsuragi to the smallest NPC, have distinctive personalities. Everything is filtered through your detective character’s very voice-y point of view, often risque, sometimes scandalous. A lot of the prose is plain fun to read, I burst out laughing at many points!

So if you enjoy reading books, this should be an enjoyable game. And if you don’t, the small drip-feeds of prose make the story easy to absorb and not too overwhelming. At no point did I get confused or forget any of the main quest details.

Speaking of characters, Kim Kitsuragi is one of the most likeable sidekicks/NPC companions I’ve encountered in any RPG. He forms a fantastic foil to your detective character, and getting to know him is a huge part of the game’s appeal. He’s become one of my favourite fictional characters in any media.

Overall, this is a deep-not-broad type of game which rewards replay with more lore and alternate ways to progress the story. I played a “completionist” run which took about 40 hours, and there’s still a lot of stuff I haven’t discovered yet.

I’ve played a wide range of RPGs, and currently there’s nothing out there quite like Disco Elysium. Its visual/audio aesthetic, clever use of cRPG mechanics for storytelling, and engaging narrative puts it firmly in the Top 5 video games I’ve ever played. If you love story-rich games, don’t mind reading lots of prose, and want something different from the usual cRPG fare — this might be the game to try.

Cross-posted at We The Players.

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