True innovation in entertainment is something of a rarity, as most avenues of storytelling have been explored. What innovation tends to mean in a modern context is the creative flair that allows various disparate concepts to be combined in interesting and unusual ways. The creators of Disco Elysium have taken a stab at inventiveness by combining a distinctive visual aesthetic with tabletop mechanics and evocative storytelling.
The first thing that happens to the player is a conversation with their own brain—or, rather, the player character’s brain. This aspect is one of the most unusual and fascinating of Disco Elysium: being able to speak to aspects of your own psyche. The player character appears to have been on such an apocalyptic alcohol binge that they have killed enough brain cells to induce amnesia, forgetting everything about themselves, including their own name. Waking up with a great-grandmother of all hangovers, the protagonist has to not only piece together who he is, but also solve a murder.
Players can choose from one of three archetypes, or choose to build their own custom version. Skills are divided into four sets of six, labelled under Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and the unusually-named Motorics. Some of the skills have straightforward names, such as Endurance and Logic, but some of the more esoteric are names such as Drama, Inland Empire, or Savoir Faire.
Similar to a table-top RPG, skills determine success at everything in the game, from picking a lock to interrogating a witness or suspect, or even combat. While some lines are voiced, with mostly decent performances from the actors, the majority of the story and gameplay is conveyed through the text box at the side of the screen. The dialogue is expansive and can be influenced by skills. Attempting to exhaust every dialogue option, as would be common when playing a point-and-click adventure or other western RPG, is not recommended, however. Annoying a character can cut off story branches or the player can be barred from certain discoveries.
The skill system is utterly fascinating—as the player develops the character and picks up new skills, a new ‘voice’ will join the chorus in the protagonist’s brain, each with its own voice actor and point of view, resulting in peculiar events such as Logic arguing with the Limbic System. The variety of skills means the character can be easily bent to the player’s personal taste, so the protagonist can be a cool, logical analyst in one playthough, or a sensitive, artistic type in another. The choice of how to play the main character results in a different experience each time, and different side-quests and scenarios open up depending on the protagonist’s expressed personality.
The story is quite sad and bleak in places. At its core, the game is a murder mystery, but with layers of personal heartbreak, trauma, and politics piled on top, in addition to the rich—and sometimes overwhelming—worldbuilding that combines to create a multi-layered experience that might take a few playthroughs to get the full picture.
The world itself is a fictional city called Revachol, and specifically a district named Martinaise. The flavour of the place is something like a 1970s cop show crossed with some of the bleaker examples of Steampunk. Visually, the style is distinct, colours painted across the screen like blurred oil pastels. The intentional muddiness of the visuals gives the player a feel of a place that is rife with crime and poverty, something enhanced by the dialogue. One of the few missteps is the music, which veers drunkenly from uptempo strings to sad, slow brass that at times can be a bit grating on the ears.
Writing in Disco Elysium is usually top-notch. The occasional errors occur, where a plot point is brought up before you even talk to the person who provides that information, but these issues are impressively few for an indie game. The writing style is sometimes quite surreal, reminiscent of an episode of Twin Peaks. Each character has quirks, secrets, and motivations that can be slowly teased out with the right skill checks. Not all are relevant, but most add to the atmosphere and history of the setting, if not to the main plot.
Periodically, the game will provide big information dumps about the setting and its history. While these can be interesting, they are also often presented in indigestibly large chunks instead of being more subtly scattered through the game—it comes across as someone very excited to tell you about this new RPG setting they have created, regardless of its relevance to the current topic of conversation.
To the credit of the developers at ZA/UM, pains have been taken to ensure that the scope of the world the player inhabits when playing Disco Elysium is not overwhelming. Many activities are to be completed, but they are carefully spread out, and the game encourages the player to take time to explore at a gentle pace.
Disco Elysium is a sprawling, multi-layered game full of twists and turns. The game’s characters explore highbrow themes such as existentialism, political theory, and psychology, all wrapped around a twin mystery of murder and identity. Disco Elysium is a very strange game, deeply cerebral almost to the point of pretentiousness, but it’s periodic dips into both surrealism and self-deprecation save it from being too hipster to endure. Those who value depth of character and storytelling are very likely to enjoy this title, despite its flaws.
Reviewed on PC.