HIGH The climax of the necktie subplot.
LOW Way too many typos.
WTF A Whitney Houston reference in this fictional world.
It’s no accident that Disco Elysium has amassed so many parallels to Planescape: Torment in the short time it’s been available, despite the two having so little in common on the surface. The latter was an isometric, story-driven RPG widely regarded as one of the best-written videogames of all time, and its wit, detail and fierce intelligence set a bar that has rarely been reached in the medium.
That this newcomer invites so many comparisons is a tremendous testament to its quality, but I’ll take it one step further and say that Disco Elysium sets the new industry standard. It even feels like a truer extension of what Chris Avellone started two decades ago with Planescape than the actual follow-up (the underrated Tides of Numenera) did. And the secret ingredient of this purely dialogue-driven RPG is that there is no combat.
Developer ZA/UM – formed by writer Robert Kurvitz to more fully explore a setting he’d created for tabletop games and novels – recognized that Disco Elysium’s strength is in its story. The script is sharp, the characters are believable, the world is absorbing, and the choices the player makes have deep and lasting effects. While even Planescape occasionally made engaging with its tedious battle system mandatory, ZA/UM avoids that mistake and omitting combat means that Disco Elysium sticks to what it does best.
Although Disco Elysium is technically an isometric CRPG, that label shouldn’t scare off those who find the old Infinity Engine titles too impenetrable. It’s almost more akin to a point-and-click adventure with greater player agency, and without the nonsensical puzzle logic. This is a detective story where answers are the endgame, so it’s natural that questions are the player’s primary tool and weapon. Verbal sparring takes the place of combat, and it’s a system that’s both elegant and easy to understand, with no timers, reflexes or extensive arithmetic involved.
Attributes that usually apply to physical activities instead manifest as dialogue prompts. Strength-based skills affect the ability to intimidate people or withstand pain. Agility boosts hand-eye coordination, reaction speed, and interfacing skills. Intelligence allows us to more easily glean information from our surroundings and the people we’re talking to. Dice rolls determine our skills’ success, and players can earn modifiers through additional exploration and conversation. A suspect, for example, may open themselves to more questioning if we’ve already earned their favor.
One of Disco Elysium‘s cleverer touches is that the skills also manifest as individual voices in our protagonist’s head, chiming in upon clearing passive checks. They can offer insights that open new dialogue choices, but more often they just bicker hilariously with themselves and the hero. The Authority persona wants to lay down the law, Empathy sees the good in everyone, and Electro-Chemistry just wants to get wasted. They even have their own verbal tics, my favorite being that Drama addresses the player as “sire” and “my liege.”
The main character himself manages the tricky task of being completely moldable and having an extensive, fully-formed history. As with many videogame protagonists, the washed-up detective at the center of Disco Elysium has amnesia, though the explanation is a bit more mundane than usual – he’s blackout drunk, lost his badge and his gun, and can’t even remember his own name. He’s supposed to be investigating a hanging corpse, but he’s apparently been binging too hard to make any progress.
While the murder mystery is technically the backbone of Disco Elysium’s plot, it feels secondary to delving into our hero’s history and deciding whether to help him find redemption, prolong his downward spiral, or land him somewhere in between. The specifics of his background are initially vague, but there’s no question that the detective is at least partially a product of his environment, and it’s one of the most convincingly melancholy settings brought to life in any game.
The city of Revachol was wracked decades prior by multiple wars between extremist parties, and now it sits in the cold, indifferent hands of centrism, inadequately governed by distant powers. With public resources low and capitalism unchecked, the only risk of “war” is between private militias and unions that have stepped in to protect citizens with mob-like methods when the police’s limited reach fails. Such circumstances led not only to the murder we’re here to investigate, but also to the neighborhood’s general indifference to it — locals seem more bothered by the smell of the body than the fact that people are dying in their streets.
Revachol’s nuance provides an apt springboard for shaping our own unique version of Disco Elysium‘s protagonist. He can take on political ideologies, ranging the full spectrum from communism to fascism. He can be either apologetic or remorseless about his substance abuse. He can pretend to be a burnt-out rock star or a soothsayer of the apocalypse. Disco Elysium even tracks patterns in the player’s speech and offers the option to internalize personality traits in the “thought cabinet,” granting additional buffs. Showing an aversion to art, for example, can nab players extra experience for every successful Encyclopedia check but lowers their Suggestion on the grounds of being a “pretentious wanker.”
While the developers aren’t exactly coy about their own political leanings – they literally thanked Marx and Engels in their Game Awards acceptance speech – the vital thing is that in Disco Elysium’s world, nothing is divine and nothing is one-dimensionally wicked. Revachol is full of unlikeable people, but it’s always clear how they came to be who they are because the inherent greed and cruelty of humans has a ripple effect. It’s a cynical game for extremely cynical times.
However unpleasant I’m making Disco Elysium sound, the details that bring this depressing city to life also lend it tremendous humanity and optimism. This is most evident in our partner, Kim Kitsuragi, one of the greatest characters in the history of videogames.
Kim’s staunch professionalism dictates everything he does, whether it’s begrudgingly tolerating our hero’s ungainly behavior or repressing his own giddiness over boyish hobbies. But as the cracks in his exterior develop, it becomes increasingly clear that he helps us not just because his job demands it, but because he genuinely senses the good in us. He’s such a stand-up guy that I often found myself monitoring my own choices to avoid offending him — I would save my shadier activities (buying drugs or cooperating with criminals) for after he’d gone to sleep for the night.
I regretfully note that Disco Elysium could have used a more thorough proofread to clean up its abundance of typos, but this only rings as a serious issue because the dialogue exhibits an impressive vocabulary and a keen eye for evocative details. It’s also wickedly funny at times, either due to the lead character’s awkward behavior or his attempts to keep face while numerous voices bark in his brain. (If Kim is the game’s MVP, the runner-up is the protagonist’s talking necktie, constantly urging him to get hammered.)
Disco Elysium represents the sort of advancement in narrative-based game design that I’ve always wanted to see, where character builds and number-crunching apply exclusively to the dialogue itself, and where the “battles” manifest as arguments and interrogations. Few developers have the courage to attempt this, and fewer have the writing skills to make every conversation such a treasure. Disco Elysium has a lot to say, and it says it with heart, gravitas, and a vivid imagination.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by ZA/UM. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: As of press time, this game has not been rated by the ESRB. It would unquestionably be rated Mature, mainly for its dialogue, which is rife with harsh profanity, epithets, and graphic descriptions of sex. There are also a few bursts of strong violence, and substance abuse plays heavily into both the story and the mechanics, since drinking, smoking, and doing drugs can grant the players various status boosts.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is text-based, and audio cues never play a crucial role. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. The tab key is used to highlight interactable objects. Otherwise, the game is controlled entirely with the mouse.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.