[Editor's Note: This review is for the original Disco Elysium, but we've since updated it with a more recent review of Disco Elysium - The Final Cut, an expanded edition available on consoles that has replaced the base game.]
Like all good detective stories, what appears simple at first becomes so much more than that in Disco Elysium – and here it gets so, so much weirder, too. It takes the age-old mechanics of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and twists them in strange ways around a macabre tale of violence, poverty, and a society on the brink of collapse. Through sharply written dialogue and an expertly crafted world, it uses some unique game mechanics - such as debating against 24 different sections of your own brain - to create an experience that will stay with me for a long time. And, somehow, it manages to make all of this fun and, surprisingly often, funny.The premise of Disco Elysium is straightforward: A body has been discovered, hanged from a looming tree in the backyard of a hostel, and it’s up to you to work out how it got there over the course of the 30-hour story. Everything that surrounds this core mystery is far from simple, however, not least being that you kick things off with an almighty dose of hangover-induced amnesia. You can’t even remember your name, let alone that you are a cop on a murder case. A part of your consciousness described as your ancient reptilian brain – which you literally engage in conversation with – attempts to persuade you to give up your quest even as your snivelling limbic system battles against it. As you stumble around your wrecked bedroom searching for remnants of your former self, it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t simply a whodunnit, but a journey that will challenge you to solve crises on both profoundly personal and societal levels. It’s a gorgeously designed isometric RPG that makes you think at every turn of its painterly streets.
Disco Elysium: 18 Screenshots
Learn, Baby LearnThe first decision you have to make when booting up Disco Elysium is what kind of detective you wish to be: Intelligent (think Sherlock Holmes), Sensitive (think Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks), or Bruiser (think Marv from Sin City). Each determines the base stats for your nameless gumshoe and influences the decisions offered to you from the get-go, but they all offer an interesting way to play. For example, opening with the Intelligent build allows you to instantly decipher that you have woken in the city of Revachol as your high Encyclopedia skill level feeds you that knowledge. Begin with the Sensitive option, however, and you’ll have no idea where you are and will have to piece together that same information. The beauty of Disco Elysium’s skill system is that there’s always a reward for the choices you have made – a Sensitive might not know where he is, but he can start interrogating his necktie for clues. Yes, really.
The beauty of Disco Elysium’s skill system is that there’s always a reward for the choices you have made.“If that isn’t varied enough for you, you can build your own detective from the ground up instead. Your character sheet is made up of four distinct pillars: Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics. Each of these consists of six wonderfully strange skills (like Intellect’s Encyclopedia), which bring their own bonuses. Want to command respect from a member of the public? Spend points on Authority. How about intimidate a witness? Beef up your Physical Instrument total. Want to talk to that necktie? Start messing with the David Lynch-inspired Inland Empire measurement.These skills aren’t just passive ways of sending you down different paths; each one is a distinct voice in your detective’s head, represented in the dialogue window during conversations. With high Empathy you might get a voice telling you not to push too hard in a victim interrogation, but with high Half Light (a skill that allows your to interrogate suspects with more force) your brain might tell you to just punch them in the face. They’re as much in-game tips as they are a way to gate your progress. You earn another skill point for every 100 XP you gain, collected by checking off tasks from your quest list or by simply having conversations with people and uncovering new information. Leveling up does come fairly infrequently though, so you’ll have to really think about how you want to use them, but it never feels like you’re waiting too long for the next skill point however and feels just about right.The upshot of all this skill management is that Disco Elysium plays like no other video game I’ve ever seen. Its closest analogue is perhaps the outstanding Divinity: Original Sin 2, if you replaced all of its turn-based combat with early-era LucasArts point-and-click scenarios. Puzzle-solving comes hand-in-hand with skill checks, which are interactions based on a combination of a dice roll and your stats. The higher your number for the requisite skill, the higher the percentage you have of rolling successfully. This mechanic is used to resolve everything from conversation options to jumps across ledges, and even violence.
The upshot of all this skill management is that Disco Elysium plays like no other video game I’ve ever seen.“Hold on though: there is no combat in Disco Elysium, not in the traditional sense anyway. Throwing a punch is a matter of willing your detective to do so, and the consequences are usually verbal rather than physical. For the most part, you’re armed with your (sometimes) silver tongue and a roll of the dice. Your choice of dialogue is often crucial to solving problems, not only when interacting with others, but with the many voices occupying your mind. It’s a truly fun way of dealing with exciting sequences and a welcome breath of fresh air compared to more action-oriented RPGs. I actually found talking my way through situations and building out my character sheet in Disco Elysium much more stimulating than the monotony of slicing down enemies with yet another +2 blade.Clothing positively and negatively affects your skills as well, which will be familiar to those acquainted with Bethesda RPGs. By putting on a replica hat worn by fictional detective Dick Mullen you can boost your Encyclopedia score by 1. Quick costume changes can come in handy when faced with a dice roll that looks too difficult at first glance. I once found myself confronted by a mural in an especially seedy part of town which required a substantial amount of Shivers – a skill that lets you “raise the hair on your neck” and “tune into the city” to decipher your environment. My character naturally had a low Shivers stat, but by putting on a pair of fancy shades and changing my jacket I soon had enough to make the percentage likelihood of my roll a tempting 72%. I went for it, got lucky, and swiftly changed back into my preferred getup.These are the moments when a little lateral thought is needed, each one serving as a mini-puzzle where you try to build up your stats with what resides in your inventory. You can also boost yourself by consuming alcohol or taking drugs, such as speed. These temporarily boost a whole pillar of your character sheet for an in-game hour, but come at the expense of your health or morale. I never really felt that this came at much of a risk, however, so I ended up consuming narcotics with regularity in order to gain that welcome boost up over the fence. In truth, I never had to play around with my inventory very often and wished I had more reason to do so. I found myself sticking with the same outfit for large portions of the adventure and yearned at times for a bit more challenge. Luckily, Disco Elysium has such a strong central story driving it along that I ultimately didn’t miss the lack of difficulty.
Luckily, Disco Elysium has such a strong central story driving it along that I ultimately didn’t miss the lack of difficulty.“Other than increasing your skills, you can also spend points in your Thought Cabinet, a unique mechanic that turns abstract concepts like Communism, memories of favourite flavours, or just mistakenly thinking you’re a rockstar into a kind of mental inventory. It plays beautifully into the theme that half of the battle in Disco Elysium takes place in your mind. By internalizing a thought unlocked along your travels you can earn a variety of rewards attached to it. These vary from stat boosts to XP boosts and unique traits. They can also come with some major downsides, but part of the fun is not knowing what benefits you might get from ruminating on something like the “Volumetric Shit Compactor” for a while.For example, after seven hours gestating one thought called “The Wompty-Dompty Dom Centre”, I received a perk that gave me 10 XP every time I successfully used my Encyclopedia stat in conversation, but also lowered my Suggestion stat by two points because I’m a “pretentious wanker,” according to my own brain. It’s a wonderfully odd system, not least because each time you complete a thought a new and stunningly grotesque illustrative painting fills your screen, echoing Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings” period – which is to say, they are laden with disturbing imagery reflecting a bleak outlook on humanity.
On the BeatSociety seems a concept long since forgotten in the city of Revachol, the once-proud capital of the world you wake up in. Martinaise, the district where you’ll spend most of your time, is an impoverished hub of anger and discontent, but it’s a captivating place to be. On the surface, no one appears happy here, perhaps apart from the few who grasp tightly onto power with a greedy fist. It’s a beautifully realised depiction of a firmly ugly place – you instantly get a sense of the world you’ll spend upwards of 30 hours trawling through; snow falls softly onto abandoned vehicles, crumbling, neglected architecture haunts the streets, and broken statues commemorating a long-fabled war serve as a reminder of what happened here.To deduce the stories the city has to tell (and there’s quite a few) you’ll have to be thorough, using all of your character’s faded detecting abilities as they slowly come back to him. Small, coloured information orbs are littered across the environment, inviting you to click on them all to squeeze every drop of knowledge out of the deeply layered world. Not everything will be relevant to your cause, but it will always be interesting. This is testament to the world that developer ZA/UM has created in Disco Elysium – rarely has a place sucked me in quite like the city of Revachol did. It ranks up there with the likes of The Witcher 3’s colourful Continent or Red Dead Redemption 2’s rugged West, despite taking place over a much smaller area.
Disco Elysium: 19 Pieces of Concept ArtThe density of a game’s world can sometimes feel overwhelming, with maps dominated by icons and large areas of land beckoning to be explored. This is never the case with Disco Elysium; there’s lots to do, but it encourages you to take your time and absorb all the information you are being fed at your own pace. Whether you choose to take what you find at face value is for you to decide; You’re a detective, after all.You’ll probably want to click every prompt as well, and it’s hard to miss any due to the extremely useful ability to highlight any clickable item on the screen by holding Tab (something not uncommon to veterans of the adventure genre). Although sometimes deliberately obtuse in its dialogue and the way certain things are worded, crucially Disco Elysium never clouds what you’re meant to be doing. Tasks are clearly listed in the menu with a generous amount of hinting as to what you’re aiming to achieve; it’s an incredibly dense experience with my list of tasks quickly growing, but one I never felt bogged down in.
Each new face is accompanied by a gorgeously painted portrait that looks as if it’s been stroked onto a canvas by a hopped-up Francis Bacon.“Core to this is Disco Elysium’s varied cast of characters and the way their stories intertwine with both your own and that of the world they inhabit. Each new face is accompanied by a gorgeously painted portrait that looks as if it’s been stroked onto a canvas by a hopped-up Francis Bacon. Every one feels fully formed and it’s clear to see from a quick look at their face or a few sentences in their company what their background is. They range from Cuno, a foul-mouthed boy who finds pleasure in throwing rocks at your subject’s suspended corpse (he is, frankly, a little shit) to Evrart Claire, a slimy union boss who looks cut from the same cloth as Jabba the Hutt. It’s rare to meet a kind face in Revachol, which makes it all the more special when you actually find yourself connecting to someone and having a conversation that actually borders on the polite...Chief among these connections is the one you’ll forge with your partner in crime-fighting, Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, a policeman brought in from another precinct to help with the case. You are strangers at first, and he can come across as cold and suspicious of your methods. But I enjoyed watching your bond form as the stakes continue to heighten. Kitsuragi’s dry humour and analytic mind is brought to life brilliantly in his voice acting and provides a reassuring tone during tense moments. The same can’t be said for all of the cast in Disco Elysium, however. It’s a real hodgepodge in terms of voice performance; some hit the nail on the head and fit into the world seamlessly, whereas others can be pretty stiff and drone-like, taking you out of what is otherwise a very well-constructed world.Regardless of delivery, the dialogue itself is meticulously written, aside from a few noticeable spelling mistakes (a very minor gripe when you find out the script contains over a million words). It’s bitingly funny at times, leaning into the darkness of your situation while also not being afraid to let you know when you’ve made a stupid mistake. It’s willing to be a cynical step into much darker, serious themes as many people in Revachol hold racist and fascist beliefs and are not afraid to let you know. Characters will swing from revolutionary prose calling for the fall of the bourgeoisie into Kafka-esque psychoanalytic ramblings. They are topics that expand and enrich the mind, giving you cause to question your character’s place in the world as well as your own. Disco Elysium is as much an exercise in detective fantasy as it an evaluation of your own socio-political leanings.
Disco Elysium is as much an exercise in detective fantasy as an evaluation of your own socio-political leanings.“There are two main plotlines to the story of Disco Elysium: the murder case you have been sent to Revachol to solve, and a more personal journey as you attempt to piece together your past and find out who you really are. These are both woven in and out like a poisonous vine by the societal issues at play in the city. There’s little else I can say about the plot without spoiling too much of the mystery – I urge you to discover the tale for yourself. With the sheer number of twists and branches it’s likely you’ll end up with a different end result than I did, anyhow. There are still a couple of key dice rolls that didn’t land in my favour that I can’t wait to go back and retry, just to see how differently it all could have gone. Ultimately, I was satisfied with the ending I got, even if I did leave a bit more of a mess behind me than I desired. It’s always difficult to put a bow on a story that promises so much, but Disco Elysium achieves its goal, even if I was left waiting for that one more twist, that one more revelation.Over the course of its 30 hours I couldn’t stop reading everything I picked up, learning more about the world I was in and the people that were suffering in it. If this seems all a bit much for you though, there is always the option to just give up. 15 minutes in I received my first game over screen after having a meltdown and giving into the murmurings of my ancient reptilian brain. Yes, Disco Elysium is definitely weird, and by no means a feel-good experience, but it's a highly smart one that I can’t wait to relive.