Disco Elysium Review: Torment for a Nihilistic Generation
Recently, there's been a torrent of good RPG titles hitting consoles and PC, with Greedfall, Stygian, The Outer Worlds, and the remastered Final Fantasy VIII all scratching slightly different role-playing itches. Now that we are nearly at year's end, it's time to add one more (very unexpected) entry to the pile — and then promptly move it up straight to the top.
If you somehow haven't seen the deluge of glowing comments inundating social media and glut of stellar reviews cropping up on other industry pubs, just take a look at where avant-garde RPG Disco Elysium is currently sitting on Steam. It has 94% positive reviews as of this writing. 94. Percent.
How often does that ever happen? And more pointedly, when does that type of reception throw itself upon a game from a totally unknown developer? Skyrocketing from obscure indie gem to belle of the RPG ball, Disco Elysium deserves every ounce of hype — and then a little bit more.
Where Am I and Where the Hell is My Other Shoe?
Much like with that other lauded bizzaro and text-heavy RPG, Planescape: Torment, Disco Elysium kicks off with the main character waking up a total blank slate. You have to learn about the game world as you go, rising from a mind-erasing bender that has you unclear of the particulars regarding absolutely everything.
Before long, people start insisting you are a cop investigating a murder, even though you don't have a badge or a gun (or even pants). From that disorienting opening, the game's distinctive style immediately hits as you begin searching your fleabag hotel room. I won't spoil it but simply put: Disco Elysium is wonderfully weird. Very, very weird.
In a nod to an old joke about unforgiving tabletop games from the '80s and '90s, where you could literally die during character creation, your down-on-his-luck detective can overexert himself and expire within a minute of starting the game. Yep, you can have a heart attack reaching up for a tie attached to a ceiling fan. Time to make an Endurance roll and... turns out you shouldn't have stayed up all night drinking and snorting coke for the last 30 years straight. Whoops, time to try again.
However, the deaths only begin there. In my first playthrough, I died twice by giving into the pointless absurdity of existence and just flat out, killing myself in the middle of interrogations.
In case it wasn't clear, Disco Elysium is extraordinarily dark and nihilistic, but often still laugh-out-loud funny. Its humor pops up in wildly unexpected places, often arriving as a result of failing skill checks, which means less reason to engage in save scumming. Let's just say that things don't always go as planned when getting a hanged, week-long rotting body down from a tree when you are wildly hungover, not wearing any pants and a genuinely terrible shot.
Themes of existential absurdity are constantly front and center as you interact with people and objects. You can literally get in a fight with a mail delivery box, or try to give hard drugs to 12-year-old kids. Things get more bizarre from there.
Unlike many other RPGs, Disco Elysium very pointedly remarks on your choices, often long after you'd forgotten about running around with only one shoe because you couldn't be arsed to find its companion.
While some of the most memorable characters during these interactions are your actual skills — which exist as free-floating thoughts you can listen to or argue with — the game doesn't skimp on well-written NPCs, many of whom most decidedly do not want your "help" in any way.
A personal favorite of mine is the foul-mouthed little kid Cuno, who may or may not be the incarnation of some sort of insane demigod. Cuno is a bit like nuclear war: the only way to win his game is to simply not play at all, but where is the fun in that? I've never had such a good time watching a main character just get his ass absolutely handed to him by a child while spectacularly failing at everything before.
Remember how InXile's Torment: Tides Of Numenera sort of flirted with the idea of having failed checks become as meaningful and memorable as successful ones but didn't really nail the execution all the way through? Disco Elysium actually delivers on that idea.
Character Builds and Replay
Speaking of skills, they are all sufficiently weird and perfectly match the nuts setting. Don't expect something as mundane as "Strength" or "One-Handed Melee" here. Instead, you'll be dealing with skills like "Shivers," "Savoir Faire," "Inland Empire," "Volition," "Rhetoric," and "Visual Calculus."
They all get a ton of use as well, which, frankly, is one of the biggest selling points of Disco Elysium. From Shadowrun Returns to Pillars Of Eternity and even open-world games like Fallout, there's always that nagging worry that any one particular skill might not get used enough to be worth taking or upgrading.
Yeah, that's not a concern here in any way. Literally, every interaction in the game is handled through a skill check in the dialog screen.
Now you might be thinking, Wait a minute, hold up: you mean there's no combat?" No, not of the traditional sort you might expect based on the game's Infinity Engine influence. You won't pause to issue orders or frantically click to swing a club around, for instance. There are some situations resolved through fisticuffs or gunplay, but it's all done via skill check.
While that might seem like a detriment, it actually results in a very positive change that RPG fans will love. To understand why this works so well, think about how any given quest usually goes down in an Obsidian or Bioware RPG. Whether you sneak by without a fight, go in guns blazing, hack computer terminals, or use dialog skills, you can always pretty much expect to discover the same basic info and make your way from point A to point B in any mission of The Outer Worlds for instance.
That is very much not the case with Disco Elysium, where you can miss large swathes of dialog or come across information in radically different ways. Since game time moves forward whenever you engage in dialog, who you talk to and where you go completely changes your playthrough because there isn't enough time to take every quest line in one go.
This is a game that demands you play it more than once with different character types, skill load-outs, and options taken.
Aside from the skills you pick and level up throughout the game, you can further tinker with your character by internalizing a variety of wide-ranging concepts.
After a set amount of real-world time, thoughts are properly embedded in your consciousness; all of them offer some stat boosts. Like everything else, you can't find all these internalized concepts in one go, and many can be missed if you screw up various checks or don't follow the right conversation paths.
These concepts range from high-minded and esoteric to extremely crude, but they all offer some hilarious insight into the game's universe and your detective's thought processes.
You will find yourself internalizing concepts from the Volumetric Shit Compressor (because, you know, you need your shit to be together and not apart if you want to solve a murder) to deciding you are going to seize the means of production and start a communist revolution (which oddly doesn't go over well with most people while you're interrogating them).
The Bottom Line
- Interesting, entertaining, and hilarious game world with fully realized factions and characters
- Unique art style and overall mood
- Tons of replay value married to a game system that actively discourages save scumming
- Basically everything a fan of text-heavy RPGs could ever want
- Despite a strong Infinity Engine inspiration, there's no actual combat here
- Lacks the large cast of party companions you might expect from an RPG
While the lack of either turn-based or real-time-with-pause combat might lead you to believe Disco Elysium is more of a point and click adventure game than an RPG, this is most assuredly an RPG first and foremost.
Comparisons to Planescape: Torment (minus the combat) are an obvious starting point. But frankly, Disco Elysium is somehow even weirder. It really plays with the whole "updated my journal" mechanic in ways even Torment didn't think to, creating a consistently surprising and humorous experience.
All that oddity and introspection pairs well with a massive amount of player choice that lets you take any approach you want. Whether it's fascist hard-ass misogynist or fervent (but very, very drunk) feminist, communist revolutionary, capitalist bootlicker, or missionary of the approaching end times, the myriad options at your fingertips are breathtaking.
Do you want to play it straight, never touching another drop so you can focus and get on track, or do you want to lick up spilled booze and immediately start looking for a speed hookup? Are you the cop of the apocalypse, heralding the end of everything, or are you a secret superstar who just happened to accidentally put himself in an investigation after a night of hard-drinking?
It's all up to you. One thing's for sure, though, I intend to try every single option over multiple playthroughs no matter how many hours it takes. I can't think of any other RPG in recent memory that managed to provoke the same level of awe and desire to keep playing.