Disco Elysium Review
Some of you may know that I'm a fan of RPGs that offer freedom and choice in refreshing ways. Disco Elysium is a landmark for the genre, that takes the very best ideas from the genre, and infuses it with a few clever twists.
Disco Elysium beings with the familiar trope of the amnesiac detective, with a rather obvious homage to the game it's most influenced by - Planescape: Torment. It becomes clear soon, though, that this is no ordinary RPG. The game's UI design is brilliant, with the dialogues and choices scrolling down on one side - surely a nod to the generation of scrolling social media feeds. It feels natural, and leaves a lot more space for the game itself than the traditional RPG dialogue space which takes up a third or more of the bottom. This particularly makes sense in an era where 16:9 widescreen is standard, and there's growing adoption of ultra widescreen monitors with 21:9 or wider aspect ratios. Why do I mention this seemingly minor thing? It's reflective of a game which has plenty of neat, innovative touches that shows the developers understand the genre and know how to improve it in small but noticeable ways. It all adds up to one of the most seamless RPG experiences there is.
Back to the narrative, the overall story is familiar. The game is concerned much more with the characters and how they evolve over the course of the story. Some of the character development is sublime - some of the very best I've seen in gaming. Even secondary characters are full of colour and nuance in a way that's unique to the gaming medium. You feel connected to them because of the choices you make, and understanding the worlds they inhabit. There's some dodgy dialogues - I'm not sure if this is a case of poor English translation? (The developers are Estonian)
Perhaps Disco Elysium's greatest innovation is in the ability to speak with yourself. You don't just level up skills, but psychological attributes. Based on your psychological makeup, you can speak with that part of your brain, and come up with solutions (and problems). It's remarkably intuitive, and I wonder why this has never been done before to this extent? It gives the whole RPG genre a brand new perspective, and offers entirely new possibilities of storytelling through the interactive medium. Of course, you do have many of the traditional skills you'd find in a full-blown RPG. There's a "thought cabinet" which unlocks special effects as per you actions - just another neat idea.
There's no combat or real-time elements in the game. It's all done through the dialogue scroll. Yes, you do get the option for violence, or to defend yourself, but you don't do it through a real-time mechanic - rather, you select the option as a choice. There's definitely a lot of reading (and responding) to do here. There's plenty of choices and consequences in the game. Based on your build, the game is not afraid to lock you out from several key plot points. Indeed, my story ended up in tragedy because I simply wasn't the right character to prevent it. This makes the game highly replayable, also aided by its brisk pacing and relatively short length. Choices resolve through dice rolls, which can feel unfair at times, but does add an element of luck to the game. Which, of course, lines up well thematically with the game's philosophy.
Disco Elysium's music and sound are brilliant, but it's the visuals that steal the show. It's very much painterly, modelled after the works of Rembrandt. It's thoroughly modern though, the world is beautifully created, but what makes it special is just how unique it is. There's no other game that looks quite like this. It's a perfect match for the general moods and themes of the game, which give the entire experience a distinct flavour.
Politics plays a big part in the game, with your choices deem you to be of a certain political bent or other. Sometimes, the game does get lost and confused in its own politics and philosophy, but for the most part, this acts another tool to build your character. The playable protagonist does have a past, a personality, and a history, but through the overall design of the game, you end up being more closely attached to this protagonist than pretty much any other in all of gaming. Talking with yourself, discussing your deep-seed philosophical and political beliefs, all add to this illusion.
Disco Elysium is the most innovative RPG since Mass Effect made the genre cinematic. It may not be the best, does have its rough edges, and doesn't always match up to its sky high ambitions. But it remains a remarkable achievement and an absolutely essential play for all RPG fans.