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Disco Elysium - Review



What a game. What a beautiful f*cking game. It’s more than just a video game at this point, it’s a lovely, handcrafted work of art. How do I review one of the best RPGs to come out in recent years? How do we talk about Disco Elysium? Well let’s start back at the point alongside the team that created it, Studio ZA/UM. The company was founded by a Karlian-Estonian novelist named Robert Kurvitz who years before was part of a small independent band named Ultramelanhool. The band was struggling with financial problems and during that time Kurvitz got drunk and imagined a sad world with a scenario similar to the one he was having right now. A world of debt, loneliness, and struggles with the real world. He could have been thinking of another breakthrough song, but what happened next was the idea for a video game.


He gathered a group of oil painters to illustrate his ideas, decided to base his game around tabletops RPGs mainly Dungeons & Dragons, and wrote the world and story of the game by himself. During the development process Kurvitz met an author named Kaur Kender who tried to convince him to turn his ideas into a novel rather than a video game. The novel failed to sell more than two thousand copies and this failure is what led Kurvitz to believe his ideas wouldn’t work. He began to develop an alcohol problem which carried over to his mental health, but eventually he pulled himself out of the dirt and told himself that he could do it. He told Kender that his ideas would work as a video game and took inspiration from much older RPGs. His main two inspirations for his game were Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment which, while not as well-known as other RPGs like Fallout or Diablo, were both considered cult classics and some of the best RPGs ever made. Kurvitz wanted his RPG to take place on an isometric plane and have the same feeling of a cheesy yet compelling 1970s cop show. The ones with style and a duo of cops that basically became brothers over time.


The game was announced in 2017 and was originally titled No Truce With The Furies, but the name would change as development went on. Kurvitz featured many topics and ideasin his game like disco music, economic decline, separative political views, recovery from a war, real world topics that are still relevant today, and of course solving a murder. However, the most important theme was human characterization and making the player care about who they were and what they could do to make things either better or worse. He wanted a game about the mind, body, spirit, and heart so he looked at the other themes of the game and decided to change the title to what we know now as Disco Elysium. Development for Disco Elysium would stretch out for another two years and it wouldn’t be until late 2019 that the final build of the game would be released. 2019 was a very interesting year for games. Nothing remarkable or mind blowing came out, but it was jam full of landmark titles. There was Control, Resident Evil 2, The Outer Worlds, Death Stranding, Sekiro, Metro Exodus, Indivisible, Katana Zero, Remnant: From The Ashes, Bloodstained, Outer Wilds, and so much more. Here comes “Disco Elysium near the end of the year preparing to get trampled over by the rest of these games”, is what we all thought to ourselves. Well, that’s not exactly what happened. The small group of people who played Disco Elysium quite enjoyed it.


They really enjoyed it! So much so that word began to spread around what could be somewhat of a spiritual successor to the wonderful cult classic Planescape Torment. Game journalists got their hands on Disco Elysium and review scores began to kick in. The reception for Disco Elysium was extremely higher than expected and some critics considered it an absolute masterpiece. It was one of the highest rated games of 2019 and it even won a bunch of awards. The Game Awards nominated Disco Elysium for four categories, and it ended up winning all of them. Studio ZA/UM wasn’t expecting this game to blow up, but it happened, and tears of happiness must have been pouring down from their tired worn-out eyes. I mean sure Disco Elysium didn’t sell more than a million copies, but considering everything I just stated it’s objectively the best game of 2019 and one of the best RPGs of the decade.


Back in 2019, I saw the game win all these awards and wondered what the ever-living hell was going on. I knew about the game before the award ceremony and some of the reviewers I watched absolutely recommended it, but I couldn’t understand how twenty hours worth of text was Game of The Year material. So, I began to research the game and slowly grew interested in what it was. A narrative RPG where you could become whoever you wanted. I was hooked. People said it felt more like a novel than a game due to how text heavy the game was, but to be honest I thought that Disco Elysium sounded really awesome and like an absolute dream. Sadly, the game was only available on PC, and I decided to wait until the game was ported to consoles. I waited, and waited, and waited, and waited. More than a year has passed and I’m still waiting for Disco Elysium to come to consoles. In between that time, I looked more into the game and my desire to play it grew.


Eventually during The Game Awards of 2020 it was revealed that a definitive version of the game would be released during the spring this year. Disco Elysium: The Final Cut. I was excited as I could be and knew the wait would soon be over. When Disco Elysium finally popped up onto the PlayStation store, I downloaded the game immediately and began playing once the download was done. Almost twenty hours later and here we are now with a review. Did Disco Elysium live up to expectations and was it truly the masterpiece everyone stated it was? It absolutely lived up to the hype and acclaims! This was so worth the wait and easily became one of the best games I’ve played in a very long time. Today we’ll be talking about why I loved Disco Elysium and why it deserves your attention. So, wake up from a cold morning bliss, step outside, and prepare to tango your sorry old limbs across the brick streets of Revachol.


Story


Our story begins as we find ourselves surrounded by black space. There is nothing in it and not much to be seen for miles, but a mysterious voice begins to speak to us once we begin to look around. It’s our Ancient Reptilian Brain and he asks us if we want to end our existence. We tell him no and answer that we want to figure out what led us to this dark and empty place. We slowly begin to regain consciousness and wake up in a dirty hostel apartment. There are clothes scattered about, empty beer bottles stink up the room, there is a smashed window, and our character feels like absolute trash as he woke up on the floor with ass fully exposed. He looks at himself in the mirror and guesses that he is in his fifties, so he’s a full-grown adult with a life to worry about. He must have gotten so drunk that he had completely forgotten who he was. With no recollection, he puts on his clothes and walks out into the halls. Wearing a stylish tie, slim shoes, khakis covered in his own sticky fluids, a button up shirt, and a green leather coat.


From there we meet an unnamed blonde woman and through questioning she tells us that we’re a cop who has been staying at the hostel for a few days. She heads back into her room and once you meet with the hostel manager he directs you to your partner who is waiting by the door. The man is wearing an orange bomber jacket and goes by the name Kim Kitsuragi who was sent from Precinct 57 to investigate a murder alongside with you. There is a dead body hanging in the backyard of the hostel and it has been hanging there for three days. No one knows who the man was or who lynched him, but his body is heavily bruised, and he was tortured by those who took him up to the tree. Our main character didn’t even know there was a murder, but he decides to take his role as a cop and investigate it.


Once he exits the hostel he was staying at, which is known as the Whirl-In-Rags, he slowly learns about the city he is in by talking to some of the individuals around him. The city is known as Revachol, a place struggling to recover from its weakened economy and a war that happened a few years back that almost entirely blew up every street. There are bombed pits lying all over the place, there are buildings and structures that were blown up and left to rot, and the citizens remind themselves of the sh*thole their living in every week and day. You walk up to the body lying out back and have a hard time determining what is going on. Kim states that by questioning the folks who live in Revachol you may slowly figure out what happened, but these citizens have complicated things happening in their lives as well. So not only must you solve a murder and help a bunch of strangers you don’t know with the personal problems they have, but you must figure out who you are and what type of personality you must build so you don’t f*ck up everything you set your hand on. Good luck detective. It's time to get back to work in the sh*t factory.


Gameplay


Disco Elysium isn’t like your ordinary RPG. There’s no combat at all, meaning you won’t find yourself getting ripped to shreds by some random gang of thieves or beast. Since there’s no combat it means there aren’t tools or weapons needed to change how the player fights, so there’s not much build variety in general. Yet, Disco Elysium manages to be an amazing RPG and sticks to the routes of what it takes inspiration from. There is a lot of reading in this game and when I say a lot, I mean there is a lot. Imagine the previously mentioned Dungeons and Dragons where the gamemaster reads to you what happens, and you make whatever bizarre choices possible to solve the problem. I don’t know if that is one hundred percent accurate because I have never played D&D, but let’s just take that as an example. By talking to other characters or interacting with certain objects you begin to figure out more about the world and its history.


Sometimes by finding the right information you can piece together the murder and what really happened. Sometimes you want to be careful about what you say or do, because doing the wrong thing will either damage your Morale or Health Bar. These two bars determine how long you stay in the game. The Health Bar goes down if you do something that physically injures you and the Morale Bar goes down if you say something against your officer code of honor. There are items that can replenish one of these two bars and resting can restore whatever health or morale you lost, but if one of these two bars is completely depleted then game over. You either quit your job as a detective or suffer from a random heart attack due to a rush in blood flow.


Sometimes there will be dialogue choices that require you to roll some dice. These are known Speech Cheeks and they are determined by one of the numerous stats you have. Stats in Disco Elysium are quite unique because remember earlier that this game has no combat and is primarily based around conversations. So rather than roll your dice for strength or lockpicking you roll for Physical Instrument and Authority. There are over 24 stats in the game and they each belong to four categories: Intellect, Psyche, Physiques, and Motorics. Before the actual game begins the player is offered what categories they want to start off with. Depending on what categories they choose to put the most points into they can only level up certain stats a certain amount of times. Every time you gain one hundred experience points you gain a skill point, and those points can be put into these stats. These stats include Inland Empire, Endurance, Suggestion, Visual Calculus, Rhetoric, Savoir Faire, Electrochemistry, and several others.


Anyways back to the speech checks. Some speech checks will rely on a certain stat and depending how many points you have put into it you will have either a higher or lower chance of having a successful roll. If you get a successful roll you get to proceed with the conversation. If your roll fails, you may take one of two hits and be locked out of rerolling until a specific amount of time. Sometimes the best choice is to come back when you either have higher stats or have information that can give you the upper hand. By revealing more of the truth, hidden stat boosts that weren’t there before will increase the percentage number of having a successful dice roll. While exploring the world you may also come across clothing that allows you to not only change your appearance, but also boost certain stats. So, if you are struggling during a conversation, you can equip specific clothing and have an easier time at succeeding.


There is also money scattered around the world and you need it to buy certain items and go to bed at the Whirl-In-Rags, but around day three you unlock a place you can sleep at for free. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention there is a time factor in this game. Certain events will only take place at certain times and during the night some NPCs will have gone off to sleep making them unavailable to talk to until the morning. Time will only move when you progress through a conversation so try to make the most of it.


The last aspect I would like to mention about Disco Elysium is the Thought Cabinet. You can unlock numerous thoughts while progressing through the game and you can embrace them by equipping them and letting them develop through time. Once you fully develop a thought you can gain new ways to solve problems or access new choices to conversation. However, embracing new thoughts and ideas comes at a cost. Some thoughts can be really dangerous and force you into making bad decisions automatically. There are thoughts that decrease certain stats and the only way to forget the thought is to spend a skill point on them. These thoughts include the coming of the apocalypse, socioeconomics, learning how to be cheap, extreme feminism, extreme racism, extreme social justice, extreme left wing, extreme right wing, extreme communism, and you know what I think I’m slowly starting to understand why some people are turned off by this game. Personally, I only embraced thoughts I knew were good like knowing how to high five people or keep my sh*t together during stressful situations, but you can embrace a good chunk of these ideas and get a funny outcome that somehow is able to push the story forward. Besides that, there isn’t much else I can say about Disco Elysium. With your detective skills you should be able to figure out who killed the man hanging out back.


Thoughts


Disco Elysium is an intelligently written masterpiece that sets a new standard for storytelling in video games. There are very few games I can think of that know how to handle world building and characters well. On the one hand there is Hades where all the characters are fun and provide insight on the world, and on the other hand there is Bloodborne and Hollow Knight which don’t have to explain too much info at once and instead lets the player dive deep into the history by exploring the world. God of War (2018) and Horizon Zero Dawn are good examples in my opinion, and while Persona 5 likes to take its time, it's the time spent with the world that makes it all so compelling. There are a few others like Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Nier: Automata, etc.


Disco Elysium is an even mix between letting the characters do the talking and letting the player figure stuff out by themselves at their own pace. By exploring Revachol you get to figure out what happened and how the people are struggling to maintain a stable lifestyle, but the game encourages the player to talk to its characters and slowly unravel who they are and how they play a part in your journey. The characters in Disco Elysium are well thought out and feel like individuals you could actually meet in real life. There is the hostel manager Garte who about ready to quit his crappy job, the union member Titus who just wishes there was power to the people in Revachol, there is Rene who is a history addict, Lilienne who tries to provide for her kids but suffers from poverty and clinging onto an old-fashioned lifestyle, and many more.


Kim Kitsuragi, the lieutenant helping you during your case, has to be one of my favorite side roles in a video game story. A majority of side roles in video game stories are to either complement the actions the player makes or remind them of the main objective the player has to follow. Kim does just that, but there's a little more to it. At first, he judges you for not being able to perform basic duties a law official can do perfectly fine, but as the story goes on and you figure out the troubles that happened during the main character’s life Kim begins to sympathize with you. He started to place himself in the main character’s shoes and realized you are going through tons of mental stress. He knows your mind is tormenting you without knowing of the several voices in your head and that you are just trying to live through each day like everyone else.


I love it when a game is aware that the player can be stupid at times and that not all of their actions are or have to be perfect. The characters and world are filled with depth and Studio ZA/UM does a good job to motivate you to figure this stuff out through clever game design. You have a few tasks during day one but you aren’t given a radar or an icon on a map telling you where to go. So most of the time you end up bumbling around and talking to whoever you see, who then gives you more tasks and gives you more reason to bum around. Games should know how to get the player to explore without having to tell them or drag them all over the map.


The art style is really good, there’s a lot of orange but everything looks like it came from an oil painting. From the characters, city, background, and even the title screen everything looks like an oil painting which is what Studio ZA/UM intended. I thought the soundtrack was really good as well. It’s not energetic or symphonic like Hades or Divinity: Original Sin 2, but there’s this real sadness to it. The horns, piano, and strings all play along to provide an emptiness to the world and slowly fade to show how Revachol has transformed into an abyss. This game wants you to know that the people you are with are secretly sad on the inside and it does so brilliantly.


The stats I leveled up were very cool and the game handled speech checks very well. I don’t really like it when games have systems relying heavily on RNG or randomness, but Disco Elysium uses systems of chance right. It’s a game where even if you fail you can continue pressing forward and sometimes a failed action can come out to be funny. This is also a good way of telling the player to come back when they are more prepared. This can be a problem because it means all a player has to do to get a good solution is to save scum, but the best way to learn is through failure.


Disco Elysium is an RPG that I absolutely ended up enjoying, but I did have a few problems with it. They aren’t game breaking problems although we are going to touch on a problem revolving around that issue in a few minutes. The world is pretty condensed and opens up the more you go, which is really nice. Sure, some players are confused as the game opens up more paths, but I liked it. Yet I am somewhat troubled with the transitions between areas. You’ll be revisiting a lot of areas in the game and be forced to sit through tons of loading screens which gets a little annoying. Next complaint is that it’s weird how clothing affects your speech stats. I can get characters judging your appearance, but for a game taking place in a realistic setting and trying to be immersive it feels gamey when we equip the clothes that increase the stats we need to win a speech check during a conversation.


Those are the only two problems I have, because the next just deals with the Final Cut version of the game. It’s an incredible port of the game, but there are a few bugs dotted about. There are certain scenes in the game that must be approached in a specific direction, or they will glitch out and you have to close out, reload the game, and go back to where you were. It’s a little hard to interact with objects using the right joystick. I don’t understand why they just didn’t allow us to walk up and press the button. Finally, the game occasionally tends to crash leading to me and other players losing progress. The game is still playable, I mean it’s more functional than Cyberpunk f*cking 2077, but I hope these glitches get patched out. By the time this review gets published, Studio ZA/UM have addressed these problems and plan to take care of them, which is good.


Other than those nitpicks, Disco Elysium is definitely worth the forty dollars, and I would even consider it one of my new favorite games. If I were to take Disco Elysium and pit it up against a much bigger and more ambitious classical styled RPGs, otherwise CRPGs like Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Pillars of Eternity, I would choose Disco Elysium. No offense Original Sin 2 had the content, quality, build variety, combat, world building, and campaign to make it an amazing RPG. However, I felt more invested in the world and story Disco Elysium set up. It’s a tale the writers carefully put together to give the player something to relate to. We were all in a miserable state at some point in our lives, and Disco Elysium succeeds at what it sets out to do and does what a majority of Triple A titles can’t seem to do these days. This game is truly a work of art that goes above and beyond. Disco Elysium is not about solving a murder or how your actions affect the world. It’s about being you, a human being. That not everyone is born perfect and that we all struggle through life. That we have to accept ourselves for who we are rather than let our inner thoughts criticize the actions we make and drag us down into a bottomless mental rabbit hole we can’t escape. This game is beautiful, and it definitely deserves the high praise I have been seeing from both critics and the public. In the end I give Disco Elysium a 10/10 for being incredible.


10/10, Incredible

This critique was written by the single man at Review on. Stay tuned for more content and feel free to check more reviews out over at my site!

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