REVIEW: Disco Elysium

The flippant pitch for Disco Elysium would be to say if China Mieville wrote a Dirk Gently video game. The writer, Robert Kurvitz, has made something unique with this game, and it’s hardly a surprise to see it has won as many awards as it has.

Cover for Disco ElysiumIn Disco Elysium, you play a terrible cop trying to solve a terrible case. When you wake up hungover at the start of the game, you’ve lost your badge, your gun, and your car. You’ve got voices in your head that double as your skills, and they’re a far cry from the ones found in most games. Sure, you’ve got Perception and Hand-Eye Coordination, but you’ve also got Esprit de Corps, Shivers, and Half-Light.

These voices argue with you (and each other) and when you fail a task they’re as likely as the NPCs to mock you. You start the game really far behind where you need to be, and as the game goes on it becomes apparent—this is entirely because you messed up prior to the start of the game.

A man was killed, and you’re supposed to bring the killer to justice. The man who was killed was a mercenary caught up between two sides of a major labour dispute. He’s been hanging from a nearby tree for days, with a neighborhood kid chucking rocks at his corpse for fun.

The side quests range from standard to ludicrous to brilliant. My favorite was getting some young people to open up a rave in a church that a crab-man lived inside, while also convincing the scientist who was in the church studying the silence from a 2mm hole of nothingness that she should go along with it. Even the standard one was good, decent detective work, solving a missing persons case and telling the victim’s family.

The NPCs are great, even the ones you dislike. They have strong, distinct personalities, while still being recognizably a part of the city and the system that made them.

The game is an isometric CRPG, designed similar to Planescape: Torment, but it doesn’t even have PS:T’s rare combat. It’s a murder mystery through and through. Instead, when you do a skill check it’s based off your skills, and any relevant bonuses or penalties you might have. There are white checks, which can be retried when you level up that skill, and red checks which cannot (but no failure on a red check ever prevents the plot from moving forward.)

The game puts up obstacles for min-maxing as well. If you have too many points in a skill, it’s entirely possible that you’ll overdo it and fail in a different way. Authority, for example, will make some trust you or at least accept what you’re saying, but too much will make others close up to you.

Responding in similar ways enough to different NPCs can also open up options for your character to go from being a cop to being a Superstar Cop, an Apocalypse Cop, a Sorry Cop, and more. There are also philosophies you can fall into which have their own quests, so if you argue about moralism or ultraliberalism or communism you can open up different plot-lines.

The history of the world was fleshed out well. Robert Kurvitz had made it for a tabletop RPG, and then it was the setting for a book he wrote called Sacred and Terrible Air that has, unfortunately, never been translated into English. But the various strains of thought, the long and revolutionary history, the historical context for different iconography, the streets still filled with war-torn fragments, and the strange energy called The Pale all pushed together in this game to make the setting seem truly lived in, depressing but just fantastical enough to spark imagination.

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Ryan is a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat. He likes, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns. You can find him as unconundrum on reddit.