Title: Disco Elysium
Developer: ZA/UM Studio
Publisher: ZA/UM Studio
Available On: PC, Coming to PS4 and XBOX One in 2020
Official Site: https://zaumstudio.com/
Release Date: October 15th, 2019
Version Tested: PC (Steam)
Where to Buy: Steam, GOG
Getting in the Groove
You only need to get as far as Disco Elysium’s first scene—for that’s what it is, a scene—for a sample of what the eclectic game holds for you. After a drunken internal conversation with some deeper parts of your brain, you wake up disheveled, and the bathroom holds the first of many choices the game will present to you: whether to look at yourself in the mirror and reveal your forgotten face. Talking to your mirror, you’ll get grotesque descriptions of your bulbous nose and “snail-like” tongue, and you can probe the depths of your memory to find out why you make the expression you do (it has to do with disco and alcohol). You can also give yourself a heart attack trying to fish a necktie down from a ceiling fan. Such is life.
At its core, Disco Elysium is a text-heavy, choice-focused mystery game in which you, an alcoholic cop, wake up with amnesia and need to piece together your life while you solve a murder. But that synopsis doesn’t do justice to the unique experience that ZA/UM has crafted in its first game.
That first scene provides sharp writing, unexpected dead ends, and a glimpse of the well-developed world that can be explored to an almost unnecessary degree. You’re three minutes into this game, and it’s telling you about a largely irrelevant disco singer who was popular in the game world some two decades earlier. That’s important, though, because that tangential, weirdly detailed writing is intentionally reminiscent of thought processes, especially those of someone walking around in a bit of a fog. Disco Elysium is constructed in such a way that you experience the world as your character, remember the things he remembers, see what he sees, and try to figure things out alongside him. Ruminating on the thoughts that crop up, such as the significance of disco singer Guillaume Le Million, for a time will let you add them to your “thought cabinet,” an inventory of ideas you’ve pondered that have some effect on you or your stats. They help to further shape your character in a clever way.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Perhaps most impressive is how different an experience you’ll have based on the choices you make. You can select from four stats—intelligence, psyche (empathy), physique (strength), and motorics (dexterity)—each of which governs six skills, such as pain threshold, reaction speed, suggestion, and drama (lying). My character was brilliant but frail and uncoordinated, so he recalled that the dumb expression on his face was the trademark of a faded disco star, but he was liable to die attempting to reach up for a tie. A robust and hearty character, however, would survive the latter trial and remain blissfully unaware of one of disco’s greats. A third character, particularly versed in the electro-chemistry skill (read: taking drugs), would be able to whip up a cocktail to wipe that stupid grin off his face if he so chose.
Three different experiences that might have repercussions for the rest of the playthrough, and that’s only in the first moments of gameplay. All of Disco Elysium is constructed like that, with skill checks regularly occurring to see what you’ll notice, how people will react to you, and how you might respond to what’s around you based on the character you’ve created. It’s like playing some bizarre, social-oriented Dungeons & Dragons module with an AI dungeon master tailoring the experience for you.
The external characters in Disco Elysium are well-written and exciting, but the best characters are those inside your head. Each of the 24 skills also represents an impulse or aspect of your psyche, like a schizophrenic version of the devil and angel resting on your shoulders, and those discussions provide humor and insight in a way unique to this game.
Notably, for an indie studio’s first game, Disco Elysium game ran at a lower FPS for me than one might expect of a relatively undemanding title. People have posted about ways to address that, but I haven’t spent much time troubleshooting it since it didn’t have a noticeable impact on my ability to play and enjoy the game. One thing that did was a mid-conversation semi-freeze that prevented me from continuing to progress. I could access my inventory and character page, but not the menu, and the conversation stalled out. I only encountered this apparent bug once throughout my play, though. Otherwise, there are some small typos or unusual turns of phrase, but the polish is impressive.
There’s a beautiful brushstroke quality to the environments where the less impressive polygonal character models will walk around that helps to obscure the way blurriness has been used to hide a lack of detail in places. Controls are functional—more interactive than traditional point-and-click but primarily a modern version of that. Sound design is solid, though what gets voiced seems random, and the quality of the voiceover performances is a bit uneven.
It’s difficult to extricate gameplay from writing because the writing is the gameplay. The core gameplay is reading what’s happening and making choices. You interact with the game world by exploring and making choices. Merely seeing what choice will come up next, what wacky thing you’ll be able to do and say, is a strong motivator to keep playing. But the story is compelling as well, with the game’s murder mystery serving as a twin for the question of who you are. By its nature, that means it can be slow sometimes, and if you’re the type who usually wants to breeze through dialogue to get to the next thing, that won’t work here. There’s no real combat, and the game never provides you too much instruction on how to interact with it (which works to great effect in immersing you in your character’s state of mind).
You Do You
There’s mostly no “right” way to play Disco Elysium—though there are probably some wrong ones. Do you want to keep your cards close to your vest and bluff your way through? Do you want to admit to everybody that you have no idea who you are and plead for help? The various components of your psyche will sometimes advise what does or doesn’t seem to be a good idea—which you are free to heed or ignore—and provide judgment on some behavior, but it’s made clear that your character is a jerk and a mess, so maybe you want to steer into that. Nobody is stopping you. The only thing the game encourages, through which choices it presents, is sticking to whoever you decide your character is. I’d suggest the same. Disco Elysium isn’t about min-maxing or finding the most efficient answer. It’s about making messy choices and seeing what happens, and that’s most effective with at least a light role-play. It’s an interactive book, and the characters in good books are consistent. If you do choose to do that, you can go almost any direction with your character. My protagonist is consistently desperate and sleazy, immediately followed by embarrassed and remorseful. Also, he says, “I am the law,” to everyone he meets.
Disco Elysium is weird. It’s something different. It tries new things, mostly to good effect. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is engrossing, well-made, and I don’t know the last time I’ve laughed as often playing a game, or felt so compelled to take a screenshot or tell my friends about the interaction I just had. Before I even finished my first playthrough, I was anxious to go back and try things differently. More games should take a page out of Disco Elysium’s book.
If you like reading, Disco Elysium offers you hours of engrossing gameplay. Top-notch writing and meaningful choices make indie developer ZA/UM Studio’s first effort one of the best games of the year.
- Some of the industry’s best writing
- Laugh-out-loud funny
- Your choices actually matter
- Sprawling skill tree provides meaningful customization
- A compelling mystery
- Not for everybody
- Pacing can be uneven
- Inconsistent voice work