When you first start playing Disco Elysium, you might be a bit confused. It’s not really like any other RPG out there. There are a few elements of, perhaps, the classic Planescape Torment or maybe even the strangeness of Torment: Tides of Numenera sprinkled in there. But make no mistake, Disco Elysium is its own thing. And it’s a very weird and cool thing that is not afraid to double down on its strengths.
That initial confusion players will have is fine too because your main character has just woken up from being blackout drunk after a long bender. He doesn’t know who he is or where he is, and is lying on a dirty floor completely naked in a trashed hotel room. You will have to find some clothes and investigate your surroundings to even get a modicum of backstory. And even then, most of your life is a mystery to you.
You will eventually learn that you are a police detective sent to a hostel to investigate a murder. Only because you are such a loser at the onset of the game, you simply drank too much, acted like a total jerk (you learn about your actions slowly as you interact with others) and basically made a menace of yourself before passing out and almost dying.
The world you are charged with protecting is almost as broken as you are, although few things could actually be that broken. You live and work in a town called Revachol, which is apparently the former capitol of a state with deep political and even revolutionary problems. It’s now ruled by a coalition of outside factions, though different districts tend to govern and police themselves. Technically, you are a cop who works for the international coalition that runs Revachol, so you are genuine law enforcement. Though, like everything else in Disco Elysium, nothing is cut and dry. You have implied authority, but not everyone accepts it.
Stripped down to its core elements, Disco Elysium is actually a point and click adventure game. You will be clicking on environmental elements to solve “puzzles” along the way. And you can click on most NPCs to talk with them, which brings up dialog choices. Some of your responses and actions require skill checks to succeed. For example, fact-checking something that an NPC mentions might require an encyclopedic knowledge check, while convincing them that it’s in their best interest to tell you their secrets would be a persuasion check. Punching them in the face, either because you think it will help or just because you want to, is a hand-eye coordination check.
Spending experience points and building out your character to help succeed in various checks is a core RPG element of the game. There is no actual combat outside of making a choice to perform a violent act, so skill checks are pretty much everything. And some of them can lead to pretty impressive feats. For example, because I put points into my detective skills, I was able to reconstruct a crime scene using footprints and my mental calculus skill. Later, I used the shoes a group of people were wearing to place them at the scene.
The funny thing in Disco Elysium is that failing a check is not always that bad. Some of the strangest, most surprising and sometimes most rewarding things in the game happen when you fail a check. For example, near the start of the game, I had the option of quietly slinking away when someone asked me for money that I owed them. My physical skills are bad, but I tried anyway. Not only did I fail, but my character reacted to the blown check by running across the room, jumping up and spinning around in mid-air-slow-motion to double flip off the guy I was talking with – and then I promptly crashed into an elderly woman in a wheelchair, collapsing both of us to the ground and knocking myself out.
When I awoke, everyone was gathered around me. The guy I owed money to was upset about my “accident” and offered to give me break on paying him back. Plus, I deepened my relationship with the poor woman in the wheelchair, who even gave me a little gift for becoming her new friend. So I critically failed a skill roll, and ended up ahead in the game. Disco Elysium is weird like that. You never know what to expect.
Another thing that sets Disco Elysium apart is the strange way that you build your character. You have various skills like most RPGs, but also character traits.
For example, if you defend women in your dialog choices, then you can unlock the Feminist Agenda trait. You can spend an experience point in it to evolve your character with that trait moving forward, opening up new choices that will endear you to some folks and enrage others. You can also spend experience to forget traits that you no longer want, or to make room for others. In this way, you can craft how you want your character to evolve over the course of the game. He can be anything from a drug addicted communist revolutionary to a liberal, racist narcissist to a hobo cop with a heart of gold. Or be anything in between, or everything at once – also known as insane.
Your internal monolog is also really strong in this game. Your psyche will interrupt normal dialog choices to give you information. The strange thing is that most of the time, this information is either blatantly wrong or pathetically bad: “That woman really likes you! Say something sexual!” or just one sided based on what the part of your psyche who is talking believes. Of course you could always follow their advice and see what happens. Something funny or deadly might trigger because of it. Even your so-called “lizard brain” of primeval thoughts speaks up from time to time, mostly telling you to give up so that you can go back to blissful oblivion like when you are passed out drunk. Your mind is really messed up.
You are completely free to play your character however you want. Perhaps you want to revel in your abandon, do all the drugs you can find, screw people over and somehow just muddle through life (and the game) being the same despicable, broken person you are at the onset. You can, and might even profit from it. Some of your psyche voices will certainly applaud. Disco Elysium makes no judgements that way. Play the game however you want. I generally tried to better myself, pulling my character out of his stupor and becoming a good, responsible detective who helps people most of the time. It’s my play style and it was enjoyable, although being a human wrecking ball might have been more fun overall.
Artistically, Disco Elysium is incredible. The world looks hand drawn with lots of little, mostly sad details. People who came into my playtesting office while I was exploring Disco Elysium often stopped and commented about how great the art style looked. It’s beautiful and broken at the same time, pretty much like Revachol, and certainly your character. Both the game itself and the art style for Disco Elysium is something special.
There is about 30 hours of gameplay in Disco Elysium, and I won’t say that the entire experience was riveting from beginning to end. There are parts where you will be walking around (there is no fast travel) trying to figure out your next move, or simply engaging in dialog choices and conversations that are more tedious than helpful. The game tends to be a slow burn punctuated with crazy and exciting, and sometimes surprising, experiences throughout. But you never know when your lizard brain or other parts of your psyche are going to exert themselves and take you down a strange (or stranger) path.
Disco Elysium is currently on sale through Steam for just over $30, which is an incredible deal for an RPG that is open to so many choices. I guarantee that you won’t play the same way I did, because you are going to make choices in building out your character and interacting with people that lead to completely different, but likely no less fracked-up, results. And hopefully, they will be just as fun and twisted.
Give Disco Elysium a try. It’s a unique game that is not to be missed. It earns a stellar 4.5 GiN Gems here, which is sure to make its lizard brain very happy.