We’ve all woken up after having one too many shandies feeling a little worse for wear and perhaps minus a wallet or keys, but I can personally attest to the fact that I’ve never woken up after a three-day drug-fuelled bender with no recollection of who I am, what the hell I’m doing or why there’s a dead bloke hanging from a tree out the back. Exploding from the void of a hangover of apocalyptic proportions, Disco Elysium thrusts you into the shabby shoes (well, one shoe at least) of a nameless amnesiac cop and watches you fumble about its surreal world with abstract glee. Masterfully blending a point-click-adventure with RPG elements and smooshing it into a dense, moderately alien yet infinitely relatable world, Disco Elysium stands as one of the strangest video game experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of subjecting myself to, and also one of the finest. The Final Cut represents the definitive version of the game, with the addition of expansive voice acting, new quests, items and dialogue further cementing the title’s right to the mantle of veritable classic.
This makes total sense
Disco Elysium is at once, very difficult to describe. In fact, I’d argue the less you know about it going in, the more fun you’ll have. I’ll certainly give you the cliff notes, but I don’t intend to spoil the gradual sense of discovery that Disco Elysium confidently nails. After awaking from your near death-inducing three-day party time, you quickly learn that you’re a policeman investigating the murder of a man who’s been hanging from his neck in a tree for about a week. You may not know your own name, or have a gun or badge, but this little shred of purpose is enough to propel you down the path as you try to piece your reality back together. At the very least you’ve got a partner from another precinct Kim Katsuragi, who’s a little more grounded than you and serves as your rational guide (read: he’s a far better cop and human being than you’ll ever be).
Being the amnesiac cop that you are, you’re free to use our unfortunate friend as a little bit of a blank slate. Small drips and drabs of the reality of your past and present surface sporadically over the course of your investigation, but as you traipse about the fictional Martinaise waterfront and its surrounds talking to strangers, you are given free licence to be as outrageous or as straight-laced as you feel. Are you a superstar cop who’s using unorthodox measures to solve a tough case, or are you an emotionally bankrupt, corrupt, drug-sniffing piece of human garbage with no clue what they’re doing? Are you a hard-nosed fascist and mild racist, or a fired-up revolutionary looking to rebuild true communism? Or, like me, do you simply wear whatever hat suits the investigation in the moment and oscillate wildly between these disparate personality traits? There is a delicious amount of freedom to be had roleplaying as this wrecked human being, and the seamless way the world reacts to your character and your actions is a thing of wonder.
When I am King you will be first against the wall
Are you a superstar cop who’s using unorthodox measures to solve a tough case, or are you an emotionally bankrupt, corrupt, drug-sniffing piece of human garbage with no clue what they’re doing? Are you a hard-nosed fascist and mild racist, or a fired-up revolutionary looking to rebuild true communism?
It must be said that Disco Elysium is extremely dialogue heavy, and if you aren’t a fan of reading reams of text then this game is potentially not for you. However, if you do like reading, the writing is absolutely impeccable in every sense of the word. Full of dark humour, esoteric musings, insights into the human condition, and examinations of political and social structures and ideologies, Disco Elysium is a formidably intelligent journey into madness. Spoken aspects of the text are also superbly voice acted (which is extremely impressive given its sheer volume), and the game is practically bursting at the seams with diverse and interesting characters that you’ll go out of your way to converse with, simply to discover what makes them and the world they live in tick. Speaking of interesting characters, do yourself a favour and talk long and often with the foul-mouthed child Cuno. You may have to navigate through a seemingly endless torrent of horrifically detailed and quite creative insults and turn a blind eye to some disconcerting personal habits, but for me he was somehow impossible not to love.
I’d describe Disco Elysium primarily as a point-and-click adventure, where you’ll mostly walk around gathering information and important items that are both directly related to the main case and often extremely tangential to it. However, there is also a clever RPG at its beating heart that weaves itself into absolutely everything, including how you experience the story itself. You have four major attributes (Psyche, Motorics, Physical and Intellect), which determine aspects of your mental and physical fortitude and capabilities. Each attribute has six skills attached to it, and the base level of the attribute determines the amount you can level up each skill. If you’re doing the math, that’s a whopping 24 skills that you can level up, and it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be able to scrounge together enough XP to level all of them, so roleplaying within your skillset is encouraged. Within dialogue and while performing certain actions, you’ll have to perform a skill check, where your chance of success is measured specifically against any one of your skills, with a simple double dice roll adding to your skill level and determining whether you emerge victorious. This can make all the difference in winning a physical or verbal tussle, noticing something subtle, reconstructing a crime scene, reading someone’s body language or getting a character to open up and divulge information they normally wouldn’t.
The perils of game development
Full of dark humour, esoteric musings, insights into the human condition, and examinations of political and social structures and ideologies, Disco Elysium is a formidably intelligent journey into madness
But these attributes aren’t mere numbers on a page, they’ll actually intimately shape the way the protagonist reacts and internalises details during conversations and events. This is due to the fact that the skills also represent aspects of our protagonist’s confused and fractured internal monologue, and the more proficient you are in a skill the more that particular aspect will rise to the surface. It really is an amazing system, and is practically flawless in its execution and consistency across your journey. Although some skills are required specifically for certain dialogue checks (for instance you’ll have to have a fairly decent amount of Empathy if you want to truly understand my boy Cuno), many instances have multiple methods of tackling an objective. For instance, early on you can choose to internalise the racist rhetoric of a fairly unpleasant supremacist in order to access a locked area, or you can hurl your aging alcoholic frame across a rooftop if you’ve got the requisite points in Savoir Faire. Wearing different clothes can also give you stat bonuses which can make up for deficits in certain skills, or you can always turn to drugs and alcohol to temporarily boost attributes and raise learning caps. It’s initially daunting to figure out exactly how all these systems fit together, but once the initial confusion wears off the game opens itself up immensely.
It’s not all methamphetamines, cake and rainbows though, as in its current state Disco Elysium has a few odd design quirks and frustrating bugs. Playing on PlayStation 5, navigating some areas such as stairs and narrow walkways is a little painful. Also, interacting with items requires you to hold the L1 button to highlight nearby interactable items and cycle through them with the right thumbstick before hitting X to confirm you want to interact with it. It’s not well explained at the game’s outset, and flies in the face of convention from a controller standpoint (I’m sure it makes plenty of sense for a mouse and keyboard), but you will eventually become accustomed to it. I also encountered numerous bugs, including points of interest that were mysteriously non-interactable, preventing me from completing an objective, a bugged quest that got stuck in a strange loop and didn’t allow me to progress it properly, and numerous instances of characters not appearing where they should. Sometimes a simple reload of a recent save was sufficient, and a recent patch also alleviated one issue I had, but there are still enough of these bugs to make you notice.
Who’s a pretty boy?
The fact that Disco Elysium has been banned in Australia is as ludicrous as it is a sad indictment on the state of media classification in our home girt by sea and red tape. Disco Elysium is a finely crafted masterpiece of interactive storytelling, with amazingly intelligent and sophisticated writing bolstered by RPG mechanics which weave themselves expertly into the story’s DNA. Such a wonderfully surreal world teeming with intrigue and insight really begs to be explored in all its dizzying depth, and stopping anyone from doing so simply because of a mechanic the conservative powers that be take umbrage with is more of a crime than using all the tools at your disposal to get your hands on a copy in spite of them.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- PS4 / PC / Stadia / Mac
- March 30, 2021