Independent video game developers these days seem to be more reliable than most big-name developers when it comes to putting out new games, not just because they care about quality control, but also because these same small-time developers are more willing to take risks than many of those same big-name developers. “Papers Please,” “The Stanley Parable” and “Undertale” are all good examples. The subject of this review, “Disco Elysium–The Final Cut,” is perhaps the most famous example of this today.
To briefly summarize, “Disco Elysium” follows Harry Du Bois, who wakes up with amnesia, induced by an intense bender last night. After getting dressed, he learns that he is a police inspector in the anachronistic, ruined city of Revachol from his partner, Kim Katsuragi. The two officers have been tasked with taking down a corpse of a man hung up behind the hostel and piecing together who is responsible. After piecing together of clues of the murder and uncovering Harry’s identity, the murder investigation slowly begins to unravel into a political crisis involving the underclasses of the city, outside corporations, and the occupying collation of nations.
“Disco Elysium” is an isometric, detective role-playing-game developed by ZA/UM, similar to games such as “Tyranny” and “Planescape Torment,” but it differs in how it executes its ideas. That was made abundantly clear from the first 15 minutes of my experience with it, after having a debate with the protagonist’s own psyche, talking with a bombastic necktie, trying to will your own facial muscles to stop grinning, and playing 20 questions with Kim Katsuragi about who you are, where you are, and what you should be doing. It takes well known storytelling cliches, but in a fresh and charming way!
It is the subject of gameplay mechanics where “Disco Elysium” breaks with other more famous franchises like “Fallout,” “Skyrim” and “Diablo”: there is no “real combat.” Yes, there are weapons, but they’re only used in very specific contexts. You do have health and stamina bars and can fail in various ways, but it doesn’t work like a traditional action RPG where you fight until your health is depleted. Instead, you can lose health by sitting in a really uncomfortable chair, or losing “morale,” by getting belittled by delinquents. This helps make the overall experience almost completely unlike anything I have experienced in a video game before.
In terms of core design, “Disco Elysium” revolves around talking to other people and wandering around looking for clues to advance the plot, hence why it is a role-playing-game, because you take on the role of a cartoonish, washed-up, amnesiac cop. This core design is astounding when you take into account how they are able to mix several genres of games together, including point-and-click adventure, open-world sandbox and pen-and-paper RPGs like “Dungeons & Dragons,” and come up with something that makes “Disco Elysium” remarkable. The game features experience points, skill points and trees and skill checks, but it does it with its own unique spin on those RPG mechanics.
One of the taglines for the game’s synopsis is, “what kind of cop are you?” and this interesting premise is presented in the four skill trees you begin with: Intellect, Psyche, Physique and Motorics. How you spend your skill points here defines not just your playstyle but also your personality. Are you a brilliant Sherlock Holmes? Charming and insightful Dale Cooper? Tough and brash John McClane? Some combination of two? More interestingly, how you spend skill points after character creation determines how your own personality converses with you. Yes, your own skills serve as voices in your head, like volition urging you to keep a level head, half-life encouraging you to bully and bluster, and drama which makes you think you’re actually a talented actor.
This brings us to “Disco Elysium”’s other strengths: narrative, characters, dialogue, score and choice.
There are plenty of games with strong narratives, far too many to list here, but “Disco Elysium” stands head-and-shoulders above most others. It blends together as it can switch from philosophizing about political discourse one minute, and then a screwball comedy the next, and then back again. Despite this seemingly clash in tones, it never came off as out-of-place, possibly because of how it fits so well. You can do anything from ghost-hunting, becoming a cryptozoologist or founding a nightclub, and it all still feels relevant.
The characters present are incredibly important as each feels three-dimensional as evidenced by the game’s narration, and their own dialogue trees. Every line of text, no matter how small, doesn’t feel wasted as it conveys what it needs to in painstaking attention to detail. Kim Kitsuragi is perhaps the greatest example of this as you spend the entirety of the narrative with him, learning everything about him, and that in turn affects how things progress.
It is during these moments where you choose what to say is critical because while many games end up rail-roading you and making your choices largely irrelevant, “Disco Elysium” takes almost everything you say and do into account. If you pass a speech check, or fail it, you will feel the impact of that. This also extends to how you build the main character because how you choose to spend your points determines who he is in ways both subtle and explicit.
With a game that does so many things wonderfully, it is hard to find fault with the game’s presentation, but there are small ones that are exceptional. Perhaps the most prevalent is the game’s timer. Each “task,” will expire after enough time has passed, and if you aren’t mindful enough of your log, you will miss out on some memorable scenes. It detracts from the experience as you constantly feel like you’re juggling so many balls at once, leaving the player feeling frustrated in an otherwise flawless game.
“Disco Elysium” is undoubtedly one of the best games ever made, and a true example of video games as art. It deserves to be both played and experienced!
Kelly Baker is an alumnus of West Chester University of Pennsylvania.