Disco Elysium (2019) review: A staggeringly original CRPG murder mystery

Running against and oft-violently disrupting the grain of milquetoast rah-rah militarism and the stagnant status quo that’s prominent in most modern AAA video games, Disco Elysium actively rejects and crusades against the naive notion that games can’t be political.

Developed by Estonian indie team ZA/UM, describe themselves as less of a studio and more of an artistic movement, Disco Elysium is an isometric adventure that blends together postmodern literary fiction, point-and-click adventure games and dense roleplaying romps. 

Set in an alternative history fifty decades after the city of Revachol rose up in glorious communist revolution only to be invaded and forcibly reverted to capitalism by its more-conservative neighbour-states, Disco Elysium is a spiritual sequel to the infamous Planescape: Torment in more ways than one. Your role here is as an (initially) nameless and destructively-alcoholic detective, who awakens after the bender to end all benders with no memory of the world or his place in it. 

Credit: ZA/UM

You’ve lost your badge. You’ve lost your gun. You can’t remember your name and the owner of the hotel you’re staying at says you owe him for a broken window. On top of all that, there’s been a grisly murder in the ghetto of Martainaise - and you’re expected to solve it. 

Right from the get go, Disco Elysium playfully invites you to lean into the fact that your character is a bit of a walking disaster. And your path towards either redemption or annihilation is paved by colorful dialogue optison that are too funny, charming or horrifying not to click on, consequences be damned. 

In line with traditional pen-and-paper experiences, ZA/UM embrace the idea that roleplaying is a form of self-expression and they give you a lot of rope when it comes to making your character your own. You can be a good cop. You can be a bad cop. You can be a really bad cop. No, I mean, a really bad cop. Like, the kind of screwball investigator who knows no shame and will willingly gives speed to minors and lick congealed whisky off a bench. 

Credit: ZA/UM

Of course, your choices in Disco Elysium aren’t just about moral alignment. There’s also a lot of ideology here. Rather than relegate the politics of the game’s setting to the margins, Disco Elysium embraces them to great effect. The game’s wry and at-times harrowing prose doesn’t shy away from the political but instead challenges you to think about whether your character is a communist, a free-market fundamentalist or something else entirely. 

It’s one thing to have these questions asked in a game at all. It’s quite another to have them deployed in such a flavorful fashion. And as alluded to above, the backdrop in Disco Elysium is just as compelling as the foreground. The setting here is engraved with detail, depth and dispute in a way that most other games aren’t.

At times, that outcome feels like it might be achieved in part through sheer attrition. There is a LOT of dialogue and prose in Disco Elysium, after all - but it is achieved nevertheless. 

Credit: ZA/UM

Revachol’s history might be unfamiliar to you but the problems facing it - widespread poverty, brutal inequality, hyper-partisanship and the struggle of a conscious working class against private interests - are all too familiar. There’s a rich sense of history about the world in which Disco Elysium is set and I have high hopes for ZA/UM’s obvious ambitions to do more with it in the future

Even when it comes to the outer limits of its own fiction, Disco Elysium embraces the melancholy of the minute. Rather than focus on the city of Revachol as a whole, the plot here puts a single district under a magnifying glass. There’s no character too small to care about coupled with an implicit understanding here that less is more. The world isn’t at stake but that doesn’t mean there aren’t meaningful stakes. 

“It’s pornographically poor,” one character describes it, but still, everything and everyone in Martainaise has a story of their own if you’re willing to look for it. 

Like the setting, the mechanics in Disco Elysium also blend together the unfamiliar and otherwise. Take the game’s skill system, for example. 

Credit: ZA/UM

Sure, you gain experience, level up and put points into them like you would with most other RPG. However, in Disco Elysium, your skills also talk to you. You might have your hand on the steering wheel of the story here but your skills are along for the ride. They’ll constantly be chattering away in your head, providing additional context and generally bringing a little bit of extra flavour to everything you do. These range from things like empathy and authority to more obscure attributes like Shivers and Inland Empire. 

Your detective in Disco Elysium is far more than just a set of numbers. Some skills will riddle away at your confidence. Others will egg on your darkest impulses. Much of the game’s branching and dense dialogue is tied to your ability to pass (or fail) certain skill checks, so the way you spec your character can absolutely shape how the story turns out. 

Credit: ZA/UM

The only point I began to be frustrated by this system was towards the end of the game, where the ways in which I could gain new experience began to dry up. Since you need to invest points in your skills to reset the relevant skill checks in dialogue, it meant I was scrounging for every little point of XP and then save-scumming my way through skill checks to advance the story. 

This way of playing the game quickly grated on me, and it didn’t help that I encountered a few immersion-breaking dialogue bugs and one seemingly-broken quest chain which was, fortunately, not too tied up in the main quest to prevent me from progressing beyond it.

The other way that Disco Elysium lets you develop your character is through the Thought Cabinet. 

Credit: ZA/UM

Over the course of your investigation, your character will stumble upon larger ideas. Meditating on these thoughts takes in-game time but nets you more nuanced character modifiers, like raising your limits on certain skills or adding a bonus for keeping your left hand free. 

As a result of this easy-to-learn but freshly-considered skill system - and the absence of conventional combat - Disco Elysium comes across almost like a traditional point and click adventure with RPG elements than it does a dungeon crawler. The framing of the story as a murder mystery sees you revisit characters, areas and clues more than once in your quest towards uncovering first the circumstances of the murder itself and then the motive of the culprit themselves.

Disco Elysium isn’t afraid to get rote and methodical when it has to. It’s smart about relying on the banter and chemistry between you and your partner, a dynamic that helps carry scenes that should otherwise be devoid of the kind of humor and poetic drama that defines the other parts of the game.

Credit: ZA/UM

Whenever violence does erupt, it feels significant and impactful. The showdown that occurs towards the tail-end of the adventure that was one of the most tense and memorable sequences I’ve played through in a video game in years. 

Further grounding you in the minutia of the daily-grind and investigation is the game’s day-night cycle. Choosing dialogue options advances time and the passage of time presents new dilemmas. Are you going to hustle your way towards affording another night in the local motel or go full hobo-cop? 

The Bottom Line

I’ve kept my distance from talking about any specific plot details in Disco Elysium because unravelling those mysteries for myself undoubtedly helped make this game one of the most satisfying gaming experiences of the year. 

Like I said before, Disco Elysium wants to get a reaction from you and I don’t want to cheat it out of earning that reaction. On a narrative level, this game is staggering and effective. It made me laugh. It pulled at my heartstrings. It’s as interested in challenging conventions as it is challenging the way you think about them. It’s rare to find a game with such a rich sense of place, character, politics and history but, in the tumultuous political climate of 2019, ZA/UM’s debut effort feels like a perfect fit. 

Disco Elysium is a highly-original cocktail of a roleplaying game and murder mystery that’s destined to inspire plenty of imitators and leave diehard CRPG fans with a hangover they won’t soon forget nor regret.

Disco Elysium is available now through Steam and GOG.

Credit: ZA/UM

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Fergus Halliday
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