Disco Elysium is a game obsessed with the past and how it influences the future. The people of the war-torn Revachol are a product of their ancestor’s decisions, be they political or otherwise. Having no past poses an issue then, and this is where we find ourselves waking up on the floor of a motel after a heavy night of drinking in the shoes of a detective who can’t even remember his own name, let alone the murder he’s tasked with solving. Disco Elysium is as much a journey of self-discovery as it is a murder mystery, interested in probing the player for their own world-view applied to their fictional world.
And what a world it is. From the minute you start exploring it’s clear the developers have put a huge amount of effort into developing their setting. It’s kind of an alternate version of our own world; people talk with French and English accents but come from places like Oranje and Vesper. It’s hard to place this world in terms of time. They have video rental stores on street corners but also use hand-loaded guns and drive old timey looking cars. I love how strong the sense of place the world has, mixed with a feeling of melancholy and nostalgia. When the racist lorry driver tells you about the glory days of the Revachol Monarchy before the revolution you feel the weight behind his words. You don’t agree with his viewpoint but can see how a series of events can occur to create a person like him, because it happens in the real world. For a game that takes place in a tiny part of a harbour district in a city, the details you can learn about the far flung corners of this world are overkill in the best way only CRPGS can manage.
The visuals of the game complement the atmosphere the world building sets up. The environment has a hand-painted look to it, with sweeping brush strokes giving a dreamlike quality to the ruined streets, appropriate for a character nursing the worst hangover of his life. It does come with a few drawbacks. When zooming up close, especially to the characters, it does look a little bit low-res with some of the details becoming muddy. It also makes navigation difficult in places where parts of the environment overlap. This lead me to thinking an ally was a dead end when it wasn’t, leaving it unexplored longer than it should have been. I still think it’s a great art style just because it gives the game such a striking look that works perfectly with the themes of the game.
That all sets the stage for a suite of interesting RPG mechanics. The best way to describe the game is a mixture of point and click adventure with a pen and paper dice rolling system. You can pick a premade build when you start a game or make your own custom one, assigning points as you see fit between Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics, which all have their own group of associated skills. These are surprisingly inventive; you have the classics like Logic and Perception, but also have Electrochemistry which dictates how badly you want to take drugs and Conceptualization, which represents how much you appreciate art in the world. It’s a cool system but also a little confusing when trying to parse it before you start playing. It would have been nice to have a little more explanation about exactly what some of them do when creating your character.
What this game doesn’t have is a combat system. You engage with everything in the world through a dialogue system that will have skill checks you can either pass or fail depending on your build. Your character certainly can engage in acts of violence or feats of strength in order to solve problems, but only when the system allows it. I know this may be a deal breaker for a lot of people, but it gives the game a unique focus to really dive deep on the dialogue system and make it more engaging than if they had to split their development time.
I think this really pays off with one of the twists that makes this game unique. The skills that make up your build aren’t just static numbers on a sheet, they’re characters in your head. By that I mean skill checks are constantly happening in the background during conversations or as you examine things in the world, when these checks pass the skill chimes in with its own viewpoint or tidbit of information. Having a high skill in the encyclopedia trait means it’ll be constantly popping up with facts about various things in the world, and you can use this information to your advantage. Say, you want to make a good impression on a person who’s a fan of some obscure band from 30 years ago. Encyclopedia may pop up with just the right fact to impress them, leading to them liking you more than they otherwise would and be more forthcoming with information. Something I found extremely useful throughout the game was having high speech skills like Drama and Rhetoric, as they would often pop up when I was questioning people about the murder and let me know if their answer was truthful or not.
This is a stroke of brilliance in a game where skills aren’t coming into play as often like they would in a combat system. It really makes your character build feel unique when you have different parts of your psyche offering their perspective as you move about the world and I think it will add value to a second playthrough with a different build just to see how other parts of your brain will change your interpretation of events.
There’s another significant system that adds to your build which I think has more issues. This is something called the Thought Cabinet. It’s a kind of perk system, where depending on your actions in the game you may unlock these thoughts that you can potentially internalise for some kind of perk and often a drawback. You have a limited number of slots for these memories, that can be expanded by using skill points. As an example, if you answer a lot of people with ‘superstar’ responses (basically acting like you’re a douchy rockstar) you may unlock a thought called ‘some kind of superstar’ which, if you choose to slot it in will give you a -1 to Logic but raise all the skill caps on your abilities by 1, letting you put more points into them beyond the normal limits dictated by your core stats. Once you slot a memory in it takes a certain amount of time to internalise, and once that’s done you unlock it. Some of these are interesting and provide completely unique perks. I had one that gave me money every time I searched a point of interest, while others just affect your skills and stats.
It’s an interesting system that’s let down by a few design choices. The core issue is that it’s really expensive in terms of skill points to use the system. Not only are you using skill points to unlock all the slots, but it also costs a skill point to remove a memory from a slot if you don’t like it. Coupled with this is that you have no idea what perk the thought will give you, and getting a bad one can potentially be a huge waste of points that could have just gone directly into your skills. Of course, you can just look them up online before you commit to them, but in a story focused game like this the less you’re exposed to outside sources of information the better. I still think it’s a really inventive way to do a perk system, it just needs a little refinement.
So that’s a lot of about of chatter about the mechanics, but how’s the actual game? I’m pleased to say it’s a solid detective story which unfortunately doesn’t solve some of the core issues of the genre. I had a great time navigating the twisting turns of the narrative, uncovering how and why the murder victim ended up where he did. There’s a great cast of characters to interact with as you explore the murky underworld of the harbour district. From a 12 year old speed addict who spends his days throwing rocks at the corpse you’re meant to be investigating, to a quaint elderly couple who hunt for ghost bugs, here’s a wealth of memorable interactions to have that will vary greatly depending on how your character views the world.
The real star of the show is Lieutenant Kitsuragi, your partner in (solving) crime. Tasked with aiding you due to a dispute about which precinct has dominion over the area, he starts off pretty cold due to the whole amnesia and being a drunken mess thing, but goddamn if it wasn’t my number one priority to get his approval at any opportunity I could. He’s the perfect example of how much personality and depth can be written into a character who’s understated. He offers minimal input into the decisions you make, preferring to record notes in his notebook and passing silent judgments. The conversations you do have with him, reflecting on the role of police in Revachol, or his personal politics, are some of the most meaningful. Of course, you are able to alienate him by doing drugs, drinking and generally being a bad cop, but it felt like a crime in itself to do so. The fact I’ve seen a similar sentiment online, with people doing second playthroughs saying even then they can’t bear to disappoint him, speaks to what a great sidekick he is.
It’s when Disco Elysium gets more verbose that things get less interesting. Now don’t get me wrong, I want games to be more political, some of the best games I’ve played this year delve deep into this kind of discourse and explore how two sides that are diametrically opposed in terms of goals can both be justified in their actions, but the politics here just don’t scratch below the surface. During my time with the game I found leaning into a certain political ideology did give a lot of colour to certain encounters with people in the world, but it doesn’t meaningfully change it. It seems the developers ultimately take a pessimistic view of political discourse; everyone’s got something to say but it’s all shit. The socialist union leader talks about fighting for the working man’s rights, but also exploits them to his own ends. The corporate negotiator will reminisce with you about a youth spent disco dancing but condones her company using violent means to solve their employment issues. No side feels good to root for, and employing your own personal political beliefs feels weird as an amnesiac detective who’s only just learning about the world around fim. The game keeps track of how you align yourself when given the chance, and it even unlocks thoughts to internalise which unlocks more options to express your opinion, but it never really matters to the big picture. It’s still an interesting slant you can add to different playthroughs, just don’t expect it to meaningfully change the outcome of the game like it may lead you to believe initially.
So the last thing I want to talk about is the structure of the main plot in regards to the murder mystery, specifically how it is resolved. I’ll keep it completely spoiler free but Disco Elysium suffers from the same issue every murder mystery game I’ve played suffers from; there’s always some kind of road block or arbratrary limitation that stops players from undercutting the narrative and solving the murder faster than the developer intdended. Although in the early game you have a multitude of ways to solve issues and proceed through the world, as you approach the final act of the game things become frustratingly linear in places. I was locked out of a side quest because I didn’t have the physical strength to open something. Yes, I could have drank some booze to raise the skill cap then put some points into strength, and then just reload over and over to cheese the skill check until I got it, but that felt completely against the character I had built up to that point.
Similarly, the ending of the game funnels you in a way that undermines your decision making earlier on. I’m a massive fan of detective games but I haven’t played one that has managed to account for the huge amount of variables that can occur when investigating a crime. More often than not, there’s some key piece of evidence you can’t get until a specific point in the game, which blows the case wide open and ensures there aren’t huge discrepancies in player’s experiences. This is very much the case here, and it really does undermine your efforts retroactively. I made a big discovery about the case early on by passing some tough skill checks, which did allow me to get one over on a tough suspect, but had I not discovered this fact when I did it would have ultimately been revealed to me anyway, and it didn’t help me solve the case more efficiently than anyone else.
I do want to make it clear; even if it’s funneling you to one place, there is huge scope for differences between playthroughs. From some snooping around online I’ve seen people talking about things that vary wildly from what happened in my playthrough, and like I said earlier the skill system alone can completely change the context of events based on who’s popping up to offer their perspective. I only wish it affected your destination as much as the journey. An argument can certainly be made that the murder isn’t the real story of the game, and it’s really about the detective’s personal struggles dealing with past trauma and grappeling with a world he has to relearn. I agree with this, but I had high hopes going in that the focus on player choice would translate into a more flexible game structure and ultimately more satisfying mystery.
Although these shortcomings in the story stop the game being an absolute masterclass in the genre, I still wholeheartedly recommend Disco Elysium to anyone who enjoys narrative focused games. With an amazingly fleshed out world, great cast of characters and unique and inventive mechanics, Disco Elysium tells interesting stories and made a lasting impression on me. I appreciate their willingness to jump into a political space even if it doesn’t delve too deep below the surface, and as long as you’re not expecting a it to blow your mind in terms , you’ll be in for a fun ride.