Disco Elysium review: Perfect detective RPG is an experience you won’t forget
I woke up groggy, unstable on my feet. In nothing but a pair of stained pants that wouldn’t look out of place on Rik Mayall, I began to talk to myself.
Or at least, I began to converse with the emotions plaguing my central character. This suited me fine. The opening of Disco Elysium set me up as a belligerent drunk who appeared more concerned with being coked out of his head than solving any possible crimes.
Friends of mine, also playing this detective driven RPG, were having similar beginnings. They staggered to their feet, observing their tie hanging from the ceiling fan of our motel room. Reaching for it, they keeled over from a heart attack and were shown the character creation screen again.
It's a very deep character creation, though if you’re itching to solve crimes and get on with the narrative, you can choose between three pre-set protagonists.
Stats can be assigned to a myriad of traits ranging from the usual physique and logic, to more flamboyant options such as Spirit De Corps. It’s easy to get caught up in the opening narrative, trying to find your discarded clothes from the previous night’s bender, but it’s worth pausing to take a moment for an important decision.
What kind of cop will you be?
I’m only around twenty hours into Disco Elysium. The game’s developers have stated that an average playthrough will take around sixty, I’m thinking it will take me longer. The script is sublime.
From small narrative descriptions to long conversations, every line is almost hypnotic. I want to devour every word, building my character, setting my own scenes. The technology behind this RPG must be monumental – dialogue trees seemingly hold thousands of branches all leading to different conclusions, skill checks and emotional responses.
In most situations, the ‘hero’s’ inner feelings and emotions – which are your stats – will pipe up and attempt to guide you. Logic may dictate that it’s not ideal to pursue a clue with a suspect, you can listen and lead them along another path, or like me, storm in and to hell with the consequences.
One of the scenes I experienced before writing this review was a standoff with some union boys. My cop was flustered, unsure of what to do with himself. In a panic, I grabbed my partner’s pistol and put it in my mouth, threatening to blow my brains out should they not cooperate.
It was a moment of madness that surely could have gone many other ways – maybe I could have threatened them ? Perhaps I could have not grabbed the gun at all? Suffice to say, my partner was not pleased.
The relationship between me and Ken is smartly guided by those behind the scenes numbers and dialogue trees. We don’t have a great time together – we’ve just been thrown into the deep end of this murder having never worked together before – we debate, he tries to save me from myself, I apologise a lot.
We’re a lot like Laurel and Hardy. And around us, the world keeps turning. Places we visited in the morning, by evening have a different crowd, more people to talk to and find new clues to follow or ‘quests’ to complete.
And there are a lot of quests, missions, cases, whatever you prefer. An early one was to find a pack of cigarettes and smoke the whole pack, or there are the more serious of detecting a pattern of footprints or interrogating a suspect.
These are all presented in your journal which contains a handy map of all skill checks you’ve so far failed, in case you want to boost up your stats and try them again.
The checks vary as much as the dialogue, you might roll a skill check within a conversation to press the person a little harder – this check corresponds with a certain stat and you’re told a percentage chance before taking the plunge. Clothes, skill points earned when levelling up can all increase these stats for a higher chance of passing.
But it all comes down to a dice roll, even if your chances are high. On one check, I had a 93% chance of winning – I was inspecting some footprints – I still failed, which set off a rather hilarious inner monologue about what a failure I am. It was at this point I started to turn my cop persona around. We became more apologetic, a little more polite and we declared we would try to give up the narcotics.
Doing so produces a thought, which many interactions will do. These thoughts must be… well, thought about. By selecting them in the menu at the bottom of the screen, you can choose which thoughts to think hard on. Doing so can increase the cap of a stat or buff your skills.
Again, looking at an early instance, I had to think hard on keeping the vomit down while we autopsied the murder victim. Another probed my potential backstory, looking for a spurned spouse. These take ‘in-game’ hours which tick by and can be urged on by reading or just wandering around talking to people. You could even pick up litter and trade in the bottles for cash – which you’ll definitely need.
Everything within Disco Elysium nods to the recent surge in popularity of tabletop gaming. Those looking for a standard RPG with combat will be disappointed – I haven’t fired a gun once, in fact I lost mine. And my badge. This title is all about the true sense of Role Playing, taking on a demeanour and living that life.
It’s slow, it’s ponderous, there’s little in the way of action, but always a sense of progression and intrigue. There’s always someone to talk to, a case to solve, karaoke to sing, people to flirt with. It’s a fully realised and completely ‘alive’ world.
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And it’s beautiful. Even static scenes seem bursting with motion from the painterly brushstrokes and the surreal art. It’s hazy, dreamlike, as if the minds of Rothko, Carrington and Kanevsky sit behind the concept art.
The animation is subtle yet effecting; sitting with his head in his hands, slowly breathing as the day dawns and his hangover still beats the drum of wanted sobriety in his very core, everything is communicated through slight nods, tapping feet, fingers fiddling with cigarettes. There’s a sense that when I switch off my laptop, the characters are still there, pacing, wiping bar tops, raising protest signs or playing Boules.
And I never want to leave. Despite the slums, the grime, the detritus of society, I want to carry on living within this world. I want to find the preposterous in conversation, find the essence of who my cop is.
Disco Elysium doesn’t feel like a game, but then it doesn’t really feel like a movie or a book either. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is, but I love it and I can’t get enough of it.
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