|Professional police officer right here|
|Reviewed by:||Mark Goninon|
|Release Date:||16 Oct 2019|
|Time played:||31 hours|
An RPG for Adventure Gamers
I've always been a fan of the Quest for Glory series of games which were basically role-playing games developed using Sierra's adventure game engines: this resulted in them being a unique hybrid of the RPG and adventure genres that I've loved ever since. Few games have been able to captivate me as the Quest for Glory games did since most contenders are either full-blown RPGs that are heavy on combat and light on character development, or pure point 'n' click adventures which have a rich story but little in the way of character customisation or branching narrative. In recent years, the Mass Effect series has been the only exception but in 2019 another game fell into that intersection between RPG and adventure game: Disco Elysium.
Graphically, the game looks very similar to isometric RPGs of the late 90s and early 2000s such as Baldur's Gate but unlike most RPGs, there isn't much at all in the way of combat. You have many character stats you can invest your points in as you level up but they're all used for skill checks for the most mundane activities such as determining whether you're able to not vomit at the sight of a corpse or whether you're able to grab a necktie off a ceiling fan.
The game is set in a fictional world that is heavily influenced by our world in the 20th century. You play the role of an alcoholic detective in a city called Revachol that has lost his memory and his belongings. You're eventually acquainted with another detective called Kim Kitsuragi who joins you from a neighbouring precinct. It's up to both of you to solve a murder that has taken place just outside a hotel but you're going to have to balance the needs of your job and finding a place to stay without money.
I already heard quite a bit about the game which meant I just had to wishlist it. I was fortunate enough to receive the game as a present for my birthday back in 2020 so I'm very thankful to my brother for giving me the opportunity to try it out, however it was almost a year later before I finally got around to it.
A Treat for Lore Lovers
It's quite easy to get lost in the world of Disco Elysium since there is a lot of reading and the world is definitely one that has been well thought-out. It's clear there are parallels between the world of Disco Elysium and ours but despite the similarities, there's enough differences that require you to concentrate when learning about the fictional world's history, culture, politics and even races in order to progress through this game. This is fantastic and I love games that reward you for concentrating on the lore. There's even certain side quests in the game that seem totally pointless and irrelevant to the plot but completing them will, more often than not, come full circle and give you a deeper understanding of the world and the motivations of its people.
Also, the protagonist's amnesia acts as a convenient plot device to enable you to ask questions about the world without it seeming like you were born yesterday (although there are certain stats you can invest in to help you in that regard, more on that later).
Free to Talk About Almost Anything
Since there are so many choices you can make in Disco Elysium, even seemingly mundane ones, there is a sense that you can almost do anything in this game, provided you pass the necessary skill checks. For example, if you're strapped for cash (and you will be at the beginning of the game) you can go around picking up discarded bottles for cash but when was the last time you saw a detective running around with a bright yellow plastic bag scrounging around for discarded bottles? You'll also get the opportunity to talk to characters about subjects you wouldn't normally expect such as convincing a bookstore owner to go easy on their daughter and encourage her to go back to school or talking to a maker of role-playing dice about their building being potentially cursed. There are many wacky conversations you can choose to have or not have and you can choose to be as honest or secretive as you want, as crazy or reserved as you want. This is one of the game's strengths and is what sets it apart from many CRPGs.
|Encyclopedia often blurts out random facts that aren't terribly useful|
A Cocktail of Introspection and Politics
I've never played an RPG before quite as introspective as Disco Elysium but considering you talk to different facets of your psyche, it's probably not entirely surprising. While there are four traditional attributes you can invest your points in when you level up, each of these attributes have six skills you can invest points in as well. They range from self-explanatory ones such as Hand/Eye Coordination and Logic to more abstract ones such as the Inner Empire (which apparently relates to knowledge of how government works) and Shivers (basically the game's version of Spidey-Sense). Each of these 24 skills act as different voices in your brain that will give you advice whether you like it or not. For example, I decided to invest a lot of points into "Encyclopedia" since I consider myself to be a font of useless knowledge and as a result, I would often receive obscure, tangential facts whenever I came across new items or had conversations with NPCs.
Talking to the voices in your head will determine what sort of detective you are. For example, if you tend to be overly apologetic all the time, you'll receive a "copotype" of "Sorry Cop" but if you talk about partying, disco and narcissistic thoughts, you might receive a "copotype" of "Superstar Cop" instead. The voices will also determine where you lie on the political spectrum based on your opinions about communism, democracy, free market economics, etc. I like it how the game attempts to learn so much about how you tick: it's not your superficial good vs evil spectrum you have in the likes of many RPGs such as Knights of the Old Republic or even Mass Effect, it's more nuanced than that.
|You learn more about the protagonist's past through dream sequences like this one|
Characters You Care About
There are a lot of people to talk to in this game and if you were playing your standard RPG, most of these would be two-dimensional cardboard cutouts when it came to their personalities (or lack thereof). In Disco Elysium though, you start to care about many of the characters along with their sad tales. For example, you can come across an older couple in this game both searching for an elusive cryptid since their youth. After talking to both of these characters though, you realise things aren't what they seem and their relationship will provide you with new ethical dilemmas to ponder. It's a very mature level of writing not normally found in games and it creates believable and convincing characters as a result. This is what you want when playing narrative-rich games like adventures or RPGs.
Also, since you spend a considerable amount of time in the protagonist's head, you start to care about this pathetic, middle-aged excuse of a man. Nowadays, the average age of gamers is going up and the last time I checked, it was somewhere in the mid-30s. Baby Boomers have movies that cater for their cohort like "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" while elder millenials have games like this one. A lot of themes and issues that the protagonist deals with, such as loss, failure and a broken marriage will resonate with many who are middle-aged. The game evokes feelings of sympathy for the protagonist and his struggle to keep persevering with life, to do the right thing despite a lot of emotional baggage and an unorthodox reputation.
|Levelling up and investing points in skills will allow you to retry white skill checks so why would you want to invest points in thoughts?|
Thoughts are an Enigma
As mentioned earlier, the game has four attributes and 24 skills (six skills per attribute). Once you meet certain criteria though, you can also unlock the ability to learn "thoughts". For example, at the very beginning of the game when examining the victim's corpse, you'll have the ability to research the thought for the aptly named "Volumetric Shit Compressor". While I love the humour that goes into the names of these thoughts and their descriptions, it's sometimes not so clear where you should be investing your points as each time you level up, you have to decide whether you spend these points on attributes, skills or thoughts: you're not given points to upgrade one of each. Worse, if you want to unlearn thoughts you already have, this also costs a point.
You also will have no idea what modifiers the thought will provide until you've finished researching it which is an issue since along with benefits they often apply penalties too. Consequently, since I was afraid that I would be gambling away my points on thoughts I ended up not using many of them and just focusing on upgrading attributes and skills.
It's All Worth It in the End
Playing the final hours of Disco Elysium were the best I've experienced in a game in recent memory. There was a climactic fight that became a comedy of errors thanks to some terrible dice rolls. There's also a bit of a twist at the end when what seems to be a Macguffin for a side quest earlier in the game turns out not to be. To top it all off, when the case is finally over, your partner gives you a final assessment about what kind of cop you are and I believe this is based off what choices you made during the investigation. Despite not recovering every item the protagonist lost in my playthrough, I still felt he was vindicated and the end was satisfying as a result, like watching the end of an Agatha Christie style murder mystery where the puzzle is solved and the real villains are revealed.
Disco Elysium is a point 'n' click adventure that looks and plays a lot like a 90s RPG and is a delight for those that seek games with rich lore and a plethora of narrative options. The game's mature themes and exploration of the protagonist's shame, loss as well as political views, should appeal to older gamers that want a bit of introspection in their game without it becoming too abstract. The game also has well-written, convincing characters that you won't be forgetting in a hurry and a satisfying conclusion even for those of us that aren't the next Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.
The only criticism I have of the game is that there probably should have been a redesign or at least more transparency with respect to the "thoughts" system as it's not very forgiving and could potentially lead you to unwittingly waste experience points when they would've been better spent elsewhere.
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