Disco Elysium preview – the best RPG of all time?

The thin blue line just got a whole lot thinner. 

Disco Elysium

Coming to in a pool of presumably our own vomit the scene begins to fade into focus – a cheap hotel room strewn with the remnants of what looks like a good night. Seems like we’ve got ourselves in quite a mess, haven’t we? This is confirmed by the searing pain indicators shooting across the screen and the self-deprecating inner monologue telling us we’re worthless.

Semi-dressed and with no idea of who or what is going on, our world, only just freshly glimpsed, is snatched away again by darkness and self-doubt. Apparently, reaching for a light switch wasn’t a good idea. Our logic quickly assesses what appears to be a heart attack, but understanding or reason don’t have the power to pump blood around the body so endurance rightly steps in, only to fail miserably, leaving us spiralling back into the abyss.

This was our first experience with Disco Elysium’s custom character builder. A man, possibly a cop, with a mind so sharp it could analyse every facet of the heart attack as it unfolded, fully aware it was housed in a body so useless that it was powerless to stop it. That wasn’t game over though – we came to later on the ground floor of the hotel seemingly not dead, but also not far off. It was clear that the choices we had made assigning the skills at the beginning of the demo would have quite obvious consequences in the game. You can opt not to create your own character and select one of four archetypes, but as Lead Designer Robert Kurvitz put it: “This is the author sanctioned perfect way to play – make your own cop [and] fine tune whatever you want to do.”

Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium has deep RPG roots felt in its detailed skill trees that cover abilities based on attributes such as psyche, physique and motorics, which the team describe as their “take on the classic Dexterity and Perception stats.” There’s a keen psychological edge to every part of this game, from the internal battles we faced with the competing personalities of the brain to our very perception of the world through a character who isn’t sure what is real. The idea behind these skills is to illuminate the player as to what is happening inside the character’s body as you play, an idea heavily supported by the exhaustive writing depicting every thought that takes hold within the brain.

“That’s what I want to go out and do,” says Kurvitz during an interview at EGX. “To make a really in-depth system that allows you to fine tune every muscle reaction you have, or like a visual calculus, like the way you geometrically perceive depth – it’s all so important for a cop character.”

We can’t stress enough just how comprehensive the writing in this game is. Be prepared for an extremely text-heavy narrative experience with inspiration drawn from the imaginative approach of pen and paper RPGs, where every detail is covered and explained. It has a classic kind of feel to it reminiscent of point-and-click adventures like Beneath a Steel Sky and RPGs like the original Fallout. Its art style is messy and colourful, framing much of the action in its isometric viewpoint and rarely breaking from it. On top of this, conversations include detailed portraits painted in a more expressionist way than the environment, giving each segment of the world you interact with its own personality and separating the narratives.

Disco Elysium

As the dev team touched on in their EGX talk, they’re approaching this project with a not inconsiderable goal: to create the best RPG of all time. That aim certainly shows in the sheer amount of detail in this game. Although exploring your own psyche is enticing, it’s the world you exist in that begs to be understood. Elysium remains a mystery, although Kurvitz did clarify that this isn’t an alternate history. But to what extent it mirrors our own and the significance of that remains unknown.

“It’s pretty wild stuff when you get into it,” says Kurvitz, eyes brimming with excitement. “It takes away the comfort of familiarity from being a detective so you’re going around and making assumptions about what being a communist in this world means or what being a fascist in this world means, but they’re not quite as our world.”

The best RPG ever? That might be a stretch. But there’s something quite refreshing about the strangeness Disco Elysium brings to the table. Its hard-boiled detective, mirroring dark anti-heroes such as Max Payne, embraces his demons and visibly carries them for all to see. It’s a grimy, gritty story that isn’t afraid to be offensive in its portrayal of fallible people. How deep this dark, dystopian rabbit hole goes is yet to be seen, but if the demo is anything to go by then this could be something extraordinarily special. Maybe things will become a lot clearer once the hangover wears off.

Disco Elysium will be released on PC sometime in the near future. Stay tuned for more info.

If you’re interested in checking out some of the other games we liked the look of at EGX 2018 then why not take a look at what we think are The Best Indie Games of EGX 2018 or our 5 Best Experimental Indies from EGX 2018.