Murder on the dancefloor.
‘To create the best RPG of all time.’ It goes without saying that this half-serious aim of studio ZA/UM as they developed Disco Elysium was laughably ambitious. Especially considering that they’d never made a video game before.
But as they say: shoot for the moon… you know the rest. This remarkable RPG is nothing short of star material.
Disco Elysium is memorable straight out of the gate, with an intro that rightly had people buzzing from the numerous preview builds it featured in. First, darkness. Then the maniacal voices of your ancient reptilian brain and limbic system raging inside your head. Finally, you wake up – but things don’t get much clearer from there.
You’re lying on a hotel room floor next to a dishevelled sofa bed in nothing but your underwear. Empty beer bottles and hastily-discarded items of clothing lie strewn all over. You’ve just woken from the mother of all benders, and you don’t know where you are or what you’re doing there. You don’t even remember your name.
Having to investigate these fundamental details – easier said than done – is a deliciously ironic start to a game where you play a detective. All I’m letting on is that you’re actually there to solve a murder case. You’ve little to go on, though. Hell, you’ve already lost your badge, gun and report the night before. And your excruciating hangover isn’t helping.
So how does Disco Elysium attempt to reach the ridiculous standard of ‘best RPG?’ By returning to the fundamentals of roleplaying. Gone are the trappings of many modern RPGs – endless open worlds to explore; endless, generic quests within them; and endless real-time battles to fight. It’s a much more condensed experience that strips the genre straight back to pen and paper.
Many actions require skill checks, virtual dice rolls with a probability score dependent on your level in that attribute. Most checks can be retried later, when you’ve leveled up that attribute or unlocked one of the numerous secret conditions that increase your probability of passing.
Some checks, however, are one-shot. Fail, and you’ll permanently alter your story and what you have to do next. Piss off a character at a crucial stage, for example, and maybe they won’t help your investigation anymore – you’re going to have to find another way around.
But what’s brilliant is that there are other ways. You’ve always got a choice – you can sweet-talk, threaten, deceive or bamboozle your way to success. Hell, you can choose not to bother taking the quest in the first place. The level of freedom is liberating.
The very foundation of roleplaying is to ‘play a role,’ and Disco Elysium doesn’t disappoint here either. The attributes you choose for your character have very real consequences. Bolstering these is your ‘thought cabinet,’ a wonderfully bizarre concept in which you pick musings to mull over until they deliver permanent bonuses and stat upgrades.
I ended up as an eccentric intellectual communist, using any conversational opportunity – appropriate or otherwise – to root for the working class. While I had considerable powers of deduction and a bank of obscure trivia, I was a puny, gawkish little runt. Any time I faced a physical challenge I had to don my wife beater vest (seriously), take a swig of booze and hope for the best.
Just like your character, the setting of Revachol feels completely handcrafted, brought to life in a mesmerising painterly style. ZA/UM’s Art Director, Aleksander Rostov, is an oil painter by trade, and it shows. While leaning more towards realism than abstraction, there’s a smattering of wistfulness that elevates its visual design. And the haunting, introspective soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment.
While the distinctive character portraits make a strong first impression, their dialogue seals the deal. Disco Elysium’s writing is its lifeblood. There’s a total of one million words written across its branching dialogue trees. More importantly, those one million words are incredible.
Dialogue and exposition is written with such effortless flair and genius. Be warned that it’s not the easiest read, with language prone to self-indulgence. But it stops itself short of pretentious waffle by mixing it up with humour and unabashed weirdness.
This surrealism begins with your character’s amnesia and penchant for the paranormal, and continues with the voices in his head and the memorable characters he meets. Take Measurehead, the towering racial supremacist with a posse of adoring groupies who bellows everything in ALL CAPS and tries to convert you to his disturbing worldview.
Yes, Disco Elysium isn’t afraid to delve into tough subjects. Racism. Alcoholism. Poverty. Drug Addiction. Depression. It somehow addresses each one with appropriate diligence – such as the internal battle you wage with your psyche during withdrawal – while infusing enough levity into situations to pull off a sort of cathartic dark humour.
Revachol itself has similarly dark undertones. It’s palpably entropic, a ramshackle product of a communist civil war, economic depression and governmental negligence. I wouldn’t want to live there, but as a game world it’s intoxicating. Rather than a sprawling map, it’s densely packed with detail, interactivity and secrets until it’s bursting at the seams.
It can be a little overwhelming at first. Before long, your initial murder mystery may take a backseat to choosing sides in a union strike, investigating a haunted chimney and helping fanatic entomologists search for a mythical insect. The quests are bloody brilliant, and of course, tailored to you in process and outcome. Give it time, and the pieces fall into place and Disco Elysium somehow snowballs into something even greater than its terrific opening.
I can only pick two holes in what is otherwise an outstandingly woven tapestry of a game. I stumbled on two separate bugs that trapped me in conversation, necessitating a restart. And swapping gear, an effective technique for boosting your chances at different skill checks, is a bit of a chore within the fiddly inventory.
Disco Elysium blew my mind with its radically simple but deep approach to roleplaying. Its world and characterisation are brought to life by artistry and writing that are nothing short of astounding. Somehow, the stars aligned with absurd ambition, sheer fledgling talent and a decade of pen and paper storytelling in the Elysium universe to create something truly special.
Is Disco Elysium the best RPG of all time? I can’t make that call. Is it the best game I’ve played all year? Absolutely.
[Reviewed on PC]
James, our deputy editor, loves a deep action-adventure game, RPG or metroidvania. In addition to making sure everything on the site is as good as it can be – scouring for typos, tweaking headlines, finding the fanciest images – he’s also in charge of the reviews section.