Memories can be painful. Memories can lead to feelings of regret, anger, shame, and worse. Much, much worse. In Disco Elysium, an enchanting, hilarious, and sometimes harrowing narrative RPG, remembering a memory can be fatal. For a memoryless, alcoholic cop struggling with a new murder case with elusive details, and the world’s worst hangover, remembering the person he was offers a path to salvation for the person he could become. After all, memories that don’t kill you make you stronger. This is our Disco Elysium Review.
Disco Elysium Review: About
- Platform: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, macOS, Windows, Macintosh
- Developer: ZA/UM
- Publisher: ZA/UM
- Genres: Role-playing
- Release Date: October 15, 2019
Disco Elysium Review: Official Video Trailer
Disco Elysium Review: Gameplay
Disco Elysium presents itself as an RPG in the form of Baldur’s Gate of Divinity: Original Sin. Indeed, it opens with a nod to Planescape Torment with a half-naked figure lying on a cold, hard plate before slowly rising to his feet the plate is not in a morgue, but in a cheap motel room, and the figure was not recently dead, he’s just still drunk. Very, very drunk. It continues with the traditional top-down view of the world, your party members traverse beautiful hand-painted 2D environments, pausing to inspect objects and talk to people.
On the one hand, it’s a detective game. Your amnesiac cop soon discovers that he’s been assigned to investigate a murder – which seems to be a lynching – in a small, coastal town. You and your new partner, the calm and eternally patient Kim Kitsuragi, first inspect the body, interrogate potential witnesses, and generally gather clues to identify the victim and track down the perpetrator. If you play it fairly, there is a meticulous satisfaction in taking on the role of by-the-book agent.
You can grill suspects about their movements on the night of the murder and look for holes in their stories about what they saw. You can call the police station and ask them for more information about the clues you’ve discovered. If there’s something you’ve forgotten with the booze in your head, Kim will always be there with a friendly reminder of the finer details of effective police work.
The full spectrum of the play can be seen in this one scene. There are flashes of surprising camaraderie as you and Kim respectfully nod at each other’s insights. There’s playful humor as you laugh at the bureaucracy that requires such complicated autopsy forms and raw jokes when you ask Kim if he missed something in the dead man’s underwear. There is the more gloomy tone struck by the sometimes disgusting descriptions of the state of decomposition of the body and imbued with the satisfactory accumulation of clues, the central mystery astringent, and expanding as new information answers questions and queries.
The murder you’re investigating seems at first glance tied to a month-long labor dispute. Negotiations between union and company leaders are at a standstill, striking workers have closed the port, rogue workers are picnicking on the streets, and road transport in and out of the city is at a stop. Deeply rooted are the painful memories of the wars that first beheaded the Revachol monarchy and then brought down the revolution, and the continuing darkness of age-old racial revenge fed by the “economic fears” of industrial change.
The case you’re dealing with intersects with the city’s political arguments. It can be challenging to navigate through such complex issues, although the amnesia madness gives you an excellent excuse to ask what else might be basic questions. You get openings to sympathize with different political views or reject them, and your character statistics keep track of how much of a communist, fascist, ultraliberal, or moralist you are.
At the center of all, this ideology is the question of your privilege. Disco Elysium remains aware that you are playing a heterosexual, middle-aged white man, a police officer, and that fact gives him an increased degree of privilege to express himself. You can reinvent yourself, to choose this or that type of person, without any consequences, except for Kim’s strange disapproving look. Meanwhile, many of the characters you meet are not possessed of the same privilege; they are the oppressed, exploited by authority, trapped in systemic poverty, or just desperately trying to escape their circumstances.
Yet Disco Elysium is not just a formidable game of politics and detective work. It also throws away a lot of standard throwbacks of RPG interaction and replaces them with new systems that dig deep into your character’s psyche. There is no battle to speak of – at least not in the conventional sense. There are times when you can damage your health and morale, the two stats that determine whether or not you stay alive.
Skills also penetrate during conversations with other characters. Responsiveness lets you pick up an unusual phrase and give you an extra reaction to pursue so you can discover a clue. Sometimes your skills offer a conflicting approach. Drama can encourage you to make a big scene now: “This is your moment,” it screams in your ear, but Composure is a retreat, where you coldly plead for restraint. The specific voices you decide to listen to may be influenced by your strength in each skill or by the type of person you want to become.
Learning to read Disco Elysium, through what may initially feel like a crazy tangle of competing voices, is the essential first step to align yourself with the kind of experience it wants to deliver. This is a game with, let’s face it, an absolute shit-ton of words to read. Everything you do, except walk from one place to another, is transferred and achieved through text. There are article descriptions, ramifications of dialogue trees where it is not unusual to have a large handful of options at any given time, skills that interject with new thoughts and random asides, and even books to read.
And what beautiful, bold, bold words they are. Disco Elysium is easily one of the best-written games I’ve ever played. There’s a swagger and self-confidence here that you seldom see. There is a superior ability to make the transition from drama and intrigue to absurdist comedy and pointy political commentary in the space of a few sentences. One moment you are deep in the grim details of police procedure; the next, you are contemplating a metaphysical miracle; later, a hilariously grotesque joke is followed by a spell of truly moving emotional vulnerability. It may sound all over the shop, but it works because it all stays true to its fascinating, multifaceted central character.
Disco Elysium Review is an insane, sprawling detective story in which the real case you have to crack is not who killed the man who was hung from a tree in the middle of town. Although that in itself, full of dozens of unexpected but entangled mysteries and wild excursions into the ridiculous, captivating enough to keep the game going. Instead, it is an investigation of ideas, of the way we think, of power and privileges, and of how, with varying degrees of autonomy, we are all shaped by the society in which we find ourselves.
In Disco Elysium, an enchanting, hilarious, and sometimes harrowing narrative RPG, remembering a memory can be fatal. For a memoryless, alcoholic cop struggling with a new murder case with elusive details, and the world's worst hangover, remembering the person he was offers a path to salvation for the person he could become.