Disco Elysium Review – A Top Tier RPG

If you haven’t heard of Disco Elysium, I actually wouldn’t blame you. An indie RPG that’s developed and published by ZA/UM, it’s currently the one and only game under their banner. Currently only available on PC, it’s eventually coming to other platforms, supposedly in 2020. You’ve seen the score already, so let’s get into the full Disco Elysium Review.

You might be wondering, if it’s indeed an indie game, then why am I granting it the pleasure of a full review instead of an Indie Watch? Well y’see, the thing is, Disco Elysium is an indie title like no other that I’ve personally played. Every now and again, an indie gets released and proves to everyone what that word can mean. 

Released on October 15th of 2019 for PC, Disco Elysium was received incredibly well by almost every major outlet. Gamespot gave it a 10/10, IGN gave it a 9.6, PC Gamer gave it a 92, the list goes on. This is one of the rare cases where users actually rate the game lower than critics (84 on metacritic), with many consumers put off by the gameplay style.

So considering many said it was the best game of 2019, a year that was pretty consistent for quality game releases, I decided to give it a go. That brings us to now. You’ve already seen the score, as is our mantra here at SeriouslyAverageGamers, so let’s get into why.

Gameplay? 8/10 – With top notch progression, and an entertaining skill check system, Disco Elysium is fun but a little unfriendly.

So for those who don’t know, Disco Elysium is an RPG, but it’s a VERY dedicated RPG. It’s essentially a point and click adventure, but with almost d’n’d stylings running through it. This means two things:

  1. There’s no combat, fast paced action, or conventional puzzle solving.
  2. There’s a LOT of reading. Like a lot. 

While I don’t partake in the luxury much myself anymore, I consider myself a good reader. I’ve never encountered writers or specific books that challenge me much beyond what’s normal, and I enjoy reading very much. 

With that being said, Disco Elysium is a LOT. We’re tackling the story and writing later on in the review obviously but nearly everything that you do, or try to do, involves a ton of reading. Now obviously for a lot of people this is going to be somewhat off-putting. Disco Elysium in the end amounts to a game that will take you somewhere between 20-30 hours to finish. That’s if you want to do everything.

That’s 20-30 hours of reading, almost exclusively. I’m just nailing this down so people don’t get the wrong idea about what this game is. 

With that in mind, what do you do in this game?

Well, at the start, you wake up as a detective after a bender with no memory of who you are. Obviously, this means you get to pick some character traits, it wouldn’t be an RPG otherwise. 

Unfortunately, your visual appearance is set from the get go so you can’t change that. I’ll say that I think the game would benefit from being able to customise your facial details a bit. It might make some later developments complicated from a game design perspective though, so I understand why ZA/UM might’ve opted against it.

You get the opportunity to choose your “archetype” at the start, which is essentially your personality makeup. There’s 3 presets, and the option to create your own. From what I could tell, creating your own from scratch is just about building your own archetype.

I chose “Thinker”, as I liked the idea of high Motor Skills and Intelligence.

The choice you make here will determine the first 5 minutes of Disco Elysium, and how the game plays out from there. When you first wake up in your hotel room, you’re given a decently sized amount of things to look at. A broken window, your clothes, your bed, a mirror, the way out, and no real indication of what you’re supposed to be doing.

The first thing I did? I got dressed. Pretty easy, click on the clothes, equip them. No harm done. The second thing? I had to rescue my neck tie from the spinning ceiling fan. Now, most people might’ve just turned it off and grabbed it that way, but me? Nooooo, I had to try and grab it while it was moving.

My guy died of a heart attack from the strain, and I was kicked back to the main menu. No, I’m not joking. My hungover, out of shape and, as it turns out, too low on Physical points detective, died from a heart attack. From retrieving a necktie. 

Choices

You see, Disco Elysium’s choices, from mild to major, all depend on skill checks. If someone throws something your way to catch and your “Hand Eye Coordination” skill isn’t very high, you might get given a 27% chance to catch it. Miss and one of your health resources, morale, might drop. Or you might just get mocked by your partner, Kim Kitsuragi, or whoever threw it. If you have low Physical, as I did, and try something a little strenuous, you’ll lose health.

So in my pathetic attempt at grabbing a neck tie from a spinning fan, my early decision to ignore “Physical” absolutely dobbed me in and err… killed me. Of course, when I went back in I turned the ceiling fan off and my percentage for success went up. This is kinda the entire hook for Disco Elysium. 

Over the course of the game, you acquire skill points to put into any of the skills, such as Hand Eye Coordination. Caps on these skills are determined by your original “archetype” choice. Most of the skill checks in the game, white checks, can actually be tried multiple times. You only need to increase the relevant skill, and your percentage chance of success will increase. There are red checks, which can only be attempted once but are thankfully rarer.

Alternatively, which is where being a detective comes in, talking to people of interest may make seemingly unrelated white checks easier. If you’re having a spiritual discussion with someone, and need to pass a particularly hard skill check, you might find by talking to someone else the other side of the area about life and death might make that other check easier. 

It sounds confusing and as I’m writing this I feel I’ve done a terrible job. Basically, every white skill check in the game has, shall we say, “parameters” for a high or low chance of success. Talking to certain people, achieving certain goals, or just your skill point usage might increase your odds or even lower them. 

Thought Cabinet

There’s one other system, along with your Archetype and Skill Points, and these are “Thoughts”. Essentially, over the course of the game, you might stumble into something worth thinking about. Maybe racial superiority, the power of communism, or just how to not feel like shit. Yes these are all in-game examples, the latter is a reference to a thought called “The Volumetric Shit Compressor”. Once you stumble onto these thoughts, you can choose to internalise them. This means that you’re spending real in-game time thinking hard about the idea. Then at the end you’ll gain buffs (or reductions) to certain skills. You can spend skill points to be able to stack more than one thought at the time. 

All of this adds up to one of the most in-depth RPG experiences I’ve had the pleasure of playing. At the start it’s a little unfriendly and certainly requires some patience to wrap your head around, but it quickly becomes second nature. 

Played from a slightly isometric perspective you and your partner, Kim, have to investigate a murder. In doing so you’ll be interacting with people, objects, yourself, and more. Conversations, friendly or otherwise, are the most common activity and are home to various skill checks and hidden tasks. 

While you’re given one major overarching objective, and a hidden time frame to complete it I might add, you’re also given other tasks to complete. Ranging from the serious, to the entirely wacky, to just downright hilarious, these tasks will keep you pretty busy. You’re restricted to a fairly small open world for the entire game, which barely takes more than 5 minutes to travel from end to end, but it’s pretty lively. 

You might need to play NPCs off against each other to get information, or bribe people, or even just punch someone. The major quest is mind bogglingly deep AND broad. I know for a fact it can play out in a variety of different ways. In order to complete something, you might have to talk to someone that you haven’t even found yet, but the game won’t tell you. Progression is tied intrinsically to the game mechanics, making every conversation and completed objective endlessly satisfying.

It’s REALLY hard to go into gameplay much more than I have without spoiling certain moments. But know that Disco Elysium is the most honest RPG I’ve ever played. Not hiding behind third person combat, platforming, or other such modern ideas, it’s a hand on heart point and click RPG. Which is pretty great. 

Visuals? 9/10 – Low detail character models slightly take away from what is otherwise a stunning art style.

Every now and again, a videogame tries something different with its artstyle, and that time is now. Disco Elysium is one of the most gorgeous, weird, disturbing games I’ve ever seen visually. Presented almost like a painting, the explorable area is relentlessly grim. Surrounded by bomb blasts, bullet holes, and grimy pavements, the world of Elysium and specifically Revachol aren’t a particularly attractive place. 

But yet, the artstyle of the game makes everything a joy to look at. 

Each NPC, and yourself, gets an almost Expressionism piece of artwork depicting their face during conversations. This goes into the entire theme of the game as well, with the fictional world of Elysium set in their version of the 50’s. Real world Expressionism was formed around the 1910’s, and much of the conversation about Revachol will pertain to the 50 years before its “50’s”. It’s clear that ZA/UM wanted to create this world as a parallel, and occasionally a satire, of the world we live in now. It comes across in the visuals quite well.

On a more gamey note, rather than an arty farty one, Disco Elysium is presented from a scalable Isometric approach. Now this viewpoint isn’t for everyone, but it’s one I quite like for certain games. For Disco Elysium it works brilliantly. The focus isn’t on you, but instead your environment and all it might hide. If it wasn’t for the viewpoint exploration would be far more difficult, with introspective thoughts able to be found on things outside the playable area. 

Likewise, the lighting is pretty great. While a little more demanding on my PC than I expected given the simple presentation, every area feels unique.

Character models leave a little to be desired, but they fit pretty well with the way the world is animated around them, so it’s only a mild complaint.

Overall, I love the way the game is presented, but it may seem a little bleak to people used to other indie titles. Firewatch or Edith Finch this is not, but it’s very much its own thing and I appreciate that. Weirdly, despite the almost watercolour presentation, Revachol and its people are all very believable visually. Even though they get these creepy expressionism portraits. The way that the environment is framed and set up LOOKS like a rundown seaside town. Living in the UK, it’s a picture I’m used to, so seeing it so well created in Disco Elysium took me by surprise. 

Audio? 8/10 – Some odd mixing brings down the overall quality, but the music and ambient sounds are top notch.

So my main complaint is with mixing. While there’s some adjustment options in the menu, I found certain characters were SO loud in the surrounding mix, it was almost unbearable. Cuno, a dreadful bratty kid who you meet early on, is obnoxiously loud to the point where I removed my headphones once or twice. 

Similarly, no matter how much tinkering I did, music always seemed to come in louder than necessary or too quiet. No real in between.

Other than those complaints? Pretty great. While no single character in the game is fully voiced, most of them are for the first paragraph of their conversations, in order to give you an idea how they sound. These are, aside from Cuno and a couple of others, mostly mixed pretty well into the rest of the game’s soundscape.

The music in this game is fantastic. While I’d love there to be more, what’s there is really great. The main theme of the game, the one that plays when you first leave the hotel, is a real earworm, and I’m humming it regularly. 

Interestingly, when out and about in the normal hours of the day, the soundscape is full of artificial noises and voices. It gives a sense of life to the area, that in all practicality is fairly empty, and it works pretty well. It means, while reading the 15th paragraph of a conversation with a random bystander, you’ve actually always got an accompanying background hum. 

Overall? Pretty great, but some of the mixing is a bit weird.

Story? 10/10 – Featuring a riveting overarching narrative, intertwined with the characters and world of Revachol, the story is pitch perfect.

This is where the game shines. You play as a detective for the RCM, a sort of Militia/ Police Force funded partially by the government, but mostly by donations. 

Waking up in a hotel, Whirling-In-Rags, you’re hungover with no memory of who you are, or why you’re there. Discovering pretty quickly that you are, in fact, a fairly decorated detective, you were actually sent to solve a murder. A lynching to be specific. 

You can’t remember your name, don’t have your badge or gun, seem to be missing your shoe, and are just generally feeling a bit shite.

Shortly after waking up, and hopefully not getting murdered by your necktie like I did, you’re introduced to Kim Kitsuragi, your temporary partner for the investigation. FAR more straight lace than you, he can’t quite believe the state you’re in.

So that’s the basic setup, all given to you within the first 10 minutes of the game. It’s extremely hard to not spoil a game like this one, given that most of the gameplay IS the story, but I shall try my best to discuss spoiler free.

What I love is that the world you’re in, Elysium, and the area Revachol, have a rich history. Far more than I’d expect any AAA game to deliver, let alone an indie. There’s a fully developed backstory to the world, defined politics, extremists, unions, corporations, borders, and more. It’s pretty overwhelming but in a way that makes the world, and its inhabitants, extremely believable. There’s even fictional religious figures, book franchises, and a fully fleshed out war. 

Over the course of your investigation into the lynching you’ll talk to a ton of NPCs, likely solve a bunch of other side stuff, and get involved in some pretty hefty unionisation politics. That last one is more interesting than it sounds, I promise you. Characters are multi-dimensional, meaning that it’s worth exploring every possible conversation option. 

The overarching story is actually on a time limit, but it’s not defined to you at any point. You’re just told that stuff will go tits up if you don’t solve the case quickly enough, for a variety of reasons. 

The game is spread out over a day/ night cycle, with time moving forward while reading or having conversations. During the day you can go about your policing business, and certain tasks might be locked behind timewalls, other objectives aren’t even able to be completed until you’re a certain way in, and some can’t be completed during the day/ at night.

One objective, which had me collecting the victims clothes as evidence, couldn’t be completed until I was basically done with the game. This is deliberate, and it helps pad out the story to some very complex lengths.

I’m unsure if there are technically multiple endings, but there are certainly multiple ways of getting there, and plenty of things for you to cock up. I died at least three times, JUST by picking the wrong conversation choice. It’s that kinda game. Fortunately you can save whenever you want. 

Conversations with NPCs are branching, and even though they aren’t all relevant to your case, all will contribute something to your journey toward finding the culprit. On the same hand though, one seemingly irrelevant object or person might end up becoming truly significant. Disco Elysium keeps you guessing in terms of its story arc and nothing is EVER obvious. Even at the end I wasn’t convinced I’d got the right person until they confessed. 

It’s masterfully delivered, beautifully backed up, and is home to some truly magnificent lore and backstory that I wouldn’t have skipped for the world. 

Acting? 9/10 – While it’s not front and centre, the quality of the voice acting is surprisingly high.

Listen, I found Cuno unbearable. I’m sure there was more story to him, but I found his voice so irritating I just couldn’t stand to find out. Bad enough to mark the acting down, in my books.

Other than that though, it was pretty good. I’m entirely unsure if multiple characters used the same voice actors, which wouldn’t surprise me given the indie nature, but it wasn’t obvious if that’s the case. Which is what you want really.

While most of the lines in Disco Elysium aren’t voiced, most characters are given a paragraph or two of VO, in order to let the player know what they’re supposed to sound like. I have no major issues with pretty much all of it, which is better than expected going in.

I do think that Disco Elysium would’ve been fine without VO altogether, but the fact it’s there is a nice touch of detail from the developers. 

Obviously, some characters were better than others, and characters like Titus and Kim are so front and centre that a little more love and care went into their performances, clearly. But overall? Pretty great. 

Writing? 10/10 – Showing off some of the highest quality writing I’ve ever seen in a videogame, Disco Elysium has to be read to be believed.

To open up strong here, Disco Elysium might be the best written game… I’ve ever played? I’m pretty proficient when it comes to grammar and vocabulary (though not perfect by any means). Disco Elysium regularly made me feel like an illiterate. 

With some of the most complex phrasings and deliveries of the english language I’ve ever seen in an entertainment medium, it occasionally borders on unnecessary. But it’s all so in tune with the world and characters, that it makes sense. One of the first pieces of writing to get thrown your way is this, in a conversation with your own Limbic System I might add:

“An awareness creeps up on you. A mass lies hidden in your dead angle, soaking in some lurid, acidic sauce. It’s bloated and shameful, a ball of meat surrounding you… This is a terrible line of questioning, and it will only lead to more awareness of the meat-thing”

See what I mean? That was after I questioned my limbic system about an “ex-something”. But amongst the impressively well constructed writing, like long internal monologues about politics or existential dread, there’s also a hilarious self-awareness.

My favorite author, the late Terry Pratchett, always made me laugh with his additional comments on something at the bottom of a page, often mildly wall breaking or self aware. Disco Elysium reminds me of Terry Pratchett which is no small compliment. 

Conversations are often interrupted by your own consciousness talking to you or commentating. Rhetoric might pop in and try and convince you of communism, or Electro-chemistry might jump in and talk about how attracted you are to a certain character. Or, my personal favorite, with the section of your consciousness called “Shivers”:

You: What’s on the other side?

Shivers: The road ascends; a raised motorway loops above the ghetto. Beneath its concrete columns — a sea of rooftops, woodwork, and tar stretches northward. Four-story buildings as far as the rain can fall. Snow melts in Jamrock.

You: Where the hood, where the hood, where the hood at?

Shivers: HAVE A BROTHER IN THE CUT. WHERE THE WOOD AT?

It’s hard to describe how truly outstanding the writing quality is. In a game almost solely relying on the written word, you want it done well. I think it’ll be awhile before anything takes Disco Elysium off the top spot for me.

Smart writing is one thing, but there’s always the risk it’ll become too self-indulgent. Like a villain who doesn’t know when to just kill the guy and stop monologuing. Disco Elysium never went that far. Of course there’s the times it went deliberately overboard to make me laugh, but I won’t spoil those.

That’s the other thing I wanted to mention. Disco Elysium is NOT a happy game. There’s a lot of morose topics. Drug abuse, alcoholism, self destruction, suicide, rape, murder, child domestic abuse, PTSD, and more are all tackled within Disco Elysium’s tale. But it’s never depressing. Which is a mighty achievement. While I found some of the more negative themes of the game resonating with me more than I ever expected (there’s a specific moment when you get your “activities” from your drunken maraude recited back), Disco Elysium always worked overtime to provide levity, or simply laugh out loud moments. 

It’s rare that a videogame commits to being actually funny, and Disco Elysium handles it with remarkable care. It doesn’t overlook the negative themes, it just doesn’t throw them in your face. It’s always good for a laugh, and that’s mightily appreciated.

Likewise, while I’m not particularly political myself, Disco Elysium is. Parading strong introspective discussions about communism, fascism, moralism, and more besides, Disco Elysium is a surprisingly intelligent game. All of these inspirations, of humour, dark undertones, politics, religion, and more, they all intertwine to make the world of Elysium feel truly real.

Performance? 8/10 – Sporting weirdly low frame rates, and a few bugs, Disco Elysium is still an impressive title.

Gotta be real, not as good as I expected it to be. My PC setup is as follows:

  • GTX 10606GB
  • I7 7700
  • 16GB RAM
  • 1080p resolution

Not a bad setup at all, although I’m aware I’ll probably need to upgrade the GPU sometime. Disco Elysium ran it much harder than I expected it to. I’m not sure why, but it’s not a problem limited to me, with people who own more powerful rigs than me also raising the question.

Why is the frame rate relatively low? Over the entire course of the campaign, Disco Elysium never went much above 100fps, sitting around 90, and occasionally chugging down to the 60-70 range. I also had the odd glitch with the HUD flashing, although it never lasted long. 

Interestingly, walking around would occasionally bug out, with my character refusing to go up or down stairs and ramps, and just kinda walking into a wall. It’s a bit weird. 

Other than these issues though, I didn’t run into much worth mentioning. I didn’t have any other graphical glitches, no audio bugs, and no issues with saves or similar. 

Just a shame about the optimisation.

Fun Factor? 10/10 – While dependant on your preferences, Disco Elysium is a top tier RPG, and it knows it.

Disco Elysium had me hooked. I played it for days and nights on end, 3 or 4 hours at a time, only stopping to play and review Ghost of Tsushima. While there’s no combat, platforming, and no real “gameplay” as such, Disco Elysium isn’t designed to be that.

Built to be an RPG, nothing more and nothing less, Disco Elysium achieves it with aplomb. It’s not balls to wall action, there’s no swords or magic, but there is a gorgeous artstyle, a pretty fantastic progression system, and some of the finest writing and conversational design I’ve ever seen. 

Whether or not you’ll find it fun depends on a couple of things though. Do you like reading in your video games? Do you like point and click games? 

If the answer to either of those is no, then you might be better served elsewhere. But if you’re open minded about the idea, Disco Elysium is one of the easiest games to recommend.

Value? 10/10 – With extensive replayability, the relatively high price tag is justified from the outset.

Coming in at around $/£39.99 on Steam, Disco Elysium does pose an interesting question. How much is too much for an indie title? For me, it’s money well spent. 

I played 23 hours, almost certainly didn’t complete everything, and there’s a ton of room for replayability. I’ve checked out some other reviews and general coverage and there’s a plethora of ways that Disco Elysium can be approached and played. Dialogue and general interactions can play out entirely differently based on your Archetype and Skill selections, opening up plenty of room for second, third, or fourth playthroughs. 

Disco Elysium is a quality experience, with a clear amount of love and care injected into its inception. An unprecedented amount of backstory, character development, and quality writing leaves Disco Elysium as an indie title almost like no other.

How Much Did The Reviewer Enjoy It? 10/10 – Arguably the best game of 2019, Disco Elysium is an RPG born from people who love RPGs, and it shows.

You know the score already, I adored this game. From start to finish.

My favorite games of 2019, in no specific order right now, were Sekiro, Fallen Order, and Control. I’d honestly be hard pressed to give an argument for any of those over Disco Elysium.

While its moment to moment gameplay loop obviously isn’t as gratifying as those above, Disco Elysium provides one of the most well crafted RPG experiences that I’ve ever sat through. A unique set of characters, a brilliantly conceptualised world, and some of the best writing you’ll see in videogames are just some of what the game has to offer. 

If you like RPGs Disco Elysium is, in my opinion, an absolute must play. Personally, I’m confused how it didn’t get more of a shout for GOTY. It’s just that good.

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