Imagine waking up with no memory. No memory of the night before, no memory of your family and friends, no memory of your own name, even.
Hangover-induced amnesia. You wake up — after a despairing battle with your psyche — pantsless and decaying in your battered hostel room, the window smashed, hot water flowing indefinitely out of the bathroom faucet.
Disco Elysium first came out on PC in October 2019. NPR didn’t review this indie treasure then, so Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is our chance at redemption. This time around, developers ZA/UM added a fully voice-acted script and extra quests. And the best part is, if you purchased the original, you get these additions for free.
After you manage to throw on your flared pants, funky jacket, and alligator skin shoes, Disco Elysium mercilessly pushes you into a grisly, corrupt world where you play as an unnamed detective (you can’t remember your name). As it turns out, there’s a bloated body hanging from a tree behind your hostel. It’s up to you and your more reserved partner-in-crime to uncover the truth. Not just about the murder, but your past, too, clouded by alcoholism and a mid-life crisis
Disco Elysium is an unusual amalgamation of genres. Bending and blending video game genres isn’t unheard of, but Disco Elysium takes it to another level, combining aspects of open world games, retro point-and-clickers and classic tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a masterclass in implementing the best parts of several genres and creating something entirely new.
Before you embark on your whodunit, your first task is to choose what kind of cop you’ll be in the fatigued, fictional city of Revachol. Maybe you’ll favor a character build with higher intelligence, but far less social skill. Or maybe you’ll take a more aggressive approach, using physical strength and intimidation to get information from people. But you only have a certain number of skill points to invest in your protagonist, so it’s up to you to decide what attributes you’ll focus on.
In Dungeons & Dragons, your success in a campaign comes from lucking into high dice rolls. Rolling a low number, for instance, might result in a failed escape from a mob of monsters. A high roll on the other hand might grant you vital access to secret information. Disco Elysium‘s uniqueness comes from that same feature. When interacting with NPCs (non-player characters), a high roll could reveal more information about the murder, or let you establish greater authority over a major character. A low roll could damage your morale and even affect how a person interacts with you in future events.
Dice also play a role in the unconventional “combat” in Disco Elysium. In a more standard RPG, there will likely be elements of combat, whether it’s stealthily taking out enemies in Assassin’s Creed or getting into a fistfight with a stranger in Grand Theft Auto. Disco Elysium‘s combat is far less traditional. There are opportunities to punch and shoot, but the success or failure of those interactions doesn’t come down to your button-mashing skills. Roll a high number and you might knock out the bodybuilder guarding a door, but if you roll low, prepare to be socked in your still-drunk face. Although it may seem frustrating that dice rolls leave events to chance, it’s all based on the skills you chose in the beginning, so choose wisely before taking a gamble.
You might be thinking: “So if there isn’t a lot of combat or traditional exploration, where does all the gameplay come in? What do I actually do?” Believe it or not, most of the gameplay is reading dialogue — both with NPCs and your own depressed, chaotic mind — and choosing how you’ll respond.
But before you start to snore at even just the thought of that, bear in mind that it’ll be the best video game dialogue you’ve ever read. Each character, no matter how small, expertly ushers you deeper into Revachol and its sickening, underground criminality. The racist truck driver taunts your non-white partner, the union boss grins as he manipulates you and the kids throwing rocks at the hanged man find creative ways to call you a pedophile.
The most powerful dialogue comes from inside your own head. There are 24 aspects of the brain with which you engage in conversation. AUTHORITY will tell you to stare someone down to intimidate them while RHETORIC might advise a more nuanced approach. ELECTROCHEMISTRY will excitedly try to persuade you to chug booze or snort cocaine. Each aspect presents their own outlook of the world around you, and your chosen combination will influence how powerful those sentiments are. It’s the most distinctive part of Disco Elysium, a compelling concoction of witty, often twisted dialogue.
Paired with the expertly voice-acted dialogue is a beautiful, yet haunting art style. It looks like the apocalypse: gray, bleak, and sad. And it perfectly encapsulates what it means to live in Revachol, a city still reeling from a war four decades earlier. The on-and-off snow blankets the watercolor atmosphere, littered with broken glass and cigarette butts. Even the individual characters get their own headshots, including the grotesque, surrealist depictions of your different psyches. I couldn’t be happier with how the game looks.
At times during my playthrough on Playstation 4, the fluidity of the controls was lacking. Although it was rarely more than a minor annoyance, the tiny overlooks in gameplay optimization took me out of what is overall an excellent game. I often had to reclick the ‘X’ button when my character wouldn’t respond, and there were moments where I wished I could just walk up to a character and talk rather than use the controller to “click” on them. Load times weren’t incredibly quick, and my game crashed twice, actually. I’m not sure how the game plays on PS5, but hopefully just a bit better than PS4. Overall, though, it’s hard to dock points from a near-perfect game for a few mild inconveniences.
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is a genre-blending paragon. The creators fused a tabletop RPG with open world features, creating an innovative, fresh gaming environment. The writing and voice acting were stellar, and well worth the time they took to voice the one million plus words of dialogue. If you can handle drugs, dead bodies, and the frequent curse words, please do yourself a favor and play it.
Keller Gordon is a columnist for Join The Game. Find him on Twitter: @kelbot_