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Review of Disco Elysium

A detective sings karaoke on the plywood stage of the Whirling-in-Rags hostel in Martinaise, Revachol. Detective in clear colors at right, rest of image is black and white, blurry.

A noir-style single-player D&D campaign in a can!

Disco Elysium is an odd game. It is a non-combat role-playing game where you play a detective who can’t remember. He was sent to the unincorporated harbor city of Martinaise, in Revachol, to solve a murder. In that, you’re aided by a true Gamgee of a partner, Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi. Over the course of the game you deal with the murder, the past of the character, the past of the world.

Before proceeding with the review, it’s worth pointing out there is legal drama around the studio that made the game. Wikipedia: “Disco Elysium:” Legal issues provides details, but for those who don’t want to buy a game under some cloud of studio controversy, you might wait. (I bought it before the issues came to light.)

I played on Linux via Proton/WINE, and the game ran fine. Controls are mouse and keyboard. You can use either, though I tended to use my mouse. The interface is nice and you’ll want to lean on the right-mouse button while moving in the world to help you know when the character has a thought orb above him. You can zoom using the mousewheel, you can scroll the dialogue panel by clicking and dragging.

The game is incredibly wordy, by design. It’s also thoroughly voice-acted with very distinctive voices. (The NPCs in the game are all different backgrounds and accents.) It is a game that swings for the fences of all applicable sense organs: eyes, ears, and feels. And it clobbers them all beautifully.

The basic gameplay involves interacting with NPCs through dialogue, asking questions, reacting. You gain experience for these interactions that let you spiff-up your character sheet. Other augments to character include your clothing and internalized thoughts in the thought cabinet. These thoughts have temporary effects and permanent ones, as well as a timeframe to complete the thought. You may forget them if you do not need or want them any longer, or if you need a slot to internalize a new thought—but if forgotten, they’re gone for good.

The various player stats are used when passive or active checks occur, letting you ask questions, get answers, perform tasks, notice things about the interogatee, about yourself, about the world. Active checks show you a percentage chance of success, and mousing over a check will show you its details (what you rolled versus what you needed to roll). There are red checks and white checks. Red checks are do-or-die. If you fail one, you can’t retry without save-scumming. Failed white checks may be retried by leveling up the relevant stat (or, sometimes, by poking around the world based on various hints).

Oftentimes, you will want to go into the proverbial phone booth to change your clothes before attempting a check. For example, if something requires higher Visual Calculus, you will want to change out of any clothes that give you debuffs to that stat and change into any clothes that buff it.

The basic gameplay is stretched over an incredible and dense campaign. Time passes through the day, interaction by interaction. NPCs start disappearing to sleep by about 2200 hours, and the clock stops around 0200 with the world mostly a ghost town. The story is divided into two main parts: the first two days (during which your movement is restricted to the northern urban harbor area) and days three-plus, when you can roam around the coastal village south as well.

On my first playthrough, I had a harder time playing it continuously, feeling the need to take time to digest between smaller sessions. It can be tricky on that first run, to know what matters, to know what’s going on. But it has good replay value, and I completed seven runs total. Even then, there were things I missed. Small things, perhaps, but there is a lot of solid, funny, poignant world in this game.

It took me 121 hours to get all 40 achievements. While I can’t say if I’d currently buy it again, with the drama going on with the developers, if that’s resolved (or it doesn’t bother you) this game is worth a look, a listen, and several feels.

Without going too much into the specifics of the allegations or drama around the company, in some ways it seems almost fitting or at least expected, given the contents of the game, that such a thing would happen. Life imitates art, after all. But those involved produced a great game, and I hope they will find their way to produce more quality work in the future.

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