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Review of Disco Elysium

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.

Review of Ultreïa

The classic story of a robot out for revenge.

Ultreïa is a science fiction point-and-click adventure game in which you play a robot named Nymo on a pilgrimage to Ultreïa, a satellite of whatever rock you’re native to, to learn the secrets of life and death.

The most obvious draw for this game is the graphics, which are very nice in 2.5D, but even better are the cutscenes which are 3D animations. A few of them suffer slightly from what I assume are compression issues (they look noisy to me, anyway; possibly done to keep game size smaller or for rendering reasons), but aside from that they add a lot to the feel of the game. The whole game has a cool post-apocalyptic future feel which makes you want to adopt that robot you’re always seeing salvaging spare parts from behind the computer store, the one that was stranded in a time-travel accident from the year 2525.

At its base, Ultreïa is a fairly standard point-and-click, with an inventory and click-on-the-active stuff to select an action. That modern control scheme is easy to learn and stays out of the player’s way, and the game offers a super-brief tutorial to teach it for new players. That’s a solid choice for any adventure.

There are a few rough edges. At least a couple inventory items don’t do anything (that I found, anyway), which violates the principle of Chekov’s gun—if you introduce a rubber chicken in the first act, it must have a use by the conclusion. Significant items are too easily acquired, which feels more like the need for Chekov’s gun control: if an item is useful, it should be behind at least one obstacle. Also, the quick-travel map for the city, Mount St-Troy, could use labels and perhaps larger thumbnails.

The overall story arc is great, built as a combination of noir and Eastern philosophy. While most of the character interactions are fleeting, it fits the story well enough to be forgiven. The puzzles are mostly logical, and none felt too hard. There’s even a nice (optional) card game you can play.

It took me about four hours to complete the game, including all achievements. I enjoyed my time, and if you like the robotic, post-apocalyptic aesthetic and adventure games, take a look.

Review of Embracelet

Legend has it there’s a birdwatcher on Slepp.

Embracelet is a casual 3D adventure game centered on a magic (telekinetic) bracelet and a teenager on the edge of adulthood who is given a quest by his grandfather to go to a remote, depopulated fishing island, Slepp, in northern Norway to return the artifact.

I had previously played Milkmaid of the Milky Way, by the same developer. That was a short, more traditional point-and-click adventure about a rural milkmaid who boards a spaceship to save her abducted milk cows. Both are built around kind and humanist narratives.

I played it via Proton/WINE and used an old console controller (per the game’s recommendation to play with a controller). When I first booted the game, before I opted to use a controller, the mouse cursor wasn’t showing up, so maybe controller is best? The joystick controls were manageable, but I think I would have preferred to play with mouse and keyboard, as I found using a joystick to move the cursor mildly annoying.

The graphics are simple, but pleasing and consistent for the style. One flaw there was a semi-subtle global reflection applied to the world. I didn’t like the look of that, and I’m not sure why it was there, but from time to time I noticed it and felt it was a distraction from the overall aesthetic.

The principle action of Embracelet takes place on Slepp, with several different quests to be found as you explore. The gameplay and events are fairly spectacular, and the game does a good job of keeping its pacing between exposition and simple puzzles. The only pain points for me were the follower events where you have to follow NPCs, which always feels a bit annoying.

The least explicable part of the game is the lack of any accommodation for the main character on Slepp. Where does he sleep? Does he eat? Is he actually a robot?! The game never gives up the goods on those key questions. (Minor un-spoiler, the game never truly explains the origin of the magic bracelet, either.)

Embracelet shares many aspects of a traditional adventure game, it attempts to do so within a semi-open-world design. I am glad to see this attempted, and I hope it will be attempted more in the future. While there will always be a place for 2D adventure games, the basic elements aren’t particularly tied to that format, and I continue to believe the format can have a broader appeal with 3D environments, either as thirdperson (in this case) or firstperson.

While this is a short game (it took me about eight hours (three playthroughs) to complete it, including all the achievements), it was a nice look at a world touched by magic. If you like traditional adventure games or coming-of-age fare, this one is a low-key story game that’s worth a look.