Did you hear about Disco Elysium? If you are even remotely following game industry news, then yes, you did. Everyone has been raving about it. Some critiques already named it as Game of the Year. Official or otherwise acclaimed nominations include “best narrative”, “best music”, “best art”, “best voice acting”, “best RPG in the last decade”, “best RPG since Planescape: Torment”, or even “best cRPG ever”.
Let’s hold the word “best” for a while but this game really is something.
Part of the raving is the element of surprise that it came out of a studio never heard of before. Disco Elysium is the very first release of Estonian studio ZA/UM. Apparently, they broadcasted an online radio before, and published novels by Robert Kurvitz, Disco Elysium’s lead designer and writer, but no game that might precede something this ambitious.
From what I understand, ZA/UM is actually not a regular game studio but rather a youth initiative, a proto cultural movement even. In consequence, Disco Elysium is not a regular game (whatever that means) but rather a philosophical statement on what human being is and how human mind works.
“Your skills guide you, calm you down, but sometimes torture you too.”
Your character in Disco Elysium is Harry du Bois, a late-stage alcoholic cop who wakes up to an amnesia hangover due to heavy heavy drinking. This may not sound very interesting as a story hook, but the game actually allows you to make certain decisions about what his past was and who he is. So it’s not all about discovering certain facts, but your choices immediately define how the story flows.
The first conversations begin with the voices in your head: your Inland Empire, your Limbic System, your Electro-Chemistry, and so on. To call these simply voices is a massive understatement though, they are actually the very pieces that establish your character. They are your skills, they guide you, calm you down, but sometimes torture you too. Think of the animation movie “Inside Out” but way dirtier than that.
Then the voices stop and you choose one of the four attributes for your character: Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics. There are six skills under each category that you get to develop. There is no ‘class’ restriction, so you can improve whichever skill you like. People at Studio ZA/UM put a lot of thought into what kind of skills a detective should have. Eye-hand coordination increases your chance when using a gun, while shivers help you… hmm, how can I explain this? It’s defined in the game as “Know thy neighborhood”. You know, when you get goosebumps? It is that reaction when you fully understand what something means. You situate every clue to an environment. Someone tells you something and you connect it with a particular place in the city. You tune in with the city. I don’t know, it’s weird stuff.
“As you gain experience and level up, you can choose to internalize a thought.”
There is also the thought cabinet. It’s where you put the thoughts you suddenly come to think or hear from someone. As you gain experience and level up, you can choose to internalize a thought and it gives you certain advantages, while it may also block certain possibilities out.
Luckily, it’s not all about you. You have your partner, Kim Kitsuragi, who is all wits and dignity and he will be your pillar of resolve in the midst of corruption and despair. I very much enjoyed going through the day’s events with Kim while he smoked his single-a-day cigarette. I sat on the swings with him waiting for the low tide to uncover a car wreck and talked about life. Hell, I even played a really interesting board game with this guy! And little by little, he healed me. That’s how I saw it anyway.
Like I said, you get to choose what to make out of that amnesia. You can choose to keep consuming alcohol and a wide selection of narcotics and storm your way through the rotten streets. I, on the other hand, decided that this amnesia was clearly a bottom and the only way out was up. So, in part (I thought) thanks to the good influence Kim Kitsuragi had on me, I sobered up, put the shattered pieces of my mind together one by one, actually cared about solving the crime. And the game awarded me with the following amazing Steam achievement that I guess I can take pride on: “Unbelivably Boring F..K” It also diagnosed me as a moralist which “achieves the achievable” Hey, but what’s wrong with any of that?
The setting is Revachol, a war-torn city, once beautiful but in full decay since the failed revolution. You discover being a cop does not bring you any immediate authority here. The real authority here is the corrupt Union that you get to choose whether to support or loathe. Then, you realize there is a greater evil in town. You know, big, mean, well-equipped mercenaries bragging about their war crimes type of evil. Your investigation seems so futile at times, but that’s all you have. You ask the obvious question: Why solve one murder when the world is collapsing around you? And cannot really come up with a better answer than: it is the only thing you can do.
“Is this game even turn-based? My answer is Yes.”
But how do you actually do it? By looking, talking, thinking! And combat? Well, there aren’t many occasions of physical combat, and you can avoid all of them, except for just one. You might be wondering right now why you are reading this review on turn-based lovers’ website? Is this game even turn-based? I suspect that some old-school enthusiasts may line up to object to this argument but my answer is “Yes”. Not in a classical way but on a deeper level, yes, it is a turn-based game. ZA/UM took pen and paper RPG and created a new cRPG system out of it.
It is not a system exactly loyal to cRPGs, but it’s very much like when you are playing with friends, you know, with a Dungeon Master and all. The DM asks you “So Harry, you come to a room, what do you do? You go “I look around.” There is a drawer. You open the drawer. The DM says “There are piles of paper” You go through them. “Do I see anything interesting?” Sometimes, it’s just there, and sometimes you need to make a skill check. Same with the physical combat. Turn by turn, and then sometimes a skill check.
Besides, some conversations really fall no short of dense combat. Some people you talk to really feel like level bosses and the rooms they are in really feel like battlefields. You can take a hit on your morale, or even health. A conversation may bring you down entirely and lead to a game over.
The story is very rich. It is built uniquely with a very intrigue main quest and many interesting side quests -my favorite involved meeting a dice maker. You run from one place to the other, and usually, run back, but it never feels like grinding. Even more interesting is what’s happening in Harry’s mind. His transformation (which happens the way I choose). His dealing with the crime. His leveling with the people. I was totally taken by the brilliant writing.
And then there is music. So well-created and well-placed. Voice acting is outstanding. The art is exceptional. I do care a lot about UI in a game. This one was perfect. You see, for example, you have to do a LOT of reading to get anywhere with anybody, including yourself. But it never gives you a headache. Studio ZA/UM solved this important issue by putting all text in a vertical column on the right (rather than horizontally at the bottom), over a dark background, with an adjustable font size, marking every line of conversation in a subtle but easy to get way. Hats off.
Is it the Game of the Year? Ask me again in two weeks, I haven’t played Unity of Command II yet (more raving critiques there). But it is the RPG of the year undoubtedly.