Disco Elysium is about learning to exist at rock bottom.
RPGs often put us in the boots of a mighty hero in the making. We’ve witnessed the journey of noble villagers rising to meet a glorious destiny dozens of times. But ZA/UM Studio’s Disco Elysium sets a different foundation: you’re a sloppy detective and a disaster of a human being who has already been defeated by life itself.
The hero’s journey begins in a hostel room turned upside down. You’re surrounded by empty wine bottles, a window that has been smashed from the inside with one of your boots, and your necktie hanging on the ceiling fan. Last night’s party has fragmented your mind into dozens of different personalities, each acting independently as voices inside your head. And you still have a case to solve — with no remnants of what happened, or what kind of person you were.
Amnesia is an overused trope in games, but it suits Disco Elysium perfectly. Where other stories try to replicate reality, you’re as clueless as the protagonist in this world. The only thing you’re certain is that you’re at rock bottom, and getting back up on your feet won’t be easy. This premise sets you on a path of personal discovery that is harsh to unravel at times. But it’s the sincerity and boldness of everything from mechanics to dialogue that really set this tale apart, even if the current presentation could have benefited from a delay.
A bleak, yet exciting world
First released in October 2019 as a PC exclusive, this top-down RPG feels like a modern take on the narrative ideas of Planescape: Torment. Combat isn’t really the focus, and instead Disco Elysium leans heavily on dialogue and story-driven sequences as you explore its open world. You’re free to tackle primary and secondary tasks as you see fit, but it’s always done under day cycles, and your time isn’t limitless.
Two years after its initial release, The Final Cut introduces itself as a free update for existing players, and the first incursion of the game to consoles, specifically PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. It’s essentially the same game, with a smattering of major and minor additions: every character is now fully voiced, there are new quests that expand on the political alignments you can choose for the protagonist, and some welcome quality of life updates like fast travel.
These new additions help to bring the experience to a full circle, enriching the conversations you have with your own fragmented mind (as skills often chime in during dialogue with sometimes helpful, and often absurd commentary) and the voices in the city of Revachol. No character is like another, and it’s exciting to explore every nook and cranny just looking for someone new to talk to, hear their stories and slowly puzzle the story together.
Sadly, the presentation of this new version could be better. On PS5, loading times usually take less than 10 seconds, but many other aspects lack polish. I’ve stumbled upon low-quality textures in some character models, an inconsistent framerate that doesn’t hold on to the promise of 60 FPS, as well as an arbitrary lack of voice lines that goes against the vision of the update. The latter is further compromised by a small font on big displays, even with three size options, and I personally would have liked to see voice narration for descriptions that occur during conversations. Relying on sound alone for dialogue if you’re far from the TV inevitably leaves snippets of detail behind.
In terms of game feel, there is a rather cumbersome transition from keyboard and mouse to a controller, especially when interacting with objects or navigating the UI, and a disheartening number of bugs. Some of them are minor, but others will cause you to waste time and lose progress. In one instance, I couldn’t save my progress after a conversation, and another time an important mission would just loop itself instead of giving me the dialogue prompt to continue.
ZA/UM is working on addressing some of the issues with an upcoming patch, but it’s particularly unfortunate since even the original launch didn’t have these problems. Disco Elysium is a game brimming with details that shouldn’t be rushed, and where each player’s playthrough is truly different. When the performance or controls weren’t being finicky, I still got to enjoy all the game has to offer.
The city of Revachol is beautifully crafted, carrying the weight of historical conflicts on its broken houses and scarred streets. The characters you meet are all dealing with the aftermath in their own way, each with a unique interpretation of the world. Some are quick to give you the middle finger when you introduce yourself as a cop. Others will offer help in exchange for favors, or political alignments.
Conversations allow one of the strongest elements of the game to shine, as dialogue occurs on the right side of the screen displayed in almost Tweet-length messages. A portrait of the character in question is always in the picture, and this applies to your own skills as well. The writing is the best I’ve seen in a game in many years, and when you pair it with gorgeous illustrations, a push to impose otherworldly colors over mundane objects and scenes, as well as a soothing, melancholic soundtrack, it all comes together.
The Thought Cabinet in particular, where the detective can foster thoughts and develop them in a skill-tree of sorts, is filled with unique drawings that feel straight from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but on an immeasurable scale. Disco Elysium isn’t afraid to be artistically bold every chance it gets, and it’s better for it.
Shaking the standard
Many of the fond memories I have from being a disastrous detective come from my own decisions. Many dialogue options and actions are tied to specific skills, whether it is your perception of the world or ability to intimidate others, or how far into his thoughts your character is.
Depending on the equipment you’re wearing or the skill points you’ve invested, you’ll have more or less chances on a 0 to 100 percent scale to succeed, based on dice rolls. But failure isn’t the end of the world. Most of them can be retried later on, but I like to believe that they also build upon your character. Seeing my version of the protagonist fail to slam a door or awkwardly flirt made perfect sense in context. As a result, passing one of these checks always gave me a confidence boost like no other, making even the smallest victory feel like the biggest feat.
All conversations in Disco Elysium can play out in a variety of ways, and they’re all engaging. They feel like set pieces that build the world, the person you’re talking to, and yourself all at once. Gaining experience points for completing tasks and after successful dialogue or smart answers kept me engaged all along, although I’ve admittedly felt exhausted after long sessions due to the game’s tendency to throw many fictional concepts, names, and history lessons the player’s way. Luckily you’re not alone in this, as the fellow detective and party member Kim Kitsuragi serves as a compelling contrast to a protagonist constantly struggling to get his shit together, building an unbreakable bond of kindness that persists throughout the story.
Disco Elysium is a heavy game in many senses. In times where game studios insist their games aren’t political, Disco Elysium is unapologetically so. Revachol is filled with conversations around race and political movements, a looming presence of alcohol and drug use that your character can either abandon or return to, and a bleak atmosphere that isn’t afraid to show you how much of a mess you’ve made.
The writing, the characters, and the out-of-bounds interactions constantly caught me by surprise due to how much it sets Disco Elysium apart from other games. Its biggest shame is the current state of the Final Cut, to the point where it would be advisable to wait until some of the biggest problems are addressed. But rest assured that in the case of one of the boldest, most original RPGs of the last decade, it’s definitely worth the wait. 7/10
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is available now for PS4, PS5, Stadia, and PC. Versions for Xbox and Nintendo Switch are slated to come out in late 2021.
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