james debate
james debate

Sunday 3 November 2019

Developed by ZA/UM
Published by ZA/UM
Genre Role-playing game
Platform PC

disco elysium pillars obsidian kurvitz zaum best game 2019 sequel no truce with furies

The videogame industry in 2019 is worth $120 billion. It is the largest entertainment industry in the world, more lucrative than film, music, or television. As with other forms of entertainment, this rapid growth has seen an incentive towards products that are safe, marketable, and mainstream. It's an increasingly rare pleasure to come across an original title that is willing to try something a bit more experimental, and Disco Elysium is definitely a true original.

Set in the fictional city of Revachol, Disco Elysium sees you play a somewhat eccentric cop waking up from what appears to have been an excessive bender that has induced retrograde amnesia. You don't know who you are, or even at first that you are a cop, but there is a dead person hanging outside from a tree, and you are here to investigate his murder.

Disco Elysium is based on a home-brew pen and paper RPG developed by lead writer Robert Kurvitz, and it is clear that a great deal of thought has been put into the world-building. Revachol is not from our world, but it is rich and believable enough to happily immerse one's self. Players will recognise many themes the world around us, racism and class inequality, political dogma, sexism and corruption. This is one of the keys to Disco Elysium. While the setting is fictional and contains occasionally fantastical elements, it always aims to create a somewhat grounded experience and is the more powerful for it. The characters are fleshed out and feel like real people with believable motivations. The game world that has been created is not the largest you will see in this genre, but it is so dripping with history and personality that you could spend hours just poring over every detail and believe it was a real place.

The game plays out in an isometric RPG format that sees the player explore the (mostly) open environment searching for clues, talking to suspects, and learning more about the world around them. It features standard RPG tropes such as inventory management, branching dialogue trees and skill checks, but this is pretty much where the similarities end.

Notably, there is no combat system in Disco Elysium. That is not to say that there won't be occasion where the player needs to get into a scrap or use deadly force, but it is realistically rare and always executed through the dialogue system. Whereas other RPGs will typically see the player rack up kill counts in the hundreds or even thousands, in this game it's more likely to be just a handful, if that. It is a design choice that plays into the game's grounded tone, and makes those moments of action all the more effective for their rarity. This is indicative of the game as a whole. Pretty much all the gameplay is carried out through the dialogue and skill checks system, which makes the skills system itself absolutely key to playing this game.

Most RPGs feature a skills system, where players earn experience points and level up skills to varying effect. In most games, these systems are fairly basic: add a point to strength to increase your attack power, add a point to charisma to increase your ability to persuade people, etc. Disco Elysium does things a bit differently. This game has some 24 different skills, each one essentially a different component of the player's personality. Add points to the "authority" skill to increase the player's forcefulness, or "interfacing" to improve their dexterity. Others are more intangible in nature, for example the "espirit-de-corps" skill which represents the extent to which the player embodies the spirit of the police force, or the "Inland Empire" skill which represents the player character's mastery of their own instincts. The Disco Elysium skill system somewhat uniquely also combines elements of a traditional "party" system, with each skill essentially being its own character. Dialogue will frequently feature a back-and-forth between the different skills and personalities, bouncing ideas and feedback around, representing the inner-monologue of the player character.

The other significant addition to gameplay comes in the "thought cabinet", essentially Disco Elysium's equivalent of a perk system. Various actions, events, and chance occurrences will introduce you to certain "thoughts", of which there are 53 in the game, only 12 of which can be used in any single playthrough. These vary quite radically in content and effect, from various political beliefs and artistic musings, to the belief that your character may secretly be an ageing rock star. These thoughts start off as vague concepts, the effect of which will not be immediately clear until you spend in-game time to "internalise" them.  These can ultimately have both positive and negative consequences, which vary from skill and stat modifiers to opening up completely new dialogue and gameplay options.

These two systems are extraordinarily robust. Rather that merely conferring a particular stat boost, they fundamentally affect the identity and personality of the player character in a way that allows for some very unique and deeply customisable playthroughs. From the numbers above, you can probably infer that there are a staggering array of different combinations, ensuring that no two characters are likely to be identical.

So Disco Elysium presents an RPG experience that is quite different to what most players will be accustomed. It is a very "talky" game, slow-paced with only brief spurts of action. At the same time, it is not the sort of game you can really "lose", and failing skill checks simply takes you down a different story path. The focus is very much on the story and the choices that you make. The reason this all works is the exceptional quality of writing. Disco Elysium features some of the finest writing I have seen in a videogame, tackling big, complex ideas with depth and sensitivity and an impossibly sharp wit. This game is often laugh-out-loud funny and I was surprised by how often I had to pause and take a moment to get the laughs out of my system. The amount of care that has been put into the dialogue is really remarkable, reacting to big and small decisions, the items equipped, and even just dumb luck (like wearing a particular item at a certain time of day).

Yet there are some aspects of this game that leave a sour taste in my mouth. Primarily: the game is just way too short, particularly compared to what has been widely advertised and discussed in pre-release previews. I completed my first playthrough in just under 25 hours, with all side quests completed and, quite frankly, taking my time to enjoy the setting and explore. When you consider that other RPGs (eg Pillars of Eternity, Skyrim) can run a hundred hours or more, it really puts the slight scope of this game into perspective. Pre-release hype had described Disco Elysium as a massive open world adventure, full of memorable characters, and a play time of 90+ hours, but it is clear that this grossly stretches reality. This game really just has you solve the one case, in one fairly modest-sized map (divided into three areas). Most characters you really only meet the one time for one quest and then never see again. It is clear that the 90+ hour estimate is supposed to include multiple playthroughs, making it a highly misleading claim at best. Even with that, it's hard to see how you could get four or more playthroughs (for 90+ hours) of unique content.

Now don't get me wrong: what is here is quite excellent. I just wish there was more of it. It is far more limited in scope that you will probably be expecting, and certainly nowhere near as grand an adventure as has been advertised. Ultimately it is what it is, but it's important that you know what to expect before you buy, especially when it is being priced the same as a AAA blockbuster game, rather than the more modest indie game that it is.

It's less of a concern, but Disco Elysium also commits some grievous RPG sins, including time-limited quests (without warning), and whole areas being closed off after certain quests (again without warning), rendering some quests inoperable. I've also encountered a small number of bugs (some of which required a restart). Not a massive issue, but can be very frustrating for completionist players who don't make regular backup saves.

Disco Elysium is undoubtedly one of the more memorable gaming experiences I have had in years. The slower, more thoughtful gameplay makes for a welcome change of pace from the more obsessed games in the genre, and some of the better written scenes will live very long in the memory. I found myself frustrated with the game at times for the reasons above, but ultimately just disappointed that the whole experience was as short as it was, rather than the grand, world-spanning adventure that had been billed. I sincerely hope that future expansions/sequels are in the offing, and look forward to seeing what this talented team come up with next.

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