Disco Elysium, out now on Steam, is quite possibly one of the biggest hidden gems of the year. Here’s why we enjoyed this RPG, that does things a little differently, so much.
Developed by ZA/UM, Disco Elysium has been creating quite a bit of buzz in the gaming community, but hasn’t quite reached the larger audiences yet – hopefully this release will change that. ZA/UM is a total unknown to most, but the way they describe themselves as something that started as a cultural movement uniting artists, writers, entrepreneurs and activists” says a lot about the unique DNA that went into the creation of this game.
Taking place in an alternate reality version of the second half of the 20th century, Disco Elysium paints a society rife with social issues. These include class struggles and racial and gender divides, and you’re a detective who’s right in the middle of it – while also struggling with your own personal demons like an alcohol addiction.
The fictional city that the game takes places in is called Marinaise, and it’s been beautifully crafted with a unique art style. While Disco Elysium initially looks a little like a classic Obsidian RPG with its isometric point of view (although Obsidian’s doing something very different with The Outer Worlds later this month), there is a visual style to the game that can almost be described as though it was hand-painted on a canvas prior to being rendered in a videogame.
The writing in the game is consistently strong, especially in dialogues – which are a big part of what drives the game forward. Not only does it help you with the brutal murder you’re trying to solve in a functional way, it also gives the game a lot of personality. Despite the often dark themes that pervade the world of Marinaise, a lot of the writing is very funny and entertaining, occasionally providing jabs at the social issues that plague the city.
Unlike an Obsidian RPG, Disco Elysium doesn’t really feature much combat and is mostly dialogue-driven instead. ‘Puzzles’ usually revolve around you finding the right items inside the environments that you traverse and search, which you can then use in conversations to help (or hurt) your case. Your dialogue choices aren’t lighthearted ones either, as they can have serious (game-ending) ramifications if you choose a wrong line of questioning. In other words, this isn’t like a Telltale game in how dialogues are handled.
How you develop your character is also quite different from a traditional RPG, in that your skill tree mostly revolves around detective and conversational skills like logic and rhetoric. These give you more/other options within conversations, but your in-game choices also greatly affect you in this regard. Align yourself with a certain individual or group, and future choices in other conversations will reflect this. This creates a ton of potential replayability, although the lengthy campaign (that runs for dozens of hours) hasn’t allowed me a second playthrough yet.
There are behavioral choices that impact your dialogue options as well, and this creates a ton of diversity in the conversations you have. Perhaps because of this, not all of the dialogue in the game is voiced, with some aspects being text-only. This can happen inside an individual conversation as well, which starts out voices but switches to text-only after you exhaust the initial few reply options. Because the voice work is generally very well done, this is a bit of a shame, but obviously ZA/UM is a smaller studio so we understand where it’s coming from.
This is a very minor issue in what is otherwise a spectacular game from an indie developer. The setting and art style are great, but the way the story branches through your dialogue choices is the real highlight here. Almost like a film noir detective come to life with comedic undertones, Disco Elysium is an indie RPG classic that fans of narrative experiences should definitely check out.