Third person isometric RPGs are a core genre that has existed since its heyday, but are dominated by its timeless titles. Games like the original Fallout, Baldur’s Gate and the Ultima franchises have defined and refined the formula to a point. However a curious little title has flipped the genre on its head while blazing its own trail. The award winning Disco Elysium, from development studio ZA/UM has achieved the rare synthesis of critical and user acclaim. With a console release and a tabletop RPG already in the works, just what is Disco Elysium, and how groovy is it?
Personally, I found out about Disco Elysium just days before its release, surprised to see it so underground. This was further aggravated by the fact that several musicians I had heard of and podcasts that I was following were involved with the project. After purchasing the title on release day, the surprise certainly paid off. At first glance, the game plays and feels like a Fallout title, or like a David Lynch directed episode of CSI. The voiced and written dialogue feels almost immense at first due to its length. This combines with borderline abstract watercolor portraits that highlights the beauty of the overworld models directed by Aleksander Rostov. When you awake after a mind-bending conversation with different aspects of your brain, you’re treated with the games full aesthetic. Never feeling overdone, the blend of postwar European ruins and late 70s degeneracy reminds me of comics like The Invisibles.
When you begin to explore your cramped setting, the unique perspective of gameplay begins to set in. Similar to a stubborn toddler, every single task in this game is an ordeal. My first death came from a heart attack after reaching for a ceiling fan, and most options that don’t end in embarrassment are skill checks. This puts the player at odds with the everyday world, conditioning you to always be aware. I racked up 10 saves in my first day that took almost 10 hours to complete. The depth of the game is enormous, but through a slow drip of feedback, you begin to solve the puzzle. One of the more rewarding aspects is leveling your character up to a competent human being able to handle life.While this seems off-putting at first, the game makes up for it with dark humor and friendly charm.
Most of the characters have voice acting, and their dry inflections lends to the sense of a beaten down, broken world. Mirroring the reserved, depressed nature of its protagonist, the game’s characters feel cold. Due to your almost childlike level of skill and the characters being inward, your detective work feels almost impossible. At the time of review I have almost 70 hours in the game, and have only began to reach the story’s endgame. Comparably, my protagonist has become an above average cop, something similar games would start you at. By setting you at a below human level of competency, you feel a sense of accomplishment, and yet you’re a barely functioning human being. The unique perspective also allows you to explore the games political and ideological themes on a true blank slate.
The game does have impressive coding for an indie launch, myself finding no crashes or visual errors. Despite that, there are still some detractors. One frustrating problem was after rendering my character insane, a bug ended up deleting my save. However, this error was fixed in a patch and after replaying the lost day, I hadn’t found any more errors. As for other negatives, the controls leave something to desire, forcing you to click rapidly to run, like a MOBA. There is a mod to patch the run, but in vanilla gameplay, the clicking can get tiresome.
Overall , while paying respects to gaming’s founding fathers in familiar yet polished gameplay, Disco Elysium paves its own path. While the controls sometimes feel lacking, it is the narrative heart and aesthetics that truly shine to an exemplary level. After immersing myself in the muck of this world, I feel that this game earns it’s praise and then some. Despite being verbose and difficult to master in its themes, I could not put this game down for days. If you enjoy a game that feels pulled from psychedelic cinema, I recommend adding this game to your library immediately.