I finished playing Disco Elysium for the first time. It was an utterly blind playthrough and one I'm surprised I didn't get to until now, but I was always putting it off for random reasons. What I knew about the game prior to going in was... something about detective work, and being story heavy and interesting. I also knew of the art, which is the one other thing that intrigued me first, but I still never got to it until now. I bought the Final Cut version when it was on sale a while back, but kept putting it off... “I heard the game is pretty long, so im not sure I want to get into it right now” is what I kept thinking. I'd play other games and then still hold off on DE each time in order to process other stuff I played. After playing Half Life entirely blind I was thinking “okay, I will get to DE because I want to consume more stories, I just need to process Half Life first.” Well, its been long enough of me sitting here and yearning for another story that will occupy my brain all hours of the day, so I decided to finally hop into DE.
[ if you want a non-spoiler idea of the game, simply read “gameplay” and “tone”! ]
As I said, I was blind playing this. I didn't even really know what the gameplay was like until I started. I heard people compare it to D&D but I still had never played an isometric RPG. I was never attracted to top down RPGs because often if they were D&D inspired, they still were heavily focused on combat and not story (at least not as deeply- I just dont like tech and combat focused D&D games)... and I really don't have interest in top-down combat games at all. If I do combat, I prefer third person, open world RPGs where the combat is often optional or, not just clicking while standing in place. I was aware DE didn't focus on or have combat, but I was quickly intrigued by the gameplay once presented. I didn't know there were all these skills to get into like an actual tabletop RPGs, I didn't realize there would do *so* many passive skill checks, like tabletop RPGs. Had no idea how much dialogue was in this game until I started. Admittedly I am not the smartest gamer, and I think I fucked up parts of my choices a lot (as I often do with RPGs I am not familiar with), but luckily I never found myself hindered to the point of frustration or inability to continue (I *have* had RPGs get basically soft-locked because of my poor choices in stats before...).
Outside of the skills, DE is open world but contained. The map does well to feel large but not annoying to traverse. Considering the game isn't focused on exploration like most RPGs, I never found myself bored by the surroundings too much. It especially helps that this game doesnt pile on fetch quests of any kind, making you dread a back and forth or over using fast travel. I pretty much finished every quest I got, minus a few that I couldn't thanks to decisions I made earlier. There are minor tasks you can complete, namely finding money to pay for a room (or finding a way to not). Two notable side quests were with the church and with the abandoned rooms past the book store- both kind of rely on each other in the end and were enjoyed in their own ways. Due to some stupid things I did, I found myself a bit exhausted by the time I got further into the bookstore quest, but both were fulfilling in their own ways. They included quite a bit of travel, and while fast travel existed I am glad to say it did not feel awkward fast traveling from one place to the next, I didn't feel I was cheating by jumping around sometimes since there was a lot I wanted to see.
It isn't often that an RPG does enough to tease me into wanting to replay it- I am the kind of gamer who plays a game once and not often more, unless its 'open ended' (collectathon, sandbox, or open ended RPG). But as I neared the end, the way more and more options I didn't take became obvious, I knew I had to play again. I don't think I will have it in me for multiple play throughs, but the game's ability to open up branching paths with all the skills while also not punishing you terribly, makes it a far more welcoming game to try and replay at some point. There were bumps in the road as I played and tried to be a detective, but it never got too hard and I can greatly appreciate that, mostly for a game that could quickly become too boring or annoying due to the no-combat/writing focused gameplay.
While I was quickly enjoying the hell out of this gameplay, I also quickly realized how unappealing it probably would be to some folk. This is not your typical RPG, even compared to other isometric ones. You're thrown into a game filled to the brim with dialogue. In some ways it was actually overwhelming, and I think the voice-over is what got me through in the end as I know I would have skimmed some if I read. And even after finishing it I know there is probably tons of options I didn't hear, loads of lore I missed due to my skills. Some missed paths may make it feel like some things were unfulfilled, and to some that can be more of a disappointment than an encouragement to play again. If you're not one for reading or listening to what is basically a 30 hour long podcast, then you'll probably be turned off. If you're not into being patient either you may also not enjoy it. But you're determined to see a rich world and story unfold in a uniquely formatted ambitious game, then I think this game's style will be interesting to play through. Its uniqueness alone tugged at me strong, and I enjoyed it deeply. Not even just the options and skills were well done and fun to play out, but the general play within the world too. The map feels large but its quite small, and there is a lot to uncover within the world by itself- many that become open to you depending on your skills (which included me putting on the worst fashion ever just to get some points a bit higher).
All I can say is, I want more of this. I have always loved the sense of discovery that RPGs like D&D can bring. Video games often don't achieve this level of detail, not because they cant but because its... a huge undertaking. It is a lot to plan for, and unless the game really requires it, this level of detail on every interaction would drag out the game. Disco Elysium was built around this concept, and it did it pretty damn well.
Before I dive into the story and the emotion- I already brought up the art of the game. I think the game's strong point alongside gameplay was its atmosphere. And usually I wouldn't want to imply a game can run off just that alone- but I say it because every piece of this game's tone defines it greatly. The game would not be what it was if it didn't have this look tied together with its story and mechanics. Disco Elysium lays out a specific aesthetic that is hard to pin down with one word, no matter how familiar it feels. The art style alone paints the world in an interesting and almost abstract way. Dark colors, often dull, messy and sometimes undefined. Pops of color where it needs a spark. I felt like I was looking into another world in a way that media rarely sparks within me. This was further supported by all of the world building too, but even so its hard to deny how much the look and music of the game set the right mood. The music was fantastic in a way that it hit me hard in the important scenes but still set itself as a gorgeous background noise for the exploration-- not too distracting when it didn't need to be obvious, but hitting with some good pleasing sounds in the more tense parts of the game. The somewhat dreary look and melancholic post rock music absolutely brings the whole game together, I can't imagine it looking or being any other way, or leaving the impression it did if it didn't have these things.
Alongside the look and the music of course there is the optional voice over. You could play with all of it (narration and character), or some (character only I think?), or just mute it all. With my ADHD brain and dyslexia, the complete voice over was truly a godsend for this game- but the voice over alone certainly made a further impression on the tone of the game. While I thinkt this game functions fine without it, the fact there was good thought and choice behind all these voices fitting into the world certainly immersed me further. All of the voice acting was well done but I can say the narrator voice for all the skills was not a voice I would have thought hard about until this game presented it. A slow, methodical narration added a lot to the tone of the gameplay and I loved it.
Overall this game really had some of the most fantastic art direction I have seen in a while, something that felt fresh and unique.
Before I go into the Meaty part of this article and spill my heart out over this game I think it'd be best to lay out the downer points. I can't come out of such an ambitious game without naming the things I had issues with.
Firstly, bugs and errors. I played the Final Cut version and the bugs I had were minor enough (and not game breaking) but they messed with the immersion and tone when they did happen. I faced a few issues where the audio playing for the text did not match at all- it seemed the game picked up the wrong audio for the skill checks that were shown (text for an authority result, but it seemed to give one for a different skill- right situation however). This luckily never spoiled anything (didn't get audio for a choice that was ahead of what I did) but it was confusing when it first happened, and it happened 3-4 times in my 40 hour play through. I also had one striking bug after a particular dream... I dont know what happened, but one of the coats Harry was wearing was glitched out and was fucked up for the rest of the game. Additionally the political thought bubbles- I had one come up for communism when Harry woke up one morning, and it would not go away no matter how much I accepted or denied it. And lastly, most disappointingly, there was a bug on the very end cutscene of the game where the door to the car was not animated in the way I assumed it should have been. Additionally I saw some small errors in the text compared to the voiced dialogue that played (this was most apparent with text saying “seven men died” when the voice said “six”). Its a shame I ran into these bugs as they ruined the immersion at times, still these were not dire enough to ruin my impression. But it seems the game has had a fair report of bugs since its release, which I cannot say I am shocked coming from a game self published by an indie studio... it has so much to it (mostly on the text/audio end), its not surprising some issues slipped through the cracks. Though I cant speak to whether or not these bugs are being looked into either, so be aware if you decide to play. (to clarify I played on PC as well, in May 2022)
Additionally from bugs, I can't come out of such an intense story and think its perfect in every way...! The game is a perfect example of an ambitious creative piece that will not hit every mark. Its just not possible mostly on what I assume is their first outing. Video games in general I think are harder to direct in this way, mostly an RPG with branching paths. Some of my issues with the story I think may have also had to do with what I expected or wanted, but didn't get because of my skills not allowing me to get them for failing red checks. You can play the game and fail checks and still get the story, and I dont think failing them ruined my play, really. But there were certainly times where I felt like the action fell flat due to my failure. The story certainly had some slow points that I think could've been handled better-- while I enjoyed playing quite consistently, I felt like there were definite moments of slow that I wish had a little more to do (and again, I may have been ignorant to some things I could have been doing on my first run). When I started playing I was getting a feel for it. Once I started digging more on day 1-2 I was eager to get going, but struggled quite a bit on late day 4, in the sense that I just didn't have stuff I could do. I was knocking out the tasks and I'm not sure if I was just... too eager, or what- but there were clear lulls in the activity where I didn't know what to do other than stand around for a while. Moments where I fulfill what I could, but still didn't really know what was next. The positive is that the game was good at picking me back up and often did so with some intriguing info, and at most I had 15-20 minutes of lacking activity, but it was not thrilling to have to open up a few in game books to speed up the time just so I could get some hours to pass and do some of the late night activities (which was the other issue in these slow days- a few of the tasks that were interesting *had* to be done at night... so I just had to hold out until then). Even by the end of the game, while I was hyped to solve the mystery, I still had some lingering questions (mostly on Harry's personal arc) that I am wondering would be answered if I had different skills, or if they were intended to be so vague. Some of these faults may be a drive to replay the game, but I do consider it a flaw if players are only to play it once- you don't really want to have them left feeling like they missed out on something that may have tied things together, I think. That isn't to say the story didn't make sense and I didn't like what happened, but some vague unanswered questions are still on my mind, things I hoped I would've heard a bit more of on certain topics when I played regardless of the skill numbers I had. I can only imagine some players making even worse choices that I- I already read of some folk who really sped through the game because they were anxious about the ending point tribunal and having a “time limit”, when there wasn't one. Some people didn't get Harry's gun or badge at all, hell some people probably could have finished the game without playing the church or doomed commerical building tasks at all. In that case, those people probably got a far more limited story... and sure, its not the wrong way to play when its an RPG... and in that way I'd argue that it can be an issue, when plots don't come together without some option storylines.
Well, this is the part where I try to gather the insane number of thoughts I have after playing 40 hours of the game.
Disco Elysium right off the bat displayed a world that intrigued even on the surface. Giving you a character who doesn't remember shit is a great excuse for the player to learn everything from characters and ask all the silly world questions you need to understand things. The plus is that this really becomes a part of the character too, and it allows you to not just learn about the world but the man you play as. The main character, (who is nameless to you at first) Harrier Du Bois, is in many ways a blank slate for you but also established enough of a personality through narration to allow your choices to all feel like you're shaping and molding someone who isn't simply a projection of the player. The game highly encourages you to just say everything, just say stupid shit. In most RPGs I hesitate, but its quickly obvious to me that Harry's personality is to say stupid shit regardless, so I became accustomed and exhausted most dialogue options as long as it fit what I wanted him to be. I can't say enough how much I love a mix of humor and drama- I love my serious, plot heavy, tense and anxious stories but I love seeing them dotted with sparks of amusement. Disco Elysium presents this in numerous characters, from the mains to the background guys. If anything I would say a majority of all the characters bring some kind of humor along with their words, often bouncing off Harry's... eccentric personality and dialogue choices. When things get serious, they get serious- moments where the small chuckles trail off and things Get Real strike me most about this game's writing. But back to the cast...
A key part of a game like this would to see development of relationships, and arcs unfold. DE does not fail in this regard. If anything I think the development of the characters is the strongest part of the game. The journey I went on with Kim as Harry was highlighted not just by my own choices, but the writing for Kim by far. He's likely become one of my favorite sidekick characters ever- there is a perfect balance of a guy who wants to get his work done and not deal with a bumbling drunk and a guy who has a good heart and can make a genuine connection regardless of the deeper problems Harry has ('course this may depend on on how you play). The slow build up of trying to work with this stranger who obviously does not understand Harry's whole 'deal', to working your way through all your mistakes (getting your gun, your badge, etc), and finally tying up those loose ends leaves me with a guy I did not consider a friend at first but now find myself joyed to be with on this journey. Harry says stupid things and Kim isn't cold to it, maybe he smiles or laughs at something Harry does. Maybe there is a bonus on a check since Kim trusts you. Or his comments of sympathy later on- Kim isn't stuck as the cop partner who doesn't want to deal with your shit the whole way, berating yours mistakes (which is partially because Harry is a good detective- even if you're a drunk). But his take on Harry isn't utterly blatant either- with the sea of dialogue options, its up to you to do some digging and I found more and more joy in doing so (but admittedly hesitated at the start over 'feeling weird I don't know him well enough'). Without enough prodding, or not tackling certain tasks, you may come out of it with varying impressions of Kim or any other character for that matter. While Kim is a standout character for obvious reasons, every character in this game was really something of their own. The smoker on the balcony, Evrart Claire, Titus, Cuno, and so many more- every one of them was a solid identity. There were some very very minor characters that I did not talk to much (the drunks in the fishing village, the kids) but even so, had a defining voice for themselves.
In some ways though, Disco Elysium has another set of characters- the skills and other parts of the narration. The skills in many ways interact with Harry as a character, as dialogue choices communicate with them when said options are thoughts and not spoken words. It was probably the most unexpected part of the game for me as I went in blind to what it had to offer- but the part that had me wanting to play more and more immediately. Every check, every roll- I wanted to see what those voices had to say. It was quick to show me there was a lot I wouldn't see... I went with a psyche heavy build (one of the preset ones), which I did love a lot, but that along with some of my choices in skills, definitely had me missing a ton of intellect focused checks, or motorics checks (mostly towards the end... my perception was pretty good though). The visuals I got from the skills I was proficient in were great for the story I think (namely Shivers and Inland Empire), but it has me looking forward to replaying the game with different skills too while also understanding better what skills to put points into. Towards the end of the game, these skills start to... fight a little bit. There are some key moments where the red checks you get (namely I had ones from Suggestion) and pass, still weren't exactly good choices. Like- I passed them, I succeeded... but that doesn't mean it was a good idea. Some are blatantly bad ideas but towards the end when things get a little.... mentally weird, it seems obvious that Harry's more emotional decisions are not good ones necessarily! And further towards the end, at the tribunal, I was entertained heavily by the way the thoughts conflicted and tied to help each other, sometimes doubling back when they were wrong. But I will get into the the meat of the ending later... All in all, I was surprised to feel like the skills which present themselves as Harry's thoughts, really carry a lot of the story and in some ways feel like their own characters within the story.
Of course the other driving part of the game is its plot, alongside all the text for these characters and skills- DE has no typical RPG combat and is a contained open world game so it rely entirely on the small bits of gameplay (point and click actions) and writing. It plops you into a mystery murder plot to be solved. I have always loved “detective” work in games, so long as its... friendly enough to someone like me. The last detective-y game I played and enjoyed was Hypnospace Outlaw, which was a very nontraditional detective game too. I would say Disco Elysium is more traditional, as a detective game inspired by tabletop RPG format is not all too out there. While being an RPG, I would say its... kind of linear, or at the very least appeared quite “friendly” on the end of directing you towards the ending it had in store. The story I am quite sure would always build up to you finding the killer in the same way. I don't think you can fail at this game completely as in missing enough to not solve it properly (unless you actually die, I guess), but you can definitely miss clues or smaller details- so in that regard, you may be left without some detail by the end, maybe? Regardless, the mystery itself unfolded in quite a pleasing way. When it comes to any mystery to solve, I love having highs and lows as you uncover clues. The strings of the plot for me went as such: light entertainment in looking for clues, to intrigue by the state of affairs around you (the strike), curiosity over how it tied together, thinking I was getting close (talking to the Hardy boys and Klaasje), getting a twist (thinking it was Ruby), dropping to a low point when it wasn't Ruby, hitting a mega low point after the tribunal, then slowly slowly easing into a high point for the end where the killer is found. All the while in all these parts, I am given random clues to throw me off, making me think one thing or the other. I let Klaasje go out of empathy, I knew it wouldn't be her and I felt for her- but then when she ran at the end, I questioned things in the heat of the moment, thinking I was wrong. I investigated the window in her room prior to the end as well, and investigated the 'potential' sniper points before the last one thinking it would just add up to nothing until finding that last clue. The game had me quite certain that Ruby had done it for some time, while still leaving me a tad unsure-- the point about the gunshot not being heard stuck with me well even while I tried to excuse it (maybe they all just covered it up and agreed to go with this story?). Or even the flowers of Klaasje's rooftop coming back for significance, realizing it the moment I stepped into the fields on the island. The ending of the game and the murderer were an interesting moment as well when it hit. Because while the game built up the high of finally getting there, it was subtle. It didn't explode within me. There was something oddly grounding about who it was, because sure he was within the circle of that city in a way- but he was also kind of just... some guy? Some guy you weren't aware of, who just kind of happened to be there. A stranger plagued by anger and trauma, old and confused... There was no crazy 'bigger picture' to reveal in that sense, and that's okay. Often times I feel like detective story twists can be really overplayed when it builds and builds and its no one you know- it didn't need to be anything more and it played out in a way that felt very convincing to the world and setting. For some reason is left some kind of impression I don't know how to describe. The simplicity of it all, I think. The unfolding of various unrelated events, and the way they get tangled up with each other- its satisfying to see it close up.
While there were moments where I wish things picked up, or were a little different, it had me gripped at every key moment of the story. Undoubtedly, the tribunal was the most memorable scene in that game. Before I got to it, I was sure I was going to have time to do other things, and knowing it wasn't a combat game I made the dumb assumption that maybe I wouldn't be put in that situation... or at least, assumed it may not be as high stakes due to the limit in gameplay (at this point I had little issue staying alive too, so I didnt feel the game was that unforgiving in this regard). But I walked into it, completely unprepared, though after playing now I can see where things were meant to turn out that way regardless. The highlight was having your thoughts working together to try and make this turn out alright, skills that conflicted and took back what they said (thinking the merc was calming down, when the other thought claimed he was getting ready to shoot, and the initial thought correcting itself). My outcome for the tribunal was: try to shoot and fail, Liz dies, all the Hardy boys died except two minor ones, get shot both times, succeed in warning Kim about being shot. A lot of people died... It was a damn good thing my success rate for the check with Kim was so high or I would have been really worried. Honestly probably would have reset if he got hit or cried the whole way to the end without him (and I wasn't aware he could die until read online that it results that way!). But I absolutely adore the stress that scene created. Hesitation to press the next choice thinking 'oh god, will this work' (and pretty much none of them did because of my own skills) is something I don't feel often in games because they aren't often structured to be slow paced like this. The creeping feeling that I won't pass any of these checks without some insane luck is not something you get out of other kinds of games.
Outside of DE's mystery plot line though, Harry has a story of his own. Waking with no memories, you're playing as a drunk man who's also a cop and doesn't recall anything. There's hints of an ex girlfriend or something that probably has lead him to this depression fueled alcoholism, but aside you won't know too much for some time. A lot of the beginning of the game leans on humorous choices regarding Harry's name (which you don't know for some time- depending on what you do, I guess) and while I was eager to learn about Harry, I carried along with the murder at hand for some time until I started getting blips of info that had me more curious. Most of the curiosity was given to me through the Church side plot. While up to this point Harry isn't implied to be very religious (even the choices that are seem quite tame/out of stupid ignorant things to say), the church started to bring in details about the world and Harry's mentality, in ways I just had to dig into. The church was a side quest that had me hooked after I talked to Soona- I was only lightly following the teens and pushed into it more when I had very little tasks to complete, and I am glad I pushed. What seems like a strange supernatural occurance within the church, leads to depths I never expected with this character (and in turn the world)- it was the feeling of being haunted at first that got me, then the ominous chills around imagery of Dolores Dei, and the slow hopelessness that seeped from muddy memories and dreams. On the surface it is the story of a sad man who uses alcohol to cope with losing the love of his life... but its not exhausting to see that cliché, because its not told in a way that isn't overdone and expected. Deep below the surface is the snowballing of trauma and depression, and how the strangeness of this world reflects it in a more literal form. If anything it wasn't really about it was about feeling out a character who's seen as damaged beyond repair, and what it means to keep living through that. The way trauma and despair and depression have torn Harry up through the years, but he's still here. It seemed for a moment that something extra, something supernatural could be happening to Harry- with his weird dreams and attachment to Dolores Dei... but as it unfolds, and especially at the end, it seems that what Harry faces is the burden of his brain coping with loss and traumas. The uneasy, daunting feelings around Dolores Dei are just part of what his mind has shaped this problem into after years of sorrow and alcohol and drugs. While the Pale pulled me deeper into this mystery, and may still have some kind of effect on Harry, the unfolding story still kept you grounded in reality and I appreciate that when it comes to hard topics like this. It wasn't the world that made Harry like this, not some supernatural entity for godly figure of the past- its just him, its just what he is.
In the end, Disco Elysium is a game that is a lot of things- its ambitious, truly. It is not flawless. It is everything I want out of a video game, I think. The discovery, all the words, all the feelings. I cared deeply for the cast, I yearned for them, I wished for a better outcome, I ached in ways I have trouble wording. It is a story of community, nostalgia, trauma, politics, hate, love, fear. It will live in my brain for a long time and I will hold it tight so I do not let go, no matter how many times I chose to replay it nothing will strike me the way my first play through did.