Disco Elysium Review: Find Meaning in the Slow Apocalypse

Disco Elysium can be abrasive, but its massive depth belies a surprisingly heartfelt world.

I don’t have a perfect category for Disco Elysium. I’d like to pigeonhole it with CRPG classics — most notably Planescape: Torment. Yet there’s really no combat. It’s not strictly an adventure game, either, though the focus is most certainly on talking. It’s a rubber band ball of a game, with layer after layer stretched taught and tangled over and through one another. And it’s one of the richest, most rewarding games I’ve played all year.

Disco Elysium takes place entirely within a few-block stretch of the fictional city of Revachol. It used to be the center of the world. Now it’s a hellhole in the last stages of being bled dry by capitalism. The communists are dead, executed 50 years ago by a NATO-like collection of neoliberal despots, and the democratic socialists are on the brink of war with their corporate overlords. It is not a good time to be alive, and everyone in Revachol knows it.

That includes you, Harry DuBois, a detective with no memory of his past or the world around him. You wake up in a whiskey-stained stupor inside a hostel in Revachol. You quickly discover there is a dead body out back — one you failed to take down during the week-long bender that destroyed your mind. Nobody likes you. And, from the many inner monologues you get, it’s clear you don’t like you much, either.

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Disco Elysium certainly doesn’t lack bite. That much is obvious from the coked-out tween slinging stones at the hanging corpse — in the way he also slings homophobic slurs at you to seem tough. The game “bleeps” these out with the sound of static. Despite its mildly sci-fi setting, it wants to be a world with real problems and real sorts of hate. But it draws the line at outright forcing players to hear such concentrated hate.

It’s an odd line to draw, though. Because you’re allowed to play a racist, sexist CHUD as much as you want. The neighborhood is full of crypto-fascists and “scientific racists.” The gnawing memory of a woman in Harry’s life constantly prompts him to call women whores (if you so choose). Representing those views as part of the world is one thing. Making them into omnipresent dialogue choices is another.

I’ve reached a point in my life where allowing me to play human scum is, in many ways, just as bad as forcing me to be a shit bird. Because someone out there (likely with a Twitch account) will use that set of tools to do just that, and show the internet just how funny it is to be a bigot.

Disco Elysium Review

Tripping Into a Good Idea

I didn’t choose to play that way, though. At the start of the game, I dumped most of my points into Psyche: the game’s name for emotional intelligence. That meant I had great empathy and imagination, and could glean a person’s meaning without them stating it outright, but wasn’t always the most rational. My reflexes were okay, too, but my strength was abysmal. That’s a bigger problem in a game about a murder investigation than you might think. You never know what clues you might miss behind that door you weren’t strong enough to open.

Most of these skill checks manifest passively. You walk from conversation to conversation, from interaction to interaction, pecking away at the world. Harry likes to ask questions, we find. And nearly every answer can prompt one of your in-game skills to chime in with mental commentary. Your Reaction Speed, for instance, might encourage you to make a witty comment — even if it’s an obviously stupid thing to do. Whereas Authority might prompt you to take a domineering path. These open new options, sure, but Disco Elysium tracks damn near everything. Its relatively small area of operations frees it up to be tremendously granular.

I once kicked a furnace, for instance, and it took three real-world hours for that action to come back up again. All it did at first was hurt my foot… That’s pretty rough when you don’t have much physique! I started the game with only two hit points and was constantly at war with my own frail, alcohol-defiled body.

Disco Elysium Review

Do It for Kim

It was a good gag, though: kicking the furnace just because I could, and losing half my health bar for the trouble. Disco Elysium is a wellspring of physical comedy — from jumping off rooftops in your underwear, to tripping over wheelchairs because you’re a bad conversationalist. The game can be deeply funny, for all its horror, just as it can be incredibly warm, for all the terrible philosophies it presents. Even agreeing with the scumbag population is usually presented as you being an amnesiac dope ready to fall for anything (which alleviates the “gotta hear both sides” disease such a wide spectrum of beliefs can create).

Besides your own mental processes, much of this is colored by commentary from Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi. He’s your nearly ever-present partner throughout Disco Elysium. He also rules. If Harry is all id — trying to discover who he is or who he might become through bonkers unfiltered interactions with others — Kim is all ego. He’s a kind, reserved, fastidious man who genuinely thinks he can make the world a better place by writing down everything in his little notebook. He’s mostly right! Both protagonists want to understand this hollowed out world. They just have different ways of going about it.

So when you do make a complete boob of yourself, it’s not just a snide remark from your subconscious telling you you fucked up. There’s a real person there to keep you on the better path, too. To me, Kim is the true voice of Disco Elysium, cutting through a cacophony of people warped by a world they never asked for.

Disco Elysium Review

Disco Mysterio

Besides hunting and prying for clues, most of the actual gameplay in Disco Elysium comes from active skill checks. Two digital dice roll onscreen to supplement your abilities. A high Physical Instrument skill will give you better odds of punching out a phrenologist, for instance, but it’s ultimately up to the dice. And Disco Elysium encourages you to take chances by making most of these actions repeatable. Leveling up provides skill points that you can dump into an ability, which “unlocks” failed checks while increasing your odds of success. Finding new information elsewhere can also unlock the checks.

That might sound complicated. But it just means that the action is the exploration. Combat is replaced with hundreds of more esoteric, more exciting interactions than “you did 12 damage.” And cutting away at the rubber band ball gives you more, better opportunities to succeed. Most of the time you won’t even realize you’re doing it. But everything — and I really do mean everything — is connected. Eventually. Well… Maybe not that time I sang bad karaoke. But sometimes beauty can exist for its own sake.

The reward for peeling away at the world, and dealing with some unsavory types Kim certainly wouldn’t approve of, is some of the best world-building I’ve seen in any game, ever. There’s a bit of sci-fi at the edges: rarely seen, always felt. But mostly Disco Elysium is really a backdoor political thriller. Faction upon faction, big and small, presses down on nearly every character you encounter. Almost everyone has an opinion about the communists, the “ultraliberals,” the primary religion, the local labor union, and the shipping company. Everyone is affected by them. If they don’t have an opinion for you, it’s they intentionally don’t want to think about the forces that pull their lives in every direction. They just want to live their lives.

Disco Elysium Review

A World of Action and Reaction

Or maybe you failed to make the right argument. The way you kit your character changes how you come across. If all you’re good at is Visual Calculus, for example, you can reconstruct the trajectory of a bullet with Batman-like clarity. You won’t know what people are thinking, however. And coming to different versions of the same conclusion based on the way you build your character is deeply rewarding. It ferociously shows that where you choose to invest your time and resources actually matters. And since the game is so dense, and as relentless as Kim in tracking what you have and haven’t done, there’s no end to the reminders you receive that this world changes with you.

I don’t want to just be dazzled by the meticulousness of it all. But it’s hard not to be. And when the game backs up its painstaking detail with warm characters, deep sadness, and deadly mystery, I’m happy to say it’s not all for show.

Disco Elysium is a total package. That’s why it’s so hard to define. There’s just so much of it, packed into a tight and human-infested space, that it’s hard to categorize as just one type of game. Sometimes that abundance gets in the way. It introduces the dirt worst kinds of people in the search for “completeness.”

Ultimately, I think that contrast adds to the beauty of those characters just trying to scrape out some semblance of happiness — of the novelty dice maker listening to the radio, of the cryptozoologist and his wife searching for a symbol of their love, of the EDM goobers who just want to give people a place to dance. But the harsher parts will likely push some people away. Give the game a chance, though, and you’ll find some serious beauty at the center of this knotted mass.