Jack Boyles takes a look at indie game Disco Elysium…
“When did it all change? When did we become so deprived? So feral? I see these streets, these deteriorating streets in denial with itself, desperately holding onto a more prolific time. And its citizens have all aged with it. Staring with their vacant eyes, expressionless, lost in their own refutation. But then there is me, I. What is I? Where do I fit? After all, I am no different from these inhabitants, dumbfounded and alone in an age of irrationality”.
As we know from my previous articles such as Pixel Noir (my first article for Nitchigamer) I’m a big fan of film noir. The pessimistic world view is something I can relate too. Being a working-class male brought up in a town ravaged by pit closures, not evolving and just lying there stagnated. So, to my pleasure, I got my hands on a new detective game that fits nicely in that world view, Disco Elysium.
Disco Elysium is an isometric RPG that is heavily inspired by tabletop RPG’s using a dice/luck mechanic to see if you are successful in your decision and dialogue. Developed by Zaum Studio and published by Humble Bundle, it markets itself as a hardboiled show in a fantasy setting.
You play as Revachol West, a shamed lieutenant detective of a shore town where misfeasance lays around every corner. You must keep your character’s sanity in check while trying to solve cases, interrogate suspects or explore the streets. The game features many open-ended cases leaving player expression to address them.
Glancing at the game, you are instantly drawn in by the visuals. The game looks beautiful, yet it still manages to have this sense of grit. A painted aesthetic gives a very expressionistic feeling to it, how it uses colour and shade to add detail to the environments instead of having each little detailed applied to them. However, this allows the developers to make the settings more nuanced; for example, a rug with a corner overturned or segments of the tiled flooring wear and tear. This is an excellent example of how strong rendered graphics are and how they can add so much personality into environments. Even the skill cards have the Francis Bacon look of body-distorted imagery. It’s these artistic choices that make Disco Elysium standout from most other indie games as well as showing the quality of the game and focus on encapsulating the mood of the world.
If the visuals weren’t enough for you, the gameplay follows suit with its same level of quality. As I previously stated, this game takes the tabletop formula of dice roll/chance gameplay. You’ll be given certain dialogue trees depending on your stats, though you will have a certain chance of this dialogue being successful which is represented by a dice roll. It’s no different to chance/stat based choices in RPG games such as the early Fallout games. Though it’s that dice roll that makes it more engaging and impactful; like the ball spinning on a roulette wheel, it reminds you that odds are just odds. Furthermore, the dialogue options are plentiful, sometimes hitting around seven choices and specialist choices appearing due to your stats; this game has the potential for many watercooler chatting moments.
Though it’s the skill system in Disco Elysium that surprises yet again, instead of going for your typical speech, charism skills; Disco Elysium goes with a more psychological skill base. You have four tiers of skills: Psyche, Intelligence, Physique and Motoric, all with there own attributes such as Empathy, Conceptualization and Composure to name a few. It’s here you craft what type of detective you are but not by the skills they have but by their personality, doubts and instincts.
The demo starts me with choosing a character type. I went with the alcoholic detective because that’s the type of detective I am. The intro had this inner monologue/debate my character was having with himself, the empathy side and the damn crazed one; me keeping them both in check.
Waking up in my apartment with a smashed window, it’s here you start to realise that as much of an RPG the game is, it’s also a point and click adventure game. Collecting and inspecting your environment and items to put in your inventory and/or for clues. Staring into a mirror, you once again have an internal monologue — to which I made my mess of a detective be that delirious he thought he was handsome (like I said, my kind of detective) which then displayed a character icon at the bottom of my screen of a crazed delirious man… Genius.
It’s from your inventory menu you can select items of clothing, and I refused to find my lost shoe, resulting in a detective walking around with one shoe on… Genius.
From here I spoke with many NPC characters to find out what happened and who I am (because of his drunk ways). I tried to hit on my neighbour. I spoke with the landlord who wasn’t my biggest fan and a colleague who I pretended to know what he was going on about. These characters were top notch and believable due to the excellent writing; I expect to see many memorable characters when the full game is released.
I loved this game and from speaking with other people (the lads at Special Moves Podcast when I bumped into them) are also enjoying this game. It’s just brimming with quality from top to bottom, in all aspects of the game – especially the writing; it’s really impressive. The level of choices you get, I walked away from the demo knowing that’s my detective, the alcoholic, one shoe wearing delirious man and because of those choices, it was my story.
It’s the grey choices that make these types of RPGs enthralling and the team at Zaum Studios know this. The choices I made didn’t feel like good or bad, they felt like choices that could go either way; making my decisions are more impactful because I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. Likewise, the chance mechanic, sometimes that choice might fall flat on its bottom. They are mixing the adventure game genre with RPG elements with stats based on emotions and personality traits. You can see this game going into interesting territory and with the buzz already surrounding this game; so can everyone else.
Disco Elysium is one of the most original, unique and fun RPGs that diehard fans of the genre have been waiting for; this is one game that is going to be a highlight of the indie game scene.