Disco Elysium is an RPG unlike any other RPG. This a fresh new take on the genre from Estonia. So can it really be a major change to the RPG genre?
RPGs tend to focus on repetitive combat between snippets of story, and many RPGs tend to overdo the combat as they think that’s what gamers want to see in an RPG. Perhaps they’re right, but Disco Elysium offers something different.
In Disco Elysium there’s no combat, and that’s not just an empty promise, but there’s actually no traditional, or action-based combat in the entire game. Instead, Disco Elysium gives the player a game that’s entirely played through dialog trees and decisions.
You start Disco Elysium like most RPGs, assigning character stats and skills. In Disco Elysium the stats are in the categories of intellect, Psyche (a form of Wisdom), Physique (a combination of Strength and Endurance), and Motorics (Dexterity or Agility).
Skills, on the other hand, are more varied. There’s everything from the Inland Empire which examines the unseen depths of a person, Electro-chemistry, where you deal with your knowledge of drugs and how they work on you, and Visual Calculus which helps you piece together crime scenes. These are not the typical skills for an RPG, and yet Disco Elysium makes them work.
Without combat, the way the skills can manifest sounds limited, but skills are more like instincts and abilities in Disco Elysium. During the dialogue, there are points where a thought my reach the main character. This is done behind the scenes looking at your stats. If they are high enough the character might think of a different number to say, intuit what someone is referring to or who they might be, or just say nonsense.
That’s not to say every skill is perfect, many skills can get information wrong or mislead the player, and it’s up to the player to decide what skill to trust, and who might be telling the truth. In fact, as part of a video that I recently produced, I ran a run with a mini character who had no stats or skills to speak of. This was a very straightforward experience where everything was the minimum that the game would allow me. Conversations were more direct, and focused, however, many options and discussion topics were missing because my instincts weren’t available.
On the other hand, on an intelligent heavy run, I correctly intuited how the murdered victim died, but chased the wrong character for a decent part of the game because my skills in certain areas were solid but others were deficient.
The other use of skills is to do a typical skill check that most RPG fans will be familiar with. The first major skill check is not throwing up as the player smells a rotten corpse. If the player doesn’t have a lot of strength, or endurance, they may have no choice but to throw up, and I believe this is expected. However the game also offers ways to improve your skill for a skill check, in this gaining a bottle of Ammonia to improve your stats, and from there “getting your shit together”. Which is honestly something the main character really needs to do.
That main character is unique. Most games will take a straight-laced detective, but here, the main character is… a trainwreck, who has spent the last three days drinking instead of doing his job. A police officer getting blackout drunk is probably a bad thing and sure enough, he’s suffering from those choices.
But this is not his fate. In fact, the story here isn’t written. You can take your main character, and drag him down to the pits of hell, indulging in drugs, karaoke, and a worthless existence, or you can try to improve him. You can delude his mind with the idea of being either a rockstar cop or a hobo cop. You can also make him just do the best he can or start to make amends for his mistakes. Each of these options can be combined in several ways but the point that Disco Elysium leaves the door open for you to discover who your character is.
In fact, I am calling him simply the main character, because his name is up to you to find out if you choose to.
That’s just one of the many quests that Disco Elysium has, and for the most part, Disco Elysium avoids linear quests. You start with having to do an autopsy, do interviews with people, but both of those tasks will lead to a long questline. It’s very common to have a quest that is impossible to complete until other quests are done.
In most games, this happens, but in Disco Elysium, you’ll usually be sitting on a stack of twenty to thirty quests, which are waiting for you to discover a little hint to get you back on the path. Your badge for instance is somewhere, but Disco Elysium might give you this quest on day one, yet can’t be accomplished until day three.
The Quest system is more of a checklist of desires then mandatory actions that need to be taken, but yet each quest feels like a major accomplishment, and it’s accompanied by a good chunk of XP. That XP leads to more level, which leads to a better-formed character with improved skills, who can do more stuff.
The thing is while much of this sounds like the typical actions of an RPG, Disco Elysium can use all these systems while being a pure dialogue game. You might get the option to strike someone or to dodge an event, but each is just a skill check in the middle of a dialogue tree, rather than a full combat system.
And that’s what makes Disco Elysium different and great. This is truly unlike any RPG I’ve played. Disco Elysium plays like a Visual Novel but uses a stat system like and RPG, and yet, it feels like neither and both.
The one flaw of Disco Elysium is the typical problem of the Visual Novel market. Stories have to end and most visual novels have a set number of conclusions. In Disco Elysium’s case, that set number is one. At the end of the game, there’s a single final destination that will take players through the finale with final conversations. This is where Disco Elysium loses the amazing open nature that served the game throughout it. Rather than a large and varied ending, it felt like an ending everyone would eventually reach. It also is a very Disco Elysium. I’ll say that to avoid spoiling anything.
The thing is, Disco Elysium’s ending is awful, it just is far more linear than any other part of the game, and the result is almost always the same.
But I don’t think that’s the true Disco Elysium. The true form of this game isn’t a whodunnit or even a why they did it. Instead, it’s how you do it. It’s a discovery of who the main character is when you have control of it. What he does, where he goes, and what havoc he causes. That’s something only you can answer, and that’s where Disco Elysium really shines. Not in the end but the entire journey leading up that final island.
Personally, I found this to be an incredible adventure that I enjoyed even more once I started a second game and noticed how much and yet how little changed between my characters. It’s a game I could easily play through a second time to discover even more about it.
I give Disco Elysium an Arbitrary
This is a game that you won’t want to miss if you enjoy the stories that video games can tell.
If you want to see more I have a video that will take you through the opening quest of the game, with even more discussion available at: