“Mankind, be vigilant; We loved you.”
This was not the first time I had played Disco Elysium.
I first played DE back in 2019, when it originally was published for the PC. Back then, DE was a a cult classic in the making that had quickly become a sleeper hit, spreading largely by word of mouth. Before that, it had been a game talked about in hushed whispers, originally titled No Truce With the Furies. A strange game, it was supposed to be–a CRPG like no other.
And then, it debuted… and left everyone who played it in awe.
I never managed to finish my first playthrough, mostly due to other commitments (i.e. too many things to deal with). I decided I’d take what I had learned from my first playthrough, and then take my experience to when the console versions would appear.
Now it’s here. I’ve done a full playthrough. And it’s difficult to convey what I experienced…
What Is It?
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is the final, completed version of 2019’s Disco Elysium, developed by the (predominantly) Estonian developer ZAUM Studio. The game itself takes place within the universe of Elysium, a fictional universe created by Lead Writer/Designer Robert Kurvitz (a former musician and best-selling novelist) that is also the setting of a novel called Sacred And Terrible Air and a Tabletop RPG campaign. Elysium is a campaign setting unlike anything I have experienced: it is a world that seems very familiar at first, but very quickly becomes distinctly alien very quickly (but more on that later).
In this particular game, you play the part of a detective in the district of Martinaise, a bombed-out shell of a street in the city of Revachol. You wake up a tabula rasa, a complete blank of a human being who is suffering the after effects of an epic multi-day bender that leaves you half-naked and hungover in a hostel. After getting yourself clothed, you leave the room to discover (in a matter of speaking) that you have been sent to this part of Revachol to solve a murder case involving a bloated and decaying corpse, hanging from a tree behind the hostel. You meet up with your partner for this case, a patient and even-minded gentleman named Kim Kitsuragi, who has been brought in from another precinct to assist you.
But like any good detective story, this case quickly becomes much more complicated than just a simple whodunnit. The city is currently in the grips of a labor dispute between the local Dockworker’s Union and the Wild Pines Group corporation (or ‘indotribe’ as they’re called here). There’s also local crime, a drug problem, and the shadows of Revachol’s own bloody history.
Why Should I Care?
Let me give you a quick rundown of an event that happened during my first hour of playing: After having dressed myself, leaving my hostel room, going downstairs and meeting Kim Kitsuragi, I am informed by the hostel owner that I have an outstanding debt that I need to pay the establishment (to the tune of 130 bucks). Now, at this point, I have a couple of options. I can promise to pay it back later that day, or I could convince the owner to just charge it to my local station… or, I could just try and make a run for it.
I chose to make a run for it. The game gave me a skillcheck (more on that in a bit), and my character makes a dash for the side entrance. For some reason, my character thought it would be a good idea to turn around at the last minute, give the owner the double finger–only to trip and crash into an old woman in a wheelchair directly behind me.
That’s part of the appeal of this game: since the majority of the gameplay is based around dialogue trees and skillchecks (there is no dedicated combat system, although combat does happen), there really is no wrong way to play this game. True, there are ways you can screw up bad enough to end the game prematurely, by either critically damaging your health or your morale, but other wise the gameplay is wide open. Failure is also an option sometimes, opening up possibilities that may still help you in the long run. The unpredictability is one of the game’s selling points.
Then there’s your inventory system. As with other RPGs, your clothing either strengthens or weakens your stats. Because of the fact that various skillchecks can be effected by what you are wearing at any given moment, you will be constantly cycling through your clothing, creating a rather unusual and mixed-up fashion sense (don’t worry about looking weird, though. You’re expected to be a little eccentric).
Now, the only ‘party’ members in this RPG are you and Kim (and on occasion he’ll leave you to your own devices). However, you do technically still have a large ‘party’ with you: the shattered bits and pieces of your mind known as the Though Cabinet. This particular feature has multiple functions: it defines what your strengths and weaknesses are (are you able to visually calculate things? Are you street smart? etc.), as well as defining your personality through various ‘research topics’ that you can explore through conversations: What is your political ideology? Are you overly apologetic? What are your religious beliefs? Are you a recovering or late-stage alcoholic? There are several possibilities, and all of them are relevant in one way or another. On top of all this, they also function as voices in your head, constantly relaying information and critiquing your every action.
But the other main attraction for DE is Martinaise itself, and really the Elysium universe in total. The game’s emergent storytelling takes you from what seems incredibly mundane (you in your underwear, catatonic in a hostel room), to slowly expanding into a world that is both somewhat familiar and yet distinctly alien. Technology has taken different turns (automobiles look like horseless carriages with engines, computers run on radio waves, etc.), symbology is different (the most constant being the Star & Antlers, which you’ll find all over the place), and even the very structure of reality and the world is different (this, I won’t spoil).
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
I do have to explain a couple of technical issues I had with this game. I played this on my PS4, and although many of my issues may be patched out later, I do need to explain some of them.
One of big issues I had at first was attempting to get the game to recognize when I was trying to look at and explore an object. Your character has to be in an area somewhere nearby the object in order to see it, and because of this when highlighting an object, if you’re not close enough, your character will casually stroll over to where it is located to see it. However, it might take you one or two tries before the game acknowledges your action. It’s only a slight annoyance, however, and by the time I had finished my playthrough this issue had largely been addressed by a patch.
My other issue, however, has to do with level design. Most of the world is presented in a pre-rendered, painterly art style. It looks visually stunning, but because of this it can be difficult to tell just where one actually can traverse. I ran into numerous invisible walls that often seemed nonsensical (why can’t I just walk behind the steeple on the church?), and in one or two extreme cases it almost completely obscured an otherwise accessible area.
But in the end, these are minor annoyances at best, and do nothing to dampen the absolutely awe-inspiring achievement that this game is. Kurvitz and his team at ZAUM have managed to craft something that has become a new high-point in CRPGS. A game that is dark, funny, hopeful, depressing, nihilistic, anti-nihilistic, and yet so sincerely earnest that it almost brings a tear to my eyes.
I came across a phrase in this game that an idealistic college student told me that has stuck with me since my playthrough. I believe it is probably the essential message of this entire game, and one to take to heart:
“In the dark times, should even the stars go out?”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go and order a Star & Antlers t-shirt. For comrade Mazov, of course.