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Raw, unfiltered, extreme, poetic. These are all words that can be used to describe Disco Elysium - those, and the many, many words that accompany the extraordinary experience it offers. Yet, none of them even come close to explaining what makes it so special.
How would one even describe what this game is about? On its surface level, it’s a murder mystery, sure - you’re an alcoholic detective with amnesia, desperately trying to work out who the hell you are and what the deal is with the world around you, all while solving the murder case you were assigned to for, y’know, your job. But it’s also so much more than that. It’s intrinsically political, with an incredibly in-depth view of the social climate in the gloomy post-war world the story is set in.
Unlike a traditional RPG, Disco Elysium doesn’t have any combat elements - instead opting for a series of dialogue options and skill checks to proceed through the story. Outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like an exceedingly dull 30-hour reading-fest, but stay with me here, as I promise it’s got the potential to take your breath away.
Part of what makes this such a unique game is how malleable of an experience it is. Upon starting, you choose which attributes to specialise in, such as your sensitive side, physical prowess, and intellect. The more points you invest into these and the skills under them, the more likely you are to pass different skill checks, as well as engage in internal conversations with different parts of your brain (yes, really).
If you highly invest into intelligence, for example, your brain is more likely to cut in during events to fill you in on pertinent background information, allowing you to make more informed responses. Similarly, if you have high empathy, your internal monologue can interject to let you know if someone you’re interviewing is feeling uncomfortable.
These aren’t your only choices that influence the flow of this story, either, underpinned as it is throughout by some of gaming’s greatest-ever writing. Throughout, you’ll constantly be asked to take a stance on various political views and ideologies, which can not only change the direction of the conversations they occur in, but also accumulate as points and build up as part of your detective’s persona. Whether you’re an overly-apologetic communist, or a deluded fascist who thinks they’re a superstar, there’s dialogue for everything.
Oh, and what dialogue it is. Not only are the interactions with the various residents of its setting of Revachol faultless (and all voice-acted brilliantly, as of the game’s Final Cut update), but perhaps the best-written scenes come straight from the inner workings of your mind. Ranging from insightful, beautifully descriptive, to downright hilarious, there’s never a dull moment in your forgetful detective’s head, with the various elements of your psyche constantly competing for the spotlight.
It’d also be remiss not to mention the game’s beautiful, painterly art style. Revachol as a whole, and every single person in it, looks so bleak - the whole place screams ‘run down’, and no one looks happy to be there. Don’t get me wrong, I mean this in the absolute best way possible, but it matches the tone perfectly, and it’s hard to think of any other game that makes ‘dire’ look so damn good.
It’s genuinely difficult to think of anything that comes close to matching Disco Elysium’s level of individuality, both within the RPG genre, and honestly, gaming as a whole. It’s also extremely hard to describe exactly how worthy of your time this game is within a 600-word article, so please, do yourself a favour, and just go for it if you haven’t already. You can thank me later.
This piece is part of a series looking at outstanding games within a certain genre, exploring what makes them special compared to their peers. Read more: It Takes Two, Splatoon, Hades, Deathloop, Sable, Life Is Strange: True Colors, Psychonauts 2. Follow the author on Twitter at @NerdyJourno.
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