ZA/UM's debut title swooped onto the market out of nowhere and swept us off our feet with its deep dialogue-based RPG system and fantastic narrative.
We wake up in a dark hotel room. Our clothes look as though each of the items had lives of their own; a tie is stuck to the ceiling fan, our pants are in the shower, our shirt has been thrown onto a desk on the other side of the room. The countless liquor bottles littering the floor give us a faint idea of what could have happened here. Following our apparent drunken stupor from the night before, we've forgotten almost everything leading up to this point. Who are we? Why are we here?
Developer ZA/UM is new to the game. Starting out as an 11-man team working from a small office in Tallinn, the collective of artists worked on a project then titled No Truce With The Furies. The team, led by musician, novelist and now game writer Robert Kurvitz, had its work cut out for it, creating an isometric RPG that, while small in size world-wise, would turn out to be vast in terms of narrative and dialogue depth. Fast forward a few years, ZA/UM has concluded development and changed the title of the project to the simpler yet impactful Disco Elysium.
In Disco Elysium, you're an officer of the law (at least you're told you are by your fellow cops), and the main premise has you, with the help of a new-found partner from a different precinct, tasked with solving a murder case in the small coastal district of Martinaise, which is part of the Revachol area. The case, however, is made increasingly difficult by the lingering presence of the protagonist's own senses and even his physical body, all of which talks to him as he makes decisions in dialogue or in various world-linked decision processes.
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These dialogues between characters are what sets Disco Elysium apart from most other RPGs, not just of this era but of the eras that influenced it. You'll meet other characters around the coastal city and engage in conversation, but your body and your senses will infiltrate the conversations you have, helping you or sabotaging you in the process, depending on which of them you choose to trust and depending on what skill point you've put in which category. Some dialogue choices are dice-roll skill checks with a percentual chance to succeed based on what skills you possess, and these skill checks come in different colours; white means you can try again at a later time if you fail, while orange means you only have the one chance.
The skill tree is vast and has four different main categories; intellect, psyche, physique and motorics. These four are what you put your starting base points into if you don't pick a template character at the start of the game. When you level up your character during play, however, you get to put your points into one of the six more specific subcategories of each main category. These will all help you in some way during your journey, be it to have a specific trait jump into your conversation, giving you some additional context or helping you ace a skill check.
The intellect and psyche traits will more often than not help you in dialogue - maybe you just need to show a child some empathy to get said child off the streets, or perhaps you need to drop some hard logic on a military man acting irrationally to get him to stop and see things clearly. You'll also be able to sense emotion in your surroundings - spot meaning in the graffiti on the walls. As for the physical traits, physique and motorics, these can help you stay alive when in a pickle of the pain variety, help you threaten another character, or spot things that you couldn't spot prior due to exceptional eyesight upgrades.
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We created our character from scratch and put almost all of our points into the two former categories, thinking that dialogue would help us through almost anything and, while it mostly did, we were also a weakling of the law, taking our last breath when reaching for our tie hanging from the ceiling fan or when trying to open a door by force. This fact often took us by surprise, even though it offered some hilarious deaths before kicking us to the main menu. We do have to note though, that saving your game is crucial. You don't want to go through a skill check-filled, tough conversation scenario again because you died trying to open a door somewhere twenty minutes later. We made a habit out of pressing F5 (the quick save key), after each tough skill check passed and following each long conversation, just in case.
Depending on your choices, in or out of dialogue, you'll shape your protagonist, in the eyes of strangers, your precinct, your foes and most importantly - in the eyes of Kim, your partner. Kim will be by your side to back you up, right your wrongs and be there for you when you're going through hardship. The bond you form with Kim depends on where you lie morally and politically. Now, you can, if you want to for whatever reason, be a horribly corrupt, racist, substance abuser of a cop and this will put the kindhearted, caring, sober, Kim off quite a bit. We could have gone this route, but we opted for a stone-cold sober route instead, simply because we're not monsters and we cared about this guy. We cared enough to force him into sobriety, this despite all of his senses trying to force us to go against our morals and go buy him a pack of smokes and a bottle of booze. We cared for him, we cared for his new-found partner Kim, and we cared enough to try our best in making him look good in the eyes of his superiors as well as the townsfolk of Martinaise. Not only that, we worked our hardest to rid the city of crime and illegal substances, infiltrating the minds of the people we came across by using our smarts and our very talkative senses to change them for the better - to help them on their way.
Despite changing the game skill tree-wise by letting you alter your senses instead of your overall intelligence, ZA/UM also has a completely unique mechanic at play. Every now and then, depending on what you say and do, thoughts will appear in your head. Manic thoughts, where you converse with the senses most eager to make the thought happen. Early on in the game, our protagonist figured that he'd be well off becoming a hobo, collecting bottles of the streets to make his money and ditch the whole "having a home" thing. This gave us the option to turn that thought into reality, adding it as a trait to be unlocked over time. There are plenty of various thoughts that you can learn and "equip" within your mind palace. Some of them will add a penalty to your stats until the thoughts are complete and each of them will give you boosts upon completion that will be set until you choose to forget them in favour of a different one. To add a slot for a new thought, you can use a skill point to do so, and to remedy the loss of a point in a specific sense, the items of clothing you pick up through the game all have stat-boosts, so if you're missing a point to ace a skill check, just put that one jacket on.
The game is very much focused on text, so if you're a fan of old-school RPGs like Planescape: Torment or Wasteland, you'll feel right at home. There's no combat system, however, but rather potentially lethal dice roll-checks all around. Before we move on to the exploration aspect and the audio-visual design, we have to mention the fact that Disco Elysium has one of the better-written narratives we've come across in years. Every little piece of dialogue is either interesting, hilariously funny, or heartbreakingly sad.
We sat at the edge of our seat, following up seemingly random, stupid scenarios through hours of gameplay because the game made every little mention of any little thing feel important. We felt like we were working towards something when we were looking for outlandish superbugs along the coast. We felt like heroes when we were on the hunt for a hobo's jacket. We felt like we'd become something more as we searched the world for a full armour set that we would probably never wear - simply because something cool could happen and because our in-game senses wanted us to believe. We spent a good five hours trying to open a door with rhetoric and not once did we stop to think that it was impossible or that we had wasted our time.
The world you explore is on the smaller side, but you open up new areas as you go through the game, be it by cutting a chain off the handles of a double door, cracking a lock open with a crowbar, or using your flashlight to find an area you couldn't spot in the dark. The city is in turmoil and the people you meet are vastly different from each other, both morally, politically and economically. Some will give you tasks to complete for them that you can turn down if you wish, some will give you information on where to go, and some will try to hide the truth from you for as long as possible. These people and the many secrets hiding within the city walls make the rather small map feel massive (yet not vast enough to overwhelm the player).
It's also an absolute joy to look at. The design of Disco Elysium is truly unique in the sense that it resembles an oil painting. Every inch of the screen is art, from the characters to the cobblestone streets, and even though the colour palette is rather dull for the most part, the design makes it come alive. Accompanied by some soothing sound design, the game's focus on the senses makes it a sensorial joy.
Upon starting the game up for the first time, we were expecting a top-down detective RPG with beautiful visuals, however, we ended up getting so much more than that. Disco Elysium pulled on our heartstrings, hit us hard with its incredible humour, blew our minds with its deep and exceptionally well-written narrative and dialogue, and managed to convince us, through forced dialogue with our very senses, that every task was equally important. We would have thought that to be a tough task, considering there was a corpse hanging from a tree for weeks while we were out looking for a pair of armour-set gloves to sate our curiosity. Disco Elysium makes you the narrator of your own story and it's one of the best games we've experienced in a long time.
10 / 10
Phenomenal narrative, remarkably well-written dialogue, sensorial level system is interesting, hilarious yet deep side-objectives, beautiful visuals, great design, lovely soundtrack and sound design.