Reviewing Disco Elysium feels like reviewing a scintillating book. It has a magnificent story, one that extends far beyond the pass-fail, good story-bad story checkbox exercise we can sometimes be guilty of when discussing video games. It’s not just a good story in amongst the art style, mechanics, and music; it’s daring new ground for the medium as a whole – or, at least, it was in 2019 when it first came out. This is an era when games being ‘political’ is not only extremely controversial, it’s a label many games get lumbered with for including non-white, non-male characters in any substantial role. Disco Elysium simply says “fuck that.” It never ducks an opportunity to discuss politics, and has the depth and confidence to explore subtle ideas and whole ideologies, not just empty phrasing.
I mentioned, when I explained that our review was delayed in order to allow the developers to patch the bugs, that I had never played Disco Elysium before. So while the game has been out on PC since 2019, this was my first experience, and I hope it signals a bolder future for games tackling political issues. Disco takes on everything from communism to fascism, exploring the corruption of unions amongst their necessity to workers, poverty begetting poverty, racism (passive, active, and institutional), and of course, a closer examination on the role of police than any game I’ve ever seen. That’s why I want to talk about Disco Elysium as a book – the narrative is so thick and layered I could spend my whole critique on that alone and still wouldn’t have room for a complete analysis. But it’s not a book, it’s a video game, and that means other things need to be taken into consideration.
We’re sometimes guilty in video game critique of bouncing from describing how a game tackles serious social issues to how fun the gun feels, and weighing those up as equivalent factors. Like reviewing a book and mentioning the way the spine cracks or the publisher’s logo to offset your feelings about the protagonist’s journey. But while it’s a very text heavy experience, there’s still a lot of actual gameplay, and that’s where Disco Elysium fails to live up to its own high standards.
It launched as a broken mess on console. The controls were janky, your partner ambled around behind you in awkward directions, the voices often didn’t work, and there were several bugs that stalled your quest progression entirely. If it was a book, on launch day it was in ‘severely used’ condition, stained with (what I hope is) coffee, ripped apart and glued back together, with a few of the words smudged away. If you’re thinking about picking it up now, these issues have been fixed, so don’t let that hold you back. But while Disco Elysium is a bold game made by a small studio – both things that earn it considerable goodwill – it’s still a disgrace that it was sold in this condition.
Even with those issues though, I don’t think the gameplay supports the narrative as well as it could. A few times I was left with only a 3% chance of succeeding in quests because of my build (Disco Elysium simulates dice rolls for conversation checks), and levelling up seemed like more of a complex chore than it needed to be. In one case, I brute forced the 3% with good old fashioned save scumming – losing it caused death by lack of morale; a great mechanic that felt overused because my build offered me no real safety net. In the other, I eventually found a different solution. The game pushes you to explore, but it’s inorganic. I wanted to explore Disco Elysium’s world, but I also wanted to be able to pursue certain story paths that interested me, or at least feel like I had that option without waiting on the unseen hands of fate to change something. During one investigation, I had to speak to four lorry drivers, and just kept circling between them sporadically until new responses appeared. I still have no idea why.
If Disco Elysium is like a book, the best comparison would be one of those adventure novels where you need to turn to different pages to make different choices. After all, it’s a choice based RPG, and you can be everything from a philosophical socialist to a fascist pig, with a side order of walking, drug addled pile of vomit. But sometimes, it’s like it tells you to turn to page 74, and the pages aren’t numbered. You’ll get to page 74 eventually if you keep going, but the choices you make are all about your character, rather than the destination. It’s a distinction which didn’t work for me; I wanted, to some extent, to be shaped by the world around me, but it felt like I had to shape myself in order to experience the world. Still, unlike the bugs, that’s an active design choice and I can understand it, even if I don’t like it.
There are too many fantastic characters in the game to explore here. Kim Kitsuragi, Cuno, Klaasje, Titus Hardy, Evrart Claire… each is superbly placed into the wider world. The aesthetic, with the grace of an old painting, is brilliantly used too. Not only is it gorgeous and unique, it has an artistic messiness, a sense of deliberate and beautiful chaos that suits the depths of our protagonist’s soul. Likewise, the mournful music matches the melancholy of Martinaise perfectly. Disco Elysium is a fantastic game, but it isn’t for everyone, and not just because of its politics.
Bugs aside, it is an astoundingly well put together experience, balancing player choice, opportunities for chaos, deep introspection, and a thorough exploration of politics. That’s on top of the sordid and twisted murder at the narrative’s heart, too. I’m not necessarily a fan of all of the design choices – it’s often both too open ended and too restrictive – but I understand them all, and I wish it was less of an exception to the rule. I can’t fault its narrative, or even its design, despite my disagreements. If someone told me they consider it a perfect game, I wouldn’t have anything besides personal preference to come back at them. But with the fiddly game design likely to block off even more players than the already niche themes, I can’t help but wish a game so focused on socialism could have been more welcoming to the masses.
Score: 4/5. A PS5 code was provided to TheGamer by the publisher.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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