In my time at the Tavern, I’ve tried to broaden my gaming horizons and review games I wouldn’t normally play. The two most recent games I’ve played for review could both fall into that category, and they happen to be polar opposites. Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan is a 3D monster befriending (taming) adventure that is disgustingly wholesome, whereas the other game, Disco Elysium: The Final Cut (the focus of this review), is a detective themed, narrative-driven role-playing game packed with dark humor and adult themes. As strange as it sounds I think playing both of these games concurrently made me appreciate each one more, almost as if they were balancing each other out. I know some of you might be scoffing, how could I compare the critically acclaimed Disco Elysium to some game that looks like it’s based on a kid’s cartoon show? I’m not comparing them, but the gameplay in Rainbow Billy was surprisingly good, it never got dull because it had a nice amount of variety. The problem I had with the game was the dialogue which sounded like it was straight out of a show your younger sibling might have watched when you were kids (in my case, that show was Barney – I’ve always hated Barney) so the crazed, imaginative depravity of Disco Elysium was the perfect antidote for my brain. Alternatively, Disco Elysium, despite its critical acclaim can feel like a one-trick pony at times. What it does well, it does extremely well – the writing, the characters, the art are all amazing, and the dialogue system combined with the role-playing customization elements take the game to the next level, but outside of all that the gameplay is somewhat hollow. So playing something a little more fast-paced like Rainbow Billy with a nice amount of variety was the perfect way to satisfy my easily distracted brain.
I know you didn’t come here to hear about some silly (but fun) kids game, you came to hear about the disco, drugs, and degeneracy of developer/publisher ZA/UM’s cult hit. You play as an amnesiac detective who was sent to Martinaise, a small district of the city of Revachol, to investigate a murder. The overused amnesiac trope works extremely well here, giving the game an excuse to explain everything to you in conversation form – you don’t remember anything so you ask lots of questions and most people are willing to answer. The detective has spent the past few days drinking himself into a stupor; he must have some scary personal demons or at the very least some heavy emotional baggage. You take control of him the morning after a particularly serious bender. The screen is black nothingness, but you hear a voice; it’s part of your subconscious, your ‘ancient reptilian brain’, telling you to just sink into the void. Right off the bat, the game is introducing you to its hook – one of the elements that help set it apart from the rest of the field. Not only will you be talking to an assortment of unforgettable, well-designed characters, you will also be having plenty of conversations with yourself. The game actually plays very much like an adventure game, walking around a smallish area and talking to people, but there’s a great deal of customization.
There are twenty-four stats that affect your playthrough, and they are split into four categories: Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics. A few are somewhat self-explanatory like Logic or Perception, but others are more unique, like Inland Empire, which dictates how well you interpret the supernatural, or Electro-Chemistry which determines your relationship with all forms of illicit substances. One of the more interesting ones that plays into you being a detective is Visual Calculus, which will allow you to recreate the crime scene in your mind if you pass the skill check. This is visible on-screen as an orange overlay. I was somewhat let down by the detective/investigation elements of the game. I know it is very hard to translate those ideas into a game, but I was hoping for a little more deduction and sleuthing, but pretty much everything just comes your way by talking to people. You do have to piece together a few things, but I can’t help but crave something more substantial on that front.
As you play you gain experience, I’m still not 100% sure on all off the methods that give you experience, but you definitely get it from completing tasks. You also seem to get little boosts in the middle of conversations when certain things happen. Once you earn 100 experience points you’ll gain a skill point that can be used to increase any of your skills. My first playthrough I choose to play as the first archetype, the Thinker, which has high Intellect and Motorics. The in-game description, “Extremely intelligent. Very bad with people. Knows interesting facts, comes up with original ideas” sounded enticing because I figured that being smart would be helpful to solving cases. The Encyclopedia stat also sounded appealing because I wanted to learn more about the game’s world. Not only did I learn about the world, I feel like I took a graduate class on the history of Revachol. The amount of text and info that was created to make this world into a more believable place is pretty incredible, it’s kind of sad that the game takes place in such a small corner of this world, and I really hope the developers use this setting in their next project.
The customizable stats are the central feature that takes this game from just a well-written adventure game to a replayable role-playing game. As you explore the environment there will be little interactive circles that appear and are the color of the related stat. These circles will only appear if you are at or above a certain level in that particular stat. Your stats also determine whether or not you’ll be able to interact with certain objects. There’s a window at one point that doesn’t become interactable until you reach a certain level in Perception (at least I think that was the stat needed). The other big mechanic that is affected by the stats is the skill checks. There are three types of skill checks that take place in the game. Passive checks occur automatically during dialogue and pass or fail based purely on your level. When this happens you’ll get dialogue from that stat, like an internal monologue, and you can usually ask it questions. Sometimes the regular NPCs will notice you spacing out, and point it out, which is pretty funny. The other two skill checks are active skill checks, and will only occur if you select that option in the dialogue. There are white checks which you can retry, and red checks which are one try only. Each check will have a number value, when you select an active check within the dialogue two dice will appear on screen, if the sum of the dice values plus your stat value is equal to or greater than the original number then you pass (there are also a few other factors that can affect your value, either positively or negatively). Disco Elysium features a robust save system with a lot of save slots (I haven’t hit a limit yet), so it’s very tempting to abuse the save system to pass all the skill checks, but failing checks isn’t usually the end of the world, and a lot of the time the results are pretty funny. You can also min/max your stats by equipping clothes that will increase the stats you need. I really like the clothing system; there’s a lot of interesting pieces to find and I like how you can mix and match your outfits, making your detective look really silly or really cool. It kind of takes you out of the moment leaving a conversation and changing clothes though which is the one negative aspect. I mean I could just play the game, but the gamer in me can’t help wanting to have the best odds.
There’s one more mechanic that can affect the stats: The Thought Cabinet. This is a really cool concept – as you play you will occasionally have “thoughts” that occur when you select a certain type of dialogue choice a set number of times; I think it can also happen after key story moments. You can then assign the thought to your thought cabinet where it will be internalized after a set amount of time, this ranges from fifteen minutes to eight hours. Revachol is an odd place, time only passes when you are talking to people, reading, sleeping, or taking a break on a bench. Each thought gives you different bonuses or buffs, and some of them are very helpful. An example is Finger Pistols (9mm) which gives you -2 Savoir Faire while learning it, but once it’s internalized you get +1 reaction speed and +1 suggestion for each empty hand slot (there are a number of tools and items you are able to equip in either hand). You get this thought by choosing to give a clothing salesman a finger pistol greeting after he mentions how cool you look. There’s a ton of hilarious, cringey interactions like this, I loved it.
While playing Disco Elysium the camera follows the protagonist; despite this, the scene visible on-screen always feels like it’s being framed, like the designers specifically set up this view. This occurs because the art direction in Disco Elysium is phenomenal – anyone with even the slightest appreciation for art will experience some type of admiration. Everything in the game environment has this hand-painted look to it, looking like it could be the work of some illustrious artist that you’d learn about in Art History class who specialized in oil painting, but you just can’t pinpoint who. The colors are stunning and every detail is exquisite. The thought cabinet illustrations might be my favorite, they have a Hieronymus Bosch quality to them, and reinforce the absurdity found in the game. The one thing that bothered me about the art design is really more a complaint with the level design and the game’s translation from keyboard and mouse to a controller. Some of the areas you explore have complex navigation that’s difficult to work your way through using a controller. I’m guessing when using a mouse there would be no issue, just click on the other side of the wooden planks or at the bottom of the stairs and your character will automatically traverse the complicated path. After having a long chat with the union boss, Evrart Claire, I couldn’t figure out how to leave his little shipping container office. The stairs look like they go straight up when actually they wind around the side; eventually I figured it out, but I think it would have been helpful if they added an optional cursor mode where you could navigate at any time by clicking where you want to go on screen.
This is the first time Xbox gamers have had a chance to play the game, so there’s not much point telling you the differences between the original version and the new Final Cut, but I will point them out nonetheless. The biggest upgrade is the fully voiced dialogue. This voice acting starts out with a bang, the ancient reptilian and limbic brain vocalizations are amazing, they set the bar extremely high; I was sort of chasing that high the rest of the game, and while no singular performance quite got there, the whole cast did a superb job. The character design in this game is spectacular as well, almost every character is unforgettable, and it helps that you have many conversations with most of them. The voice acting fits with each of them wonderfully, and I really liked hearing the different accents of this fictional world.
The other big addition is the four vision quests that can be undertaken, depending on which political view your character has ascribed to (determined by which one you internalized in your thought cabinet). You can play the part of a communist and try to “sniff out” your bourgeoise-hating brethren, you could also become a fascist and go on some racist quest; role-playing as a giant prick has its appeal, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go that far, plus you’ll really let your partner Kim down. Kim is by no means a new addition, but I feel the need to mention him – he is just so likable, and was written so well, acting as a perfect counterbalance to your insane antics.
It’s been impossible to ignore all the positive press Disco Elysium has received ever since its original release, so I think I had unrealistic expectations as to what the game would be. As I’ve said, the writing is fantastic and the world design is top-notch. I was always eager to explore more of the game to find new characters to interact with, but overall the game is much smaller in scale than I was expecting. At a certain point, I started to grow tired of just running back and forth, talking to people, looking in containers, and changing outfits. There are also a lot of loading screens and the loading times on my O.G. Xbox One were pretty long, so you’ll definitely want to play this on a Series console if you have one. I think most gamers will easily get wrapped up in the plot and fall in love with the setting, while others (like me) will crave more engagement and gameplay. The game is marketed and discussed as an evolution of the CRPG, but I think fans of story-heavy adventure games and the old point-and-click classics would also feel right at home in Disco Elysium: Final Cut.Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.