Fami-come solve some murders.
Disco Elysium is addictive. I found myself reaching for it every day when I should have been working, and it bled into my thoughts at night. I’ve played through it a few times now in slightly different ways, as though trying to scratch an itch. The second-person aspect drew me in completely, and that first night’s dream is something that I still think about in particular. The way this game weaponizes nostalgia as a way to examine the most pathetic and most arrogant parts of yourself — I found myself reconciling pieces of myself with my own ideology and the world around me. It’s also deeply, deeply funny, a lot of dark and absurd humor that comes naturally to the universe and the eccentric characters with whom you have to try and cooperate.
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut feels like a good place to write a review. The additions it makes to the base game are noteworthy, but it also just feels like a more refined version of it, and it was this update that finally made me go back and play through it completely. So if you’re like me, here’s a really long-winded review of the whole thing.
You drift within the abyss of a cataclysmic hangover, the only voices dominating your thoughts belonging to your Ancient Reptilian Brain and your Limbic system — your most basic and instinctual functions keeping you alive. It swiftly becomes clear that you’ve done this to yourself for some reason – the pain of it all, the coming end, the inherent disquiet of the body itself, the ‘ex-something’ – and you can beg for the darkness to continue in perpetuity.
Eventually, you awake to a hostel room in ruins, every inch of it defiled in the wake of a bender the degree of which is yet unknown. Through blaring context clues and the voices in your head, you come to understand that you’ve bendered yourself into total retrograde amnesia. The first conversation outside of this room informs you of three things: you are a cop, you’ve been drinking a lot, and there’s been a dead body hanging from a tree out back for several days. Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi waits for you downstairs. Time to get to work.
Disco Elysium, developed and published by ZA/UM, originally debuted in 2019 to resounding universal acclaim and has earned many awards since then. It’s somewhat genre-bending, mixing elements of a gritty detective noir, classic tabletop RPG, and socio-political manifesto into an isometric interactive narrative that transcends the expectations you might have about any or all of those things.
ZA/UM has since cited several different sources of inspiration for this game, from Planetscape: Torment to True Detective, political and philosophical literature to classic painters. What’s notable is this game’s universe began as a Dungeons & Dragons-esque tabletop RPG concept and – around the same time – a book, all with the same gritty, steampunk aesthetic that we see in game. Because of this, those systems are at the core of Disco Elysium and ultimately drive its narrative.
The first thing to mention about this game is there’s no kind of traditional combat. There is combat, but it’s strategic and beat-by-beat, weighed more by the decision of action/reaction or evasion, done through dialogue and it’s usually deeply consequential. This combat system, crucial progression, conflict, and interpersonal development are often navigated through the dialogue tree and dice rolls. These dice rolls are separated into repeatable (white) and non-repeatable (red), with modifiers that are expansive, contextual, and oftentimes really funny. Even failure on red rolls progresses the story and gives you a new path to take, though usually by humiliating you with a really funny alternate line to say, or at least pulling the rug out from under your carefully laid plans. There’s always a percentage chance displayed on these rolls, so you can get a decent idea of your chances either way rather than waste your time on a blind guess. Still, don’t be afraid to fail.
These dice rolls, and interactions with some objects, are delivered through narration, oftentimes by one of the Skills. There are 24 skills in total, divided into four attributes – intellect, psyche, physique, and motorics – with each skill commanding a different aspect of the body and mind. At first, it’s a lot, but the game alleviates that estrangement from all those skills by personifying them, giving them a voice and a major role in the narration throughout the entirety of the game. And because those aforementioned attributes have a learning cap on them – depending on your choice of character type – some pivotal dice rolls in the game will be automatic failures, and those paths of dialogue will be washed away. In my case, sometimes a failed roll cascades into a situation where you grab your partner’s gun and stick it in your own mouth as a power move to get everyone in the room to respect you. Hint: It does not work!
Anyway, having a typical skill tree broken down into these numerous and diverse functions lends greatly to the narrative vision, in that it allows players to approach situations with more nuance than good/bad or smart/strong/charming dialogue choices. It gives you the sense that you are playing your version of the Cop (who I’m referring to as Cop since your real name is something of a discovery,) with interactions and a character build that’s unique from the person next to you. Almost everything else in the game is in service to these core skills. Clothing and accessories give temporary bonuses and deductions, and drugs and alcohol can give you more room to grow within certain attributes. There are plenty of situations that can be improved simply by changing your shirt, or throwing on a silk robe. It’s a simple system done very well.
One of my favorite systems of Disco Elysium is the Thought Cabinet. Through the choices you make and the way that you interact with other characters, you can unlock thoughts to pursue to build a sort-of tree of ideology. These thoughts will differ depending on where you’ve been leaning politically and personally, what kinds of questions you’ve asked, who you’ve spoken to and when. Active thoughts can change dialogue options, open new avenues of progression, give bonuses, or increase the level cap of certain skills, increase reál (the game’s money) or XP gain, or simply provide insight on the particular subject. They’re written with depth, and often expand on history or background on the world that you wouldn’t otherwise get.
Of course, all of this serves the narrative. On paper, it’s about two cops – one with amnesia, one markedly not with amnesia – working to solve a mundane murder investigation mostly alone in the bombed-out shell of a city district. The most important part of this story is just how much is left up to interpretation. It’s not packaged neatly — it’s a world in which every person that you talk to is naturally driven by their own ideologies, and the culmination of all these different people occupying the same small, blasted land ends up with different degrees of success and failure. While acting more in the capacity of a detective, it becomes clear that officers in Martinaise have only as much power as the locals grant them.
In opposition to traditional tabletop roleplay, the Cop is stripped of a lot of the agency you expect him to have — he doesn’t get more powerful, so to speak, but he does get somewhat less shitty. Camaraderie and cooperation is a focal point — not even the fact that this game is dialogue driven, but the sentiment that human connection is needed to progress is clearly stated. You can bully your way through the town and the sensitive intercommunity tension, but I found myself in the role of someone who was desperate to make amends, acting on behalf of a prophetic vision of the end of the world, with all the trials and rewards you might expect from that. Through your dialogue and actions, and the bonds you create, you can help the situation or aggravate it, and the method to doing either of those things is not always the obvious one. It will be satisfying, however, to see the results of what you choose manifest itself within the world and the way that other characters speak to you.
Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi is the other member of your party, so to speak. He appears as a lifeline for the new player, who might notice that every NPC’s initial response to the Cop is some version of abject disrespect. Far beyond the conventional other half of an unconventional buddy cop duo, Kim’s written as somewhat of a moral bedrock, an entity that will respond to your actions, guide you in the art of investigation, and provide some useful contextual modifiers for vital dice rolls. He will also absolutely not bullshit you on anything, he’ll open up to the general weirdness of your character, and he’ll sit with you on a swing set while the tide goes out. In an ocean of well-written characters, he is notably one of the best, and you really get the impression that you need him to get through the investigation, to get to the end of the game without biting it. Of course, you have the option to make him hate you, but how could you? I think there should be an option to hug this guy. I actually think there should be an option to go in for a kiss at some point, but I know the power of asking for small favors.
The political milieu of Disco Elysium is both familiar and unique. The timeline of the game’s setting of Revachol can be loosely explained as existing under a monarchy of wasteful luxury, then to an attempted communist revolution, and the devastating conclusion of that revolution. There was a period of disco and gold leaf opulence and grandeur, to a market-driven world with a coalition of foreign powers exerting its pressure over a country that tried to shift its own status quo. Disco Elysium touches on a lot of real-life political discourse, cops as a concept, evolutions of social paradigms that start in small groups of friends, the monumental effort of revolution, and the people left behind who are endlessly enamored and obsessed with windows of their lives to which they can never return. It’s realistic and thoughtful at a depth that I don’t see very often, especially from video games.
In the wake of all these crucial elements is a core story that’s complicated and emotional, one which explores imperfect motivation, and the subtle surrealism of grief and shame. The driving conflict surrounding the hanged man is one between union and company, with views into the power dynamics within each structure. Amnesia is kind of the form and function of character development, so the ‘blank slate’ is played pretty literally. There are moments of reckoning with the past by way of dreams, and your Skills pulling you towards revelation or away from it. Even the people you’ve forgotten come calling eventually, and the personal undercurrent of the narrative is ultimately one of reconciliation with or doubling down on the contempt of everything around you, with shades of gray in between.
All of this is presented in a visually exceptional watercolor style for both the world itself and the UI, from Art Director Aleksander Rostov, and gives the game an aesthetically cohesive feel. The music is all done by English alt-rock band British Sea Power and travels across a wide spectrum of tone and tempo. From the ambience of an airy dockside union town, to the uplifting tune of the local hostel, to the melody that drifts out of the shattered visage of a mysterious religious icon, to the humble beginnings of what I can only assume will eventually become EDM. The game’s creators and designers have said they didn’t have the intention of being a video game studio so much as a social movement that just so happened to produce a video game that reflected their values, much in the vein of art movements that focus on process and the rejection of convention. And boy did they.
Now for what’s new: in The Final Cut, the biggest change by far is the addition of full and complete voice acting. The casting of Lenval Brown as the voice for every single skill and the overall narration was pivotal, because those voices account for almost half of all of the dialogue spoken in the game. His low bass and imperfect cadence is both so unobtrusive as to never become grating or repetitive throughout the whole game, and he complements the unique style of writing through slight tone shifts and a genuine talent for emotional speaking. Every other person cast in this game brings life to it in their own way, and there’s a variety of accent, tone, and basic voice acting acumen that exemplifies the world in which Disco Elysium operates — somewhat of a melting pot. Doing much of the voice work in-house and through their personal network likely lends to that effect, and it makes the entire game more immersive, which is not a word I really use lightly. Side note: there’s a certain magic to the old voice acting, and that can be toggled in the settings as “classic,” so go nuts!
There are other additions to the base game in the form of audio/visual updates and optimization, new items, and some expanded dialogue. Porting the game to other consoles seemed inevitable, and I’m glad the audience has expanded. Political Vision Quests are new questlines for the four major political alignments already within the game: communism, facism, moralism, and ultraliberalism. They’re kind of easy to miss, but it starts with picking the associated dialogue options, unlocking the thought within the Thought Cabinet, and completing that thought by the third day. Each quest locks out the others, and they all introduce small new areas with new characters, new dialogue, and serves mostly as an elaboration on the political commentary in Disco Elysium.
I will say that the only things I found technically wrong with the game were some very minor graphical/interface hiccups, like pathing issues, and areas of the map where a scene would play out indefinitely until I force-closed the game. The church with Soona and the ravers in particular featured a moment where the camera pans out, and you’re listening for an anomaly, and the next dialogue prompt never comes. Some of the voice acting also fails to line up with the writing, and in some places it simply doesn’t play at all, especially in the coastal part of the world. At the time of writing this review, however, I know they’ve put out a few patches addressing issues like these. Overall, there’s a refreshing lack of problems.
Now, if you’ve been on the fence about it at all, hopefully this review gives you a sense of just how much is waiting for you to take the leap. Not to mention, the quality and style of everything in this game is consistent from the start, so you’ll probably know pretty quickly if it’s not Your Thing. If you’ve been contemplating a second (or third) run, now’s absolutely the time to do it — the full voice acting alone makes it worth it, and with just a few tweaks you can have a completely different experience from your previous playthroughs.
All in all, Disco Elysium is infectiously well-written, thoughtful, beautiful, and one of the funniest games I’ve ever played in my life. Disco Elysium: The Final Cut takes all of that and proves that you can take a masterpiece and make it better.