Disco Elysium is one of those games that you think about even when you're not playing it. Even just a few hours in, you'll find that this strange and at times absurd role-playing title has claimed a space in your mind. In truth, it's like nothing else on the market — and reviews like this one don't really do it justice. But, this is our job, and so we're going to try and explain what makes Disco Elysium: The Final Cut a modern classic.
Before we begin, it should be noted that Disco Elysium won't be for everyone. It can be a very slow paced game, and no matter how you approach it, you're going to be doing an awful lot of reading — or listening, since the PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4 versions of the title feature full voice acting. It's a game that's filled with reams and reams of text; it's full-on CRPG, but if you happen to get hooked, you're in for one hell of a ride.
The premise is simple but brilliant: you're a detective on a murder case, but you drank yourself into oblivion last night, and you've given yourself severe amnesia. You wake up surrounded by bottles in your trashed hotel room, and you're left to pick up the pieces. What follows is a largely two-pronged story: the search for a mystery killer, and the search for your own identity.
To be clear, you don't play as a custom character in Disco Elysium. You're always put in the shoes of a middle aged, mutton-chopped cop — but his personality is yours to decide. Stat distribution and countless dialogue options ensure that you're able to inject the dirty detective with your own thoughts and feelings. It's exceptional role-playing from start to finish, and the sheer amount of player choice is mind-blowing at times.
Your primary goal is to find leads on the murder, and this task takes you all across the game's dilapidated urban setting. The map itself isn't massive, but it's dense and packed with secrets. Interesting characters are dotted all over the place, and it's your duty to question them, and work out how they fit into the puzzle. At its best, Disco Elysium is utterly engrossing — and that's partly thanks to just how good the dialogue is. It's seriously some of the best, most engaging writing that you'll find in modern gaming.
But the real innovation of Disco Elysium is how your aforementioned stats work. At the start of the game, you decide on your detective's specialities with four key stats: Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics. In turn, these core values influence lesser traits, like Logic, Suggestion, Endurance, and Reaction Speed, respectively. Put all of this together and you have a main character who very much feels like your own creation.
High stat values allow you to perform certain actions correctly, carving out a specific route through the story. For example, if you specialise in Physique, your drink-soaked detective might be able to smash through an otherwise inaccessible door, taking you to a new area that houses new clues. Or perhaps a more empathetic cop can better understand a suspect, leading to more branching dialogue options and additional information.
The beauty of this stat-based system is that it's easy to understand — you're never drowning in screens full of numbers. Instead, stat checks will simply pop up in dialogue boxes, and they'll tell you the percentage chance that you have to succeed. However, you don't necessarily have to succeed in Disco Elysium; failing a stat check is an integral part of the experience. As one avenue of the investigation gets closed off, another opens — and it's up to you to find it. Indeed, there are even some moments where a statistical stumble leads to a completely different (and often ridiculous) scenario, and again, it makes for some outstanding storytelling.
The end result is that your playthrough of Disco Elysium will probably be very different to someone else's. By the time the credits roll, you'll feel like you've been on your own personalised trip through the broken mind of this deadbeat detective. Of course, this also means that the game holds immense replay value. At around 30 hours in length, playing through Disco Elysium multiple times doesn't seem too demanding, and it's worth it just to see how different each run can be.
Our only real complaint with ZA/UM's captivating adventure is that sometimes, it can feel like you've hit a brick wall. More commonplace in the early hours of the game as opposed to the gripping latter half, leads can dry up quite quickly depending on your actions, leaving you to aimlessly wander around town in search of anything that might help you progress. Disco Elysium runs on an in-game calendar, taking place over the course of several days. The in-game clock moves slowly, only ticking along at any noticeable speed when you're either questioning people or reading a book.
Some areas and events only present themselves days into the investigation, meaning that it's possible to exhaust your options if you either A) know what you're doing, or B) fail on such a catastrophic level that you're left with nothing to go on. If you do happen to box yourself in, trying to find that next, precious lead can be tedious. You might find yourself doublechecking every dialogue branch and every interactable object just to make sure that you haven't missed anything. An easy-to-read journal does keep track of what needs doing, but with no objective markers to follow, it can feel like your time isn't being respected.
Of course, you could argue that these cold leads make the eventual revelations all the sweeter — and that's certainly true. When you do hit upon a confession or information that shines a whole new light on an otherwise inexplicable scenario, there's extreme satisfaction to be had.
Speaking of satisfaction, we should mention that Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is now in a much better state than it was at launch. Developer ZA/UM has delivered a number of updates since the game's release, each of them doing away with some nasty progress-related bugs. Needless to say, this would have been a very different review had the patches not cleared things up, although a number of minor problems still arise every now and then — like slightly buggy interactions and odd control quirks.
Last but not least, we have to remark on the game's presentation. If Disco Elysium was just text on a screen, it'd make for a damn good read, but as a video game, the experience owes so much to its visuals and music. Its painted art aesthetic is superb — the character portraits in particular are a joy to examine. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is mostly ambient and subtle, but it does an amazing job of tying the atmosphere together. It really is an audio-visual experience that lives long in the mind.
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is an exceptional achievement in role-playing. Expertly written, it's an utterly engrossing detective drama at its best, and a fantastic sense of humour keeps the whole thing grounded. Its deliberately slow and methodical pacing won't be for everyone, but once you're invested, it's incredibly hard to put down. A haunting video game, for all the right reasons.