Life’s a Disco — A review of Disco Elysium (Spoiler Free)

Gianluca Cientanni
Jul 15 · 5 min read
A monument to King Frissel who passed away from a terminal case of regicide, straddled by our hero wielding a bottle of Revachol’s finest.

Disco Elysium is an RPG developed by ZA/UM set in the bleak post-war city of Revachol, a city left to be self-governed by thugs and opportunists. We begin the game by finding our cripplingly hungover protagonist waking up in a vandalised room of the “Whirling-in-Rags” hotel. Sadly for our ethanol-philic friend, he suffered a serious bout of amnesia from the previous night thereby forgetting almost everything. I really mean everything, even the most fundamental aspects of his reality including his job, the concept of a ‘day’, and even his name. We soon find out he’s a police inspector for the RCM (Revachol Citizens Militia) who are currently in the city to solve the murder of a Worker’s Union member, which acts as the main plot of the story. You discover the world of Martinaise with another RCM officer Kim Kitsuragi who acts as your beacon of stability and reason.

Kim Kitsuragi (left) partnered with the protagonist (right).

Deviating from the typical RPG character customisation, Disco Elysium allows the player to customise the protagonist’s mind and body in only the most abstract sense. You don’t choose how tall or fat your character is, instead you can invest a limited number of points into aspects of intelligence or physique. For example, ‘Visual Calculus’ determines how well you can piece together evidence at a crime scene or perhaps ‘Endurance’ which determines the size of your health pool. As you gain XP you gain more points to invest into these traits or alternatively investing them into the ‘Thought Cabinet’ which provide passive buffs at the cost of a brief de-buff whilst these thoughts become internalised. The game features no combat but instead relies on 1d12 skill checks where investment into the corresponding aspect increase your odds of success. Dialogue trees offer various routes of discourse and actively affect your political ideology as well as what ‘type’ of cop you are.

Character customisation

The abstract expressionist art style encapsulates many of the fundamental themes present in Disco Elysium. The world is unrelenting but there are glimpses of beauty and hope; dark hues engulf the centrepiece of many shots, with but a fraction left for brightness. This theme is reflected in a physical phenomenon in the world of Disco Elysium called ‘the pale’, a slow but ever-consuming void that soon will devour all matter with the insolas. The thick oil paint strokes in the character design reveal their nature — our protagonist laden heavy with tired eyes, Evrart Claire’s blotched face, wide with greed. There are however glimpses of beauty in this seemingly indifferent world. The art has brief euphonies of colour, often in the cloudscapes, like energetic explosions of human perseverance amidst the deep blues and purples.

An explosion of burnt orange clouds rise from the horizon behind Martinaise, heavy with blues and purple.
An explosion of burnt orange clouds rise from the horizon behind Martinaise, heavy with blues and purple.
Massive credit to Aleksander Rostov, the art director at ZA/UM for bringing the world to life

The OST by British Sea Power is the perfect complement to Rostov’s art, the waning horns and cinematic strings in ‘Instrument of Surrender’ sonically warns the player of the morose world of Disco. At times the horns are almost anthemic but are kept in check by the reverb-rich piano and loose electric guitar. It is no surprise this OST received the ‘Best Music’ award at the 2020 BAFTA Game Awards. I personally play the ‘Whirling-In-Rags’ three part track as a morning ritual since I bought the game; thankfully amnesia and an unprohibited desire for ‘Al-Gul’ is yet to be experienced (you’ll have to play the game to understand this one, sorry folks). You can purchase the OST and Art Collection from the Steam store in addition to the game.

Our hero, finding humour in a sea of melancholia

The writing in Disco Elysium is where the game truly differentiates itself from the rest. The tragicomedy narrative is what won my heart as a British native, I’m a sucker for the sardonic. Much of the humour revolves around the narrator describing the obvious with scalpel-sharp precision, often using the protagonist as the butt of the joke. The lore and world building are dizzyingly deep, the geopolitical state of affairs is constantly referenced with insights into Revachol’s multi-century history. Many other themes are developed through conversations and interactables such as neighbouring cities, their ethnicity and culture, the push and pull of capitalism, communism, moralism and facism, the role of Union and private companies etc. The dialogue trees allow the player to be as brief as they’d like to avoid the often complex web of interconnecting narratives that exist in Disco.

ZA/UM has gifted us a rich micro-verse of intrigue, deep sorrow, and most importantly a brutally honest inspection into the human condition. Disco Elysium takes a magnifying glass to raw human vulnerability, reveals humour in the darkness, then sobers up to remind us of our protagonist’s perpetual struggle with addiction. The game throws the player down a pit of shame alongside our protagonist and gives us the opportunity for sympathy and redemption. Whether the player chooses a path of continual toil found at the bottom of the bottle, or instead grip the hand of saviour Kim Kitsuragi toward absolution, it is of course, up to you.


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