I finished Disco Elysium yesterday and wanted to have a bit of a think about it before putting my pen to paper as it were. I’ve tried to keep it brief but in the interest of even further brevity. It’s very good but has some big flaws. I’d very much recommend checking it out.
I’d planned to play Disco Elysium when it launched. I’d been interested in it for a while and it had languished in my Steam Wishlist since it hit the platform. But in the end I forgot it’s exact release date and started playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses a day or two before hand. As FE:3H is a very (very) long game I ended up putting off my purchase of Disco Elysium for about a month. In that time I didn’t look into it at all so I had no real expectations going into it.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I had heard some very positive word of mouth about it. But I didn’t bother looking at any reviews or joining in any online discussion. My initial impression of the game were very positive. It felt absolutely amazing. But the more I played the more problems I had with it. The game has some amazing elements but is really let down by the actual “game” parts. I’ll try and outline the good and bad below.
- Characters: The characters in this game are amazing. All of them are over the top but they are all very memorable and entertaining. Their motives make sense for the world presented and nearly all of them are entertaining just to talk to. While the cast isn’t huge I can remember all of them because they were so well written. One of the few games that made me want to punch a (fictional) child in the face.
- Dialogue: Perhaps this should have been lumped into the characters point but fuck it it isn’t, as characters certainly aren’t the only thing you talk to. If you’ve heard anything about this game you will likely have heard how well written it is. That is entirely based on the dialogue. The other writing in the game is decent but the dialogue is where it’s truly great. Really can’t overstate how good it is.
- Voice acting: The voice acting, of which there is a lot, was all uniformly excellent. While the mixture of accents didnt really lend the city a sense of place all the VA was great.
- Length: The game doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. You could probably expand the length a bit if you explored absolutely everything. But at around fifteen hours I felt like it ended when I was ready to be done with it.
- The story: It’s not very good. Being below average probably would have been fine if there wasn’t such a focus on it. While the game feels more like a character study the overall narrative never goes anywhere and has an incredibly anticlimactic ending. The ending is so poor it almost deserves its own bullet point.
- The movement: Literally the worst part of the game. The movement system is very slow and quite clunky. Inexplicably the game has no fast travel option so you will waste a lot of time running back and fro. It feels exactly like what it is, a waste of time to artificially pad the games playtime. It often ruins the momentum in tense scenes and if you have to run the length of the map its enough to make you just want to save and take a break.
- The skill system: Like most RPG’s you have various statistics. When you need to make a skill check the game rolls two d6 and adds your skill to it. You need to beat a difficulty threshold, ranging from 10-20, the average stat is 3. You can gain various bonuses to skills from equipment and the games upgrade system. This is a terrible system. It’s too random, unless you have a very high combined skill rating the majority of the skill check will be decided by the random dice roll. In and off itself this wouldn’t be so bad. But the game commits the cardinal sin of letting a single skill check stop you from progressing with the story. This is the kind of mistake that every piece of GM advice for (literally) the last twenty years warns against. There’s a point later in the game where you have to pass an “Impossible – Difficulty 20” check to pass. You can eventually work up bonuses to get past it but its terrible. This happens several times in the game.
Oh, did I mention that you pass any roll on a double six? Perhaps I should also mention that the roll doesn’t have a set seed i.e. if you Quicksave, make the roll and fail, you can Quickload to roll again with a different result. Can you see the kind of degenerate playstyle this leads to? If your answer is “save scumming” then you would be correct. I was neutral on the skill system at first but by the halfway point I actively hated it. A resource management style skill system, something like GUMSHOE, would have worked much better.
- Immersion: There is none basically. This isn’t unique to this game. I find it to be an issue with any game where you have lots of different conversation choices. Your character never feels like a cohesive personality you feel like what you are, a gateway for often arbitrary response, some often at odds with what you said to someone else, or the same person, just a while ago. Amusingly the game acknowledges this in the end sequence but it doesn’t make it any less immersive.
- Performance: The game has pretty poor performance. I have a fairly beefy PC and it still ran poorly on it. It takes a long while to save and load and the levels are small so you will be seeing the save and load screens a lot (which makes the no fast travel mentioned above even more annoying).
- Pacing: It’s all over the place. For the first half of the game it plays like a point and click adventure so every little event feels like its siloed off from the game world at large and you (and your lack of progress) control the staccato pace of the narrative. But then in the final act the game turns into a tedious railroad. Some kind of middle ground would have worked better.
- The options: The dearth of options is really inexcusable for a PC game. You can’t remap the keys nor make any game play tweaks. Some of which feel absolutely essential. One in particular that jumps out is not being able to toggle the “Interact” button. You need to hold down Tab to see what you can interact with on screen. You need that held down more or less all the time. I easily spent 75%+ of my time with the game with my finger on tab. Why not make it toggleable? The same goes for movement and various other things.
- The interface: The UI looks nice but the areas you need to interact with on screen are often quite small or overlapping so you end up misclicking a fair amount.
- Replayability: I can’t see myself every replaying this. The characters are entertaining but taking different approaches to them doesn’t change the dialogue that much and the central mystery once solved isn’t something I want to bother with again. Perhaps most damning is that after finishing the game I checked and there are several things you simply can’t avoid or change making any shot at a different approach feel like a magicians choice.
- Disco: I was expecting this to have a more 70’s feel but it feels more like a noir alternate reality 1930’s. Which I quite like but wasn’t really what I was expecting.
- World building: The world building is purposefully fragmentary and obtuse. This works within the frame of the character being an amnesiac so he’s as ignorant of the world as the player. It’s also generally handled quite well. The world being presented is intriguing. But at the same time it robs the game of a lot of “weight”. When you hear that “so and so” is from X or Y, even if you find out later the implications of that, it still feels like a meaningless fictional fact. I don’t think being set in a fictional world really added anything to the game.
- The outfits: Rocking around in a random hodepodge outfit was certainly visually amusing. But as the game developed I went from wearing what I thought looked cool or amusing to changing my clothes every time I needed to make a skill check. Which really broke any sense of immersion. “Oh I need to wear my dragon kimono and sports cap to make the lockpicking check, now I’m in the living room I’ll put on sweat pants and jeans to help me reconstruct the crime scene” and so on.