Hands on Disco Elysium – An Absolute Mindfunk (preview)

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Funnily enough, I find it hard to know where to start when presented with 150 playable games. And as I wandered up and down the isles of the indie section of this year’s EGX showfloor, that’s exactly what happened. Then, a neon glow. A custom-made sign shining lambent green reading “Disco Elysium“. Like moth to a flame, I took a seat, and played through one of the most unique, intriguing and downright perplexing opening 30 minutes of a video game I’d ever experienced. Over my time with Disco Elysium, I felt like I was only scratching the surface of a vast, intricately detailed world, the likes of which has never been seen before in gaming. Seriously, if there’s only one upcoming indie game you keep on your radar over the next year, make it this one.

Disco Elysium opens with complete darkness. And a conversation with the primal, unevolved, lizard-part of your brain. So far, so freaky. This deep, disembodied, almost seductive voice attempts to convince the playable character (who you haven’t even seen yet) to embrace the comfort of unconsciousness. It quickly becomes apparent that you’re playing as a drunk amnesiac cop, who’s had one (or ten) too many. Then a different part of your brain chimes in, the limbic system, and it all gets a bit weird. But excellently so. Eventually you can fight off these primal urges and wake up, naked, in your hotel room. Unsurprisingly, it’s a mess, and you’re tasked with finding your clothes.

Let’s dance, baby!

Aside from the totally mental introduction, there’s a lot that immediately sets Disco Elysium apart from anything I’d played before. The art style for one. I didn’t know that the graphics of a game could be both stunningly rendered yet still somehow so messy. But it really works, and ties in perfectly with how absolutely nuts the world itself is. Luckily, the roughness of the visuals doesn’t make it hard to move your character around. Click on the ground the walk to that spot (or double click to run), and anything you can interact with is highlighted when you hover over it. Standard isometric RPG fare.

Talking of which, this is a true RPG – but not like you’ve ever seen. Instead of the standard RPG tropes on the stats screen like “defence”, “health”, “attack”, you’ve “visual calculus”, “conceptualization”, “pain threshold”, and lots of other cool-sounding gubbins. Luckily each stat has a description of what they do and how they’ll effect your character, and I could have easily sat finding out how to craft my perfect build for many hours (much to the annoyance of the people queuing behind me to have their go).

And it was truly fascinating to see how you chose to craft your character played out during the game. For example, I’d poured a lot of my early skill points in to “conceptualization”, so when I approached a crime scene and a set of nearby footprints, my character had the option to read the prints with alarming accuracy. Which prints belonged to women, which prints belonged to tall people, and which prints belonged to a person carrying another person (a dead body, in this instance). Another example is “Reaction Speed”, which affects your ability to dodge incoming fire. But it’s more than that. There’s a cerebral side too; it helps you dodge verbal snipes in conversation. Most of the skills are multifaceted like this, and my mind boggles when I think about how there must be a ridiculous amount of ways to play Disco Elysium with all the different character builds.

If you already have trouble deciding how to level up (like me), you’re in for a rough ride …

Levelling up will be familiar to most – you simply do quests and complete tasks to gain XP. But I also encountered “secret quests” when I was playing. You don’t have any indication you’re doing them, you just complete them when you’ve done them. Pretty cool, I thought. And if you haven’t already guessed, it seems like there are multiple ways in which to complete these and the normal quests. But the most engrossing aspect of the way you build your character is the way in which these stats almost come alive. The more points you pour into a certain skill, they more that skill becomes a separate entity with its own compulsions and its own desires. They’ll manifest as thoughts, which will interrupt you during conversations and offer advice (both good and bad) or even just completely take the interaction to completely unexpected locations.

And it helps that all the interactions are as dynamic as this. Because you talk to people. A lot. This may put some people off, but seriously, don’t let it. The dialogue is incredibly well written. Funny, too. I found myself reading everything, and never being bored by it. Every character you come across has their own quirks, their own meticulously crafted personality. You’ll want to dive into every nook and cranny just so you can experience everything Disco Elysium has to offer. Everything from weird children-like beings throwing rocks at the crotches of hanging corpses (while hurling homophobic slurs in your direction), to gaining buffs to your character by getting dressed.

By this point, the bustling halls of the EGX floor had blurred into nothingness as Disco Elysium swallowed up my complete attention. But a call from my bladder brought reality back into sharp focus. What was on show was only a very early build of the game, but already I’m hooked. I literally cannot remember a game before this that has caught my attention in such a profound way. Dear reader, keep Disco Elysium on your radar. And thank me later.

Disco Elysium is has not set release date yet, but it seems likely it could be later this year or early next year. Steam page here, and developer website here.