Police officers typically fill one of two roles in video games. Either they’re cannon fodder for your sociopathic protagonist, or they’re powerful, chiseled action heroes taking down crime syndicates with the aid of a massive arsenal and maybe the odd superpower.
This is most certainly not your typical cop story. Disco Elysium puts you in the gaudy alligator shoes of a severely bloated, washed up, pathetic alcoholic wretch who somehow rose to the rank of detective. And it might just be one of the best police games ever made.
Good Cop, Bad Cop, Drunk Cop, Mad Cop
When Disco Elysium starts, you’re face down on the floor of a trashed hotel room, naked except for a pair of tighty-whiteys. You’d think you were a rock star until you look in the mirror and see a middle-aged loser staring back at you. Worst of all, your drunken escapade was so extreme that your memory has been wiped clean, and you can’t remember your name or where your other shoe is. You find out that you’re somehow a police officer, and you were sent to a scummy part of town to solve a murder. Of course, things are never that simple, and you’re soon dragged into a very dire political situation involving a corrupt union, a worker’s strike, violent mercenaries, drug trafficking, and a giant refrigerator in the shape of a bear.
Disco Elysium is one of the most unique games I've ever played, as it’s truly a role-playing game in every sense. There's not a lot of combat, probably because even the strongest long-term alcoholic isn’t going to be much use in a fight. Most of your time is spent speaking to the various locals in the drug-addled borough of Martinaise, as well as the various parts of your brain. Fortunately, the writing is especially strong, which is good considering there’s about two novels worth of dialogue. You’ll run into some very colorful personalities, including a methed-up, fuel-mouthed, red-haired teenager and a morbidly obese union boss who may or not know the location of your missing gun.
Disco Elysium is incredibly open-ended, meaning you can tackle things however you want. Want to bully a lorry driver until he gives you information? Go ahead. Want to spend your time searching for a sad song on tape so you can belt out a karaoke song? By all means. It manages to tell a compelling story by allowing you to freely explore and delve into the insanity of the city of Revachol. There are several ways to go through this dumpy port town, and you can decide whether you remain a disgusting excuse for a human being, or if you want to try to clean yourself off and act like real police for once in your sad life.
Train Your Brain
Since your brain has been damaged by a week-long bender, you have to rebuild your cop from the ground up. Disco Elysium is an RPG, but instead of bumping up your strength and equipping a new helmet, you're trying to level up your authority or drama and putting on a filthy beanie that gives you a boost to your hand/eye coordination.
There are four main skill categories for you to pump points into which make up different parts of your brain: Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics. Want to be a Columbo-esque sleuth? Pump your points into Intellect and you can use logic or visual calculus to reconstruct a crime scene in your mind. Want to strong-arm your way to success? Then insert your points into Physique and you can intimidate suspects or break down doors to bypass those tricky warrants.
But where most games would be satisfied with you simply inserting skill points into these stats, Disco Elysium treats the aspects of your mind as if they were characters themselves. Sometimes Logic will step in to tell you that someone's alibi doesn't make sense, or Reaction Speed will try to help you come up with a quippy comeback (and it might fail, leading to your character breaking down into a heavily sobbing mess).
Roll The Dice, Baby
Additionally, each one of these stats has skill checks that are decided by a dice roll. Disco Elysium takes a surprising amount of inspiration from tabletop RPGs, so much so that the menu where you build your drunkard officer is literally called the "character sheet." Thus, if you're questioning a witness, there may be a check for Empathy that could lead to new revelations about the case. If you put some points into that, then you have a higher chance of rolling the right dice for that check.
However, having a high score in a certain statistic doesn’t guarantee success. I've had checks where I had a 92% chance of succeeding, only to fail due to the randomness of the roll. This adds a sense of danger and suspense to every conversation, but it felt like a 92% dice roll had the same probability of succeeding as a 10% dice roll. You can also cheese this part of the game pretty easily by saving before each check and then retrying the roll to get the success you want. I wouldn't recommend playing that way though, because sometimes the failures in Disco Elysium are more entertaining than the successes.
A Very Unique Thought Process
There's also the thought system, which is one of the most bizarre skill-buffing game mechanics I've come across. During the game, your brain will come up with random thoughts, which you can then equip in your Thought Cabinet. For example: If you often defend women, you may establish an Inexplicable Feminist Agenda, or if you say, "Sorry," a lot in conversations, then your brain will develop a "Copotype" - which is a way of describing what kind of cop you are - of the Sorry Cop which you can then internalize. Once equipped, your brain will think that thought through for several in-game hours until it blossoms into a fully realized philosophy. These will then give you bonuses, like the Hobocop thought, which allows you to gain more money from collecting bottles on the street.
It’s a cool system, but the only problem I have is that you don’t know for sure what bonus you’re going to gain from a thought until it’s fully researched, and by then it’s locked in. If you want to exchange it for a different thought it’s going to cost you a skill point to forget it, which means you might get stuck thinking some things you’ll regret later.
Some Mighty Fine Police Work
I truly enjoyed the ride through Disco Elysium as it was one of the most eccentric adventures I've had in a game. I can't say I've played many characters like the titular detective here, except for maybe Max Payne, but this guy lacks Max's agility (although he does share the same love of pills). Games are usually all about a power fantasy, but getting to live inside the head of a deeply broken policeman leads the player down an immersive, poignant, disturbing, and occasionally hilarious journey.
The randomness of the skill checks and the obscurity of the Thought Cabinet might throw off people who are used to maxing out their character in CRPGs, but Disco Elysium isn’t that kind of game. It’s a story-rich mystery that will force you to make some tough choices, including some that may end up making you look like a total idiot. It’s a role-playing game where you really play your role, even though that role is of a divorced, brain-damaged buffoon.
You can deduce like Sherlock Holmes, extort like The Shield’s Vic Mackey, or wallow in self-pity and whiskey like The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty. No matter how you go about it, Disco Elysium is a hell of a groovy ride.
A PC copy of Disco Elysium was purchased by TheGamer for this review. Disco Elysium is available now on PC.