Back in 2019, Estonian debut developers ZA/UM rocked the world and defied all expectations with its smash hit – Disco Elysium. It was universally acclaimed as a ground-breaking addition to the genre with its truly literary scope, intuitive mechanics and enchanting presentation. Now, in 2021, the now hugely popular development studio headed by Robert Kurwitz has released Disco Elysium: The Final Cut. Essentially, it’s a fully realised and more cohesive vision of what was originally conceived.
This new title offers a myriad of exciting new features such as; full voice acting, more quests, an overhaul of the visuals, animations and music, as well as some more technical features including controller and ultrawide support. This upgraded experience takes nothing away from the original. It’s quite the opposite. The world of Elysium and the characters that inhabit it (yourself included) are made all the richer in its content and charm with this latest release. It’s an impressive upgrade to an already fantastic game.
STORY – FRACTURED WORLDS, FRACTURED LIVES
You awake in a trashed room of a slightly two-bit hostel cafeteria with a terrible bout of amnesia and a near-cataclysmic hangover to match. Patrons and staff reveal that you embarked on a several-day and near-suicidal bender. You don’t know who you are. You don’t know where you are. You don’t know what you’re doing in this place.
Lumbering downstairs, Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi gives you the rundown. You are a homicide detective from the Revachol Citizen’s Militia – the region’s corrupt and hilariously outmatched volunteer peace corps – sent to the dilapidated City of Revachol to investigate the brutal murder of a man seemingly lynched from a tree in the cafeteria’s backyard.
What follows is rather standard procedure – after conducting a field autopsy of the corpse, you’ll be exploring, interviewing and investigating every lead to its end. You’ll soon find yourself embroiled in an escalating conflict between the local and all-powerful Dockworker’s Union, representatives from the megacorporation called the Wild Pines Group and, finally, a heavily armed combat unit gone rogue. You are the mediator between these groups. You’re there to solve the murder and, better yet, make sure things don’t get too violent in this ever-volatile political landscape.
As you progress through the case by gathering evidence and testimony, your memory gradually begins restoring itself. It’s as much about finding the killer as it is about finding yourself. A rather typical trope, to be sure, especially for detectives. An amnesiac protagonist severs the player from any emotional ties or context and allows both character and player to engage with the world and its revelations at the same pace. But somehow, the trope doesn’t feel nearly as tired. It’s wholly appropriate.
So, it’s a good thing that the urban fantasy world of Elysium is just so immense in its detail and charm and so wonderfully realised with several thousand years of local and world history for you to immerse yourself in. More than that, the game’s central themes of fractured identity and failure extend unto the world itself. Revachol is a chaotic place. It’s a bureaucratic web of borders and jurisdictions where absolute authority and even autonomy are never guaranteed. You are not infallible and wholly accountable. Killing police officers is not a big deal here so the tension is ever-present and the world feels alive and thrashing.
The local residents will also require your assistance with various errands and requests. Luckily, it isn’t one of those games where you happily and ably rebuff the primary storyline in order to flirt with the expansive and much more appealing content of the world at large. I’ve yet to find a single quest that makes the experience in any way lesser. There is a lot to do, and it’s all worth doing.
It’s certainly a melting pot of every kind; angsty teenage vandals looking for a fix, sour elderly veterans adorned with their medals playing bowls, young lorry drivers seeking purpose through poetry, dock workers dreaming of a world revolution, ambitious cryptozoologists hoping to make ground-breaking discoveries, übermenschen supremacists that are a little too into anthropometry based racism. Idiots, lovers, runaways, alcoholics, small business owners, proles, drug-runners – all are welcome at the broken city at the end of the world. Fractured worlds form fractured individuals that make way for riveting conversation and some beautiful interactions. In Revachol, you’ll be right at home.
It’s a story that explores broken people navigating through broken systems. As Kim puts it – “every school of thought and government has failed in this city”. Disco Elysium insists that individuals are inextricably linked to the systems they inhabit and these systems are volatile. The best part is that you’re as much a part of these systems as the people you meet. You’re not special. That’s what makes it so engaging. You’re just as lost and broken as any of them. The presentation of the characters you meet is perhaps amongst the strongest I’ve ever experienced in a game.
You’ll hate them and then love them and vice versa – they’re more than conduits of information that you extract from before moving on. Their stories are heartening and endearing but grounded in a cold and hardened reality all the same. Their plights are relatable and deeply moving in their own strange and complex way. You will grow to empathise with them. The journey of the protagonist is something really special. Gradually discovering parts of his history was an absolute treat.
Your camaraderie with Kim Kitsuragi is also excellently presented. It’s certainly a clash and that’s why it works. You are a neurotic wildcard whose approach to policing is anything but orthodox and whose psychological arrangements are far from ideal. You are a pathetic but admittedly gracious and ultimately endearing failure. Kim, on the other hand, is the reconciling voice of professionalism and courtesy. He’s an unbelievably cool straight arrow. The contrast makes for a pairing that is virtually unparalleled in its charm and heart.
Fundamentally, it’s the game’s articulation and presentation that binds it all together. The prose is utterly intoxicating. With writing like this, it’s easy to fall in love with language. It’s a story that twists and turns and dances its way through the sublime and the vulgar and beyond. It is equally hysterical, transcendental, oppressive and poignant. You’ll be splitting from your sides one moment and near weeping or struck upon with total existential anxiety or complete earnestness the next.
It’s a behemoth of a game. I’ve played through it a few times and always done things differently each time. With each playthrough, I remember many occasions where I had followed a path I hadn’t before – maybe a course of action or dialogue check. Time and time again, I found taking this alternate path yielding a glorious nugget of the soul of the game that makes me wonder how I ever could have done without that nugget in the first place. It’s that kind of game.
GAMEPLAY – SKILLS ARE A DETECTIVE’S BEST FRIEND
Disco Elysium is an isometric RPG. It’s a game that takes a lot from classic Infinity Engine titles such as Planescape: Torment, the Icewind Dale series and Baldur’s Gate series. The crucial difference, however, is that there is no combat. Interaction with the world and dialogue with its characters is achieved wholly through exploration and text-based skill checks, and dialogue trees. So, there is a lot of reading and a lot of walking. All in all, there are more than one million words in the script. For some perspective – that’s significantly larger than the Bible. Luckily, if you’re not a fan of reading walls of text, The Final Cut offers full voice acting.
Upon creating your character, you can select an archetype and specialise in two of four primary attributes. Intellect is your raw brain power – your capacity to reason and visualise. Psyche covers your emotional sensitivity and your ability to influence and empathise with others. Physique covers your physicality, strength and endurance. Motorics is the level of your agility, reaction speed and coordination. These four attributes cover and influence the base level and skill cap of their own six respective skills. In total, that’s twenty-four unique skills that will make or break your exploits through Revachol. Completing quests earns you experience, which gives you Skill Points to invest in your attributes.
Sure, you have your more traditional skills, such as Endurance or Physical Instrument or Hand-Eye Coordination. But there’s also your more unique skills like Inland Empire, which is described as ‘dreams in waking life’ – hunches and gut feelings and the like. There’s also Esprit De Corps, which is your attunement to ‘Cop Culture’. Electro-Chemistry governs your relationship with illicit substances. Shivers dictate your ability to ‘tune into the City’ – your street smarts.
There are two things thing that elevate Disco Elysium’s RPG mechanics far beyond any of its peers and two things that will mark its place in the genre and medium indefinitely. Here’s the first. Your skills aren’t just a measure of your success in regards to the course of actions you undertake. Your skills talk to you. They talk to each other. Sometimes, they even argue with each other. They are the multiple fractured remnants of your psyche – a chorus of internal monologues, each with their own quirks and personality.
When in conversation with a suspect, for example, your Drama skill may interject and insist that the person is lying. When a suspect states that he was nowhere near the crime scene, your Visual Calculus skill may recall and remind you that this individual’s very distinctive boot print was indeed found at the scene. With your Conceptualization skill, you might even be able to convince an edgy teenage street artist that you, a balding middle-aged man with an absolutely dire case of mutton chops, totally get what she’s going for.
Secondly, there’s the Thought Cabinet. Even without amnesia, the mind of the protaganist is an enigma. It’s a whirlpool of ideology, beliefs, faiths, habits, desires and fears. Simply put, the Thought Cabinet adds structure to this chaos. Here’s how it works. Over the course of your time in Revachol, the game keeps track of your choices and dialogue. If you’re consistent in your ideals and/or habits and meet certain criteria, you’ll unlock a ‘Thought’. If you have a Skill Point to spare, you can begin ‘researching’ this Thought.
These take a varying amount of time to research and, more often than not, will result in a temporary Skill penalty. Once the dictated amount of time passes, you have the option to ‘internalize’ the Thought. When this happens, the penalty will be lifted and you’ll benefit from a permanent bonus.
So, find yourself constantly preaching the values of laissez-faire economics? Do you hate Unions? Congratulations – you’re a free-market fundamentalist who’ll suffer a penalty to their Empathy skill but has gained the ability to wring cold, hard cash from Ultraliberal dialogue options! Suffer from a pathological need to fire your finger pistols at every given opportunity? Here’s a bonus to your Reaction Speed.
You get the idea. They range from the ideological to the contextual to the downright silly. They’re a perfect way to encapsulate both your and your protagonist’s reactions and ideals whilst you both navigate a harsh, grey world and interact with its broken creatures and crumbling structures.
With both these expansive mechanics in place, you really do feel like your own kind of detective with your own approach and play style. There are many ways to get things done and, above all, many ways to fail. It’s very much the mantra of the experience, both thematically and mechanically; if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.
The gameplay is engaging, innovative, unique and very often hilarious. Fundamentally, the mechanics work in conjunction with the story, as they should in every game. These are different parts of your psyche; your expertise, your history, your experience and your ideals are all in conflict with each other. But together, they’re something else entirely. Your player character’s skills and thoughts are pieces of a puzzle. He is the puzzle. Your job is putting him all together again.
The game takes the admittedly stale formula of a typical RPG and, with unbelievable quantities of heart and originality, delivers a carefully and deftly crafted gameplay experience that is unparalleled in its efficiency in combining superb storytelling with compelling mechanics.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO – WATERCOLOUR EUPHONIES
Disco Elysium adopts a hand-crafted, painterly aesthetic that successfully merges a stark and grimy view of the world that’s grounded in realism, with a simultaneous effort to discredit the validity of its own representations. So, again, it’s much in line with the game’s effort of scrambled identities and unstable images. It’s an approach that relies on an often surreal, exaggerated and distorted view of reality in order to convey emotion over realism. More than anything – it is subjective. It’s not a matter of what the world looks like; it’s a matter of what the world looks like to the protaganist.
Revachol is magnificently presented with broad brushstrokes of a dark and dulled colour palette that is as striking as it is solemn. Light and shadows are dynamic and utilised wonderfully, especially at night. The style is at its most revealing when you look at the game’s brilliant character portraits. After all, this is a game in which you’ll be mostly talking to people. It’s a game where everyone is hiding to some degree behind a layer of artifice. They are deeply expressive and very often abstract. It’s all a great fit.
Alternative Rock band British Sea Power composed the soundtrack. It’s made up of original tracks as well as their own past songs that have gone through a bit of repurposing. There could not have been a better fit for this game. The band provides an incredibly moody and melancholic ambiance that totally sells Revachol as a tangible place with an atmosphere that’s alive and struggling.
But scattered amongst the hours of delightful gloominess are tracks of cautious optimism and high-adrenaline sequences, some of them packaged with transcendental and abstract lyrics that pack key sequences with a lot of thematic punch. All in all, it’s a fantastically presented experience that is a technical and visual marvel.
THE FINAL CUT
With this latest and fully realised edition, developers ZA/UM offer a complete vision of their game. But, what exactly is new, and how well a fit are they?
As mentioned before, Disco Elysium: The Final Cut offers full voice acting. The narration, the characters, the Skills, the Thought Cabinet – everything. This is a remarkable achievement that is executed perfectly. The cast of actors and actresses do an all-around fantastic job of portraying their characters. Additionally, if you fancy an experience that’s more in line with the original release, there are settings to accommodate you.
Perhaps the second most significant addition is the ‘Political Vision’ Quests. These are essentially extensions to the more politically charged Thought Cabinet entries. If you’re committed and consistent enough in your political stances – that’s Ultraliberalism, Communism, Fascism and Moralism – then you can unlock unique quest chains pertaining to that ideology. They’re great additions and have some really fun interactions.
There’s also a myriad of smaller changes: a few more quests, improved visuals with some tighter animations and some new music tracks. Of course, in technical terms, you can now explore Revachol with controller support. This coincides with the PS5 release and the future XBOX and Switch releases.
Overall, it’s a fantastic development for an already iconic title. New players can experience the full, cohesive vision of the game and fans and veterans can return to play around with the considerable amount of extra content. Best of all – it’s free and included in the base game!
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut was reviewed on PC via Steam.