Disco Elysium is the first endeavor from studio ZA/UM. It’s an RPG set in a world known as Elysium decades after a war ravaged it. The world of Elysium is the brainchild of Estonian novelist, musician, and ZA/UM studio founder Robert Kurvitz, and it first appeared in his novel titled Sacred and Terrible Air. Disco Elysium tells the story of an amnesiac detective who must piece together his past and identity while simultaneously solving a murder mystery and getting involved in the sociopolitical conflict brewing around him.
Robert Kurvitz is an avid player of Dungeons & Dragons, and it shows. Visually, it’s apparent that the game’s biggest influences are the old isometric top-down infinity engine era RPGs, most notably Planescape Torment. Visual accessibility is most important here because the game consists almost entirely of reading text, and I’m happy to report that the experience is barrier free. It’s a wonderful thing that the text boxes have a black background so as to keep the gray text from blending into the mostly gray color palette. The text is already readable by default, but size can be decreased or enlarged via a slider in the options menu. Speaker tags are color coded and feature a large thumbnail image of the character currently speaking. Dialogue options and physical feats that require a skill check are highlighted in differently colored backgrounds. The probability of completing said check is represented by a percentage that appears when hovering the mouse over the option. After selecting an option, dice appear on screen representing a roll—the game’s most overt nod to its pen and paper forefathers. Completing or failing a check will saturate the screen in green or red colors respectively. Interactable objects and people have a green outline when you hover the mouse over them, and there’s an option to show all interactives on screen by pressing the tab key. Thoughts that appear in the player’s head are color-coded orbs with each color representing a different part of your character’s fractured psyche. While some information is communicated with color, there’s always a secondary mode of acquiring the information present alongside the color coding, so I never encountered a scenario that would be a barrier to someone with colorblindness. This brings me to the most innovative parts of Disco Elysium, the skill tree and thought cabinet.
In Disco Elysium, there are 24 slots in the skill tree, and each skill represents an aspect of the player character’s brain and personality. Earning a level-up, wearing certain clothes, or ingesting food and substances will alter these along with the dialogue options you choose, increasing or decreasing your probability in the aforementioned skill checks. Since the only inputs required are pointing and clicking a mouse, even players who use a trackball mouse should be able to play. Controllers don’t work here, but as of writing this, Disco Elysium is still exclusive to PC, so I still consider it barrier free for the fine-motor impaired. There’s no combat to be found here, and as mentioned previously, physical feats are selected through dialogue boxes. The thought cabinet is a sort of perk system where ideologies are acquired through chatting up certain NPCs and “internalizing” (equipping) a thought for a specified period of in-game time, and, once fully internalized, these ideologies allow for unique buffs and dialogue choices.
Disco Elysium doesn’t have anything I foresee as problematic for the deaf and hard of hearing. Because virtually every mechanic is based around reading, those with hearing impairments should find no barriers to speak of, and the game can be played completely mute without stripping any of its potency.
If Disco Elysium stands as proof of anything, it’s that you don’t always need a Triple-A budget to make an excellent product. It’s a title held together thanks in no small part to the quality of its writing. It tackles heavy-handed themes that may hit close to home for some given the current state of affairs. You will laugh, cry, and everything in between. Disco Elysium pays respect to its predecessors while putting a fresh spin on aging tropes of the genre, making this indie gem an essential part to any true RPG fan’s collection.