Combat, failure and raising the stakes in Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium

The combat engine is so often the heart of an RPG, even in the tabletop sphere. Characters shuffle around a battle-grid, attacks are tabulated, armour classes are defined, hit points are shaved away until only one side is left standing. Not so for upcoming police-drama RPG Disco Elysium. In their latest development blog, Studio ZA/UM go into detail on combat in the game including why it’s so rare, and how deeply intertwined it is with the dialogue and thought-inventory systems.

While others RPGs have attempted combat-light systems in the past (the recent Torment: Tides of Numenera springs to mind, where almost all fighting can be bypassed or wriggled out of), Disco Elysium sets itself apart by not having anything resembling a traditional RPG ‘combat engine’. No grids and very few hard rules, although you’ll still be asked to roll the dice from time to time.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that even in the most violent of police stories, gunfights tend to be few and far between. Even Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry – famed for his oversized revolver and inability to count bullets – only got into a couple of short, nasty gunfights in the course of his debut film. Violence is dangerous for everyone involved, and thanks to the mostly realistic alternate-earth setting, if someone takes a bullet and lives to tell the tale, that hole is going to be with them for the rest of the story.

Building on that thematic foundation, Disco Elysium treats its handful of combat encounters as a high-stakes extension of its dialogue systems, backed up with unique animations for each possible outcome during each turn taken. Each round of action (called a ‘whirl’ by the developers, presumably to separate it from any hard-defined period of time) begins with time pausing and ends with everyone taking action. You’re allowed multiple analytical, introspective or even dialogue options per whirl, letting you figure out your next move after consulting with your own party and personal collection of inner voices on what skill check would be your best bet.

While obviously combat does include the possibility of death and a definitive end to your story, failing a skill check in Disco Elysium can result in some unique and spectacular scenes. While playing the EGX Rezzed show-demo of the game, a flubbed attempt to gracefully sneak out of a bar to avoid paying my tab resulted in my character dashing across the room, jumping and turning in mid-air to deliver twin raised middle fingers to the barman before crashing painfully into a little old lady’s wheelchair, leading to a whole new scene of (very apologetic) dialogue afterwards. It’s a world away from ‘You failed your diplomacy roll, shop prices increase 5%’.

If it weren’t for all the skill-checks and clever mechanical underpinnings of the dialogue system, Disco Elysium might bear little resemblance to traditional computer RPGs. Still, those mechanical depths are here, just not geared towards combat as a centrepiece of the experience. Having finally played the Rezzed demo for the game, I’m increasingly confident in the developers ability to pull this one off, even if the end result is quite unlike anything I’ve played before.

While there’s no hard release date set, ZA/UM are hoping to release Disco Elysium sometime this year, and you can wishlist it over on Steam to stay abreast of release info.

11 Comments

  1. Varanas says:

    I’m so glad to hear this. I don’t mind mechanics heavy games, but I often find even light mechanics off-putting when I’m interested in a game because of its story. As soon as Torment: Tides of Numenera wanted me to pick stats and abilities I found myself losing interest, even though I knew you could mostly avoid combat. Making the combat use the same system as the dialogue seems like a clever way to avoid this problem.

    • Dominic Tarason says:

      Don’t get me wrong – Disco Elysium has a lot of stats and abilities. They’re just uniquely implemented, with each skill manifesting as a uniquely written voice interspersed with your inner monologue, and each equipped thought or item providing new dialogue branches where appropriate, or sometimes inappropriate.

  2. KillahMate says:

    Mark my words, this game is going to be a milestone in the genre. We’re going to talk about games being influenced by Disco Elysium the way we discuss Planescape Torment today.

  3. caff says:

    I am super-hyped for this. Beyond hyped. I just want it.

  4. klops says:

    This sounds great, but I’m still quite sceptical about it. You can make a multiple choises and their consequence’s consequence relevant in a demo but the amount of the skills and the length of the game somehow make me feel that there isn’t that huge amount of relevant choises and different consequences throughout the game.

    I hope to be wrong, though.

    • Dominic Tarason says:

      By sprawling retro RPG standards, it’s almost certain that Disco Elysium will be relatively short. As the dev-blog mentions, there’s only a handful of action scenes the entire game long, although a lot of the budget for them has gone into creating unique animations for the many possible outcomes.

      I’d not be too surprised if the final game hovers around the 15-20 hour long mark, which would make it ideal for replaying every now and then. I’ve been through the Rezzed demo a few times and found new stuff in the same areas each time round – if they keep up that level of density the whole way through, I’ll be more than happy with it being short-ish.

      • klops says:

        Sounds good! I’m not that much into sprawling retro RPG standards. Eg. Pillars with its constant combat and neverending story was something I enjoyed, but just did not see a reason to continue playing any more.

  5. MikoSquiz says:

    What is with that title? It sounds like a Hotline Miami-styled flashing neon sci-fi dungeon crawler shoot-em-up with a pounding dance soundtrack.

  6. Kohlrabi says:

    Yeah. A more appropriate title would be “No Truce with the Furies”. Especially since it opens the satisfying opportunity for misreading it.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Lo says:

    I am so freakin sick of combat in games, but this might just skirt the edge of my tolerance! I hope so, because overall I’m super intrigued by the game!

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