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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.

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Dominic Tarason

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