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‘Duelyst’ Review – It is not time to Duel





Duelyst is an online free-to-play collectible card game (or CCG) made by Counterplay Games. It’s built mainly out of spare parts from Blizzard’s Hearthstone, but Counterplay has avoided being the Hi-Rez Studios of CCGs by adding a grid upon which the game’s matches are played—in the vein of XCOM, Final Fantasy Tactics, and so on—to set their game apart.

duelyst_all_generals1Duelyst pits you against player opponents with each side wielding a general. That general’s corresponding deck is constructed from cards in your general’s faction and ‘neutral’ cards which any deck can use. Cards fall into three types: minions, spells and artefacts. There are currently six factions, each with two available generals.

When playing, you and your opponent’s generals are placed on either side of the gridded pitch, and take turns moving your generals, and through the expenditure of mana, summoning minions to fight alongside you, casting spells with a whole host of effects, and equipping your general with artefacts. Seeing the Hearthstone similarities yet? Fortunately, Counterplay’s addition of a grid does go some of the way to not only setting it apart from previous CCGs, but also some of the way to undoing some of the serious problems preventing older CCGs from really being games of skill. More on that later.


The Foil Lining

Duelyst is a deeply flawed game for numerous reasons, but before ragging on it, the good points should be noted. The cards themselves are well balanced, which is more than a lot of other CCGs can say. There are a few bland filler cards that no one uses, but generally most all cards have a place, and no card is so obscenely imbalanced that it renders all other cards of a similar mana cost pointless. Counterplay Games should also be praised for its challenges, where you must use a predetermined hand and field to beat a general in a single turn. These challenges tutor players well in tactics, and Counterplay Games puts a new one out every day, which shows a real understanding of how their game works, and breaks the embarrassing precedent set by Hearthstone.

The pixel art is a quality job. Each minion has its own appearance, and its own walk, attack, and death animations, while each spell and artefact has its own animation as a card. Furthermore, all the faction cards manage to conform to a design and colour scheme that clearly reflects their allegiance while still each having a unique appearance, which is a feat in of itself.

But that’s all that’s good about Duelyst.

Let the Bodies Hit the Flaws

The ranking system, which determines the supposed level you’re competing at, is bogus. Consecutive wins accelerate the rate at which you increase in rank, but consecutive losses don’t accelerate the rate you decrease in rank, meaning on a mediocre 50% win rate, provided you play enough, you’ll keep going up in rank. That’s not how ranking should work. Someone who wins 50% of the time should be of middle rank.

Secondly, there’s a real lack of visual design consistency. The menu screens are rather bland digital fantasy landscapes painted in pastel, the loading screens are almost anime characters, and then the aforementioned pixel art is what’s seen in-game. On the subject of aesthetics, the music is painfully bland, sounding like the soundtrack to a Michael Bay movie trailer being played in the next room.

Duelyst also has the problem of its system of collecting cards handicapping newer players, something too complex to elaborate upon now and so is discussed here in full detail.

Genetic Illnesses

However Duelyst’s biggest problems are inherited, genetic illnesses gestated in ancestor analog CCGs like Magic: the Gathering, passed down through parent videogame Hearthstone. The inherited problems are two-fold, and both damage the value of skill in the game: Counterplay’s system of monetizing their game, and how the game interacts with RNG.

One Monetisation Under God

In Duelyst you can acquire ‘Orbs’, the game’s version of booster packs, which contain 5 random cards of random rarity, either through trading in-game currency ‘gold’ or by paying real money. If you have real cash to spare, you can get a lot more Orbs than someone only buying with gold. This monetization system that so many CCGs use is despicable. It negates the problematic impact of RNG on determining how many synergizing cards you have at your disposal by exchanging it for the even more problematic favouring of wealthier players. Those with wider wallets can buy as many packs as they need to enable better deck building with more synergizing (and in a few unbalanced cases, simply superior) cards and get a notable edge over the poorer competition. Excuse me. I play games to escape reality, not be confronted with microcosms of class warfare. And what’s the point? It’s a hollow victory for the wealthier player and a miserable time for the poorer one. Player success in a game should be a reflection of player skill, not wealth, a quantity completely abstract from the game. Would people be just as apathetic if player height had an impact on player victory? It would be just as arbitrary. The game’s balancing goes some of the way to helping alleviate the damage of this monetization, but inevitably some cards will work with a deck better than others, and the more Orbs you can get your hands on, the more likely you are to get those cards.

Counterplay has further pulled a wide range of miserly stunts we don’t have time for, but reddit user ArdentDawn has written quite the polemic. To give an idea of the level Counterplay Games is on: at certain milestones you are rewarded with mystery crates, containing cards and cosmetic items, but you have to pay real money for the key to open them.

Random Number Gener-Hater

There is something else we first must elaborate upon before we can discuss the problems of RNG. Duelyst presents players with such a range of choices, as all the popular CCGs do, that it creates the illusion of being largely a game of skill. When you have to choose the cards in your deck, the cards you play, the order you play them in, what cards they impact with their effects, and so on, such a range of choice gives the impression that those choices are significant to the game, that all these little strategic decisions add up to victory. To some extent it’s true. Slap-dashing together a deck from whichever card catches your eye will see you fare badly against players who have taken the time to optimize their decks, but unless you’re specifically trying to lose, there’s a real possibility of a player lacking in skill beating one who’s mastered every strategy due to how RNG impacts the game. Since your opponent’s hand is concealed, you’re only ever reacting to what’s been played, not what will be played, so you just have to play the strategies that are typically more likely to win and hope for the best. If your opponent’s deck gives them the cards that counter that strategy, you lose. Not really because of any player choice, but just because your deck and the opponent’s deck shuffled in to a particular order that—when played with the optimal strategic choices—produces a series of interactions that result in you losing.

Draw the wrong cards and you lose, regardless of how good you are at the game. Hell, draw what typically is a good hand, play it well, and lose because your opponent just happened to draw the suitable combination of cards. Add to this RNG determining what cards you get from Orbs, determining whether you get cards that synergise with your decks, and determining the outcome of random-effect cards, and it’s easy to see how the value of player choices isn’t as rich as one might think.


“The Grid. A Digital Frontier…”

However this RNG problem is not, interestingly, as bad as it has been in past games. All the cards you play have to be played upon a grid completely disconnected from RNG. It’s possible for the RNG to give you a good hand, but you still lose due to bad board position, and likewise it’s possible to draw a bad hand but still win because you’ve set up a good board position. Counterplay Games doesn’t do enough with their grid—highly restricted movement puts their game at a far remove from the complexities of chess, and means most matches descend to close-quarter slug-fests—but nevertheless, it is there as a filter removing some of the randomness in player victory. I’ve heard it said that in Hearthstone, a 60% win rate is good, and 70% is godly. Based on these numbers, perhaps the win rate for the top Duelyst players could reach 75-80% due to the addition of the grid and the resultant increase in the significance of player choice.


Unless you really like pixel art, it is off the back of this grid system that Duelyst is recommended, not because it’s good, but because it’s progressive. It begs the question of how the RNG problems of CCGs can be mitigated further to make them more responsive to a player’s skill. CCGs might be enjoyable, but as games of skill the popular ones are hot garbage. Duelyst, has stepped on to the threshold of something new, even if it is for the most black-hearted, miserly purpose, and it costs you nothing to give it a look.

Liam was created in 1994. At seven years old his friend passed on her Gameboy and copy of Pokémon Yellow. He never made it passed the first gym, but he did pass in to the magical world of video games, and has been trapped inside ever since. He also likes webcomics, regular comics, pen and paper rpgs, sculpting, drawing, scifi books, technology, politics, films, literally all music ever, and TV. He is trapped in a loveless marriage with manga. The kind of guy you call when need a Gramscist-hegemony-analysis on the purchasing format of PES, Liam does not get called very often. He hopes to fight evil, make video games a recognised field in its own right, and see the Bard class removed from Dungeons & Dragons.



  1. xhanx_plays

    November 14, 2016 at 7:49 am

    Wow, this misses so many things about the game and spends most of it complaining about the failings of the CCG genre that Duelyst actually does a lot to mitigate.

    You can replace a card every turn, as well as mullyganning two cards at the beginning of each game. This is massive in reducing the impact of draw luck and means there is an interesting decision to make each turn. It allows you to better react to a read of your opponent’s deck. If you are not reacting to what could be played, you’re playing badly.

    The whole point of accelerated ranking is to get good players out of the newbie ranks early in the season. At rank 5, rank acceleration stops.

    Duelyst is one of the most generous f2p card games. Budget decks can take you all the way to the top, one streamer challenge is to take a new account all the way to rank 0 at the beginning of each new season spending $0. A quality Faice deck is extremely cheap. Money doesn’t buy you a good deck, it buys you a variety of decks, it means you can play exotic archetypes like Wall Vanar.

    The crates only contain cosmetic items, not cards. Every crate reward can be crafted in game.

    Positioning matters so much in the game, if your games just develop into static slugfests, you’re not very good. Even on such a small board, you’re fighting for position every turn, blocking off enemy units and playing around AOE. The Vanar faction relies on units being on the enemy side of the battlefield. Songhai have backstab minions that need to be positioned behind the enemy. You could (and Counterplay have) write multiple articles dedicated to positioning alone.

    Yes, even with replace, there will be times you lose due to luck. You couldn’t draw the right answer that you know you have in your deck, or your enemy gets just the right rng unit spawn which blocks your path to victory. But with each game lasting 5-10 minutes, you can easily just move onto the next.

    The author throughout the article seeks to blame their poor experience on factors outside their control, on being robbed by RNGesus. I would counter that a good player (not necessarily a wealthy one) has significantly more aspects of the game under their control than this review suggests.

    If you really are jealous at the 1% and their fancy plays, just play gauntlet, the draft/arena mode. Your orbs are irrelevant, you’ll be on the same footing as your opponent. You’ll find out how important skill is quite quickly.

    • Liam Hevey

      November 14, 2016 at 5:41 pm

      Good Lord xhanx_plays, try to remember I have to grapple with a word count. I could have answered all these points and more, but does anyone actually, truly want to read 4000 words on Duelyst? Come on. Anyway I’ll try to answer the points here as briefly as possible.

      I am aware of the ability to exchange cards each turn and mulligan at the start. I did actually play the game. These things are still beholden to RNG-determined deck-shuffle. They don’t solve the problem, and if you crank them up sufficiently they end up making having a hand pointless in the first place (that’s not something I’m against, mind – playing with the entire deck as your hand could be cool).

      It’s still a bad ranking system. It quite clearly allows newbies to get up the rank without increasing skill. It shouldn’t start at any point, let alone stop.

      I really wouldn’t call the game generous. Hearthstone starts you with, what, 16 free booster packs? If you didn’t fund the kickstarter or get the humble bundle key you start Duelyst with 0-1 booster packs. Furthermore people still get to high ranks in Hearthstone without spending a penny. Duelyst is not setting a precedent.

      Each crate contains 1-2 prismatic card(s).

      Highly limited, uniform, non-exotic movement (I do NOT count flying as exotic, just bland) means that the nuance of positioning in Duelyst is lightyears behind chess, something that has been around for over 1000 years, so what’s the excuse. The limited movement of cards means, unless you’re playing a Reva deck, players largely hit a fairly close distance, only expanding it for long-term/life-gain strategies. I fully acknowledge in the article that positioning plays a part, but it cannot be said to be fully developed.

      That doesn’t do anything to allay the criticism.

      I’d say overall I’ve had a good experience with Duelyst. It intrigues me, and as someone who plays stuff like Chess, Go, has a huge soft-spot for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and used to play MtG, it was something I had a lot of affinity with both in deck-building and in in-game strategy. I think I was a pretty good player, which you’re free to not believe, but merely because I enjoyed myself or won a lot of games does nothing to effect the actual qualities of Duelyst. And those actual qualities largely suck.

      • xhanx_plays

        November 15, 2016 at 10:59 am

        The game is incredibly generous compared to Hearthstone. Completing the tutorial and the solo challenges should give you a similar booster set as Hearthstone. But the rare drops in Duelyst are significantly more plentiful, and dusting those cards are also more efficient.

        And of course Duelyst does not have the exotic movement of chess. Chess is only movement. The standard movement in Duelyst is quite clearly a design decision, the complexity of Duelyst as it is, with its factions, unit abilities and deck building already vastly exceeds that of chess. Which is why a glorified pocket calculator can beat a grandmaster at chess nowadays. Games in duelyst are usually close quarters, because most units attack only adjacent units, this does not stop every single move in Duelyst being about position.

        And it’s bizarre that you would score a game 2/5 based not on your good experience, but on a hypothetical bad experience from a bad player, and the inherent disadvantages of a card genre despite Duelyst doing significantly more than other games to reduce that. Most of that is negated by just playing draft mode!

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Game Reviews

‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted



There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.

There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.

Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.

But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.

Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.

Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.

Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.



It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery



Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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