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Soul Power: ‘The Surge’ is a Valiant Attempt at the ‘Dark Souls’ Formula

Overall The Surge isn’t the Dark Souls killer that some thought it would be. While the core ideas are all in working order, there’s simply far too many minor issues with enemy ai, balancing, and pacing to put this in the same league as From Soft’s masterpieces.

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The Surge
Developer(s): Deck13
Publisher(s): Focus Home Interactive
Platform(s): PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Reviewed on: PC
Release date: May 15, 2017

Since its release there have been dozens of games that have attempted to ape the style of Dark Souls, to the point that we now have an entire subgenre known as Souls-like. The idea is always the same: ultra difficult gameplay with equal parts risk and reward that tasks the player with moving through hostile environments occasionally stopping to resupply and rearm at the cost of re-spawning all enemies. Progression is always tied to trial-and-error as the player learns enemy attack patterns and level layouts culminating in extra difficult boss fights. Despite the outpouring of tributes few games have actually managed to come close to From Soft’s games, with one of the more notable attempts being Lords of the Fallen by Deck13, which might’ve failed in many areas but it actually understood what Dark Souls was all about. Now three years later Deck13 are trying the formula again with The Surge, moving the action from fantasy into sci-fi and attempting to fix the mistakes Lords made. Have they managed to create a competitor to the Dark Souls crown, or is this just a cheap mechanical ripoff.

The story starts similar to Half Life, with you sitting on a train while a disembodied voice goes on and on about how great Creo Enterprises is. Shortly thereafter you’re introduced to your playable character, a man named Warren confined to a wheelchair who’s starting his first day with Creo. While most jobs start you with an orientation package and a chat with HR, Creo apparently likes to kick things off by bolting a mechanical rig straight into your body without sedatives, although afterwards Warren can walk again so it almost seems like a fair trade. The only downside is you awaken to the entire factory going haywire and now everything, and everyone, in sight wants to kill you. This might go down as one of the worst first days on the job in gaming history.

Sure Creo gives you your legs back, but then it tries to kill you, so maybe they aren’t so great.

There isn’t much to the plot in The Surge, and this quickly becomes one of the game’s bigger issues. It’s not always clear where you should be going or why and it’s incredibly easy to find yourself wandering around aimlessly until you accidentally stumble on the way forward. There are a few NPC survivors that you meet throughout the facility, as well as the occasional voice of a man claiming to be Creo’s CEO telling you where to go, but overall the story takes a hard backseat to the gameplay and never really gets going. At most you’ll get bits of lore through discarded audio logs or the occasional Creo infomercial with an appropriately annoying PR guy repeating how great Creo is while it’s very employees try to rip off your limbs.

There’s a lot of limbs being ripped off throughout the game. While combat is familiar to any Souls veteran, Deck13 have made a commendable attempt to change the formula. Like Fallout, you have the ability to target enemy body parts, and after dealing enough damage to them you can expend energy to rip them off in spectacular fashion, killing the enemy and netting you whatever armor or weapon that was attached to that limb. If you don’t want or need that limb you can change your targeting to an exposed area, allowing you to deal out massively increased damage but with little reward. Rather than strong and weak attacks you instead have horizontal and vertical moves, with certain enemies being more vulnerable to one over the other. Using the same style of weapon over and over again also increases your proficiency with that weapon type which nets you a small bonus to damage.

With little narrative to go on, the game outside of combat largely just becomes about exploring the Creo facility, and this is both one of The Surge‘s greatest strengths and weaknesses. The positive is that the level designs are often fantastically well done, with snaking side paths and shortcuts that become clearer the more time you spend in them. The levels often boil down to spending three to five hours figuring out how to clear a level in just a few minutes, and when that final path opens up it’s a genuinely rewarding moment. Each level only has one safe room, rather than Dark Souls‘ bonfires that appear throughout areas, so finding faster ways back to the start of the level becomes crucial when death is around every corner. Beyond that, the detail put into the levels is quite well done and you can easily get the sense that something really wrong has happened and the place is falling apart around you.

Contact with most survivors comes in the form of audio logs and phone calls.

Unfortunately, it’s not all good, and the biggest problem with the levels is that they quickly all start to look the same. The Surge isn’t procedurally generated, but at times it certainly feels like it as you trudge through the same looking dark corridor or machine yard for the fifth or sixth time. That might not have been a huge issue, but the game isn’t that long either and there’s only a half-dozen or so levels, so when parts of them all feel the same it wears on you fairly quickly. This doesn’t compound well with the aforementioned narrative issues either, meaning that there’s quite a bit of aimless wandering as you try to figure out where you have and have not been, occasionally stumbling into an ambush and losing an hour’s worth of scrap.

Speaking of ambushes, this game loves them. The Dark Souls games have occasionally used cheap tricks, often in early levels to trip up new players, but most enemies and traps you can see coming which allows you to prepare. The Surge revels in its hidden enemies, and you’ll quickly learn to check every corner and smash every box as you proceed. While this does create the occasional cheap death, the much bigger issue is how enemies constantly seem to adjust themselves at the last minute to hit you, even if it looks like they shouldn’t have. Several times it felt like the game was almost cheating as I took a hit that it looked like I had dodged just because I moved instead of using the dodge button. It isn’t every time, and most of the deaths still feel like they’re the fault of the player, but some enemies were just a chore to fight because their attacks always seemed to land regardless of where you were.

As for the enemies, there’s not a huge variety, but the few that are here are reasonably well made. There’s the humanoid enemies, humans trapped in robotic rigs like Warren, only driven mad for some reason. These make up the bulk of your foes and are usually the most interesting to fight as they use different tactics and weapons. Then there are the various robotic enemies, and these range from the annoying to aggravating. Some have front shields that mean you have to kite them until you can get a shot in, while others are just flying drones that go down in one or two hits. The enemy groupings are usually the more challenging part as you try to only get one or maybe two to follow you while leaving the rest behind. Then there are the bosses, and anyone hoping The Surge offers a boss rush like the Souls games do will be disappointed. While the bosses are the classic combination of easy to figure out/ hard to execute attack and move strategies, there’s sadly only a small handful of them to face in the game. There appears to only be one boss per level, amounting in a half-dozen or so at most.

Some enemies require tactics and maneuvering to find their weak spot rather then attacking from the front.

Finally, there’s the leveling system. Killing enemies nets you scrap, which can either be used to level your character or combined with blueprints and manufacturing supplies to craft new armor. Leveling your character increases your stats, but also lets you override certain security systems around the facility as well, acting as the game’s level balancing to keep new players out of areas. Unlike the Souls games, there are no specific stats to level up and all weapons can be used from the get-go, however, to increase your power you’ll need to use bionic implants, which come in several different flavors. There are injectable implants, which act as healing and restoration items, hot-swap implants that give you small boosts that can be switched out on the go, and implants that require surgery at the med station but grant massive bonuses and new abilities. You only have so many implant slots that increase slowly when leveling, so deciding on whether you want to be able to see enemy health bars or heal yourself more factors into every expedition.

Graphically The Surge gets by just a little more on style over actual graphical fidelity. As mentioned many of the areas feel similar, but the actual amount of detail is impressive. The unique areas have a lot of character to them and feel convincingly like a factory gone wrong. Even more impressive is the detail in the items, and realizing that the giant mace you’ve been swinging around is actually a controller for some long dead robot is just one example of the excellent design work that’s gone into the inventory. Every item in The Surge has this overwhelming feeling of realism to it that fits in well with the narrative without taking anything away from its usefulness as a videogame item. Animations are generally well done, however a major issue is that you can’t often stop animations once they’ve started, which can land you in awkward situations in some combat scenarios. The special animations for killing moves almost make up for this by being completely brutal and thrilling to watch each time, but spinning off into a pit because you lost control of your weapons can be grating at times.

Finishing moves are downright brutal, but net you rare items and resources

Everything else aside from the audio work in The Surge is excellent. From the dull thudding of robotic suits to the low hums of automated workers milling about and the various ambient layers that sell the mood of each location, the game becomes a mechanical and industrial treat for the ears. Weapons sound heavy, and each hit has noticeable bass and treble, making the lows really low and the highs perfectly high. The true standout is the enemy sound design, with human enemies screaming at you with distorted voices that portray equal parts rage, confusion, and sadness, while the robotic enemies whirr, and chirp as they spin up their deadly weapons. There’s not much in the way of music, other than a country song that plays quietly in each med station, but the few background tracks work well and give the game a somber mood. Similarly, there isn’t much voice acting, but what is here is mostly well done, with a few noticeable exceptions for some side characters.

Overall The Surge isn’t the Dark Souls killer that some thought it would be. While the core ideas are all in working order, there’s simply far too many minor issues with enemy ai, balancing, and pacing to put this in the same league as From Soft’s masterpieces. However, this is a considerably better effort than most games that try for this style, and at times it’s downright commendable. It’s clear that Deck13 learned from their mistakes on Lords of the Fallen, and at this rate one or two more attempts and they might have a winner. In the meantime, The Surge is a valiant try, and worth it for anyone looking for just a little more Souls action, but never really gets beyond an imitation of a better game.

 

Andrew Vandersteen has been watching movies and playing games since before he could do basic math, and it shows. But what he lacks in being good at things, he makes up for with opinions on everything nerd culture. A self described and self medicated audiophile and lover of anything and everything really, really terrible, he's on a constant quest to find the worst things humanity has ever published. He's seen every episode of The Legend of Zelda, twice, and thinks the Super Mario Movie was a war crime. When he's not playing games or writing about them, he's messing around with audio or fixing computers. Perpetually one paycheck short of breaking even, and always angry about something.

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Game Reviews

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

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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.

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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

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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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