ZA/UM’s cult-hit detective RPG, Disco Elysium, is set in a city where every political ideology has failed. As your player character — an alcoholic cop in flared trousers and a tie resembling the intestines of a dead animal — roams Martinaise hunting for clues and discarded bottles to deposit, the legacy of these failures is painted into every one of the game’s pre-rendered dollhouse environments. There’s the cracked tilework built under the King’s wasteful regime; the bullet holes in the walls along which the Communists were lined up; the King’s statue restored by a bunch of art-school “young ironists” as part of an aborted attempt at gentrifying the area into a resort.
In The Final Cut — the game’s definitive edition, released March 30 — the original game’s workmanlike menu map is replaced with an exactingly stressful pen-and-ink graphic by illustrator Nicolas Delort, a concept map for this future that never came. In it, places you recognize are flanked by ghastly buildings with rubble around their bases, punched into the ruins by a massive fist. Even if this future had dawned in Martinaise, it would have been stupid.
In the original game, your character only contributed to this atmosphere of ideological failure by making bad takes. The writers, knowing they were competing for attention with your Twitter feed, made trainwreck political posturing into a staple of your character’s dialogue choices. Whether you’re explaining that your hotel room is a swamp of rolling wine bottles because you “defied bourgeoisie morality in here” or you’re justifying your drunk driving as guided by “the spectral hand of the market,” your opinions are all bad, the sloganeering of an image-obsessed cop who has forgotten that he represents the status quo of a world where hope was lined up and shot in the head.
While the shallowness of your character’s politics is there to reflect his shallowness, some players and critics felt the game ended up displaying a lazy none-of-the-above political nihilism, which is perhaps why marketing for The Final Cut’s added Political Vision Quests promised that the ideologies would be taken more seriously. In one sense, they aren’t — the Vision Quests riff off of all the same jokes about fence-sitters, rent-seekers, arm-chairers, and self-loathers. What you won’t get to do is follow your chosen ideology all the way up to a glorious homiletic victory where it’s proven better than the other ones. But you will get to learn what your character’s ideology means about himself.
The quests take the form of little fables about each ideology, but they’re open-ended enough to defy any single interpretation. Each carries a distinct emotional tone, reflecting the way your character feels about himself through each ideology’s prism. The Communism quest, which tasks you with joining a reading group for a Lysenkoism-Posadism-inspired tendency, is cozy, intellectual, and bittersweet; you criticize pop culture with two young men in a squat with a steaming coffee pot in the corner. The debates with the infra-materialists are soundtracked by “Ignus Nilsen Waltz,” one of British Sea Power’s two new tracks for the game, which sells the emotion, evoking an unstoppable march of history paved at every step with crumbling, inevitable defeat. It couldn’t contrast more with the Fascism quest — every moment of your character’s journey to return to the lost golden age is masochistic, geeky misery, getting shit-talked by men with sexual pathologies until an isolating climax in which he comes face to face with his own. The capitalistic Ultraliberal quest is the most visually glittery one, full of the feeling of winning, trickery, and beating the competition, until the cocaine wears off and you’re left wondering what the point of it all was.
Of course, it’s the status-quo centrism-themed Moralism quest that is the only rational choice. It is at once the game’s most conventional Vision Quest (the one that is the most in line with the main storyline) and the single most wackadoodle thing The Final Cut offers, confidently wrecking the game’s established plot with on-the-nose dialogue where your character yells about being “trapped in some sick game that I can’t possibly win, and I don’t want to play any more!” The raised middle finger to continuity allegorizes the reality-breakdown weirdness behind Moralism’s “normal world,” and it’s still wrapped in a gutting little personal story revolving around your partner, Kim Kitsuragi.
So much of the Vision Quests’ power comes from the fact that they were not part of the original game. Some of that is in the fandom-ish self-awareness of the new writing, particularly with regard to Kim, an accidental cult-favorite character. His new material inherits a sparkle of the gay-icon cachet imposed onto him by a year of lockdown fan art, with plenty of scenes where his cool exterior cracks, and even the opportunity to find out what his aftershave smells like. Some of it is in the fact that, unlike Disco Elysium’s base quests, the Vision Quests are self-contained. You are dispatched on them in a dream, and you can only talk about them again during another dream. Perhaps they are a dream; even discoveries in the quests that seem like they should transform your character are ignored by the world outside of his catastrophizing head. But some of it is in the fact that the quests delight in breaking the original’s rules, both for humor (the Ultraliberal quest breaks the game’s UI and economy system) and horror (one quest reveals a third face for your character besides the disco leer and the sad-sack frown, and it feels almost creepypasta-wrong for it to exist). Your character’s politics can’t change the world, but working through his philosophy feels worthwhile nonetheless; it’s a cathartic, gently traumatizing experience, like a good morning’s work doing hangover vomits.
The Final Cut’s other big new feature is the addition of full voice acting, and it is delightful how instantly different the dub sounds from any other game. The acting style is that of a BBC Radio 4 audio drama, evoking theater rather than cartoons. This is a game in which you discuss existentialism while getting mocked by a personification of your own Ancient Reptilian Brain, and fittingly, the tone of the dub evokes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the weirder Doctor Who audio dramas, a non-naturalistic proscenium where these things can coexist.
The main three actors in the game all nail it. Wherever did they find you, Jullian Champenois? Having played Kim in the 2019 release of Disco Elysium as his first-ever character part after a career mostly consisting of voice-overs for advertising, he now returns to deliver a complex, nuanced performance for more than 11 hours of straight audio. He pitches it just right, with a soothing, astringent delivery that emphasizes Kim’s compassion over his dryness. Please let Champenois break into AAA games and get paid 10 times more to perform one-tenth as much dialogue for a character one-tenth as well-written. (Even if he did, the character everyone would remember him for would still be Kim.) Similarly, Mikee Goodman — who also co-directed the voice-over — was already iconic for his Cockney-rasp Ancient Reptilian Brain and lugubrious Limbic System, and he’s having a great time with his new signature part, the Horrific Necktie, whose psychedelic polyester silk he animates with a posh boy shriek that channels Rik Mayall.
New to the cast is Lenval Brown, whose role as narrator requires him to speak the words of all of your character’s Skills. The game has the conceit that your character’s in-game attributes talk to him as voices, homunculi of your detective’s personality flaws that push you into seeing the world through their perspectives. Brown delivers the Skills’ words as if they were an audiobook rather than approaching them as character roles, positioning them as a description of the abstract, semi-conscious thoughts and feelings in your detective’s mind, rather than literalizing them as 24 wacky little cartoon shoulder-devils. Brown’s tone of smooth, uncolored contemplation is hilarious as he describes Electrochemistry begging you to lick spilled rum off a countertop, or deadpans the long list of art criticisms you remember from your Actual Art Degree (“… mediocre … milquetoast … amateurish … infantile … cliche-and-gonorrhea-ridden paean to conformism …”). The few times he does allow himself to act hit harder as a result. One of the game’s most profound emotional moments for me was when Brown’s version of Suggestion, having failed to do the one thing the detective has ever wanted it to do, audibly choked up as it told me, “You should put me in front of a firing squad.”
The full voice-over improves one Skill over all the others: Shivers, your character’s ability to tune into the genius loci of the city. Shivers periodically surfaces to provide environmental description (“… white snow on the extinguished coke furnaces, and on the weather-worn shacks, where fathers beat their sons after drinking …”), and, like all environmental descriptions in prose — especially when presented in Disco Elysium’s snackable dialogue stream — it’s a lot easier to skim than it is to read. Brown said that he found it easy to find the tone for Shivers, and his performance of these passages is especially good, filled with the awe and stink of the city. It was only in The Final Cut that I was able to fully absorb the words and pick up on the fact that your drunk-driving main character had, on his way to the crime scene, run over a dog. Shivers also has a second voice, shown in ALL CAPS, representing the words of the city herself. While the original had simply described it as “a female voice, powerful and total,” that feels so much less visceral to read compared to hearing the otherworldly vocal performance from Linah Rocio, a voice from beyond your mind.
The many recastings among the supporting cast, in some cases, add real resonance to characters who got a more cursory treatment in the original. Peter Svatik’s take on the eternally hyper-fixated Trant Heidelstam turned him from a character I had mostly ignored to a favorite; Trant’s trivia-stuffed dialogues are much easier to follow when delivered with Svatik’s peppy nerd charisma. Chris Lines reinterprets The Deserter as a fading rock star, a fascinating choice for a bitter former revolutionary who quotes lines from Manic Street Preachers songs while decrying “reactionary rock ‘n’ roll music.”
I’m also a fan of Oliver Dabiri as speed-addicted scally Cuno and David Meyrat’s turn as your former partner, Jean Vicquemare. In the original, both characters became fan favorites because of the stereotypical Scouse and French accents, respectively, given to them by Dot Major. But Dabiri brings out the thoughtful and artistic side that Cuno reveals over the story, and Meyrat scraps Major’s beret-and-onions growl in favor of presenting Jean as he is in the script: a self-possessed, vibrant young officer whose will to live has been absolutely minced. (Dot Major still appears in The Final Cut as the “politically ill” raver Noid, though he’s somewhat wasted in the part, playing him as a sort of ’80s sketch-show punk but without getting any good punchlines.)
The only place where the recasting caused significant problems for me was in the loss of the voices offered by semi-famous dirtbag-left podcasters. This is not to say that some of these cast changes are not for the better. I liked Red Scare gadfly Dasha Nekrasova’s millennial nihilist version of Klaasje, but Marine D’Aure’s Klaasje is a cheerfully rotting beauty who better mirrors your own grinning, addiction-ravaged cop. When D’Aure’s Klaasje describes her lust for the abusive mercenary she slept with, it’s one of the few moments of genuine eroticism in the entire medium of games. Among the recast Chapo Trap House parts, Lucky Singh Azad gives a robustness to the relief-package-flipping Siileng where Will Menaker only gave slimy froth, and Tariq Khan’s Rosemary works better than Felix Biederman’s, who played the middle-aged drunk like a 28-year-old weed dealer about to force you to listen to his mixtape.
But in other cases, the new voices make you realize that the podcasters’ appearances in the original were some of the great moments of stunt casting in video games; The Final Cut is somewhat diminished by the loss of them. Reviewers in 2019 often praised how Chapo Trap House’s hellworld cynicism and button-pushing irony suited Disco Elysium’s, and if this shone in one place, it was in Biederman’s version of the mercenary Kortenaer. Much of Biederman’s comedy is based on a micro-diagnosis of failed Midwestern men obsessed with guns and special forces; it gave him the perspective to play Korty as a lisping dolt whose pointless cruelty comes out of his unfitness to do anything else with his life. In The Final Cut, Mack McGuire plays Korty as a capable soldier, not even spotting the childishness in the scene where Korty is overwhelmed with emotion after thinking about his brother’s past as a baby abandoned in a leaf compactor. McGuire also replaces Biederman’s Chapo co-star Matt Christman as prime murder suspect and union hardman Titus Hardie. He avoids the amiable big-dog confidence Christman gave him in favor of hamming up his death threats and audibly sweating, playing it as if Titus knows he’s lost control of the situation the second your pathetic cop drunk-staggers into the room. In the eventual climactic encounter, when Korty begins bellowing at Titus, there’s not enough difference in either the tone or delivery to ignore that it’s the same man gurgling at himself in two unconvincing accents.
It would be nice, for this encounter at least, to be able to switch back to the original voices — the original cast is still billed above the Final Cut cast in the credits — but attempting to access them gives me a mixture of the new cast and narration lines that should be unvoiced, with improperly set flags. This is just one of many bugs that mar The Final Cut. While ZA/UM has optimized the underlying game engine itself so it no longer jerks as it tries to load more chunks of the game’s gorgeous background maps, it is still riddled with audio glitches, with some lines not playing, radio voice effects missing from radio conversations, and clips playing out of order.
One troubling audio issue is that the game’s stylistic convention of censoring out one specific word (a homophobic slur) isn’t applied consistently. Considering the quantity of words in the script (over 1 million — two whole War and Peaces), it’s unsurprising that there are some errors. But even the game’s astonishing tear-jerker finale contains voice clips that do not match the on-screen words.
The new controller setup has some design issues as well. Information about Locked checks can only be displayed using a mouse over, making it annoying to figure out which Skill needs to be leveled up in order to retry a failed task. Still, movement with a controller is overall more comfortable than the original game’s scheme of being hunched over your mouse, double-clicking to run everywhere. I did have some problems navigating entrances and exits to rooms, particularly when the interactive area could be walked on, like staircases or doormats. In addition, the flashlight, needed for low-lit areas, is still designed around mouselook; on a controller, your character holds the beam dead in front of him, making it harder to see secret passages and hidden details. There are only a few low-light areas in the game, but it still dampens the atmosphere of sweeping your light over the shining limbs of abandoned dress dummies in the Doomed Commercial Area.
I won’t patronize the intent of Disco Elysium by calling it some sort of proof that video games are high art. It’s a work of commercial popular entertainment featuring a bunch of your favorite murder mystery archetypes (an alcoholic ’70s-themed cop who’s sad about a woman!) crossed with Planescape: Torment and the Chapo Trap House tabletop game episodes where they play as drug-addicted old-timey racists and fight Jared Kushner. It’s a game with a whole character who’s there to yell incoherent lyrics from songs by Scooter. It’s a shriek of chaotic patterns on a polyester necktie.
But all these elements come together in an arrangement so exacting and delightful that all you can do is feel stunned that nobody has done it before. It makes none of the obvious choices that would have made it mediocre. Instead of the wakka-chikka guitars you’d expect for a game about a cop in a 1970s-inspired setting, it’s soundtracked with the suspended, swirling awe of cinematic indie post-rock darlings British Sea Power. Your amnesiac protagonist may become stronger and smarter, and even get in touch with the supernatural, but we never get a tedious reveal that he is a Chosen One with something special in his past; his amnesia hides only a normal, ordinary man. (And when did a hit RPG last try for that one? Like 25 years ago, with Final Fantasy 7? Even then, the amnesiac loser was a really special boy who could chop up the bad guy.) Disco Elysium throws away details that would be the clearest and most wonderful image in any other game: Cuno’s father’s toe poking through socks sent to him by the energy company that cut off his heating; a corpse, animated by your imagination, telling you “love did me in” while stuffed in a freezer built into a taxidermy bear; the way that Kim pops his collar whenever he has to reduce himself to acting like a teenager.
I could double the length of this review by expounding on my love for the way the Skills become increasingly dysfunctional members of your internal monologue as you level them up, and how this combines with the use of drugs to boost your stats to simulate the precise way that being high on booze and speed can transform otherwise normal people into the most annoying people alive. Building the role-playing on highly entertaining failure means the characterization has a sitcom engine propelling it. Instead of the bland helper of most Western RPGs, the protagonist of Disco Elysium is an obsessive, compelled into his actions by things he cannot let go, and suffering the cringe-comedy consequences. You can turn your detective into a homophobic art critic who smokes to feel like a cowboy; a guy who snaps finger guns at people all day and puts his real gun to his head every evening; or a doomsaying feminist obsessed with EDM and boxing. But you cannot turn him into someone who isn’t him — every quirk becomes another coping mechanism, stinking of his self-loathing. Even if you try to have him act like a normal detective, it does nothing to stop him imagining that his necktie is telling him to autoerotically asphyxiate (“now you’re not just crazy, you’re also boring”).
All of these joys are still waiting for you in Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, improved with the full voice acting. You shouldn’t let the bugs and the lack of podcasters put you off spending some time in its delirious, oil-painted tragicomedy. Disco Elysium is not the sort of game that you play to master, but it is the kind of game that, if you truly internalize its thoughts, will make your real life easier to live in. It will keep you company as you wait without power for a glorious future that will never come — and even if it did, would end up being stupid.
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut was released March 30 on Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Stadia, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using the author’s copy of the game. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.