Indie studio ZA/UM released a heavily updated edition of its 2019 inaugural game for various platforms over the course of 2021. I’m glad I waited to play this version, Disco Elysium – The Final Cut, because no other game has resonated with me so deeply in Year 2 of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Disco Elysium – The Final Cut: 2021 Game of the Year
In Disco Elysium, you’re not on Earth. You’re not in a plague state. You’re not in 2021. An amnesiac, depressed, alcoholic protagonist talks to his hideous necktie and neighborhood hooligans as he tries to solve a crime he can’t remember even being assigned… As absurd as it is to think, “I get that guy,” I do. For the last few months/years, I’ve felt a little (or more than a little) crazed, desperate for connection even while fearing contact, and thoroughly overwhelmed on a day-to-day basis.
We eventually learn this troubled detective’s initials are H.D.B. Like H.D.B., I had to get back to the grind when I wasn’t ready, when I was scared, when I was unwell. Sometimes focusing on work helped me. Other days, it was just another hand pushing me under. This year, I felt constantly buffeted by bad information (the news, a simple attempt at looking for memes on Instagram, text messages I received, text messages I didn’t receive, emails, so many emails). The more H.D.B. learns of the world, the more he can understand why he drank himself out of remembering. This pain is not just personal, and not even just local, but global. And it is never-ending.
I reflected about how this game was received in October 2019: heralded as strange and revolutionary, and also condemned for its dark tone. The past two years have wrecked the world and our definition of life as we knew it. Disco Elysium is now much closer to the wavelength of grim reality and non-stop grief upon which we all operate.
A Parallel World
Disco Elysium – The Final Cut is a dark, sad game. And 2021 was a dark, sad year. Even in the game’s (and our world’s) exceptionally troubled universe, however, there were bright spots. A little girl who reads detective books. An unexpectedly heartwarming Zoom call. The occasional *good* day where nothing seems to really go on fire. There are unexpected glimpses of color. There are opportunities to learn more. There are still choices. Life is made of chance, but there are ways to prepare for what life throws at us. In my world, that can be making smart choices as I navigate the pandemic. In Disco Elysium, it may be developing H.D.B.’s interpersonal skills to better pass a D&D-inspired dice roll check during a conversation.
One of my favorite parts of this game was H.D.B.’s relationship with his partner, Kim Kitsuragi, a citizen’s militia cop from a different precinct that has been assigned to co-investigate. Kim is a damn good detective. He is serious with a wry sense of humor, ever focused on the task at hand, sober—a perfect foil to H.D.B.
What I found so special about Kim is that he is not just patient with H.D.B., but he is kind. Unlike surrounding strangers and even peers from H.D.B.’s own precinct, Kim does not speak cruelly to or about him. They joke, they discuss, they trust. Kim becomes a good friend. Someone H.D.B. could rely on in a way that he had not been able to in a very long time. During the pandemic, we have all found needs for new limits and new boundaries, but we have also been able to relish the relationships that give us a sense of grounding and peace in a world of confusion.
Perhaps it’s because of the game’s heaviness that I found myself, perhaps strangely, more hopeful after playing it. It’s like when you’re having a hard time, and someone says, “Just get over it.” Yeah, uh, that didn’t help at all, thanks. Disco Elysium knows that you, and everyone you know, is having a hard time. No one in Disco Elysium is doing great. There’s the cross-country truck driver who avoids slipping back into a drug habit by teaching himself about poetry, a villager who lost her husband to the sea she fishes in every day, the bar manager who tries to take pride in his establishment even when the local mob keeps wrecking the place every weekend, and then, of course, there’s H.D.B.
Life, in and outside of this game, is difficult, and it’s comforting to just feel a game admit it.
Why It’s My Game of the Year
There are no easy answers in the world, even to questions like, “What’s the 2021 Game of the Year?”* And what I appreciate about Disco Elysium – The Final Cut is that it does not pretend, even in the gaming world, that there are easy answers.
There are no giant maps featuring quest tasks with a straightforward, “Hey, here’s your treasure, right there, look dude right here, I’ll put a glowing arrow over it.” You learn things about your player-character H.D.B. that are not good; you cannot change his past. You don’t get to complete all the quests. You get stuck in your investigation. You make mistakes. Sometimes you pass a skill check, sometimes you don’t. And, even if you do, you may not get the result you’re hoping for.
And that’s because you can’t make other people want what you want. You can’t get people to listen, even when you’re trying to help them. You can’t force yourself to get better all at once. But you can try. And you can make the world better in little ways around you. And even if you feel that you failed today, as long as you keep going, you can try again tomorrow.
Where to Play Disco Elysium – The Final Cut
If this review inspired you, grab Disco Elysium on sale now through the Epic Games Store (55% off through January 6, 2022). You can also get it for $39.99 on PS4 and PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S, Mac and PC, and Nintendo Switch, though the Switch port is apparently a bit rough.
Already played Disco Elysium and looking for mystery games like it? Check out my list here.
Amanda’s 2021 Game of the Year Runners-Up
1) Boyfriend Dungeon on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC, and Mac
In this indie, you create your own character who moves to a beach town for the summer, fighting through demons in abandoned shopping malls with a hottie that can turn into a sword. For such an absurd concept, it’s actually incredibly sweet and grounded. It is genuinely just FUN to play with great combat and character customization. I loved spending time with the gorgeous and well-written cast, and I appreciated that the game made some serious points about toxic people. Read my Boyfriend Dungeon review here.
2) The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC
This mystery-solving is a delight for both Ace Attorney series veterans and newcomers. It’s got brilliant music, plenty of investigations including a new-to-series “logic deduction” feature, heartfelt conversations set in a stunning locale, and an impressively non-copyright infringement investigation partner, Herlock Sholmes.
What’s more, Chronicles is actually two games (a great deal, since there’s a cliffhanger!) that were originally only for release in Japan: the original 3DS 2015 title, Adventures, and its 2017 sequel, Resolve. We’re lucky that in 2021, thanks to a very hard-working team of devs led by Capcom Localization Director Janet Hsu, we got a port in the West on the Nintendo Switch with tons of bonus and special features. Can’t recommend this lovely installment enough for mystery fans! If you like solving crimes, read my list of the best detective games here.
3) The Forgotten City on Game Pass and PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows
I’m incredibly impressed with The Forgotten City, a game that started as a fan-made mod for Skyrim and grew into a time-loop mystery game worthy of its own attention.
You play as a person from today’s world who gets trapped in a secret, ancient Roman city. This city abides by the Golden Rule: If any of its ~20 inhabitants commit a sin, all will be turned into golden statues for the rest of time. You’re told someone is going to break that rule today, and it’s up to you to figure out who, and why.
The game is a delightful mix of sleuthing (suspect investigation, searching for clues, etc.) and action, all wrapped up in the time-loop mechanic. Notably, your items carry over upon a failed run, meaning you can steal a secret letter, activate the Golden Rule, then loop back to the beginning of the day afresh with the evidence in pocket. I came to deeply care about some of the citizens, especially the friendly farmer who greets you every time you re-enter the city. I, more than once, literally shouted, “My guy!” when I emerged to see Galerius there.
The Forgotten City rewards your investment and time, thoughtfully revealing new opportunities to interact with the environment and townspeople as the player deepens their understanding of the overarching plot. So rarely have I been satisfied with a game’s ending, and this is one of best I’ve experienced, mystery game or not.
4) New Pokémon Snap on Nintendo Switch
New Pokémon Snap offers exactly what you think it does, and in a world where you really can’t be sure of anything, a wholesome game like this is comfort food. The worst thing that happens on these islands is that a cute fire monkey dances at slightly the wrong angle for you to take the perfect picture. There are some points where I got annoyed with ingratiating dialogue and had to remind myself, “This is a game for children.” On the other hand, there’s elements like a beautiful puzzle of reuniting a lost baby Deerling with its parent across a time-traveling magical forest by throwing light orbs through your camera viewfinder, and you know, that’s pretty cool.
The Pokémon Company made a delightful classic in 1999, and just over 20 years later, they’ve cemented its legacy with this new installment.
*A sampling of my other answers to the question, “What is your 2021 Game of the Year?”: “I don’t have a PS5, so I couldn’t try Deathloop.” “What even came out this year?” “I’m too depressed to try the new Life Is Strange.” “I bought It Takes Two but have not had a quiet week to play with a partner yet.” “My laptop can’t open Steam for me to download Wildermyth without crashing. Please be nice to my laptop. She’s worked really hard for a long time and sometimes just needs a little break; honestly, same.”