Heaven’s Vault, Disco Elysium

My blog has hit a bit of a slump–the coronavirus has taken the wind out of everything that isn’t itself. But if I were to examine the more direct causes for the slump, I’d have to look at video games. Yes, I’m playing video games instead of blogging. Well why don’t I blog about video games?

In the past month, I played two narrative video games: Heaven’s Vault and Disco Elysium.  These are my brief reviews.

Heaven’s Vault is a game about an archaeologist trying to understand the collapse of an ancient civilization. It takes place in a low-tech sci-fi environment where people sail between the “moons” of a nebula, but only really through the use of ancient tech. This game features four main gameplay loops: sailing between moons, exploring sites, dialogue trees, and translating ancient text.

The ancient text is clearly the most innovative part of the game. There is a constructed language that is complete enough to say just about anything. You start out by guessing words based on context, but eventually you can guess what individual symbols mean, and infer the meaning of entirely new words. Soon you gain new insight into how this ancient civilization saw things; for instance, “emperor” is a compound word that tells you what people thought was the main role of an emperor.

It was really satisfying to watch the pieces come together, and I say that as a person who doesn’t particularly enjoy learning real languages. Although, I should say that the language didn’t really become clear until New Game+, which features much harder translations.

I also think the dialogue is really well-done. It’s kind of like dialogue in real life. Because of the aggressive autosave, you can’t really take back anything you say. You just traverse a single path through your conversation, and that’s it. You’re never quite sure what consequences it had, if any, at least until you try saying something different in New Game+. It’s not great if you’re a completionist, but there’s an aesthetic to it.

I am less enthusiastic about sailing and exploring. They’re just really slow-paced, and feel like forced relaxation to me. Also, the sailing is very pretty but I have an old computer, it can’t handle pretty.

Disco Elysium is a story-based detective game. The protagonist wakes up in a hotel with a hangover and amnesia, and learns that he is a detective trying to solve a murder mystery that occurred in the midst of a labor strike.  The way to solve this mystery is dialogue dialogue dialogue, and also skill checks. It’s kind of like a D&D game but with non-combat encounters only.

I thought that the most interesting part of this game, was the skill system. The protagonist has 24 skills, to be used in skill checks. But each skill is also a voice in his head, and they offer a running commentary during dialogue. Depending on the kind of character you build, different voices will be louder, egging you on to do different things.

The skill checks are performed by rolling 2d6, adding modifiers, and checking against the difficulty. In my opinion, rolling dice is not a particularly interesting mechanic, but what’s interesting is how they had to design the game with branching paths and multiple solutions to most problems. I also admit, it’s really funny when he fails a check, and the voice tells him to do something stupid and he doesn’t have any choice but to follow.  I think you could save-scum to pass any skill check, but failure paths were entertaining enough that I didn’t bother.

I won’t say much about the story, but I’ll say that it allows you to roleplay as many different kinds of cops, from the doomsayer cop to the revolutionary communist cop to the free market fundamentalist cop, to all these things at once (like I did). Personally, I can’t roleplay for shit (I am bad at D&D), I tend to make whatever decision satisfies my curiosity for the moment, or a decision that seems morally correct. Which leads to a totally inconsistent character. But the game just rolled with it, and it felt like it made sense that the detective would have such an unstable personality.

This is all to say, I’m not much for roleplaying, but I still enjoyed the roleplaying element. It’s a good game.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Thanks for the recommendations — they both sound interesting, especially the second one. I’ll add them to my Steam wishlist — I’ve been getting stuff that’s on sale, which seems to be a lot recently.
    My computer is also a bit long in the tooth, so I can’t do the big fancy popular games either. I tried downloading Assassins’ Creed: Odyssey for the free weekend, and it ran but so sloooowly I gave up quickly. But I’ve been exploring older games that have been pretty good.
    I’m always on the lookout for good writing, and Cultist Simulator has that in spades. It’s also like nothing else out there. You’re playing cards that are on timers to build up your cult of followers, find and translate ancient books, learn a complex lore of mythical figures, and eventually attempt to transcend your mortal self. Two caveats: one, you have to be fairly evil eventually to succeed. And two: after I finished the game, I learned that the head writer, Alexis Kennedy, also designer of Fallen London and Sunless Seas, has had some pretty damning accusations of harassment made against him, so take that into account.
    Call of Cthulhu is also pretty entertaining. I’m a sucker for anything Lovecraft-related — however, they haven’t gone too deeply into the lore so far. The skill system sounds a bit like the one in Disco Elysium, but only with four skills. Also, the difficulty seems to ramp up — I’ve just met my first monster, and even going online to look for help I haven’t figured out how to get past it yet. The requisite atmosphere of dread seems to ramp up nicely, and I enjoyed the sequence in the insane asylum.
    Life is Strange is another oldie, but I’m really enjoying it. You’re an eighteen-year-old photography student at a ritzy academy in a small town who wakes up one day with the ability to rewind time. Most of the puzzles are pretty easy, but there are also moral quandaries you have to face periodically whose repercussions seem to last for the entire game. The writers often try a little too hard to sound like hip and with-it 2013 teenagers, but the voice actresses for the two main characters are fantastic and do a great job of selling the sometimes-cheesy dialogue — especially Chloe, the punkish best friend who is seriously acting out due to the death of her father some years previously. The story really makes you care about these people — even some of the bad guys. I’m about halfway through chapter 4 of the five chapters, and I can’t wait to find out what happens to these people.

  2. says

    Yes, Disco Elysium is the one I would sooner recommend. If you look up reviews you’ll find that it’s also a critical darling.

    I played Fallen London and Sunless Sea a long time ago, and I enjoyed them. But I found them kind of unfulfilling and I was put off from trying any of their newer games.

    I also played Life Is Strange, or like half of the first episode when they made the first episode for free. I didn’t like it. I hear it’s sort of a love-it-or-hate-it thing, based on how relatable you find the high school setting. It was not relatable to me at all. I’ve heard a lot about it though.

  3. lochaber says

    I’m spending minimal time playing computer games, mostly I’m burning through the monthly credits from the local public library for Kanopy and Hoopla watching movies and stuff.

    I recently got Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark. So far I like it, it’s sorta a top-down, turn-based RPG/tactical. It’s not too heavy on resources, since I can play it on my laptop with a fried graphics card. The combat is pretty neat, with all sorts of weird little bonuses and penalties for various things, and while leveling up can grant significant increases, you’ll still loose an easy fight if you go about it stupidly.

    A bit older, but another game from an indie developer I like is the Eschalon trilogy (I think book I is free on GOG) – it’s kinda like an oldschool top-down turn-based RPG. I liked it quite a bit, and am looking forward to the next release from that developer.

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