Review: Disc Room
What kind of creatures would drive you to the brink of insanity? Giant squids the size of a house? Cthulhu itself rising from the depths to break your mind? A housecat whose piercing gaze cuts through to your very soul?
According to a team of indie developers, none of the above. Rather, they envision a world full of sawblades. Just…tons of blades, spinning endlessly. Some that seem…sentient?
Just blades upon blades upon blades…enough to drive a man mad.
Disc Room is a game created as a collaboration between Jan Willem Nijman, Kitty Calis, Terri Vellman, and Doseone. Published by Devolver Digital, the game was released on October 22nd, 2020, on PC via Steam.
Into the Mouth of Madness
In the year 2089, a giant disc has been found orbiting the planet Jupiter. A team of scientists travel to it to investigate, with one entering the unusual structure. What they find inside is hard to believe…and threatens to drive them insane.
The actual plot of Disc Room is very light, told in a few short sequences of comic panels throughout the game’s nearly-two-hour runtime. These comics have no dialog either, and present events that feel very open to interpretation by the player.
More intriguing is the glimpses into the mind of the main character, which can only really be seen in the game’s menu. One page contains a list of every disc that has killed the player, presented as a kind of bestiary containing comments from the main character on each disc.
What begins as a series of purely scientific observations slowly begins to deteriorate. The main character’s mental state starts bleeding into the entries – an interesting, if out of the way, method of characterization and storywriting for such a short indie title.
Unfortunately, it’s easily missed. I didn’t even notice the character writing ongoing in this menu until I was near the end of the game and checked in to see how many more discs I still needed to find.
Sure, Disc Room isn’t really a game focused on its story, but these bits of characterization go a long way toward making the game’s silly premise more horror-focused. It’s a bit disappointing that some players may completely overlook this due to it being hidden in a menu.
Ballet of Blood
Disc Room has a simple premise at its core: enter a room, dodge spinning sawblades for as long as you can, move to the next room and repeat. It’s an easy to pick up arcade-y experience, allowing the player to repeat each room for a better time, and displaying the dev team’s best time as a goal to reach.
Actual progression through the game has a touch more creativity than this core premise. Unlocking each room in the game requires performing specific tasks. Some are simple (survive for five seconds in a room), some require work across multiple rooms (die to a certain number of unique discs), and a few are just completely blind and require experimentation (a few quests just marked with “??????”).
Sure, it’s easy enough to ignore some of the more mysterious goals and make a bee-line to the end, but half the fun of Disc Room is in the exploration. Some rooms hidden behind special goals contain unique discs to add to your “bestiary,” which, as discussed earlier, unlocks a bit more of the story. Others contain special puzzles that take some real experimentation to figure out.
Disc Room also adds twists to the gameplay regularly, helping to keep the admittedly repetitive core gameplay fresh. Running up the clock for progress or high scores in each room sometimes requires special actions, such as standing in a specific area to activate the clock, or collecting items to change the clock’s time.
There are also various special skills unlocked throughout the game, ranging from a dash that turns the player invincible for a moment to slowing down time or creating clones of the player. Only one skill can be equipped at a time, though. Unfortunately not all skills are very useful – once I had the Slow ability, that’s really I all ever used, outside of puzzle rooms that required other abilities.
From an overhead perspective, Disc Room has a surprisingly steady and inviting difficulty curve. The rooms start rather easy, with simple patterns to dodge. Things ramp up reasonably; just as I found myself getting comfortable with the challenges presented, the game would throw in a new twist to test me again.
The final stages truly became a test of skill and observation. Luckily, they never became too infuriating, as the game is built around dying, reviving, and learning. Deaths are instant, and you can retry a room immediately. However, if you truly feel like hating yourself, a reverse-run hard mode unlocks after completing the main story, ramping everything up even further.
Visually, Disc Room kind of feels like a webcomic or Adult Swim cartoon. The aesthetics are rather simple and the character designs are on the rough side. Together, it brings a sort of weird charm to this world of death and madness, keeping it from feeling too sobering if you’re keeping up with the story.
As the game progresses, many rooms take on an almost psychedelic vibe. This is no surprise considering half of the development team, Vellman and Doseone, also worked on the drug-fueled trip that was Sludge Life.
The soundtrack here, courtesy of Doseone, adds heavily to that psychedelic feeling. The tunes are incredibly dark and heavily industrial, both adding to the whole “world full of sawblades” thing and providing contrast to some of the weirder elements. Disc Room is definitely a game you’ll want to keep your headphones on for.
Just Keep Spinning
Overall, Disc Room is a simple game at its core. It almost feels like it could be a web-based Flash game at times. Between the steady challenge and constant addition of new quirks and twists, though, the game becomes more than a simple time waster.
Disc Room is short and sweet, with an interesting aesthetic and some intriguing character building. Unfortunately the latter is hidden in menus, so there’s a chance not all players will get to see what is, in my opinion, one of the best parts of the game.
As a quick glimpse into a new kind of madness, this is a game worth a look. Just don’t lose your mind on the way.
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots courtesy of Devolver Digital.