Disc Room is top-down puzzle game where you dodge giant saw blades. That’s pretty much it. It’s also fantastic.
The combined work of Jan Willem Nijman (Nuclear Throne), Kitty Calis (Minit), Terri Vellmann, and doseone (who both made Sludge Life), Disc Room is frenetic, precise and oozing with sound and colour. Planning and forethought are rewarded, but so are nimble reflexes and split-second decision making. And unlike most games, you’re rewarded for evading violence, rather than inflicting it on others.
Playing as a researcher sent to investigate an alien spaceship, Disc Room (out today on PC and Switch) is setup like a giant dungeon made out of smaller, square-shaped rooms. Each room has alien saw blades (discs) that spawn and eventually, no matter how good you are, will kill you. Survive long enough and one of the doors to an adjoining room will unlock. Die early and you’ll immediately respawn with a chance to take on that room again, or teleport back to a previous one with branching routes you haven’t yet unlocked. It’s frustrating when you die just short of your goal, and exhilarating when you manage to hang on just long enough by slinking into that one last bit of open space before the discs rip you apart.
Interesting wrinkles are added by special powers you acquire along the way. A dodge makes you briefly invincible while you’re dashing forward, so that you can get to the other side of a disc, or find a tight opening before it completely closes down. Another lets you briefly slow down time like Max Payne, providing a few extra moments to plan out your path of escape before the blades buzz their way through. One of the more involved powers lets you take half a second off the clock to create a clone of yourself: both you and any other clones you create are all controlled at the same time, leading in many cases to complete chaos. But drop the right clone in the right spot at right time and you’ll have an insurance policy that will hopefully earn you more time back than the half-second you spent to get it.
Only one of these powers can be equipped at a time, and some rooms are clearly designed to use a particular skill. In one section you need to stay stood on a large platform in the middle of the room in order to tick up a timer — this is a perfect place for slowing down time to efficiently manoeuvre around the hazards within that defined space. In another you’re hounded by a a giant mouth-disc that comes out of the sand to try to eat you when you’ve been standing in place too long. Here clones help keep it distracted, running back and forth from the other discs flying around the room.
The game also has boss fights which require you to pick up little blobs of space goo to damage them. Whereas in other rooms it’s enough just to hide in the spaces in-between the carnage, these encounters force you to reorient yourself around trying to get to specific spots, searching for the quickest routes rather than just the least dangerous ones. Disc Room is great at changing up the rhythm of things just when it’s starting to get stale, while still making use of the lessons you’ve already learned.
It also gets tough, especially in the latter half. After spending a couple hours with Disc Room the victories started coming much less frequently, especially in a section of its dungeon where the lights are constantly going out. At one point I spent five minutes trying to survive for a mere 10 seconds, only to keep dying with 0.015 to go. Five minutes doesn’t sound so long, but when each life only lasts a fraction of that, it can feel like an eternity. Fortunately the sense of cruelty quickly subsides after a brief break from playing.
Disc Room is one of those games that only does a couple things, but does them very well, and its unique brand of punishment is one I’m happy to endure to the end.