When Obsidian announced their latest RPG, I admit I was half curious due to their quality in the past. Although shoved away as I’ve always found them stodgy, awkward affairs. Then I got lured deeper due to the game being about a servant to a tyrannical force, governing as a lawkeeper. Perhaps pessimistic and cynical about the nature of moral choice in an evil world, but I’m one of those who take their world settings like their 50’s TVs: with shades of gray. So I march out, with walking staff clutched in bony white-knuckled fingers, to see what life under Tyranny is like.
Tyranny, besides what some commentators have dubbed Donald Trump’s reign to be (hot topic political humor being why I’m paid the big-bucks) is a real time RPG by Obsidian. Obsidian, y’know, of Fallout: New Vegas, Pillars of Eternity and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 fame. Also founded by people from Black Isle Studios (Baldur’s Gate series, Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2). To say Obsidian Entertainment is a big deal in RPG circles is to underplay how significant of a presence they are. Likewise, it makes Tyranny‘s release noteworthy as it has serious writing and design talent behind it.
So there was high expectations to be had in these two areas. Areas that if I did my usual attempted “stream of thought” approach, it could end up being murky. So, let’s strike a deal, you and I. Let us be co-conspirators in this act of defiance against The Editor. The Editor is nebulous, but not all powerful; they can’t strike us both down at once for foul play. So I’ll first talk about the gameplay, with a conclusion. Then talk about the narrative, with a conclusion. Then wrap it all up in a shiny score-loaded conclusion. Deal? I sure hope so.
The earlier mention of Pillars of Eternity is probably very apt as it is a very similar song-and-dance. Real-time RPG, where characters position themselves as desired and you pause often to lay down abilities as wanted (with some character AI to decide what to do on their own). Those looking for a fresh experience mechanically must have gotten lost, accidentally nearly hit a woman, crashed and woke up in the foggy mysterious town of Pillars of Eternity. Then again, there is comfort to be had for those wanting something familiar.
Although what is likely less familiar for those with a Pillars of Eternity bent is the mechanical simplicity. Gone goes the races, along with the origins that play into your mechanics. Shove off classes, we’re going free-forming here. Oh, you better believe those talents/feats are gone now.
There are skill trees now, which you can pick and choose from multiple like a fussy eater at a buffet, but there is literally no reason not to smash your face into just the lasagne. No, Obsidian has not solved the skill-tree conundrum. One where, upon given a free choice of many delicacies, why you wouldn’t stick to one tree. Why would you think to spread yourself across various skill trees like a drunk across multiple patio chairs, when the end skill-tree skills are potent enough to cave someone’s spine in?
“Well, you’d do it because different enemies have different weaknesses of course!” might cry the Pillars of Eternity veteran. To you good sir or madam: HA! 90% of enemies are humanoids with different armors that demand you to bludgeon, slash or stab their cute little eyeballs out like tiny pickled eggs. The exception are spirit-like beings that deal arcane damage, something there is little protection against. Instead it turns into the incredible game of DPS, to see whose health ticks to 0 first as neither side really has much protection against the other.
I admit that I probably sound bitter to a lot of things that sound good on paper. I love skill-trees as they give variety of ways to solve problems. Simplification lifts some of the awkward stodginess of raw old-style RPGs. I also love how I don’t have to micromanage the AI’s skill cycle, pausing so often I may as well be playing a turn-based RPG.
Just, well, I’m probably just upset the game was such a breeze on medium. I’m pretty bad at RPGs honestly, and I did really expect Tyranny to kick the hell out of me. To make me think hard of my approach. Instead, over and over, it was about laying down as much raw DPS as I can. Mid-game onwards it was a doddle and even the final bosses were a laughing stock as I laid down so much damage and healing they couldn’t keep up. This was especially apparent as there was no room for tactics like elemental magic, weapon types or ranged-vs-melee in this game. Just raw power.
I’m also let down that there are glitches. Sometimes event triggers would happen, pushing me into a dialogue when the cast had long-gone for a cup of tea. I was also locked out of a particular skill semi-often. Tyranny seemed convinced that I was still utilizing it even after the bodies slashed into bloody ribbons by the skill had gone cold and stiff. Nothing game breaking, with the skill lock-out getting close, but still a bother.
The main compliment I have to the gameplay of Tyranny, even if it more feeds into the writing, is the world building. After your character creator, you have to make choices of the first three years of the invasion. These later on feed into how the world sees your character, if particular figures are around and even significant events. I don’t really want to spoil some of the cool narrative moments that become of what you do, but it was a fantastic way to allow players to build the world to play within.
It’s from this that I find the gameplay lacking sadly. It technically works enough to be somewhat good, but never any more. The main star of the gameplay show is more reflective of the writing prowess to pull off the after-effect of what you’ve done, than of intricate design decisions. Speaking of which…
It seems RPGs have been crawling into a fantasy hole for many years. They tend to be fantasy in nature, set in the generic medieval technological age with magic stapled on. So you have to be a special individual to stand out, and there’s no doubt Tyranny does so on its general plot. Usually you’ll be chained to the radiator and forced to be good, or given freedom to see as fit. It is rare to just do awful things all the time as you wish.
As an added bonus, it also plays into an earlier technological age, one of copper-vs-iron weapons. Meanwhile, interestingly, it perhaps tries to downplay magic. While it is a potent force that appears semi-often, it managed to work with the technology depiction rather than overshadow. It doesn’t create that concerning question of “if you can kill with fire from your fingertips, why would you use a sword?” which can arise.
Although naturally, both these would only be as good as the characters who populate the setting. Fortunately, they are usually excellent, breathing their own interpretation of a tyrannical force invading their lands. Each one bouncing off a choice you made during the world. Each one having their lives radically affected by the world they’re in, but never bound to them. Each one having their own tale to tell that morphs as you adventure. If I had to nit-pick, one of the companion’s voice acting is pretty lackluster and another one feels a bit empty and disconnected from the world’s current events.
Although sadly, in a world with potential to really explore the degrees-of-evil, the plot stumbles and thuds face down in a puddle of water. The majority of the game dwells on the conflict between two factions of the army. Despite the attention, it never feels like this plot elevates itself to a high enough degree to warrant the limelight, never managing to shake off the feeling that it was more destined to be a major sideplot instead.
Part of this could be down to how once you’ve made the decision of who to work with, you’re stuck with them. Which I admit I was let down, as I had hoped to explore both sides. This is especially as my character was described to be an investigator of both, rather than allegiance picking.
Although this could be made worse by its ending. Usually I try to keep my head out of other reviews, but it was hard to ignore the fury of what was described to be an “anti-climatic ending.” While I disagree with this viewpoint, that isn’t to let it off the leash. Without spoiling it, what it more feels like is Act 1 in a saga. That finally the big main story reveals itself with a flourish, and then the game ends with a somewhat abrupt manner. I left with a very unsatisfying feeling in my mouth.
Which I think is a colossal shame, because the choices in this game feel vast and open to you. I felt like a magnificent strategist, as I would work out a way to manipulate a scenario to my advantage. If I wanted to put someone in the ground, they’d let me. If I wanted to resolve it without conflict, as long as people liked me or feared me enough through my actions, I could do it. I’d be able to work out another angle through intelligence (aka Lore) or through guile/brute strength (via Athletics).
There was a particular event at the end I’ve been thinking on with a faint smile as I type. As I was sure I was about to have a death wish put upon me. However, through manipulation and picking the right social options, I not only crept out from the dangling anvil over my head but also won them over to act as a servant. I felt a rush of brilliance from this. Fortunately, Tyranny is stocked with this type of situation solving excellence pretty often, so there’s rarely a dull moment about.
The narrative overall is pretty solid. Where it lacks in what it has to deliver as the main plot, the world and characters within it brighten the world to a gleam. The choices decorate this further, like cinnamon in a warm mug of tea. While there isn’t a single moment I could point to as writing genius (akin to Witcher 3‘s notorious Bloody Baron) overall it was really enjoyable to walk within this world.
You can quickly see why I wanted to separate narrative and gameplay from each other with the journalistic equivalent of a hatchet. There are moments where one interacts with the other, like small notes passed within class, but overall they’re distinct and separate in quality. Something that does affect the score and who I’d recommend this to.
So the final score, and I admit this was tough to work out, is a 7 out of 10. When I’ve been trying to ramble about it to anyone who was willing to listen to me, the overall word I kept leaning on was “good.” While the simplification of mechanics work, it never has that moment of unique brilliance to it and often devolves into raw DPS. While the world it has created is unique and exciting, it is overshadowed by a relatively uninteresting plot that only allows you to really dig into one side of a conflict. While the characters are often interesting and exciting, having their own spin on what’s happening, they never manage to provoke an interesting discussion or topic to ponder over. Each flourish has its stumble.
I admit I had hoped they would use the situation of being an agent of a Lawful Evil empire to make a point or to explore a concept or approach a discussion, but it never came. It is enjoyable. Just, well, sadly it doesn’t distinguish itself enough to lure those not interested in the concept in. If you like the narrative possibility, then Tyranny is worth a go. Although if part of the RPG thrill is the challenge, well, Pillars of Eternity still stands the test of time. At least, so I hear?
A PC Review Code for Tyranny was provided by Paradox Interactive for the purpose of this review