Tyranny Review – Fatebinder? More Like Bookbinder

With 2015’s Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian went from a developer that was forced to work with other company’s properties to a triple-A team that could create hit software themselves…something many of their fans (me included) felt was long overdue.

Tyranny
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Release Date: November 10, 2016
Players: 1
Price: $44.99 (review copy received)

After having fallen in love with the depth and complexity they presented in Fallout: New Vegas and then becoming severely addicted to the combat in Pillars, I thought Obsidian had finally jumped that last all-important hurdle on the road to game developer sovereignty. I figured, like many, that they would continue releasing games of the same quality – or better – for the rest of my lifetime.

When Tyranny was announced, I was naturally very excited. Using the same engine and core game systems as their previous game (And my official best game of 2015, as per the podcast we held), I figured this new title would be every bit as enjoyable as Pillars of Eternity. I rather naively thought that nothing would change and the two games would be comparable in much the same way Icewind Dale was to Baldur’s Gate.

The reality was quite a bit different.

Instead of being the Icewind Dale to its Baldur’s Gate, Tyranny shares much more in common with Planescape: Torment than it does anything else.

Like that game, Tyranny is filled with novel-size reams of dialog, long absences of combat, a more simplified system of play compared to the game it borrows from, and a choice & consequence mechanic that feels both overused and poorly utilized.

While I understand Planescape is a bit of a sacred cow within the CRPG community, I never found its exposition-laden story, long periods without challenging combat scenarios, and watered down 2nd edition D&D rules to be enjoyable. Sadly, it seems that Obsidian wanted to beat Brian Fargo to the punch and be the Planescape successor that inXile was/is planning their own Torment: Tides of Numenera game to be.

And I was none too happy about it.

While I may find fault with how heavily it weighs on the rest of the game, Tyranny does in fact start with a great story idea. The game has you playing a high-ranking lackey (Fatebinder) in service to a cruel and despotic leader, Kyros. Your job – at least initially – is to crush the final bit of resistance to your master’s military campaign and unite the entire land under Kyros’ banner.

Naturally, things go awry quickly, with your character somehow managing to activate an ancient power and absorb your overlord’s magic, both negating it and empowering you in the process. As you can imagine, this creates a bit of tension between your Fatebinder and those they serve, and it’s this conflict the game’s plot revolves around from that moment forward.

To make matters even more complicated, Kyros’ army is divided into two halves and both desire to exterminate each other. Though you can choose to favor one in the pre-game question & answer character creation, it’s fairly easy to “switch sides” and begin cozying up to the other. Whether you choose the bloodthirsty Scarlet Chorus or the honorable (and elitist) Disfavored, it is a choice that for most of the game can be undone and switched with a little effort.

While this does mean that your character has plenty of choices in who to ally with and who to betray, many of these decisions you are tasked with making are illusory. You may wrong someone at some point early in the game and find them hostile to you, but then complete a simple task for them an hour or two later and have them singing your name in praise.

Even the rift between the Scarlet Chorus and the Disfavored can be ignored for the first ten hours or so, with allegiances easy to break and new allies easy to manipulate. Though perhaps this was intentional, it made my play through of the game feel more like I was just choosing “Blue or Red” rather than the Chorus or the Disfavored.

While I enjoy choice & consequence in RPGs, I don’t enjoy long, drawn-out, exposition-laden trips to the dialog box…and good lord if Tyranny doesn’t offend in that aspect as well.

Dealing with squabbling party members and manipulating NPCs is always a fun exercise, but when a game spends over two-thirds of its time making me read text, there’s a problem. Especially when that game belongs to a genre that started as tabletop war simulations. Yes, sure, we all love a well-written story, but the problem with Tyranny is that it gives the player more story than it does combat.

To borrow an oft-used analogy of mine, it’s like getting two extra servings of broccoli with your steak dinner and someone forgetting to bring out your baked potato. I know that sounds hilarious, but if you’re an old-fashioned, meat-eating gamer who wants to min/max, test builds, fight large throngs of enemies one after another and crave strategic combat, you won’t find it here.

Even the large battle at the end of the game – with your army pitted against the enemy – is a simple 5-on-5 affair with no real effort made to make it seem impressive. Which is shocking, considering that the end of the expansion in Pillars of Eternity had you fighting a very intense (and well scripted) “war” against invaders who have besieged your castle. How Obsidian managed to actually go backward with their next game is beyond me.

There’s quite a bit of backward movement in the game systems as well, with the rules of the previous game being simplified for this one. Though I can get behind the change to a “Skills increase as you use them” method, Tyranny’s longer combat rounds and slower activation of spells and special attacks makes it feel unbearably slow.

For a combat nerd such as myself, the change to longer rounds and the way special attack selections “reset” a character’s entrance into a new combat round was something I couldn’t get used to. Fights, while infrequent, were not something I ever looked forward to.

They lacked the fast pace and intensity that Pillars of Eternity has, even if they made them less frustrating. Perhaps so many people complained about ghosts teleporting to the back row in Pillars that Obsidian felt they needed to change things up. If so, that’s disappointing.

Also disappointing are the small quest areas that make up Tyranny’s world. Though there are a couple exceptions, most of the game world’s “screens” are tiny little boxes with only a few actual NPCs and very little to do.

You might be tasked with breaking a siege in a rebel town only to go there and find one short linear pathway and three combat mobs thrown in to give you something to do. A quest that, were it not for the mountain of dialog you have to sift through at the beginning, would take all of five minutes to complete.

This short/small feeling permeates the entire game, making it feel very rushed and incomplete. Considering that there is so much dialog to sort through, I’ve come to the conclusion that Tyranny was the result of someone at Obsidian having a “really cool idea” for a book, but was saddened to learn they worked for a video game developer and had to frame their deep and complex narrative around hitpoint totals and accuracy percentages. After playing Tyranny, I almost wonder if Jennifer Hepler now works for Obsidian.

All joking aside, I found very little enjoyment in Tyranny. The illusion of choice, the anemic and infrequent combat, the tiny overworld areas, and the metric ton of young-adult level writing that dominated the lower 50% of the screen most of the time contributed to me rolling my eyes on many occasions. If this is what Obsidian plans to create moving forward, then I’d best be served by sticking with a combat-centric CRPG series like Divinity or Wasteland. Tyranny is simply not my type of game.

That being said, if you enjoy a well-written book that happens to have a few dungeons and some evenly-leveled combat thrown in every ten minutes or so, you really can’t go wrong with Obsidian’s wordy magnum opus. Just get a good pair of reading glasses first.

Tyranny was reviewed on PC using a digital copy provided by Obsidian Entertainment. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 7

The Good

  • Gorgeous landscapes/backdrops. Best I’ve seen in an isometric game
  • Character creation borrows from Pillars’ exemplary system
  • Hypertext links in dialog are a clever way to educate players about world lore

The Bad

  • Text, and text, and text, and more text…
  • Lack of challenging combat (and a lack of it in general as well)
  • Illusion of choice
  • Small world, small locations
  • Relatively short game compared to its contemporaries

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  • While I personally agree, just looking at the good vs bad, it’s hard to call it a 7. I guess it just feels wrong to give such an inoffensive game something like a 5, but I could barely make myself play it past the opening act. Boring combat, boring characters, the story seemed interesting but somehow they made it boring too! I bailed because I didn’t want to be dealing with it for hours on end, but if it’s truly a relatively short game I’m more inclined to at least try and see it through just once.

  • Krescent Wolf

    Despite its focus on giving you lots to read (which I didn’t really mind anyway)… the game itself isn’t very long. It’s got a few different routes and some minor variations to those routes, but I left the game feeling like it ended before it ever really got started.

    Not a bad game by any measure…but not one i’ll likely go back to either.

  • Hang on – Carl Batchelor? Jesus, I thought he left Niche Gamer for good.

  • Nagato

    Good to have Carl back for this kind of coverage!

  • totenglocke

    Why the hell would you let someone who doesn’t like reading or intricate plot / dialogue review a CRPG?

  • Carl and I are still friends and got to talking awhile ago – he was missed as a writer and in exchange for swearing off social media (it’s better for him) he’s going to be a contributor for reviews. Hope you liked it!

  • I think he was able to still properly judge the game as it was presented – a CRPG with “challenging, classic RPG combat”, which it seems to be light of. We had a discussion regarding the score, and the content of the review and felt a 7 was appropriate for the game considering its content, how it lives up as a finished product to what it promises, etc., I hope you check out our other reviews as we are trying our best to give each game a fair shot.

  • Same he was still a friend throughout the whole thing and we’ve made an agreement to have him back on board reviewing games in his spare time.

  • totenglocke

    I’ve read many reviews here and usually find them good, but when he admits to having a bias against a particular style of game, it doesn’t make sense to me for him to review it. I haven’t played the game, so I can’t say if I think the score is fair, but the old Infinity Engine games that they were emulating with this were (mostly) very text heavy with lots of reading…so it seems odd to spend so much of the review complaining about it being text heavy. But that’s just my opinion.

  • Jumanji Joe

    “to a triple-A team that could create hit software themselves…”

    This has to be satire.

  • “Carl is both a JRPG fan and a CRPG’er who also loves European PC games.” I do not think so because:
    “The Bad: – Text, and text, and text, and more text…”
    Is this a joke? RPGs are loved because of their three pillars: exploration, combat and dialogues/lore/choices.. Maybe he means he loves only action RPGs or dungeon crawlers/roguelikes focused on combat but not otherwise..

  • sanguis4k

    I have played the game, through multiple playthroughs and I really don’t think he should have reviewed it. There is far more depth and interesting content than he gives it credit for and it is very clear he doesn’t like nor is he interested in this kind of crpg. He might be fine for other kinds of games in the genre but this is not representative of the game or its strengths and weaknesses proper.

    Maybe if NG wants to avoid following the same bad path so many other sites did they might do a better job of choosing reviewers in the future

  • I got no issue with him coming back, it just surprised me, is all. As long as he’s doing better for himself, I’d say everything should be fine.

  • AR7777

    I started this game but didn’t like the rules and overall feel of the game. I wish it had UI customization and better combat feedback options.
    Felt the same way about pillars.

  • Malcolm_Ecks

    @totenglocke:disqus raises a fair point. While this is a stretch of a comparison, its kind of like when Destructoid had Jim Sterling do review for 2 Assassin’s Creed, a series he said right of the bat he hated. He gave it a low score (4.5) and reading through the review it was one of the most nitpicky and contrived reviews since IGN gave GodHand a 3/10 for the game being “too hard”.

    Maybe it’d help if we knew what cRPGs the reviewer likes. Something to compare this game to when it comes since it it supposed to hearken back to the Infinity Engine Era of games.

  • totenglocke

    For the record, Brandon, I love your site and think you do a great job. I wasn’t trying to attack the reviewer or you, it just seems like (from what he wrote in the beginning) that he likes hack-n-slash games like Icewind Dale that are very light on plot and dialogue, which this game is not, and he maybe dinged it a point as a result of it not being the type of game he likes.

  • Robert Dudley

    I found Pillars to have much more reading than Tyrrany, what with the hundreds of years of history to read in the various books you come across. Tyrrany’s worldbuilding felt lackluster in comparison.

  • alterku

    Text is fine if it’s good. If it’s just young adult level stuff I completely understand why it’s a negative here. From some screenshots I’ve seen I tend to believe it.

  • Sebastian Mikulec

    I enjoyed Tyranny quite a bit, but I’m the type that really enjoys reading and I consider Planescape: Torment to be the best RPG ever. Early on into Tyranny I made a decision that helped me enjoy this game more. At the beginning of the game I came to the realization that the combat was just as mediocre as in Pillars. It was at this point that I changed difficulty to casual, and boy am I glad I did. Doing so made combat trivial and removed any temptation to try to game the reputation systems to gain specific abilities. I made all choices in the game according to a vision I had of the character I created and role played fully (Road le playing in a role playing game. Weird!). It was great.

  • FWIW Carl does enjoy novel-like stories, and has praised games for that before, however I think the main thing here is that he’s specifically noting the dialogue and such is at a young-adult level, making it subpar considering how reliant the game is on it.

    I haven’t played the game but Carl is a writer professionally (got his degree in it, at least) so I guess he could have been a bit of a snob with this.

    If I felt like he was giving the game an unfair score or critique because he just didn’t like the amount of writing, and that being a big part of this game, I would have had him go back and reevalaute it, or give the game to someone else.

  • Carl definitely prefers games with more combat but he has praised games with good stories, even large amounts of written content, before. I think here it was just lackluster writing, an abundance of it, and a general lack of content and overall length of game.

  • Thx man that means a lot to me. We’re by no means perfect and we are still trying to figure things out, line up the right critic to the right game, give each game a fair shot. We are also making it mandatory that we sit down and talk about the review content, and the score, etc., before publishing.

  • I think this is the main gripe Carl had with it. I’ll double check with him but he is professionally (went to college for writing) a writer, so if it’s lackluster in depth with regards to dialogue, plot, etc., that’ll definitely be a let down for him, especially if there’s more story and dialogue over combat.

  • It’s a process and we’re not perfect. I think despite the criticisms the score felt appropriate, although I haven’t played the game and I was just going off what he wrote and felt, while we also compared it to how the game is being generally received as well by fans and other outlets. Other scores ultimately won’t affect ours, but we like to keep ourselves in check just in case we are out of line and the reviewer did simply do a bad review.

  • I should have added something here or gotten clarification from him – it’s a combination of there being more dialogue than combat, with the dialogue also being young-adult level stuff.

  • Malcolm_Ecks

    That’s fair. If the writing is sub-par and there’s tons of it, then I fully understand the score. Games with lots of text should have the text at least be worth reading by the kind of players that love cRPGs.

    I don’t want Hunger Games level writing in something that should have more weight to it. Thank you for responding and tell Carl he’s done a good job with this review from me.

  • Nagato

    Glad to hear you’re on good terms again.

    If possible at some point in the future, I’d very much like it if he could post some news every now and again as well; as I’ve mentioned in the past, he manages to bring to attention some truly niche PC stuff that would’ve otherwise gone unnoticed pretty much everywhere else.

  • Fenrir007

    I personally think that the amount of text in Planescape: Torment would conventionally not be okay, but I don’t mind it in that specific instance because its so well written. If this has “young adult level writing” as Carl states, then I would agree with the assessment.

  • WallyWallyWoxenFree

    >in exchange for swearing off social media

    An arrangement that he isn’t sticking to, as evidenced by his recent activity on his twitter account RPGendboss.

    I assume that there will be repercussions for his breach of contract?

    It would be a shame if Niche’s less than stellar reputation dropped even lower.