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.
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Release Date: November 10, 2016
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
- 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
- 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