A solid RPG offering that doesn't quite reach Obsidian's best efforts
The comeback of the cRPG is a game design movement that rocked the video game world over the last two years. Between Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin, and Shadowrun Returns (not to mention Dragonfall and Hong Kong), the cRPG went from dead to prominent at a rather quick pace. The latest entry into this revitalized subgenre is Tyranny, Obsidian’s follow-up to Pillars of Eternity - and those are big shoes to fill. In the end, Tyranny lacks the magic of Pillars, though that might be the point. Tyranny is a more intimate game with a bleaker world and grayer message than Pillars’ more traditional RPG epic; unfortunately, that also makes it harder to enjoy. The game feels more linear while also being less charming. That’s not saying there isn’t plenty to like about the game. Obsidian’s known for crafting complex RPGs with interesting messages (see Knights of the Old Republic II) and Tyranny has a few unique moments.
Players begin their experience by creating a character. And much like Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian skimps on giving players the ability to customize every fingernail, but in return allows players to forge a backstory for their character. In this aspect, Tyranny actually outperforms Pillars. Sure, Pillars let you create a vague background to give yourself some history, but aside from opening up some dialogue options, it was rarely part of the story. In Tyranny, players make a handful of key decisions before the game even starts, charting their place in an evil conquest of free cities. This part of the character-building experience, aptly titled “Conquest”, comes up time and again while playing Tyranny. If you chose to burn down a village, that village will remember your actions when you visit it again later in the game. Did you take away the followers of a strange mage? Chances are she won’t miss the chance to remind you of it when you meet her later.
Obsidian boasts that Tyranny has a lot of different ways to play through the game, but your choices in Conquest easily carry the most impact. Instead of making a bunch of choices that affect the ending, Tyranny actually has players make a lot of decisions that affect the starting state of the game. There are also a couple of larger forks in the road that happen as part of the plot.
The elevator pitch for Tyranny is that evil has won and as a servant of the wicked Lord Kyros players will journey through the final frontier of his dominion called “The Tiers” and do his bidding. That’s a pretty cool premise for a game. People like playing as the bad guy so roaming from location to location, doing some awful stuff with impunity seems like fun - except that’s not really the game Obsidian has made. Players begin the game by journeying to the final battle against the “good guys” where they read a powerful spell that will kill everyone in the valley - including you - if Kyros’ forces don’t complete their assault against the last of the resistance in eight days. In the end you wipe out the rebellion and claim their stronghold. While doing this, you awaken a power inside yourself that makes you all the more useful and dangerous to Kyros.
In this early phase of the game, you have to choose which faction you wish to support. Kyros has two armies: the small but well-trained Disfavored and the numerous but disorganized Scarlet Chorus. As far as early game choices go - this isn’t a great one. The two leaders spend their time bickering between each other, but the game doesn’t give you a ton of information about either before shrugging its shoulders and asking you to pick a side. I fell in league with the Scarlet Chorus and then found myself fighting alongside them in a civil war against the Disfavored. A choice that starts out as “who do you want to lead the final assault?” suddenly becomes “who do you want to spend the entire game with?” It would have been nice to learn more about these factions before making such a big decision or at least get a little more heads-up that this choice would make such a big impact on the game. But we’ll revisit these issues a bit later.
Tyranny is also a more intimate game than Pillars in terms of its party size. Instead of having six party members and ten available companions, Tyranny caps its party size at four and gives you only six characters to choose from. This isn’t a bad move necessarily; there were times playing Pillars that I felt overwhelmed by the characters and struggled to cycle each of them into my party so I could hear their whole story. And there’s some interesting character work in Tyranny - as one would expect from Obsidian. There’s a songstress mage whose powers resemble that of the Chanter in Pillars of Eternity. There’s a beastwoman who refuses to wear armor. Two of your party come from the free peoples you defeated. There’s some cool character development that make the small number of characters feel like it’s not a huge issue in terms of the narrative.
When it comes to gameplay you’ll run into bigger problems. First, it’s hard to know what is going to make characters like you. I ran into this problem immediately when a character asked a benign question. I responded I didn’t want to talk about it and the companion’s Fear meter grew. This is a problem because Tyranny doesn’t leave a lot of time to rebuild relationships, and it’s easy to get on the wrong side of people very quickly. I managed to repair one relationship with a companion by accident, making a choice that suddenly meant the character liked me. It’s kind of hard to tell what’s going to make someone loyal and what’s going to make them fearful. You also run into the problem of being unable to exchange characters out for ones you like because the roster is so slim. You have one healer, so if you piss him off you better get used to chugging health potions.
It all comes back to the larger issue which is that Tyranny lacks some definition about its “Sometimes Evil Wins” theme. Kyros doesn’t seem all that evil to me. Sure, he’s a harsh ruler and a dictator, but he has a functioning court system, gender equality, and doesn’t approve of chaos. Tyranny’s world isn’t about love and happiness, but take a glance through the actual rulers of the Persian Empire or the Mongols, even some Western rulers, and Kyros’ rule doesn’t seem so bad. He’s more Tywin Lannister than Sauron. In fact, if you do all the evil stuff you can do in Tyranny, the game punishes you for it at the end. Like they actually hold a trial, revisit your actions, and judge you. I thought this was a designated place to do all the evil stuff, Tyranny? What gives?
Sometimes Tyranny does come together. There are certain dialogue situations that allow you to berate NPCs for back talking. A handful of times I punched or slapped people just to remind them who is in command. Tyranny is punctuated by moments where you can be a real a-hole - but then the world kind of recedes back to its tepid imagining of an “evil” empire.
The aesthetics also serve the game well. Tyranny indulges in grays and browns that match the morose tone. The game does have a few missed opportunities for grand visuals - like when you visit the Bastard City, and the only thing you see is the interior of a courtroom. Again, this is all in favor of more subdued and intimate tale, but it’s hard to get excited about. The good news is that Tyranny runs much better than previous Obsidian games. There’s a couple of long loading screens, but very few crashes or bugs.
Tyranny boasts the standard turn-based tactical RPG fare that was present in Pillars. The game relies on you constantly slamming on the spacebar to pause and give orders to your characters. There’s some really good fights, but the game is pretty unforgiving. Unlike Pillars, Tyranny isn’t big enough to let you level up your characters and return to a fight. Oftentimes, you’re stuck with the direction you have to go and it leaves the game feeling a little oppressive. There’s less to explore and less to find - and in the end Tyranny feels less organic.
Many standard RPG elements are present. You can collect items for crafting, you can find side quests, you can craft your own spells, and you can upgrade your characters. The tough part is that Tyranny isn’t long enough for you to really experiment around with these elements. I rarely had enough materials to craft anything - or the right spells to make my own. At about the halfway mark, all the armor and weapons started to look the same - with slight stat differentials that balanced out.
Tyranny also uses the Stronghold mechanic from Pillars, except this time they are called Spires. You can upgrade them with merchants and special rooms, but cosmetically it never really changes and the bonuses aren’t great. You unlock these Spires by solving a puzzle in the entry hall, which grow more complex with each one you visit. Again, this might have been a better mechanic if Obsidian gave me the time and resources to explore it, but I only had time to buy a couple upgrades before I found myself in the home stretch of the game.
That’s kind of the problem with Tyranny, the stuff that works for it, also works against it. I'm okay with the smaller cast of characters, but it means I can get stuck with ones I don’t like because of trivial choices. I like the more condensed campaign, but it makes for a more linear game that takes away some of the joy inherent to the genre. I like bronze age armor and weapons, but they’re so often similar that I didn’t find anything that felt special or unique. Tyranny has all the bells and whistles one would expect from an Obsidian cRPG. It ticks off a list of features as casually as it can. It’s a standard entry from Obsidian and while that’s respectable, it’s not as enjoyable as their best work.