Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: November 10th 2016
Tyranny is the latest RPG developed by Obsidian and published by Paradox Interactive. Similar to their previous Dungeons and Dragons-like title, Pillars of Eternity, it is a story heavy CRPG in the same vein as classics such as Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Icewind Dale and Planescape Torment. These late 90’s role-players are regarded by many as the pinnacle of storytelling in a western RPG. Obsidian re-invigorated life back into a sub-genre that lay dormant with their 2015 release of Pillars of Eternity. Recreating a similar look and feel to those classics which were created using the Infinity Engine, but still, with features only made possible with the added pleasure of today’s technological advancements. A year later in 2016 and Obsidian has given us yet another treat, making use of the Pillars engine. Although this game may look very similar on the surface, it has some major differences and is ultimately able to stand on its own among both Obsidians other offerings and it’s spiritual predecessors.
One way in wich it deviates from the norm is realized as soon as you start a new game. Evil has already won. That’s right, in this game you wander a land that has already lost the brutal fight against good and evil. The evil lord Kyros has recently just overtaken the last area of The Tiers, previously held by what was left of the good guys. On top of that, you work for him. Depending on the backstory you may have chosen in character creation, certain events led you to join Kyros in his conquest and move up in the ranks to the point where you are in charge of overseeing many of his high-ranking officials, known as Archons. These Archons will become perhaps the most important NPC’s that you will encounter and come to love or hate during your grand quest. One of the only Archons between you and Kyros is Tunon The Adjudicator, The Archon of Justice. He serves as your higher-up between you and Kyros and will ultimately judge your choices and actions much like many of the characters and factions you will meet on your adventure. This makes it especially worrying to displease him and every time I would visit his clean and grand establishment, I would feel as if I was being prosecuted for my reckless deeds.
Right away the realization that I could play a character as evil as I wanted was refreshing, to say the least. So many games avoid going in this direction and to see Obsidian handle this with great finesse and emphasis on player choice is a complete joy. The game sends a message that good and evil aren’t so black and white, there is a lot of gray. As you wander the land and impose your judgment on the lives of citizens or the decisions of war, you never feel like you just made the ‘Paragon’ decision, it all feels real and consequence based. Before you even begin your journey you are pushed right into some heavy adjudication as you decide what your character’s actions were during Kyros’s initial conquest. This ‘Conquest’ mode, essentially decides the state of the game world when you are eventually dropped into it. This might mean a certain character might now be dead or a certain location might be engulfed in a never ending storm thanks to powerful magic that you helped cast. This boosts replayability through the roof and I might even go as far to say this is the most replayable game all year. Amazingly, this freedom that is given to the player never detracts from the overall narrative, in fact, it even makes certain plot twists all the sweeter knowing it was your reckless decisions that created it.
Graphically I think it’s an acquired taste, but one that really appealed to me. It really does look like Baldurs Gate or Planescape Torment with it’s pre-rendered backdrops and isometric perspective. But, it looks much more detailed, colors are richer and spells can be fascinating to watch. If you have ever played Pillars of Eternity, however, I wouldn’t say it’s an evolution in quality, it’s more of that same quality which is great. It does differ than Pillars in its overall style, though. They have definitely gone for a more Bronze Age theme rather than the Tolkien-inspired look of Pillars. Kyros’ factions have a distinct almost ancient Greece inspired battle armor. The Disfavoured wearing purple and The Scarlet Chorus with a red, almost Spartan-like aesthetic helping differentiate between the two armies and emphasize their differing traditions. Environments can look fantastic though sometimes when you zoom in with the mouse scroll it can look a little fuzzy up close. Also, character creation wasn’t as extensive as I would have liked. Choosing just gender, skin color, hair, pre-made character icon and one of three physiques. No sliders or anything, which I think is a huge missed opportunity in a game that gives you so much choice in every other aspect. Other than appearance, the character creator is very good at letting you build a backstory for your avatar.
Combat isn’t the focus of this RPG, and that is evident through its numerous dialogue and descriptions to read through. It is heavy on lore and world building and can get extremely overwhelming especially at the beginning. You are able to hover your mouse over many keywords or phrases to reveal a text box. This can tell you what happened in that battle 500 years ago or that people are mad at you for burning down their village during the Conquest. I found myself using this a lot because I had to know every little detail of this world, and that really helped me feel invested. If your not a fan of reading the amount you would in a novel, this might not be for you. But don’t be turned off by that straight away, the pacing of this game is still pretty good, bar from a couple of sections. The reading is helped by some good voice acting for certain characters and the battles also break up the tedium that may arise.
Battle’s are deep and complex and if you are playing on any difficulty above normal, prepare to use every ability you can and pick your fights wisely. It’s real time, strategic gameplay with the ability to pause at any time. I would also recommend going to the options menu and choosing for the game to pause automatically when certain situations are triggered. For example, I had it auto-pause when any of my party members reached low health so I could instantly get to ordering my healer to deal with the issue or drink a health potion. I found organizing my party members to be a bit of a hassle in combat sometimes. They had a tendency to trigger traps when running to battle or get stuck in a running animation when they couldn’t find a route to their target. Slight issue with pathfinding but It was pretty rare. This isn’t a Diablo game either, you won’t be leveling up every 15 minutes and grabbing better and better gear all the time. The game is much more grounded in both lore and mechanics. When going up a level, you must assign a single point into one of six attributes: Might, Finesse, Quickness, Vitality, Wits or Resolve. Might increases your physical attack power and for a melee character, this is an obvious one to boost. I played as a female two-handed weapon wielder for high DPS. You can also switch between two different weapon sets, so I would change to dual wielding axes when things got personal. Finesse is pretty much accuracy, ranged characters with bows or quills benefit hugely, as expected. Quickness mainly affects your ability cooldowns. Vitality increases your maximum health bar, so I made sure Balik my tank, who has heavy armor infused with his body after being caught in a cataclysmic storm, was always leading in this area over my other party members. Wits is a representation of a character’s mental strength and govern the power of magical attacks, as well as the ability to detect traps in the environment. And finally, Resolve which is your character’s ability to overcome mental and physical challenges. It’s great for boosting your defense against magic.
There are also Talents which unlock as you level, they can add passive abilities to your characters such as being able to raise the defense of your allies around you by using a certain ability. Or even new things, for example, the bratty Sirin was in my party for some reason and she was able to learn Songs that would give our party certain boosts on the field. If that wasn’t enough for you to manage and you were looking for Skyrim levels of perks and abilities. Don’t forget, there are many skills working under the hood of this game that can be improved by choosing certain dialogue options or actions while socializing with the Inhabitants of The Tiers. Skills such as Athletics which can improve your ability to physically intimidate someone. I had a certain party member that I always made sure feared me because I had a feeling he might turn on me at any moment, being that I didn’t trust his allegiance. There is also Lore, which can determine how well you can piece together fragments of information and use them to your advantage. An example of this would be when Barik, was not pleased with a certain decision I made and decided he wanted us to go our separate ways. I then used my Lore skill, to blackmail him and if he didn’t join me I would turn him into Tunon, The Archon of Justice, for reasons relating to Barik’s past. It’s great stuff. Many of you might not even run into these exact situations yourself on your playthrough due to the multiple paths in the narrative.
Music is also great but nothing was exactly memorable. It fits the feel of the game, with a beautifully orchestrated score and a abrasive use of brass instruments that matches the fact that evil has conquered. It’s less ‘Rebels’ more ‘Empire’. Though if you were to ask me to hum a tune off the top of my head, I simply couldn’t. I’m not sure this should be seen as a negative but in my opinion, a few stand out melodies would have added a lot. Also, as this is a game that has very little in terms of animation outside of combat, it leaves you to use your imagination in a way that not too many games rely on these days. This means they do aid you with sound effects wich is a nice added touch.
I have been blown away by Tyranny, and as someone who loves Dungeons and Dragons and its various board games like Lords of Waterdeep, this game feels like it was made for someone who is into that kind of thing. I never played Baldurs Gate or Planescape Torment but I have now been convinced to go back and play them and also Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity. This will be a game I come back to at least a few times to try out different characters and choices and see how my outcome differs from my last. Each time I revisit I know for sure that I will learn something new about the Lore and that is wonderful in a game this rich. Sure I had issues with the AI pathfinding and some of the music wasn’t as memorable as I would have liked, but that’s only because I truly adored everything else about this game. It allows you to play the character you want within the ranks of an evil empire and as someone who always found amusement and humor out of the Empire in Star Wars, this really clicked with me. I may have felt bad about some of my decisions and the game may have made me feel like a terrible person at times, but I think that was the intention. To make you empathize with the villains however terrible they may be. I’ll leave you with a fitting quote from Street Fighter’s Zangief in Disney’s Wreck-it Ralph:
“Just because I am bad guy, doesn’t mean I am a ‘Bad Guy’” – Zangief