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RPG Codex Review: Tyranny - You'd Think An Overlord Could Keep It Up
Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 11 January 2017, 22:20:22Tags: Obsidian Entertainment; Tyranny
[Review by Tigranes]
Tyranny: You'd Think An Overlord Could Keep It Up
Tyranny comes at a time when Obsidian has something to prove. As we know, Obsidian originally established itself through a series of Bioware hand-me-downs and other licensed products. Its strategy was to take existing franchises and engines, and apply the Obsidian touch through its trademark (read: not-shit) writing - for example, Knights of the Old Republic 2, masterminded by co-founder Chris Avellone. The company then intended to take the next step with Onyx, its in-house engine, and a set of ambitious, original IP, AAA titles, to really come into their own. And so they spread their wings, took flight - and nosedived towards bankruptcy. Cancellations and commercial failures put paid to Obsidian's Five-Year Plan and many of its employee payrolls. Today, having rebounded somewhat with the success of a Kickstarted Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian is in the third phase of its life: original IPs, smaller-scale productions, and indeed, a new generation of writers coinciding with the departure of Chris Avellone. Tyranny, along with POE, should give us an indication: is nu-Obsidian still defined by quality writing and subversive themes? Have they finally learned to design good gameplay, instead? What can they do with original settings, especially one which sets out to be so different from the beginning?
The answer, in short: Tyranny features a highly promising Act I that soon gives way to a mediocre waste of time, as a potentially unique take on the grand fantasy trope of good vs. evil devolves into a generic power fantasy.
In a genre well known for plodding starts and insufferable tutorial levels, and from a company well known for contributing to this trend (see: NWN2 and KOTOR2), Tyranny does a commendable job of luring you in. Character creation includes a choose-your-own-adventure Conquest section which, like King of Dragon Pass, allows the player to define the character's past history. Not only does this build up a bank of pre-existing relationships and reputations to situate each character, this also introduces key facts of the setting in an organic way. The player is thus given a primer on the recent past of the two major factions he/she will be dealing with in Act 1. Once the game begins, the player is immediately tasked to help subdue a rebel attack - during which the Overlord's armies defer to the player's status as an emissary of the Law, and even the rebels refer to the player's reputation in past conflicts. Afterthe player arrives at the war camp, his/her first meaningful action in the game is to pronounce an Edict - a legalistic decree that will invariably enact vast magical destruction unless its specific conditions are fulfilled - to the terror and awe of the Overlord's minions.
Your past actions, established at character creation, provide a reputation that faction NPCs will respond to accordingly.
All this is simply refreshing in a genre where "Good" means "I say nice things and always turn the other cheek even when everybody takes the piss" and "Evil" means "I eat babies and I also hate old people and I do stupid, illogical things because they are nasty". But wait, that's not entirely fair. The last few years have already seen an evolution, where "Good" also means "I say dickish things and break all the rules but then I save everybody because I'm so great and people love me for my bad boy looks". In short: boring, banal and shit. Instead, Tyranny puts you in a position where you enact law and order, but in the service of a conquering overlord. Your enemies are rebels fighting for freedom against all odds, at one point leaving you to decide what happens to a surrendered village and its inhabitants. The two armies of the Overlord respond differently to your enforcement of the law, each with a clear mix of values and priorities. Best of all, the rule of the Overlord is closer to certain historical tyrants than the single-minded mania of a Sauron; Kyros' strict control over magical knowledge, or the pragmatic pursuit of war resources like iron mines, hints at an Overlord concerned most with conquest and centralised rule, rather than fulfilling any idiotic fantasy archetype of nobility or evil.
Buoyed by these promises, the first few hours of Tyranny can be highly enjoyable. Although the dialogue writing in itself is never excellent, nor the quests particularly complex, they fit well with the worldbuilding to make the player feel like the Fatebinder is not the typical 'you are a special snowflake just because' player character like the Watcher (Pillars of Eternity) or Grey Warden (Dragon Age: Origins). The combat is, as I will detail below, rather rubbish - but there's certainly sense of a relatively original experience sporting a well-integrated setting.
It doesn't last.
The Long, Terrible, Tortuous Marriage
Let me be clear: the game I described above lasts for maybe five hours, depending on your playing speed. Then it's gone, all gone. The rest of the game is best described as "go here, kill everybody, become stronk". This is strange, because on paper, Tyranny's structure seems set up to continue the good work early on. Like The Witcher 2, you smell out all the factions in the first part, make your super-important choice (TM), then experience one of several branching storylines with X faction. And indeed, there is a nontrivial amount of nonlinearity when you try playing more than once - an asset traditionally praised by the Codex. So what's the problem?
Tyranny leaves us with the unusual lesson that having multiple paths doesn't help when the basic plot and gameplay underlying those paths is, well, bad. The Witcher 2 maintained consistency in the quality, style and density of its storytelling and gameplay before and after the branching point; Tyranny simply feels like you're riding the same boring railroad multiple times, just from slightly different angles. Of the four paths possible, I completed the 'anarchist' independent path, some of the 'rebel' path, and looked up info on the two faction paths. In all cases, the player is effectively told to go to region X, fulfil the conditions for breaking the Edict of Kyros (which means kill everyone except your chosen buddies), pick up powerful mystical macguffin, then rinse and repeat. You'll go to slightly different locations, since you won't exactly be assaulting your own faction's headquarters, and you'll fight in one playthrough a group that might help you in another. To be sure, there are relatively robust consequences to your choices in allegiance. Where you bulldozed over the local militia in one scenario, they might prove talkative and even cooperative in another, and many NPCs will have their own attitudes that cause them to rush headlong at the player for betraying their faction or take up a more cautious stance. It's not that Tyranny's branching is flawed; we know it can be fascinating to play through similar events from different ends of the stick, learning more about each side's motivations and operations, as masterfully shown in the Age of Decadence. The problem is that the core gameplay and plot at the centre of all the branches is mediocre at best, and awful at worst.
The core gameplay, as I described, is mindless box-ticking; there are almost no quests with any degree of complexity, and you are reduced to following simple directions through small, relatively linear maps. Nearly every location soon boils down to "kill baddie, get macguffin", and there are virtually no disputes to arbitrate, mysteries to solve, secrets to uncover. Although one of the main objectives in Act 2 is to gather 'evidence' of wrongdoing by the two quarrelling armies, the player never actively performs any investigation. The gameplay feels even more bare-bones because worldbuilding drops the ball as well. Whereas you were previously the lawgiver of a tyrant, mediating between two proud allied armies and subjugating a hostile population, you might now go to a forgotten dungeon of mysterious purpose or function and fight some blobby-looking mysterious creatures, or go to a burning library, fight the opposing faction, fight them some more, then pick up a mysterious item of hidden knowledge - in fact, so hidden that you never actually learn anything from it! The putrid smell of 'generic RPG' progressively overpowers the initial freshness. This becomes laughably apparent in the anarchist path: the player must constantly trot back to the ridiculously named 'Bleden Mark' (what's next, Daark Freddy and Edgy Knick?), whose dialogue each time consists of "oooh, you have grown more STRONK! Now go here, kill some people, and bring back MYSTERIOUS MAGIC ITEM, which will make you EVEN MORE STRONK." If this were a film, I'd feel sorry for the idiotic lines the actor is forced to spew.
The biggest issue is that whereas Act 1 focuses on your service as lawgiver to Kyros the Overlord, no matter what you choose, Act 2 ultimately becomes a standard RPG where your serial murder fuels your improbably fast-growing *powah* against all who might oppose you. In other words, all the things that made Tyranny's world interesting are now thrown out in favour of yet another juvenile power fantasy. To make matters worse, the game then throws at the player a motley of special magical powers, artifacts, connections, abilities, all of which remain either unexplained or handwaved. The Edict begins as the Overlord's signature move, one which obeys a set of rules that both the player and the world's denizens understand; once the power fantasy begins, they are all thrown out the window as the player's special snowflakiness allows him/her to basically do anything he/she pleases with them. And although I cannot spoil the ending here, the denouement in Act 3 is no less disappointing; there is merely a breakneck and forced elevation of the player from a hardworking fatebinder of the empire to a world-shattering power the likes of which has never been seen. (Bo-ring.) Kyros, who begins the game as an enigmatic entity whose calculated gestures allow him to control and anticipate events from afar, ends the game panicked by the newfound powers of the player - and to be fair, the player's special powers are so unexplained that it is hard to see how Kyros could have known, either. Whether in terms of plot and worldbuilding, or the actual gameplay, Tyranny just isn't compelling beyond the first Act.
Oh wow, a special mysterious power for the protagonist that nobody ever gives a proper explanation for! How exciting! How original!
A Combat For Monkeys
Some of this might strike you as unfair; many RPGs are ultimately about fighting and fighting some more, and end up being plenty of fun. The problem is that Tyranny's combat is about as fun and involved as playing fruit ninja, a tablet game successfully mastered by cats and dogs. Tyranny's combat starts and ends with cooldowns. While it was built on and retains many aspects of Pillars of Eternity's combat mechanics, they simply cease to play a significant role in actual combat experience. Even on the highest difficulty, there is little need to target specific enemy defences, and there is almost never a reason *not* to use a given ability (unless it is simply a terrible ability that you'd never use anyway). The end result is that you will cycle through each character, click the shiny buttons, wait until the cooldown ends, then click them again. And again. There is no thought, there is no reason.
This is the result of not one bad decision, but the watering-down of numerous different mechanics. Tyranny's character system is classless, but every character possesses a different pool of selectable talents, and there are just two trees for most companions - meaning there is not a great deal of differentiation available. This is exacerbated by the spellmaking system; although it is an exciting feature and one Obsidian should develop for future titles, the relatively unimaginative set of sigils available means you're often handing out the same, or effectively similar, spells to all lore-heavy members of the party. The talents that are available also tend to boil down to relatively simple categories, and are clearly more streamlined than in Pillars of Eternity. The learn-by-doing system further decreases choice and differentiation in how you build each character. The result of all these different factors is that you are often loading up your characters with largely interchangeable, generic abilities (smash one dude, smash dudes in a cone, smash dude and stun...), almost all of which are tied to cooldowns.
The genericity of your arsenal is disappointing in itself, but it is exacerbated by the dire quality of the challenges thrown at your party. Now, some have criticised Tyranny for a total lack of encounter variety; you spend the whole game fighting humans, the blobby magical enemies Bane, and sometimes the beastfolk. I don't necessarily think a massive bestiary full of exotic looking enemies improves the combat experience; what you really want are enemies that fight in significantly different ways and force different tactics out of the player. In this regard, Tyranny's variety of tactical challenge is even poorer than its enemy models. Enemies will employ a decent range of abilities, often sourced from the players' own pool, but because what they do is just as generic as the player's own, there's really no need to keep up with what they're doing. Most of the enemies also do not feature any strong resistances. In Pillars of Eternity, you quickly learned shades resist reflex-based attacks but are vulnerable to fire - and far more distinctively, Baldur's Gate 2 featured hard immunities and protection spells that forced the player to switch gears. In Tyranny, you just throw all your kitchen sinks indiscriminately... until you face the blobby Bane, in which case you use ice on the red ones and fire on the blue ones. To cap it all, the game is far, far too easy, especially for those versed in Pillars of Eternity; on the highest difficulty, I found that you could easily start ignoring saddles of loot on the ground, pass up on opportunities to train your skills, and still literally Select All and Attack on some of the lesser mobs.
And so, the character development system, the skill trees, the cooldowns, the difficulty, the encounter design, all combine to produce this fruit ninja experience. The final piece in the puzzle is itemisation. Most equipment you find are rote variations of one another, with different skins; you'll soon find yourself throwing aside a Scarlet Chorus piece out over a Disfavoured one over a Bronze Brotherhood one, all of which ultimately come down to, say, "slightly faster actions but less armour" or vice versa. Some items will feature passive effects, such as prone on crit, and a host of unique items will also bring special active abilities, but they are rarely tactically significant in ways that, say, Stormcaller was in Pillars of Eternity. At best, they are one more cooldown ability in your arsenal. You can later build a forge to produce unique items from pieces found in the world, but I found that most of them were just as generic as items found elsewhere - and there was never the feeling of hunting for a famous artifact and finally discovering all the pieces. So, all in all, you can see a pattern here. The systems in place mostly look OK on their own, or even an interesting twist on genre conventions (such as introducing learn-by-doing to this kind of RPG). But there does not seem to have been adequate foresight into how they all fit together, and what kind of game experience, what level of tactical sophistication, what series of player decisions, they are supposed to support. In the end, you are left with neither the extreme flexibility of true classless systems, nor the highly distinctive abilities and roles that define each character; you do not get to really plan your character development, and the loot does not give a strong sense of progression or customisation, either; and then you bring these half-arsed characters into combat, where spamming shiny buttons on equally forgettable enemies is the chore of the day.
These are Bane. They are poorly explained blobs that make combat look like tomato soup. Kind of like darkspawn, but even more boring.
I do want to highlight two positive things Tyranny gives us for the genre. One is, of course, the spellmaking system - which is hardly unprecedented, but still all too rare and always welcome. The basic idea of discovering sigils across the world, and then putting them together to create your own specific spells, is an excellent one. However, Tyranny also shows that such a system risks favouring a generic array of player-made spells over unique, hand-crafted ones; although there are a few eccentric sigils, the player spends the first half of the game turning "Electric Bolt" into "Electric Bolt with Accuracy Bonus". A true spellmaking system would account for maluses, synergies and other tradeoffs across effects and across spells, the opportunity learn unique effects from encountered enemies, and other ways to add the necessary spice. The second feature of note is combo abilities; accruing loyalty (or fear) of your companions allows you to 'combine' and execute a powerful move, such as vaulting Verse into the air to fire a volley of arrows. (They are rather JRPG-like, actually.) Because they are not on short cooldowns, and because they require both party members to cast together, they add the smallest bit of complexity like a raindrop in the desert. Having Lantry run back to the protagonist so they can combine for a powerful healing ability - and hoping neither of them cop it before the casting is done - is one of Tyranny's few interesting moments in combat.
Companions, Audiovisuals, And Stuff
Another major outlet for the writing and lore are the game's six companions, covering all the major factions and non-faction groups in the game. They do a decent enough job; none of them are ambitious to bear comparison to a Kreia or Dak'kon, but have distinctive personalities that aren't insufferably annoying (see: NWN2's Neeshka) or straight out of overwrought emo soaps (see: KOTOR's Carth). They also seem to have at least some reactivity built into them; when I was trying out the rebel path, sabotaging the armies of the Overlord, a companion loyal to one of the armies finally confronted me. I was able to either manipulate the companion into staying for now, or to send them away and prepare for the upcoming conflict without. I can't say, however, just how extensive or consequential these reactions are; companion loyalty is extremely easy to 'farm' if you are so inclined (as with most RPGs featuring such loyalty scores), and in my full independent playthrough the companions hardly batted an eyelid in protest even though I often neglected their loyalty.
I will briefly note the lack of exploration, and indeed, of non-combat gameplay in general in Tyranny. Maps are considerably smaller than in Pillars of Eternity, and accordingly more linear, with token hidden loot placed here and there. Skill checks in the environment make a return from PoE, but they are so easy to pass, they might as well not be there. POE was already a combat-centric game, and without its mini text-adventures, wealth of sidequests and larger maps, Tyranny really has only two selling points - its story and its combat. The former holds up for the first act; the latter is never up to begin with.
I won't say too much about the audiovisuals and aesthetic style, primarily because I think a lot of inspiration came from the American comic books tradition, of which I remain largely ignorant. In general, the game ranges between 'mediocre' and 'decent' in this regard. The game does a good job of differentiating itself from Pillars of Eternity, and presenting a reasonably cohesive direction by video game standards. However, memorable moments are few - the bleeding statue and the view through the clouds from the Spiretop to name a couple - and the music and sounds are almost entirely forgettable. Still, this is not where the game is made or broken; Tyranny's landscape would have been plenty good enough to romp through, had the actual gameplay and writing been up to par.
So how does Tyranny answer the questions asked of Obsidian? In some cases, it's the same old: Obsidian's never been strong at crafting enjoyable combat or pacing the gameplay, and Tyranny is no different. The more ambiguous question is what is happening to its traditional strengths - intelligent writing, complex quests and some degree of choice & consequences. On the balance of Tyranny and Pillars of Eternity, it seems clear that Obsidian is moving away from heavy-hitting, intense scenes and characters that defined the Chris Avellone era. There are fewer larger than life characters, and certainly none that could pop out a popular philosophy podcast in their spare time. What we *are* getting instead still seems unclear, and perhaps not quite yet mature. Tyranny starts out with a refreshing setup, and there are plenty of moments where it lives up to its premise, producing distinctive if never jaw-dropping scenes. But the game seems to lose its way in the middle, leaving the player with the sense of unfulfilled potential. There doesn't seem to be enough depth in the lore and worldbuilding, or consistency in the themes and delivery, to keep it all together. Tyranny, in itself, shows Obsidian struggle to recapture its reputation for sophisticated writing. Its next releases - Pillars of Eternity 2, and maybe an AAA-game in the works - have a lot riding on them.
Tyranny will never rank amongst Obsidian's best games, and is worth a significantly discounted purchase at best. When it does get it right, it shows you how marvellous it could have been - and then you walk away from yet another cooldown trash mob fight, shaking your head.