Tyranny [official site], a new RPG from genre masters Obsidian, is about being bad. Or at least, being in a bad place, surrounded by bad people, with the choice to be bad. The evil Overlord Kyros has conquered swathes of the lands of Terratus, and now has his sights set on the Tiers, a desolate and desperate region, populated by surviving armies and the resilient, whom you are commanded to dominate. Perhaps to enslave, perhaps to slaughter, but as Kyros’s trusted Fatebinder, it’s your job to manage the misfits and warring factions under his rule.
Which is interesting, isn’t it?
Well, I’m struggling to make up my mind. Tyranny manages to be fascinating and ordinary, novel and plain, engrossing and detached. And big. Far bigger than we were led to expect in the game’s promotion, where it was suggested that it was a shorter, time-limited experience, driving replays to explore different paths. In reality it clocks in at apparently 25 hours. I say “apparently” because despite working flat-out all week on this, I’m nowhere near the end, and I’d say the hour count could be an awful lot higher if you play anything like me.
The game begins with a sequence called the Conquest. This plays out as a choose your own adventure in which you’re given choices to make within various scenarios that span a series of years – you plot out how Kyros’s forces plough through the lands toward the Tiers, and the role you play within it. And these choices influence the starting state of the RPG that follows. It seemingly determines your reputation, as well as establishing a few key elements to the world in which you’re battling, and offers a very clear way to restart the game with a different outset. Along the way you learn crucial elements of the game’s lore, including how Kyros has various Archons, magic pioneers who act as rulers within the realms, the one you report to being Tunon, Archon of Justice. And Edicts, Kyros’s most powerful magic that can destroy entire lands, although each with canny clauses and conditions. And of the conflict between the wildly disparate Scarlet Chorus and Disfavored, Kyros’s two most powerful forces. And…
Tyranny certainly does suffer from an overwhelming glut of lore-language, so much so that battling through any of its tens of thousands of sentences can be a bit like reading a politics textbook. “The oathbreakers hold the citadel at the heart of the valley – the one built around the base of the Spire. The Matani river has been our largest headache during the siege.” Places you haven’t been, obscure titles easily confused for the dozen other obscure titles, just thrown at you, all make following the gist of the message quite the slog.
To address this, vast amounts of the game’s text offer colour-coded tool-tips, which offer further explanations in lengthy pop-ups, themselves entangled in lore. Orange for general details about the world, green for specialist lore. This can make actually following the point achievable, but goodness me, it’s quite the way to read a quick, possibly unimportant statement from an NPC! And those tool-tips aren’t always there – nothing in the above quote was highlighted, for instance. Then you turn to the comprehensive Encyclopaedia that gives lengthy, equally convoluted accounts of each term.
Right, but back to the game. If you played Pillars Of Eternity, then you have a good idea of what the game will look like – it’s the same Unity creation, and of course you’re controlling a band of interchangeable characters as they wander, chat, and fight across the pile of quests. Everything’s very familiar there – characters level, get new abilities, improve stats, and of course want to have incredibly lengthy chats with you about absolutely everything ever. NPCs can be equally verbose, meaning you can lose fifteen minutes to reading through the full dialogues to reasonably incidental characters. And the writing is, while as mentioned leaden with lore, of a good standard. It’s peculiarly sweary in a way it doesn’t seem quite comfortable with itself, but there are enormous amounts to learn from everyone, and a good dose of lovely lines. “Allies are just enemies with great patience,” especially pleased me.
It’s tempting to say that the emphasis when compared with Pillars is on the combat, but I think that’s not quite accurate. Pillars was rammed with combat – it was, in fact, the game’s biggest weakness, where tiresome skirmishes popped up incessantly and required far too much micro-management for their lack of import to what you were playing. Tyranny is just the same, just without as much other cool stuff going on in between the fights.
In fact, I think that’s a big part of what makes it such an odd game to latch onto. It feels incredibly rushed, despite being so lengthy and detailed. The mistake it makes, I think, is to try to do everything that’s done in a 100 hour RPG, but in a big hurry. For instance, your party members are introduced to you at a completely daft rate, piling up so quickly that you’ll have barely got to know the last, rather than more sensibly simply featuring fewer of them, arriving more calmly.
Then there’s the deliberate attempt to introduce a sense of rush. When you start out there’s an Edict that’s going to kill absolutely bloody everybody, you included, if a particular area isn’t captured within eight days. There’s a counter at the top of the screen, and it gently pulses to remind you of the urgency. In Hayden’s preview last month, he was told how it was tough to get everything done in that time, and that the game would simply end if you ran out. I finished every bit of it, every side quest too, with six days left on the clock. It didn’t work at all.
Which brings me back to how I play these things. I can’t leave anything unturned. If I had a lick of sense I’d have burned through the main quest to reach the end, and written this review after that. But I can’t. I can’t leave conversations unspoken, side-quests unfulfilled, details not understood. And so the hours clock up and up, which is great for the game, rubbish for getting a review finished on time. (I’m going to keep playing, and write a follow-up piece.) Given that the time limits don’t threaten even when playing like that, it’s clear that something hasn’t quite worked.
I then found myself in a predicament with the combat, where on Normal difficulty you’re required to do a minimal amount of micro-managing and pausing of the real-time-turn-based combat. It works very well, and gets even better when you start doing combos, special abilities performed by you and another party member in tandem, with spectacular results. There are so many weapon types, approaches, balancing of weapon sets, co-ordination and magic. Push the difficulty up and you’ll be worrying about every moment. Or, as I found myself forced to in order to get anywhere before time ran out, put it down to Easy and it’ll pretty much run itself for you. Normal is the best mode for me, playing on Easy is supposed to give you a “just the story, thanks” approach, but when fighting is such a core element it takes far too much away.
Oh, and it’s worth making clear, while the game looks like Pillars, and in lots of ways plays like it, the games’ stories and lore don’t overlap. It took me forever to realise this, I admit, as I kept trying to draw associations that aren’t there. I am silly.
And gosh, I’ve not mentioned so many details. It has a unique spell system, where you craft your own spells from constituent elements, more of those discovered as you explore, and then taught to your party members. There are special artefacts, sometimes weapons, sometimes objects, that themselves gain levels through use. There are Spires to gain control of, and then upgrade, to improve your stats. There are Missives, that… no, see, you can find this stuff out for yourself.
You can also gain favour with other characters as you’d expect, but being a baddie isn’t always about saying what people want to hear. You can also gain wrath and fear, points attributed for angering or scaring, which also unlock special abilities and bonuses. Such elements can be lost too, of course – it adds an extra dimension to deciding what you might want to say to someone.
Oh, and the most important thing! You can be really bad! There are decisions to make at various points that offer some quite surprising levels of horridness, and since this is a game that lets me, I’ve embraced that. Most importantly, it doesn’t dismiss this – making outrageous choices has unique consequences, and opens up unique storylines (one where I thought my choice might break the flow, but instead made things a lot more interesting to me).
Muddled? I am. There’s so much going on here, but I never really feel like I’ve got a proper grip on it. It feels like a puddle the size of the Atlantic – this vast concept, but too gossamer to sink in deep. Huge stories, but minor roles in them. Exquisite detail, but all going by too fast. And yet, pretty good with it. Just not as good as what’s come before.