Hello, this is the RPG Crawler and let’s talk about Tyranny. Developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Paradox Interactive, it was released on November 10, 2016, and is currently available on steam and gog.com. The list price will vary depending on edition, currently ranging from $44.99 for the Commander edition through $79.99 for the overlord edition, with each edition tier coming with additional goodies.
Now this review will cover my first impressions of the game and examine the technical details rather than the storyline as a whole, as after some hours I realized I really really wanted to do a proper let’s play of this at some point. However, I did play through for over five hours, longer than a certain other review I did on another game I wanted to play, long enough to see what I believe is most of the core systems of the game, and certainly enough to convince me whether or not it was a good buy. Hopefully this will be enough to help you make your own decision as well.
So before I go into what Tyranny is, we need to go over what Tyranny is not. Tyranny is not Pillars of Eternity 2. It does not take place in the same world, it has different lore and there are differences in the underlying system even though it uses a very similar engine. Tyranny is not for people who can’t handle at least a little moral ambiguity in their stories.
What Tyranny is, is an isometric view, party-based role-playing game in the style of the infinity engine classics in the same mold as Pillars of Eternity, another game developed by Obsidian. In fact the engine it uses, while built on Unity, is derived from the one used for Pillars of Eternity, and many of the mechanics cross over. This similarity will invite many comparisons between the two games, but I don’t believe it is to either game’s detriment.
The world of Tyranny is a unique fantasy world, steeped in magic and history. Unlike many such games, the great evil has already conquered the world, in the form of the overlord Kyros. The player is a Fatebinder in service to one of his Archons, each Archon an individual of immense magical power and ability. Fatebinders serve as judge, jury, and executioner, traveling with the armies of Kyros and exacting their particular brand of justice.
Before you create a character, you can select from one of a few difficulty levels, all of which should be familiar to players of Pillars of Eternity, including an ironman challenge mode and an expert mode for those who don’t need help deciding what stats to where.
Character creation is similar to other in depth rpgs. All player characters in Tyranny are human, but you may select a gender and basic detailing, and then a History that tells how you joined Kyros’s army. This game features quite a number of choices that have more than just a cosmetic consequence, so even choices here will start affecting how the game plays out. After your origin, you select a primary and secondary expertise rather than classes, allowing you to effectively mix and match your starting skill levels. After a few additional cosmetic options, you can assign your attributes and skills.
Attributes are similar but not identical to Pillars of Eternity. There’s six of them, with might dealing with physical strength, Finesse with physical and mental precision, Quickness on how often a character’s cooldowns refresh, Vitality determining physical health and strength of personality, Wits determines a character’s mental acuity, and Resolve their ability to endure physical and mental challenges. Skills are also somewhat similar to those in Pillars of Eternity, with 7 Weapon skills and 5 Support skills, but in Tyranny, skill use gradually improves said skills over time.
The final step in character creation is optional, and unique to Tyranny. You can quick start and skip it, or go into a conquest mode that lets you choose how your character was involved with the conquest of the Tiers. Conquest mode presents a branching path and series of events that affect both the character’s skills and abilities, but also the starting relationships with the various factions in the game. In each section you are given a few scenarios in which you must make choices, with the various consequences of those choices then playing out. You can then decide which route you take on your path through the Tiers, though it’s impossible to select every path, making it a rather balanced way to set things up.
Once the game proper starts, players of Pillars of Eternity should feel almost at home. Graphically, Tyranny very much resembles Obsidian’s prior offering, with most of the changes in the UI itself. The area maps have been moved from a separate screen to a window that functions as a combat log or map interchangeably, depending on context. The party window has been reworked, and I have to say that I’m not particularly fond of the new layout, but it is what it is and one can get used to it. Individual characters still have a row of usable skills and spells, with slots for quick items. Movement and targeting designation is very similar to Pillars, and there is a menu bar allowing for quick access to the various screens.
Character inventory is very much akin to Pillars and similar games, with each character having their own sub inventory in addition to what items they have equipped, up to four weapons sets depending on their talents, and a number of quick item slots that can vary depending on talents. There is also a stash that can be accessed and holds the miscellaneous things that the party picks up.
The attribute screen lets you review a character’s attributes, skills, and active effects, but also how far along each skill is toward an advancement. When a character levels up this is also where attribute points may be distributed, with each character gaining one attribute point and one talent point at each level.
Talents come in several categories, with the main character receiving a choice of six different categories: Leadership, Defense, Power, Agility, Range, and Magic, while additional party members merely get two talent categories designed for them alone. This allows some customization of the additional party members while keeping them fairly set in their overall roles. Talents can have a wide range of effects, from passive bonuses to activated abilities to unlocking certain additional elements of the character screen.
The journal is pretty robust, allowing for sorting and examination of various quests, whether completed or not, and breaking them down between primary quests and other quest types. There is a reputation window, which allows for an overview of the character’s reputations with the various factions, as well as individual NPCs. Finally, there’s a spell creation system, a spire tab that replaces the stronghold in Pillars, and a Missives tab, for when NPCs have sent you letters.
First, let’s take a look at the combat system. I think I can best describe it as a streamlined version of the Pillars combat system, retaining the same range and area effect diagrams, the same engagement system that prevents enemies from scooting around each other, the same ‘per encounter’ style abilities that can be used limited numbers of times and the same vulnerability to having attacks and spells and the like interrupted. The actual attack interruption mechanics seem to have been streamlined somewhat, as has the hit point and wound system. Rather than having endurance, then hit points, which might result in a wounded state, health is simply one bar, and when it gets low enough the character might be subject to wounds. Wounds reduce the maximum health a character can recover to, as well as impose a penalty to actions. Wounds can be recovered through certain items, through camping, through certain actions, or when a character levels up.
And on that note, the limited ‘camping supplies’ makes its return from Pillars, although this time it seems a little more generous. Basically, the mechanic puts a cap on how many times you can rest on any one expedition, since you can’t simply rest and restore without supplies on hand, and you can only carry so many at a time. There is a day and night cycle and passing time and dates, and even in the handful of hours I played there was a quest with a hard time limit, so even with a more generous camping supplies store, there can still be a harder limit at certain times.
The exploration map has icons and interaction areas similar to Pillars of Eternity, where certain areas include lootable containers, some include icons you can click on for more information, and certain icons indicate an interaction event, usually dependent on a certain skill. Finally, compass roses indicate where the party can exit to the overworld map. Like Pillars, there is a stealth and scouting mode which can allow the party to sneak up on opponents, but taking a cue from the later Pillars mechanics, there’s a certain chance to uncover hidden traps and caches even without the scouting mode active.
The overland map art is more stylized than in similar games, and areas are situated as hotspots that can be traveled to as they are discovered. Travel on the overland map takes time, and there is the chance to uncover scripted encounters while moving from area to area.
In terms of mechanics beyond the basics described, certain ones bear special mention. The reputations system is interesting, mostly because rather than simply having a single positive or negative slider, the main character can influence factions or other characters through two means each. For factions, you can gain or lose favor or wrath. Favor represents what it sounds like, what you’ve done for a faction, how you’ve furthered their goals and so forth. Wrath, on the other hand, is what you’ve done to anger them. Each of these may be influenced independently. It is possible to both irritate and favor a faction in turn. Doing so unlocks certain tiers, which can affect interactions with their members, but may also unlock special abilities at certain levels. For instance, attaining level 3 favor with the Scarlet Chorus unlocks Merciless, which gives a bonus to hit precision against targets below 35% health. Archons use a similar system to factions.
Similarly, companions can be influenced, although they use Loyalty and Fear. You can inspire a companion to accompany you through either, in keeping with the whole evil twist to the game. This can allow you to unlock abilities, similar to the factions, although these abilities tend to be combo attacks that you can use with your companions.
Another system that bears mentioning is the spell creation system. Rather than simply adding spells to a spellbook, each member of the party has a number of spell slots based on their lore and their talents. As you adventure, you’ll uncover various sigils that can be combined into different spell types. Core sigils define what sort of spell it is, be it life manipulation, fire, illusion, or the like, while Expressions determine the target, and the target can alter the way the core takes effect. Finally there are accents, which may modify aspects of the spell once it’s defined. Things such as extending range or duration are all Accents, which are optional. Once a spell is created, it can be socketed into one of the spell slots of any character that meets the requisite Lore skill, and that character can then use it in combat. I think it’s really a nice way to do spell creation, and would like to see something similar in other rpgs.
Finally we have the spire page, which lists various mysterious spires and the devices associated with each, as well as the various parts of the Tiers and whether each particular area is under an Edict. Edicts affect broad swaths of land, and are central to the game’s plot, while the Spires function, apparently, like a miniature stronghold. Each one may be upgraded through various hires that provide services.
So let’s talk about aesthetics. Graphically, as I said, it’s very similar to the Pillars of Eternity game. Although the styling is a little different on the interface and maps, the actual character models and environment art actually seem a step up from the bar set by Pillars, reminiscent of the hand drawn maps of the old infinity engine game while being properly detailed in a modern rendering engine. Now I’m no art critic, but the harsher, more ominous landscapes present in this game seem to have been well realized by the designers. Musically, the soundtrack is worth listening to, though I don’t know if any of the tracks really stand out, at least thus far. It’s at least on par with Pillars.
As for the writing and storyline? Well, as I have stated earlier, I didn’t play but through the first five or so hours, basically through the first act. What I did see was quite impressive. The storyline itself is told from the eyes of someone in service to this evil overlord, at least at first. Having played many, many evil characters in tabletop roleplaying and such, I found the treatment of the various factions and characters quite well done. Even playing the honorable sort, you are going to be hit with some very tough decisions, and the various characters genuinely feel properly fleshed out, with their very evident flaws, ambitions, and whims. Furthermore, decisions you make in the game feel like they genuinely have weight, although I’ll clearly have to play more of the game to see if this holds up. The real question here is how long the story itself holds up. I’ve seen some indications in other reviews that you can finish the game in 20 hours or less, and that the story seems to leave off unfinished. This is not something I can confirm or deny in this initial look, so it’s something that you’ll have to consider for yourself if you’re looking to purchase this. Whether you can accept a game that is quite a bit shorter than an epic like Pillars will be key.
Now, in terms of stability and performance, I didn’t personally encounter anything game breaking, but you need to take that with a grain of salt, since often games like this do tend to work just fine for me even when others have issues. I will say that it is based on an engine that has had a lot of work put into it already, so it has been tested and tried with a prior game, and that’s always a benefit.
So what we have is a solid entry into the RPG arena that is graphically pleasing, decently written, and uses an underlying RPG system that is effectively an evolution of one that proved equal to the task of another game. I’m not going to say that it is going to unseat any of the current ‘best rpgs ever’ from their place, far from it, but it does have a rather unique premise, and approaches the whole heroic saga thing from a different starting perspective than most RPGs. I very much want to do a full Let’s Play at some time in the future. Suffice to say that I’m hooked.
Now, is it worth the cost? For me, yeah, at least the Commander Edition. I’m not one to pay for the extra digital content that’s included with the other versions, things that include forum avatars, short stories, soundtracks and ringtones and other extras. If you enjoy those things, more power to you. Taken as it is, my main concern is the projected length of the game. For the price, I generally prefer games with longer playtimes. On the other hand, although supposedly short, it’s not like it’s a full price game that only lasts nine hours, and the different choices, challenges, and difficulties might make for some replay value.
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