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Tyranny is the latest role-playing game from Obsidian Entertainment. It uses a lot of the assets from their previous title, Pillars of Eternity (including some combat mechanics, classes, and equipment icons), but it takes place in an entirely new universe. Through the opening cinematic, you learn that an evil overlord named Kyros is taking over the world, and that she's using archons (powerful magic users) and edicts (city-killing spells) to get the job done.
You play as a Fatebinder, a judge working for Kyros. Your job is to settle disputes, but you're given lots of leeway in how you interpret Kyros' laws, which means you can be good or evil as you choose. So you start out as a dutiful officer, but then you're allowed to branch out in various ways. So you can choose between staying loyal to Kyros, working with the downtrodden masses being subjugated by Kyros, or striking out on your own. This is a unique and fascinating premise for a campaign -- and it mostly works.
Character creation in Tyranny starts out about the same as character creation in every other RPG. You select a gender, an appearance, and a name. You choose a pair of weapon skills (or the same one twice), where the possibilities include unarmed, dual-wielding, and a variety of spell schools. You spend points on attributes, including might, finesse, quickness, vitality, wits and resolve. And you spend points on skills, including weapons skills, magic skills, and support skills like athletics, lore and subterfuge. You don't pick a race (there aren't any dwarves or elves; you have to play as a human), and there aren't any classes (you can build your character however you want).
Where character creation gets interesting is at the end. When the game opens up, Kyros' conquest is in its fourth year, and so what you get to do is choose what your character was doing during the first three years. These aren't minor, inconsequential activities. You might kill a queen, invoke one of Kyros' edicts, or decide the fate of a city. So your character isn't some anonymous Fatebinder in the employ of Kyros. People know who you are, and they react accordingly. Better yet, the decisions you make affect some of the locations that you can visit, some of the people that you can meet, and some of the side quests that you can receive, so it adds to the replay value of the game as well.
If you played Pillars of Eternity, then the attributes and skills might sound familiar, but Tyranny also has some areas that are totally unique. Consider spellcasting. At the start of the game you barely know anything about magic, but as you play you unlock spell cores, expressions, and accents. Cores are the major schools of magic, including fire, illusion, and life. Expressions define the way spells can be used, including auras, cones, and distant impacts. And accents give bonuses to spells, including extra magnitude, greater range, and heightened accuracy. You then combine one core, one expression, and possibly multiple accents together to construct the spells you want to use. You're only limited by your lore skill, which caps how many things you can add on. I found this system to be way more fun than just having set spells that you learn as you level up.
Also interesting in Tyranny is how you gain experience. You don't gain points the regular way, by, say, killing enemies and completing quests. Instead, each of your skills has a rank, and you gain experience for your skills by using them. Then when you advance a skill to rank X, you gain X experience points. So the game is all about advancing your skills, and especially your high level skills, making it more advantageous to focus on one area of expertise rather than trying to be a jack of all trades. If you've played The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, then this is essentially the same system, right down to also having skill trainers available. I never thought I'd see Obsidian copy a game mechanic from Bethesda, but here you go.
Each time you advance in level, you receive a point for attributes and a point for talents. Talents are categorized into six trees, including agility, defense, leadership, magic, power, and range. Each talent either gives you a passive bonus (like extra damage for a certain kind of weapon) or an ability that you can use during combat (like spell reflection). The talent trees are tiered, with the best content at the end, and so they're another example of where it's better to stay focused rather than spread your points around.
On the downside of character development is how certain things were simplified. For example, in Pillars of Eternity there were dialogue checks for attributes and skills, giving conversations lots of ways to test your character, but in Tyranny only athletics, lore and subterfuge are checked. Since each of those skills is also used in multiple other ways -- athletics allows you to climb walls and jump over chasms, lore allows you to unlock spell components, and subterfuge is used for thief activities like picking locks and disarming traps -- it's really easy to level them up. Once I got about an hour into the game, I never failed a check for any of the three skills, in dialogue or otherwise, which is sort of boring.
But overall I found the character system to be different and effective. You're given lots of options for how to build your character (with seven weapon skills, eleven magic skills, and six talent trees) and for what sorts of damage you want to focus on, and while I was playing didn't notice one type of character being wildly better or worse than any other type, so the balance seems to be fine. Sort of sadly, though, there isn't any way to respec your character, so if you choose one path and then later change your mind, there isn't any way to make a correction.
One of the things I didn't like about Pillars of Eternity was how Obsidian slavishly made it look like an Infinity Engine game. Now, I loved the Infinity Engine games, but not so much because of the interfaces they used, and so Obsidian's decision seemed strange to me. But now with Tyranny, Obsidian has taken the lessons they learned from Pillars, and they've created a modern interface that looks better and is much friendlier to use.
The game still uses 2D maps, and so you still get an isometric view of your party. It also means that you're allowed to zoom the view in or out, but there isn't any way to rotate the camera. All commands can be given using the mouse or configurable hotkeys, and you can even queue up commands by pressing the shift key, so it's easy to jump in and start playing the game -- which is good since Tyranny, like so many other games recently, doesn't come with a manual.
But probably the nicest thing about the interface is the tooltips, including tooltips during dialogue. If you're talking to somebody and they mention a person or a place, then you can hover the mouse over the name in the text and get some information about it, which is great when you're learning what's going on. There are even context-sensitive tooltips, where the text might have a specific meaning to your character. I loved the tooltips, and I hope it's something that other developers add to their games.
Less great about the interface is that Obsidian decided that the combat log, the text log, and the mini-map should share the same window on the screen, so you can only see one at a time. The text log and the combat log can share the same window since you're never talking and fighting at the same time, but I want to see the mini-map all the time, so this sharing-of-space irritated me. Worse, Obsidian didn't create a local map screen at all, so you can only see the local map in the mini-map window, which can only expand to about a quarter of the screen, and which can't be annotated. This is especially annoying during the dungeon delving parts of the game, where there are things you can't do the first time you visit a location, and you have to remember where they are for later.
While Obsidian was making the interface (mostly) friendlier, they also made combat friendlier. Gone is the odd system from Pillars where characters have combat health and full health. Now characters just have health, and they automatically regenerate it when they're not in combat. Obsidian also got rid of memorized spells. Now all spells and skills simply have a cooldown, except for special companion combo skills (where you and a companion work together to do something), which can only be performed once per encounter or once per rest.
Combat is performed in real time, but you can slow it down if you want, and you can also set a variety of pause conditions so the game stops when you spot an enemy, or when you take damage, or when a character is low on health, or when about a dozen other triggers take place. Since most skills just use a cooldown, you don't have to worry about holding anything back. You can use your arsenal when it's tactically relevant. The AI is also decent, so you can let your companions do their thing while you control your character. I usually only took control of my companions to get them to heal more aggressively.
If you're knocked out during a battle, then you don't die; you just receive a wound. You can also receive a wound from taking a major hit. Wounds reduce your maximum health, your skills, and your attributes, so they're best to be avoided. The only way to cure a wound is to rest, which requires camping supplies. The game is very friendly about when and where you can rest, camping supplies are cheap and plentiful, and there isn't any sort of a time limit, so there isn't much of a reason to not camp if your party is in bad shape.
Your reward for most battles -- other than a chance to build up skills -- is some equipment. Equipment comes in five tiers (from basic to masterwork), but it's not very exciting. Way too many items have the same stats, and only rare artifacts have magical bonuses. The only thing you have to worry about for equipment is whether you want to use heavy armor or light. Heavy armor protects you better but adds to your cooldowns. Light armor protects you less but gives you better precision for making critical hits. So while characters aren't in any way restricted about what they can use, the end result is about the same with tanks using heavy armor and DPS characters using light armor.
Overall, Tyranny's engine works well enough. It's easy to use, and it does everything needed to support a campaign, but it's more workmanlike than exciting. This is especially noticeable during combat where the spells are minimalistic. You're not going to see lots of fancy fireworks, or bells and whistles, while you're playing.
The campaign for Tyranny is short. I always find myself on the long side of the playing time spectrum, but it only took me 30 hours to work my way through the content. Sometimes 30 hours feels right -- the Shadowrun games are an example of this -- but Tyranny plays more like a TV show that didn't get renewed, and the showrunners suddenly realized that they had to wrap everything up in one final episode. I don't know if Obsidian is planning for DLCs at a later time, or if they had to cut content to meet a deadline, or if Tyranny is exactly how they intended it, but it feels like it's incomplete, and the ending in particular is sudden and unfulfilling.
That being said, what you do in the campaign is interesting -- and different than what you usually see in an RPG, which is great. You start out as a Fatebinder in the employ of the evil warlord Kyros, which means you're supposed to travel around and settle disputes, but soon you get involved in Kyros' plans for conquest, and you have to make decisions that change the course of the war.
Your decisions give you four distinct ways to play the campaign. For each of these branches, you visit the same locations on the world map, but why you're there and who you're fighting change. Sometimes the campaign railroads you into doing something, and there are a few 180-degree tone shifts, but it's impressive how Obsidian squeezed four dramatically different campaigns into one game without exponentially increasing the amount of content required.
Also, while you're exploring a branch, you're free to play your character however you want. Just because you're working for an evil overlord, that doesn't mean you have to be evil yourself. So you can kill people, take bribes, and betray alliances, or you can be good and honest. Depending on what you do, you can gain fear or loyalty from your companions, and you can gain wrath or favor from other characters and factions. I've seen this system get heralded in a few places, but to me it seemed much the same as any other like/dislike system, especially since there aren't any ramifications. With enough fear/loyalty/favor/wrath, you gain extra abilities, but that's it. You can't scare your companions away, and factions won't stop working with you if you make them too mad, so from a roleplaying perspective, the counters are mostly meaningless.
About half of what you do in the campaign is talk to people. Sometimes this is rewarding, but sometimes it isn't. Your companions and some of the major NPCs are distinctive and well-written, but a lot of the dialogue is just filler to give you background information that your character should already know. I hate it when conversations are written to inform you the player rather than the character you're controlling, and Tyranny does this a lot. For example, at one point you can ask your fellow Fatebinders about the history of the Fatebinders and about the archon in charge of your order -- like you wouldn't know. Unfortunately, you have to read through all of these conversations because you never know when one might lead to a quest or to a skill-building dialogue check.
Obsidian also sort of sabotaged themselves in the storytelling department. One of the things the evil overlord Kyros does when she conquers a land is destroy all of the informative texts she can find (to keep people uneducated so they can't challenge her), but that means you learn next to nothing about the game world's history because nobody knows it. Everything is just here and now, so there aren't a lot of subtleties or hidden motivations to the characters or situations. Compare this to Pillars of Eternity, which had a detailed, emotionally-charged history, where you could understand why people did certain things just based upon where they grew up. Unfortunately, this makes the world of Tyranny far less interesting than the world of Pillars.
Another major component of the campaign is, of course, combat. There aren't any dragons or monsters in the game, so you only battle against humans, beastmen (think werewolves), and bane (energy creatures). That's not a lot of variety, even for a short campaign, and the frequent trash fights suffer for it, since one fight is much like another. Luckily, there are a handful of exciting boss fights, but you mostly have to wait until the end of the campaign to get to them.
The battles also suffer from being pretty easy. I played through Tyranny twice. The first time I used the default difficulty, and it was such a cakewalk that I never had to use a healing potion, and I rarely had to rest. The second time I moved up to the hard setting, and while it started out challenging, that stopped being the case by the halfway point in the game. I don't think Obsidian intends for Tyranny to be this easy, so I expect this is something that will get patched eventually.
The last component of the campaign is exploration. There are about 20 major areas in the game, including towns, forests, rebel strongholds, and ancient ruins. The areas look distinctive (especially those where edicts are still active), and you often have to deal with battles, traps, or the occasional puzzle. There are also several environmental interactions (where you might climb a wall or push a rock) but they are much simpler than the ones from Pillars of Eternity.
At one point it seemed like every RPG included an arena sequence. Now it's fortresses, and Tyranny is no exception. While exploring the world, you gain access to five spires, and they combine to become your base of operations. You can build something at each spire (including a library and a forge), and you can also hire shopkeepers and trainers to populate them. The spires are easy to manage, and they're integrated into the campaign, so they work out pretty well, but enough is enough already. Some developer out there needs to come up with the Next Big Thing. Fortresses have been done to death.
I spent about 60 hours playing Tyranny twice. The game didn't crash on me even once during that time, and I didn't notice any spells or skills not working correctly. The closest thing I encountered to a bug was at one point when I decided to change my companions. I was level 16 at the time, and somehow the companions I hadn't been using jumped up to level 20 when I added them to my party. That's probably an abusable bug, but since I was just changing companions briefly to get an achievement, it didn't affect my game at all. Other than that, the most broken thing about the game seems to be stealth mode, which is so unbelievably slow that I couldn't make myself use it.
"Interesting" is one of my go-to adjectives. I'd always rather play a game -- even a bad game -- that tries something new rather than a game that just copies the most successful parts of a successful franchise. Those try-something-new games, like Tyranny, are interesting to me, and Obsidian is an interesting developer.
I didn't like everything about Tyranny. It feels incomplete, and surprisingly enough I wasn't wild about its writing, but it's definitely unique. It gives you a chance to play a different kind of character in a different kind of campaign, and it has all sorts of character building options and replay value. So it's a worthwhile game to try out, just perhaps once its price drops down enough to match the amount of content it has.