I’m a huge fan of Obsidian Entertainment. “Fallout: New Vegas” is among my favourite video games, and “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords” isn’t too far behind. While I was deeply disappointed by my favourite writer in the industry, Chris Avellone, leaving the company in 2015, I still had faith they could keep making excellent games with writing of much higher quality than their peers. But I’d be lying if I said I had complete and utter faith in that conviction. I found “Pillars of Eternity” inconsistent and underdeveloped, and my favourite aspects of it turned out to be the lone major contributions from Chris Avellone. So, while he had a hand during preproduction, I was worried that their first modern CRPG without him – “Tyranny” – would not turn out well.
I was extremely happy to find out my fears were unfounded. “Tyranny” is a well-made, well-written game, and I think it’s very much an improvement over “Pillars of Eternity”.
[Note: This review doesn’t contain any spoilers.]
“Pillars of Eternity” styled itself as a sort of “Baldur’s Gate”-esque classic adventure CRPG. I felt the game suffered from being pulled in lots of different directions. It was advertised as that sort of classic adventure CRPG during its crowdfunding phase, so Obsidian understandably felt they had to honour that. But Obsidian’s strengths aren’t really in straight adventure games. Their strengths in sharp and high focus on player reactivity can transfer over fine to that sort of game, but their strengths in complex and nuanced morality, and in philosophical and subversive writing do not gel well with standard fantasy fare. “Pillars of Eternity” ended up as a quasi-classic-adventure-CRPG with an uncharacteristically relentless air of grimness. People complained about the lore not being compelling and indeed, while some late-game theological revelations and the underlying world conflict of all children essentially being born braindead were engaging in typical Obsidian tradition, the world and storytelling never really felt cohesive. Most of the gameplay elements fulfilled the “spiritual successor to ‘Baldur’s Gate II’” selling point nicely, but the writing struggled to meet that while also playing to Obsidian’s strengths.
“Tyranny” is the absolute opposite of that. The game feels gloriously unified and cohesive. Every aspect of it, every facet of it, plays to Obsidian’s strengths, and the game feels like a truly unified whole. The central premise – evil has conquered the world, you play a tyrannical bad guy enforcing your will upon a resisting nation, and you choose what form your evil takes – is inherently extremely compelling, and focuses on something very rarely done in RPGs, let alone done well. The evil path, evil options in RPGs are generally neglected or written poorly. Even in Obsidian’s own games, “Fallout: New Vegas’” Caesar’s Legion had enormous amounts of cut content and felt reduced to much more typical villainy for it, and “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords’” dark side options worked brilliantly at the conceptual level in the writing but often fell short in the actual gameplay implementations. In “Tyranny”, the entire focus is on these evil playthroughs. I cannot think of another RPG that avoided cartoonishness or underdevelopment in its evil options.
All evils aren’t equal. Obsidian offer a nuanced portrayal avoiding the typical cliches. Evil in “Tyranny” is generally more of the functional and bureaucratic variety than the cartoonishly sadistic or depraved. There’s no easy way to please everyone in the tyrannical empire the game takes place in. Even rebellion and allying with the “underdogs” still leaves the player with no choice but to pursue acts some will see as evil. One example of the game’s treatment of evil that sticks out to me was how it treated infanticide. The prime example of infanticide in the game isn’t presented as an excessive way to appear edgy and dastardly, it’s presented as an unfortunate but almost necessary political avenue to prevent massive bloodshed. More “Richard III” than “Batman Returns”.
The game takes place in a sort of Bronze Age, instead of the typical medieval fantasy fare. The lore is fascinating, and all fits together very well. There’s a relentless darkness to the world, but it feels based in truths of history and human nature, rather than any sort of juvenile “grimdarkness”. The doling out of the backstory and lore is also paced well. Rather than constantly shoving infodumps down player’s throats, lore elements can be highlighted in conversations to be expanded upon if the player wishes. That way, one can either follow the conversations naturally, as the characters would actually speak them, or consult a type of accessible encyclopedia whenever they wish to learn more about anything mentioned in the conversation. The overarching pace of information reveals is also well-paced, which is very impressive considering the game has so many variables and permutations in what the player does, and what order they do it in.
The third act of the game in particular builds very nicely off the way information was revealed in the first two acts. I’m surprised so many consider the ending of the game abrupt and like a cliffhanger. The game mirrors back on all the key elements it introduces at the start, and all central story conceits are addressed in the end. There are obvious directions a sequel could go, but those would be new story threads drawn from the ending of the game and from characters and places more aspects of lore of this first game, rather than the actual story present in it.
The one properly disappointing part of the game for me was the companions. The characters themselves are all compelling, but they lack “loyalty quests”, dedicated sections devoted to their stories. The player meets them, learns their backstory and conflicts, then they travel with the player…and that’s basically it. They follow the player’s story. For the most part, the player lacks the ability to directly affect theirs. This doesn’t feel like an intentional comment on the influence of leaders on other people’s lives or anything, it just feels like Obsidian lacked the resources (primarily time, probably) to develop such content. If the player lacking the ability to make much of a difference in the companion’s lives was backed up thematically or narratively in the game, that would work perfectly well, but it’s not, at least not on any level I could identify.
In terms of gameplay, it’s very similar to “Pillars of Eternity”. Justin Bell’s soundtrack is lovely, even better than his one for “Pillars of Eternity” I found. I liked how it didn’t dwell on villainous motifs or anything, but nor did it indulge in dainty compositions to do a sort of aural juxtaposition or anything. The cues felt just right, not too dark, but not too light either. The visuals seem as nice as you can really get in these sort of modern CRPGs – it’s clearly somewhat low-budget, but the backgrounds in particular are sometimes beautiful. It’s just the character models that regularly look “cheap”. The real gameplay triumph of the game is in the reactivity rather than the combat systems or anything. Like “Fallout: New Vegas”, the game offers an insane amount of tailored reactivity, accommodating organically for any choice or divergence I threw at it. Searching online after I completed the story, I was astounded to see how many variables and various ways there were to go about things, and how naturally the game altered itself to account for them, and incorporate them into organic narrative arcs.
The way a game about evil revolves around moral concessions rather than overt acts of depravity impresses me, and feels so naturally fitting for Obsidian. Morality in “Tyranny” is complicated. The player does not have to play as what they’d consider evil, but they’re forced to make concessions to follow their ideologies and goals in a way that, sickeningly, becomes easier over time. At times, the game almost feels like a simulator for how soldiers in regimes that committed terrible acts justified such things to themselves, and how some brought into those depravities. The game feels inherently muted in a lot of ways, but I’d take the unfortunate occasional dull stretches and muted feel that’s entirely in keeping with the game’s very original premise, over a more conventional game, any day. For an RPG with an overwhelming amount of choice and reactivity, the real triumph comes in how the game forces certain concessions to be made, one way or another. I give it four edicts, and a spire.