For a company like Obsidion, Tyranny must feel like something of a homecoming. Founded by former Black Isle Studios employees, Obsidion set out to create something reminiscent of Planescape: Torment and the original Fallout. Released in 2016, Tyranny recreates the spirit of mid-’90s CRPGs almost to a tee. But, is nostalgia enough to make up for a seriously flawed execution?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. For centuries, the armies of the dark lord Kyros have marched across the world of Terratus, crushing all who oppose them. Only the disunited land of the Tiers remains unconquered, easy picking for the overlord’s horde. Typically, this is where the hero of the story steps in to unite the realms against the forces of darkness. Unfortunately for the Tiers, no one was available, and the kingdoms fall quickly into the Overlord’s grasp.
The player takes the role of one of the overlord’s Fatebinders — essentially evil empire human resources — sent to keep Kyros’ generals in line and make sure the campaign succeeds without incident. And that you do, in the final stage of character creation, where the player is presented with a map of the Tiers and decides how the early years of the invasion play out.
Most of the choices amount to making the best of a bad situation, something that goes on to be a recurring theme throughout the rest of the game, and the writing does an excellent job of showing why some might choose to support an evil but at least stable regime.
The writing overall is pretty good, and there is some clever dialogue, even if it can be a bit exposition heavy at times. A lot of effort has gone into creating the world and backstory, and the important characters have definite personalities and some interesting interactions.
I’d like to know when it became standard procedure for RPGs to start with one male and female support character who hate each other, although there’s a good deal more nuance to their relationship than you see in most versions of this dynamic.
On the other hand, there are a few places where the game railroads you a bit and some decisions seem to overwrite everything you did up to that point. The end of Act 1 gives an excellent example of both. The player must choose one of Kyros’ generals to lead the attack, and whichever one you don’t support decides to start a civil war over it.
It doesn’t matter what you have done up to that point or which general likes you better: someone has to rebel to keep the plot in motion, and there’s nothing the player can do to stop it.
Adding to the annoyance, when called upon to defend your decision, the dialogue choices don’t give you any real options to do so. This doesn’t completely ruin the narrative, but it hurts it — and story is really the only thing Tyranny has going for it.
Although Tyranny is an old school RPG seeking to evoke the likes of the original Fallout, the stat-based real-time-with-pause combat reminds me more of Dragon Age: Origins. The problem is, as much as I love DA:O, its combat isn’t actually that much fun to play.
Tyranny also has a lot less in the way of monster variety when compared to Dragon Age. Hostiles in this game come in three flavors: humans, who are the majority by a significant margin; the werewolf-like Beastmen; and the ghost-like Bane. But, every encounter with a given race feels like the previous one. The controls are functional enough that I never found myself dreading the next encounter, but I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit, either.
There are some mechanics I like, such as capturing and customizing the Spires, which serve as bases and fast travel points where the player can buy upgrades and chat with party members. The player will also periodically receive Missives from characters in another location that have multiple choices of response.
I would have liked to be able to send a message on my own initiative, such as for turning a quest in. But, as it is, the mechanic makes for a fun bit of added flavor. Both systems work fine, but neither is part of the core gameplay and the Missives in particular feel like more of a gimmick than anything significant.
Games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Dishonored show that companies can make 3D animation look good without spending too much money. This is a lesson I wish Obsidian Entertainment had taken to heart. Tyranny uses an isometric perspective and the camera stays pretty far zoomed out, so they could have gotten away with having less detail on their character models.
It becomes a problem any time the player interacts with an NPC and is treated to a zoomed-in image of the speaker gesturing wildly. Every single one looks dated and cheap, and it’s hard to take serious moments seriously when the overlord’s right hand is represented by a little smoky doll man in the corner of the screen.
There’s some excellent artwork in the cutscenes, and I love the character portraits used in the party selection and stats interface, so why couldn’t those have been used in conversations?
Tyranny could have been a great game. Its great characters and excellent world-building are let down by slow, repetitive gameplay and dated visuals. The writing is pretty good, but doesn’t make up for the game’s issues. Long-time CRPG fans might appreciate Tyranny’s retro sensibilities, but odds are they have something much better already in their libraries.