I want to know how long Tyranny has been in development. Pillars of Eternity came out that year and that took about three years to develop. Tyranny was only announced months before release, and I assumed that it was a game that would come out sometime in 2017, towards the summer lull many AA titles try to shoot for. Instead it came out not long ago, and that fast turn around time seems easy to explain. This game was clearly built on the same engine that Pillars of Eternity was built on, and it builds on a lot of systems and mechanics to work under the hood. I noticed the interface taken almost directly from Obsidian’s 2015 game as soon as I booted it up and became concerned almost immediately. Was this some quick cash in designed to take advantage of people’s new found adoration of Obsidian? And even after finishing it I’d give it a resounding “maybe”. If it is a cash in, I can say that at least the developers wisely used the time they saved working on the technical side of the game to write a compelling and original setting, and one of the games with the beast reactivity and branching stories I have played in a long time.
The world of Terratus is almost under the control of a Northern Empire led by an immortal and all powerful being known as Kyros. Kyros has now set his sights on the Tiers, a collections of kingdoms in the south, and the last remaining place in the old world that is not under his control. Kyros exerts controls through his Archons, super-powered, also immortal people that control different aspects of Kyros’ domain. You serve the Tunon, the Archon of justice as a Fatebinder, which is like a wondering lawyer/judge combination. Once you have created your character and make the usual desicions about your origins, class and skills, you will make a series of decisions in a mode called Conquest. This details the first three years of the war and your role in the conquest of the Tiers. This part of the game does make a huge difference in the future, as it will give you a history with the major factions, as well as different powers and reputations as the game starts. I really liked how this works, since it means your character starts the game with history and deeds behind them, rather than being just a blank slate.
As victory seemed all but assured, a rebellion rises in one of the valleys. It should have been easily quelled, but there are two competing armies controlled by two rival Archons in charge of the invasion. The Disfavored, an ultra disciplined army clad in iron reminiscent of the Roman legions, and the Scarlet Chorus, a disorganized and savage horde made of conquered civilians conscripted into the army by force, are more interested in trading insults and making the other side look bad than in fighting the war. So Kyros gives you an Edict, a powerful spell that says these two armies have eight days to take the rebellion’s stronghold, or everyone will die, including you. Tyranny is not a game where you play a mustache twirling bad guy, rather you have to play the politician to make these two dumb ass armies work together long enough to keep everyone from dying. However as things develop, you will have to make choices and pick sides, and make decisions that feel that might be above the pay grade of an itinerant paralegal.
Tyranny is one of the most responsive games that I can remember playing since The Witcher 2, and I was impressed to the degree to which it tracks your interactions and decisions. There are at least four “paths” you can take through the game, based on which alliances you choose. Each of the factions you choose will have different missions, and while they do use some of the same locations, there are some that are unique, and there are even some dungeons that are mutually exclusive. You will need to play through the game at least twice to see most of the content, and probably play through some parts twice if you want to explore alternate routes.
The game also tracks your decisions in ways that have cumulative, far reaching consequences, that often aren’t clear until hours after you made them. Most of these decisions affect this complicated web of reputations so complex, I think it might be the first time in a game that I’ve actually used the reputation tab in the menu. But aside from this I was also pleasantly surprised by the things the game brought up in interactions. It is difficult to tell which decisions and interactions will be brought up later, and which will affect the reputation number in that menu screen, which is a fantastic way to seem any decision you take seem important, at least at the time. Your social skills (lore, subterfuge and athletics) become very important, but because this is a war and the game loves to bring up old stuff like an angry lover, you will find yourself in situations where no amount of charismatic, silver tongued exploits will save you from a fight.
Anyone who has played an Infinity Engine game knows how this works. You pause the game and issue orders to your party, and then they execute them in real time. Each character and class has their own abilities with their own casting times and cool downs. New to the system are combo abilities. These are usually between the player character and each follower, and they are unlocked through your reputation with them. They are very powerful, and add an incentive to at least spend some time getting to know each of your companions. Unfortunately, there is a surprising lack of variety in the enemies in the game. There are really three different type of creature, aside from the odd boss encounter, and even then about 90% of the combat encounters (even those bosses) are against other humans. The Infinity Engine, the engine these games are emulating was not built for this type of combat. It was built to give you the flexibility to fight anything from a rat in a cellar to a dragon on the summit of a volcano. But when faced to having the same type of enemy thrown at you over and over, its weaknesses show. If you played the original Infinity Engine games back in the late 90’s, and are now playing Tyranny in 2016, then you have lived through twenty years of excellent strategy RPG’s that give you incredible variety in the choices you can make. The problem with this particular battle system, is that every encounter is pretty much resolved the same way, making the combat feel incredibly repetitive.
This surprising lack of variety in the combat is one of the factors that makes me hypothesize that the development cycle for Tyranny was not very long at all. There are weird signs in some of the quests. For example, during most of the quests of the game you have an option to betray whatever side you are working with and keep things for yourself, or find different ways to solve the quest by betraying that alliance. Fairly late in the game I got a quest that I did not want to solve the way the quest giver had intended. So I followed it, waiting for that chance to execute my betrayal. The game even hints of a crucial moment where this would most likely result in a great benefit to me over the my allies loss of power. But that option never came, and in a game that offers that much choice, it felt incredibly jarring. But it also felt like this option was meant to be in the game. The NPC’s allude to it, the stage for it is set, it just does not materialize. Moreover, the ending feels jarring as well. Without going into a lot of detail, it follows the trend that other games have followed lately where then ending of the game is a message that the real fight has just begun. Make no mistake, there is a complete story arc in the game, but the ending is clearly sequel bait. Given is 20-30 hour length, it is not hard to imagine there might have been more planned for Tyranny that the development team just didn’t get to.
The leveling system in the game is one of the things that I liked the most. You gain experience from your actions that go into the skills you used to perform that action. Did you use ice magic and a sword in an encounter? Then your frost magic and your sword fighting skills will go up. My character started out as a mage, but as I played the game, she evolved into a hybrid between a heavily armored Roman skirmisher and a powerful mage. Despite all of the skills I picked for her being mage or social skills, because she used a javelin, a shield, and armor in combat those skills developed and helped her level up all the same. This system means that you can develop your character as you wish through their skills and through their actions, even if the aspects of them that that you end up developing are not what one would consider typical to their class. It is interesting to see how your character develops as the game goes on.
This also works well to emphasize the power escalation of your character. During the story your character is looking for artifacts, being exposed to incredible powerful magics, and claiming places of power. All this is making said character grow in power. And Tyranny definitely revels in the power trip that this causes. Because you are essentially fighting the same kind of enemies, although with more challenging compositions and more powers, you can really tell how far you have come. In the beginning you would struggle to take on an unit of enemies that could barely hold a sword, but by the end of the game you’ll be cutting elite troops with ease. It is hard to tell if this is on purpose. There is a tendency when critiquing something to assume far more authorial intent in a work than the author ever had. It is hard to know if this was on purpose, or just a happy accident coming from the engine and type of game it is, but regardless of how intentional it was the power trip towards the end is a fantastic feeling.
Despite this I greatly enjoyed Tyranny. It has a fantastic concept that was executed brilliantly, and it has enough reactivity and consequences for its actions that it warrants more than one play-through. And there is really a great feeling that you are rising in power to meet the colossal Titans that lord over the mere mortals of the world. It does feel rushed, and veterans from Pillars of Eternity will not be able to help buy notice that this game feels like reuse of the same underlying assets and engine. But that should not dissuade you from playing it. Some of the best regarded CRPG’s in the history of gaming reused assets and technical specs from other games. It is the reason why the term “Infinity Engine Game” means anything at all. While I really enjoyed the dialogue sections, the feeling of choice and political play of the game, the combat drags it down just out of a sad lack of variety, and it is pretty much unavoidable. You will have to fight. The ending and some quests also speak to a lack of time in making the game. Still, these are issues that can be easily overlooked if you are looking for a great RPG where your choices do matter.