The Good: Nice spell crafting. Some good voice work. I like the “evil conquers” motif.
The Bad: Endless, worthless loot to plow through. Combat gets very repetitive.
The Ugly: For a branching RPG, the branches are actually very few.
I’m of two minds when reviewing Tyranny. One mind likes the idea of a world in which you’re working for the bad guys, so to speak, the conquerors who have defeated all the armies in the realm and taken over. Being on the side of the ruthless overlords should be a bedazzled opportunity to let your inner douche out as you crush what little pockets of resistance to the malevolent overload remain uncrushed. I also liked this idea in the hands of the people who gave us the quite good Pillars of Eternity. The other mind however is disappointed in how limited your opportunities for being an a-hole turn out to be, and how, for a game with so much combat, the combat turns out to be one of the weakest points. Let’s take a deeper dive, shall we?
The game begins with the forces of good all but vanquished. Sure, there’s one small region, Vendrien’s Well, that’s hanging on by the atoms on the tips of its fingers, but they’ll be squashed in no time, and then evil shall reign supreme. You would expect in such a story to be perhaps an apprentice blacksmith, or a lonely farmer, a person who rises from obscurity to overthrow the forces of wickedness, or some tired cliché of that nature. This turns out not to be that story. You play instead a Fatebinder, a sort of Judge Dredd (judge, jury, and executioner) who has been sent by the overlord, Kryos, to oversee the squashing. Kyros has assigned to this task two branches of his military – the law and order loving Disfavored, and a ragtag group of lunatics and scoundrels named the Scarlet Chorus. These two groups hate one another, and hilarity ensues, by which I mean endless petty squabbling and very little rebellion squashing. Kyros has cast an edict (a spell) which will cause everyone in Vendrien’s Well to die if the rebellion isn’t squashed in 8 days. This is how long you have (in game time) to finish the game, and I kind of like the way this limits your endless meandering on side quests and focuses you on the task at hand. I appreciate that compactness, and have a vague curiosity to find out what happens if I simply try sleeping for 8 days, though I have yet to do so. What I don’t like is that you think this would light a fire under the asses of the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus. You would be wrong. These guys plan to squabble all the way to the grave. It’s kind of a wonder evil got so far along in its plans to conquer everything with these clowns at the helm.
For a moment, for a very brief moment, I thought the goal of this thing was to find a way to forge an alliance between those two groups and defeat the rebellion. I tried to play Solomon, throwing each group a few bones as I carefully balanced their love/hate relationships with me and each other. Very quickly, however, I realized that’s not going to work – these guys hate each other too much – and I had to pick a side, or decide to screw them both and side with the rebellion. The only way out of this thing is an all-out civil war, and really all you get to decide is what side you’ll be on. This is the nut of the branching open to you.
Along the journey you can have up to three characters join your party (party size four) and you get a fair selection of characters to choose from to support your play style – ranged, bricks, healers, spell slingers; they’re all available. Their AI is OK. They’ll use their special powers adequately if not too cleverly. It’s just about enough to get you through almost all the combats on normal difficulty settings without having to lift a finger. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as there is a ton of combat packed into those 8 short days. You can hardly cross a street without some band or other throwing down the gauntlet. The issue I have here is that all the combat is against people, and one group of people fight much like another. Typically I would hurl the ranged stuff (spells, poison darts, flaming arrows), and then close in for melee and let the AI run it. For a time I was actually reading a book while combat was going on (the last Ace Atkins Spenser book – Kickback – which I recommend). Then afterwards you can bask in the sweet reward of well-earned treasure, right? Not exactly. Crappy daggers, dull swords, scraps of armor, weak potions – so much garbage to pick through that its almost not worth the work of collecting and looking at it all to sell it or find the few pieces of worthwhile wheat amongst the chaff. I can’t recall an RPG recently that so deluged me with junk except Torchlight, which had enemies practically explode with loot when they died.
There are some really nice details in the game. I like the lore of the world overall. Some of the graphics, especially the spells, are very pretty. And speaking of spells, I found I liked the spell crafting system in which a core element (fire, water, etc) is combined with a shape and an effect plus some accents to create the spell action. A simple, icon interface lets you put them together, and I found crafting new spells one of the parts I liked playing with most. I also liked the voice work, with the exception of the guy who is the leader of the Scarlet Chorus, who sounded like he was channeling his inner Heath Ledger channeling his inner Joker. I wanted to side with the Disfavored just to hear less of him.
As I read this over, I find it all seems very negative, and I didn’t intend it to sound like that. Tyranny is no Pillars of Eternity – let me say that straight out – but the story has some compelling moments, even as the branching portions aren’t really among them. Your decisions come to affect the fate of the whole world, even as I’m not sure making those decisions differently would have ultimately made any significant difference in the outcome. Side with the Dishonored, side with the Scarlet Chorus, side with the rebellion – except for some (at least as I see it) minor who lives/who dies outcomes, the overall fate of the world remains unchanged.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
This review is based on a digital copy of Tyranny for the PC provided by Paradox Interactive.