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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (455)

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Bladed Fury 3.5/5
Ruzar - The Life Stone 3.5/5
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5
Mighty Switch Force! Co... 2.5/5
Aegis of Earth: Protono... 3/5
Torchlight III 2.5/5
Cyberpunk 2077 3.5/5
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks... 4.5/5
Eiyuden Chronicle: Risi... 3/5
Psychonauts 2 4.5/5
Castle in the Clouds DX 4/5
Ocean's Heart 4/5
Just Die Already 2/5
Sable 2.5/5
Midnight Castle Succubus 4.5/5
Tower and Sword of Succ... 4/5
Thronebreaker: The Witc... 3/5
Battletoads (2020) 1.5/5
Door Kickers: Action Sq... 4.5/5
Biomutant 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 2 4.5/5
Journey to the Savage P... 4.5/5
Wasteland 3 4.5/5
Daemon X Machina 3.5/5
Earthlock 2.5/5

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Tyranny   PC (Steam) 

Low Effort from Obsidian    3.5/5 stars

“Tyranny” is the second major effort made by the revitalized Obsidian Entertainment, an experienced RPG developer made up from the remnants of Black Isle after the collapse of InterPlay around the turn of the millennium. Obsidian’s first ‘coming out’ game for the modern era was “Pillars of Eternity,” a throwback to the late ‘90s era of Infinity Engine RPGs based on Dungeons & Dragons, but, in actuality, neither of those things. Between the 2015 release of that game and the 2018 release of its sequel, Obsidian spent a little bit of time working on a completely independent stand-alone title with an original IP conceived of and written by their staff writer, Chris Avellone. The result was the 2016 release of “Tyranny,” a self-described ‘dark and brooding’ game which would explore the question, “What if Evil won?”

With my genre rotation telling me it was time to play an RPG, and with nothing more promising than an untouched Obsidian game sitting there in my backlog, I finally got around to playing “Tyranny” after receiving it as a Yuletide gift in 2017 and buying the DLC myself (*grumble*) when it was on sale 6 months later. What I found was a fairly lazy, unambitious game that reminded me more of Obsidian during their Black Isle days and the equally unambitious ‘Icewind Dale’ games.

“Tyranny” is made in the same engine using very similar assets to “Pillars of Eternity.” And why not? It’s not like building a game-creation engine, then using it to create games is anything to be ashamed of. However, like all the other games Obsidian has made with their engine, both before and subsequent, “Tyranny” just looks passable. It’s got a fixed camera that can only be zoomed in or out to a minimal degree. Environments tend to be big and detailed, whereas characters are rather simplistic and their polygon models don’t match the hand-painted character portraits that are supposed to represent them. Spells and special abilities are likewise fairly minimalist, but in the few occasions they aren’t they seem out-of-place.

Audiowise, “Tyranny” has a mix of voiced and unvoiced content, with most of the actual voiceacting occurring during the main questline and companion side-quests, with other quests completely silent. This isn’t a big deal, though, as “Tyranny” is generally light on any content outside of the main and companion quests. The cast consists of a lot of the same no-namers who did voicework in both ‘Pillars of Eternity’ games, to the point where it’s almost grating to hear the same guy as a companion in all three games. The soundtrack has its moments, but stays far away from memorable and, like so many other cRPGs both ancient and modern, more frequently bows-out completely in favor of ambient wind and the sounds of the party’s footfalls as they travel from place to place.

Technically, “Tyranny’s” not bad, but it’s far from the technical achievement seen in RPGs like “Final Fantasy 14” (which otherwise sucked) and “Divinity: Original Sin” (which otherwise rocked), which featured full Xinput support. “Tyranny” still uses a mouse-driven interface for everything, with a handful of keyboard shortcuts. It plays well with the (discontinued) Steam Controller, but plopping the burden on the player to come up with a SteamInput profile is poor form when the developers could have put in some effort to include Xinput support and a usable/ergonomic control scheme themselves. At least it’s a stable game that neither crashed nor presented me with a plethora of in-game bugs to deal with, so at least there’s that.

“Tyranny” attempts to explore the concept of “What if Evil won?” The game takes place in a late Bronze Age Dark Fantasy setting where civilizations are just transitioning to the use of iron for cutting-edge (pun intended) weapons and armor. This world – an island continent known as Terratus – has been almost entirely conquered by the forces of a mysterious Overlord known only as Kyros, who comes from the North and offers all the opportunity to embrace Kyros’ Peace or be destroyed.

“Tyranny” takes place at the very end of Kyros’ subjugation of Terratus, with all but a tiny peninsula – called The Tiers – under imperial control. Our hero is a custom-created Fatebinder of Kyros, serving under the Overlord’s Archon of Law, Tunon. As a Fatebinder, our hero is something like a wandering lawyer, bringing bureaucratic terror wherever they go. The game opens with a fairly in-depth ‘choose your own adventure’ style introduction that allows the player to choose how their particular Fatebinder dealt with the first few years of the invasion of the Tiers, which sets-up a number of in-game relationships between the Fatebinder and other political groups, as well as directing the course of the main plot to a certain degree.

Indeed, “Tyranny” is also advertised heavily as a game where ‘choices matter,’ and they most certainly do, since inevitable choices must be made that will lock the player into one of four paths through the story. Unfortunately, in locking out this content, Obsidian didn’t really make a game where ‘choices matter,’ they simply made four slightly different games in which choices don’t really matter. Completionists and achievement hunters will absolutely have to slog through the entire game 4 different times, which would be more palatable if “Tyranny” were short, but it’s not, with a single playthrough taking roughly 40-50 hours.

In general, though, “Tyranny” isn’t particularly fun or interesting from a story perspective in large part due to its grimdark ambitions. The Fatebinder is tasked with rallying Kyros’ troops to complete a specific conquest, or the Overlord will simply kill everyone in the vicinity, friend and foe. Once that’s resolved, the Fatebinder is stuck mediating a building civil war between the Lawful Evil segment of Kyros’ army represented by the highly regimented and well-trained Disfavored, and the Chaotic Evil segment of the army represented by the Scarlet Chorus, a Dionysiac mob of murderers and rapists who swell their numbers by offering their victims the chance to join up. All the while, the Fatebinder must also be aware of the local Tiersman forces and whether or not allying with them is possible, even after doing terrible things to them, like nuking their equivalent to the Library of Alexandria.

Indeed, as a tale with a late Bronze Age setting, I was hoping “Tyranny” would feel more akin to a game set in mythological Greece, but it really doesn’t, thanks in large part to some generally weird and off-putting bits of lore. For example, women rule the Tiers and occupy all positions of power. The menfolk are shuffled off to ships and live at sea, creating a completely dysfunctional social order, which frequently fails to remain consistent, outside of characters saying, ‘women and men’ instead of the reverse.

Fortunately, the mediocrity of the world lore and main story are ameliorated by the excellent companion quests. The folks the Fatebinder can recruit nearly all have an interesting backstory, and dredging up their pasts does a great job of fleshing them out and making them feel like real people. Unfortunately, even companion quests are cloistered from each other, with some unavailable depending on which of the four ‘main’ story railroads the player chooses to ride.

Perhaps “Tyranny’s” biggest narrative failing, though, is the fact that it just ends right when it feels like it should just be getting started. It feels like a blatant sequel hook, but Obsidian has acknowledged that the game didn’t sell well, so that sequel’s almost definitely not coming.

The DLC content adds very little to the overall experience, with “Bastard’s Wound” adding a single new location with a handful of quests, and “Tales of the Tiers” adding a smattering of random encounters that don’t amount to squat. I definitely don’t think anyone who just buys the base game is missing out on anything.

“Tyranny” uses a barely-modified version of the game engine and tabletop-esque game systems from “Pillars of Eternity.” It’s a real-time-with-pause Action/RPG where the player can command a party of up to four characters, pausing, issuing commands to their allies, then unpausing to watch the chaos play out. Unfortunately, real-time-with-pause was always kind of a half-assed way of transitioning turn-based tabletop concepts to the cRPG format, and “Tyranny” ultimately feels little different from “Pillars of Eternity.” The early game is plagued by encounters which are too difficult for a party of low-level characters with no skills and poor equipment, while late-game encounters are laughable, with a single basic strategy of leading melee enemies into the party’s dedicated Engagement Tank, then obliterating them with spells while they futilely beat on a character designed to be beaten endlessly. Not even the final bosses stood a chance against this most basic ‘strategy.’

Worse than these slightly off-kilter balance issues are some abjectly terrible AI behavior. Each character can have AI toggled on and off with a simple click, and their AI behaviors can be slightly customized… but there’s really no good way to customize ‘stupid.’ If left to their own devices, allied characters will do everything to get themselves killed, from cancelling player-given commands in favor of doing something useless, to moving unnecessarily and getting clobbered by attacks of opportunity. Even playing with AI turned completely off, as I had to do to save my sanity, telling characters where to stand can be painful at times, since their pathfinding AI is so profoundly blind. Often, I would tell the party healer to walk around the outside of the general melee surrounding the party tank to get in range to cast a spell, only to have to idiot go the opposite direction, walking into engagement range with other enemy units. Even more frequently, characters in tight environments would just decide they were “stuck” instead of moving around an ally when there was clearly room to do so.

Really, the only novel thing about “Tyranny’s” gameplay systems is the magic system. It’s a rune-based setup where each spell consists of both a ‘core’ rune and an ‘expression’ rune, with a large number of optional ‘accent’ runes that can be applied, similarly to the Metamagic Feats from D&D 3.x. Each core is an element, such as fire, ice, force, or emotion, while each expression is a different way of shaping the core, such as a burst, aura, line, or cone. The player is free to experiment with rune combinations, but runes must first be acquired by finding them, buying them, or learning them from a party member (the latter of which is unintuitive and frustrating – I spent HOURS looking for the Control Life core for healing magic, only to learn that a companion teaches it). Each core + expression combination has a certain difficulty level, with accents raising that difficulty further, thus only characters highly skilled in Lore will be able to cast the most powerful versions of spells.

Character building is fairly by-the-book for a “Pillars of Eternity” knock off, with similar stats and the ability to bump up a stat and pick a perk off one of several skill trees per level gained. Experience points are typically accrued in a manner reminiscent of the older ‘Elder Scrolls’ titles, where using a skill causes it to gain experience (and increase its associated number), with enough individual skill increases eventually leading to a full level-up.

Outside of combat, there’s a very fleshed-out dialog tree system for talking to everyone, with certain skills like Subterfuge and Lore unlocking more options. Even the canned backstory the player chooses for the Fatebinder at character creation can lead to new options. Of course, this type of thing isn’t exactly ‘new,’ it’s just a really well-done iteration of it.

The player will also gain the ability to build a handful of workshops that do various things, ranging from creating new equipment to researching new items to housing a butt-load of skill trainers for paid assistance with level-boosting. However, these workshops all come with a permanent maintenance cost, which can really bite a player in the ass if they build a workshop too early in the game when they can’t really make use of it, but still must pay the upkeep. By the endgame, the upkeep costs are nominal compared to how much loot the player will have accumulated.

“Tyranny” feels kind of ‘phoned-in’ compared to most of Obsidian Entertainment’s other recent efforts. Between the grimdark edgelord setting, annoying plot branching that requires completionists to play the same game 4 times, and the overall iffyness of the underlying combat systems, “Tyranny” is a game that seems bent on sabotaging itself. Fortunately, the unique magic system and the excellent companion characters go a long way to make up for the game’s shortcomings. Dark Fantasy fans will probably love “Tyranny,” but it’s not the type of RPG I’d recommend to everyone and anyone as a matter of course.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 3.5/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5



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