I feel like I need to preface this review with my previous exposure to isometric RPGs. I’m too young to have fully appreciated “old school” RPGs such as Baldurs gate, Planescape: Torment and Wasteland. I did indeed play Baldurs gate and Baldurs gate 2. The first of which was my mothers purchase when I must have been around 7 or 8 years old, 1999 or 2000. Obviously being a complex RPG the nuances were completely lost on me.
I never managed to get past the second village with my party members. In fact, I have vivid memories of Seb and I, 8 years old, sitting beside each other on my family computer, Seb with a huge booklet of cheat codes that allowed myself to spawn in an unlimited number of goodies for our characters. We would spend hours plugging in codes for awesome armour, weapons and spells. Ultimately we would end up fighting the guards at the start of the first area and generally get no further. Our young minds wouldn’t get us much further than that. Since then I’ve dabbled in Pillars of Eternity for a couple of hours (Obsidians previous RPG adventure) but not as much as Seb, and not nearly enough to pass judgement. However I thought to myself while playing Pillars that maybe this genre is dated. Maybe it’s gotten a bit too old and needs to walk out in the snow, lay down and end it’s life. We have Skyrim, we have Dragon Age, why do we need isometric RPGs in 2016 I ask? Then I remember back to Divinity: Original Sin, I remember how beautfully crafted it was and how it took great inspiration from these RPGs of old albeit with a new co-op element. This jump start gave me the motivation to jump into Tyranny. And jump into Tyranny I have.
Let’s start with the story. I don’t want to spoil anything as I feel you need to experience everything for yourself, however the general idea is that your character was a key character in the conquering of a land by the overlord Kyros. Let’s be frank here… Kyros isn’t the good guy (read: male or female). The good guys lost and they lost to you and your leaders armies. There were two key armies involved in the “bad guys win” scenario, the Disfavoured and the Scarlet Chorus. These two armies have completely different personalities, despite them both being evil in their own way. The Disfavoured are an honourable and efficient elite death force. Say there was a situation where you came across a traitorous village, they would feel their honour betrayed and would slaughter all the inhabitants and burn the village to make an example… charming. The Scarlet Chorus however, would see this as an opportunity for servitude. They would come in and conquer in the same way as the Disfavoured, however there wouldn’t be mass slaughter but mass slavery. The Scarlet Chorus are the opposite of the Disfavoured in that they rely on sheer numbers and mass of force, conscripted members from defeated armies. These armies are lead by two distinctive and almost stereotypical characters called Archons, The Archon of War, Graven Ashe who is portrayed as honourable in his evil deeds leads the Disfavoured. The Archon of secrets, Voices of Nerat leads the Scarlet Chorus who is portrayed as completely dishonourable sneaky spy bastard. You are a servant of Tunon, the Archon of Justice who tasks you with investigating and helping these characters. Now you know the background lets get down to “Choice”. “Choice” is often seen as the cornerstone of a good RPG. And I’d tend to agree, you get the choice of what character you want to play in terms of abilities, weapons, armour but also in who they want to ally with, what they want to do in the world and who that affects.
This game has choices coming out its fucking eyeballs. It actually gets to the point where I’m almost scared to talk to people. “Oh hey random peasant on the street, how are you doing?” “Let me see your papers please?”.. “Fuck you scum! *Favour with Bronze Brotherhood decreased”.. shit. It’s a double edged sword for sure, every single action I take in Tyranny seems to mean something, at least to someone down the line. And that is an awesome, yet terrifying prospect. I came across a band of characters who were openly talking shit about me and my characters, and after having had a couple of drinks with colleagues (in the real world) I decided I wouldn’t stand for it and executed them. Of course this came back later on to completely bite me in the ass during a key diplomatic moment. These kind of choices make the game feel completely unique to me, and having had very limited experience in other games of this genre I’m in utter awe. The outcomes that I experience will be so different from somebody else playing the same game and that is frankly awesome. The crazy thing is, you aren’t going to be juggling two major factions… you’ll be managing reputations with a dozen. I’m actually so excited to play the game again just to go a completely different route and see how drastically it changes the game. You can keep track of these choices via a reputation menu. This reputation menu shows you all of the factions you have encountered and the actions that have led them to either be Favourable, or Wrathful towards you. Of course these reputation sliders have huge story implications, but they also influence gameplay. Whether you are strongly favourable or strongly wrathful with a reputation (Or even both, bizarrely in some cases) you will gain 1 passive and 1 active ability. This is great, as you are no longer punished for being evil, you gain benefits no matter which side of good and evil you fall.
So, we have talked about choices. What about the story itself? Well Obsidian wrote it, so it’s seriously good. Seb will attest to the fact that I’m a “game mechanics” man. To him, that means I’ve read about 5 words of lore in World of Warcraft yet I’ve played for over 70 days game time and been max level at 5 of the games expansions. Long story short, I’ll skip over story in favour of gameplay. In this case however, I’m hooked. The writing is good, and I mean proper good. I’m a big fantasy book fan and I often flip flop between being heavily invested in gaming and heavily invested in reading fantasy novels. Tyranny is scratching both itches at the same time and I love it. I haven’t been interested in a story since The Witcher 3 (which I got into deep, reading all the novels). I don’t want to spoil the story at all as I feel it’s best experienced as virgin as possible but just trust me when I say it has the twists, turns and intrigue you’d expect from a fantasy story but with the unique twist of being on the bad guys side. There seems to be an issue with the pacing however. I felt Act 1 was well paced, things progressed well in the story and everything made sense, Act 2 however felt a bit more of a slog. The story was progressing but at a slow pace and character development was a little more thin. Then suddenly out of nowhere Act 3 came and went and the game was over. Act 3 was actually one of the best acts, compiling all your efforts into a great chapter. But it didn’t make sense that it was so short, it doesn’t feel like the end. It’s like the story cut off just when it was about to unleash it’s best moments and that was ultimately a little disappointing. Not to mention a number of gameplay mechanics were introduced in the final chapter, yet you could only use them for a couple of hours before the game was over? That doesn’t make much sense to me. For those interested, I completely all of the available side quests and read all of the dialogue presented to me and the game took around 25 hours to complete. I understand that they are going for replayability with the number of choices available but it’s still disappointing the conclusion isn’t more satisfying.
Let’s start at the very start. The character creation screen is generic as it comes, you choose hair, you choose skin colour, you choose gender, you choose tattoos and you choose an origin story from a preselected few. Then you move on to primary and secondary skills. Tyranny doesn’t have any classes you see, it is based upon a dynamic class and leveling system where you improve the skills you use and the class molds around your actions. Your primary skill and secondary skill at the start focus you on the main areas, a spell class (e.g. frost, lightning), a weapon class (one handed, two handed) and a couple of other key skills. Once you are out in the world, you’ll gain experience depending on the skills you use, so if you fancy picking up heavy armour and switching your skill set, it may require a short period of being weaker but you can catch up to your initial primary skills without much trouble. However back to the end of character creation you have have the choice of a “quick start” where major decisions are made for you or you can play through an introductory screen. This intro screen allows you to make major decisions that your character experience in the war before the main game begins. These decisions are fundamental to the start of the game and add a huge amount of back story and lore to your character. They allow you to align with certain factions by default (although this can easily change). The story selection screen is done on the in game map with beautifully animated tokens and gets you completely invested in the story from the get go. Even when you get into the game proper you notice how beautiful the environments are, these isometric settings can really give a great sense of scale and lore of the world.
What about the combat? The combat is a real time pause-able combat affair. Now I’m not 100% convinced by real time pause-able combat.. and I’m not convinced here either. I could just be my play style but to me I need to micromanage everything. Cooldown timers for basic attacks and spell casting run on a stat called resolve, and therefore resolve determines how often you can attack. This can range between 1 second and 5 seconds from what I’ve seen between attacks. Now if I was a relaxed gentleman I’d let my characters do some auto attacks, cast some spells themselves and maybe intervene when I want to to improve the odds of the battle. Except I’m not a relaxed gentleman, I’m competitive and I want to win. That means that I pause the game every 1 to 5 seconds to assign a new order to a character as soon as their cooldowns are up. This strategy may just be me but after playing for multiple (read: too many) hours it can get a little tiresome. This wouldn’t be an issue if every order wasn’t key, even on normal difficulty. You’ll find that your squishy characters, mages, rogue types etc will get crushed in 3 or 4 attacks from enemies therefore if you aren’t on the ball you’ll be one, two or more members down from your team before you know it. Then suddenly you’ve died, you’ve lost, and you better have saved or you’ll be starting from 15 minutes back. I’m clearly conflicted on this matter, on one hand it makes the game tense, exhilarating and fun, it adds a high level of strategy to the combat, on the other hand it can be stressful and sometimes tedious depending on the difficulty of the characters you are facing. It’s really a minor factor, despite how serious I’ve made it sound. Overall I do enjoy the combat I just feel my personal play style sometimes conflicts against its strengths. My thoughts on this have swayed, particularly as I’ve reached the later parts of the game and my characters have become stronger. It becomes a lot more forgiving and I can give orders on the fly without everyone dying so quickly and as a result I’m enjoying the combat more.
I do have couple of issues though with the game design decisions. The main one, and one that I think is fundamentally key for an RPG is the looting/item system. Unfortunately my experience with the item system has been quite a poor one. To put things into context, I’ll tell you that my main character “Timos” is a super strong mage character, enjoys them frost and life stealing magics, sounds fun right? Next I have a healer in my party, then an archer and finally a tank. Pretty much the holy trinity right? I won’t go into names of characters for the sake of spoilers however there is something unique about my tank character.. he can’t change his armour for story reasons. Now there is an interesting backstory behind this.. however when 90% of the armour you receive is heavy armour, and nobody in your party can use heavy armour it gets annoying. I’m not sure if its just my luck or the game design, but the prevalence of heavy armour and two handed weapons far outweighs any other type of item pick up. The worst part is that getting a new shiny item, unless its one of the special “artifact” items will have the most minimal effect. Increasing your helmet quality from “Fine” to “Exquisite” for example may net you a 0.1 second decrease between the time of your attacks and a 1% reduction in damage. The numbers are so friggen small, and they feel so insignifcant that I really barely care about the new drops at all. My mage character has probably seen 3 or 4 item upgrades in 25 hours of playing.. and yet if he had been a two handed heavy armour character he may have seen 20 different upgrades. You know something is not quite right when I’m using the same staff that I found 5 hours into the game, and not through lack of trying to find something else. Now a lot of people may say that this isn’t meant to be a lootfest game, this isn’t Diablo 3 and loot doesn’t matter. That may be so, but if you have a loot system within the game there is no point in doing it half assed. However, one strong point of the item system is the artefacts. Artefacts are unique and powerful items that you can either craft through your Spire upgrades (which I’ll get to) or find on your travels. These items have a nice amount of lore attached to them and are usually significantly powerful which means they are fun to play around with. They have especially cool in game models too. The best part about them is each artefact comes with its own reputation, and once you use the artifact item enough and your reputation rises you gain access to a unique ability from that item. For example I acquired the artefact weapon “Sunspear” which has a unique ability that stuns and damages foes in a radius around the wielder, I also crafted some “Alchemists Gloves” which not only add to the Control Life skill (healing) but also come with a unique healing orb ability which is great for my healer. These items feel great when you find them and that is compounded by the fact that almost everything else isn’t exciting to find.
Enough about loot, I mentioned crafting so let’s talk about the base system. Throughout your travels you acquire 5 different “Spires” which are pillars that soar into the sky, overlooking the world and have untold power. On 4 of the 5 spires you can build certain upgrades, a forge, a library, a training ground and an alchemy station. Within each of these upgrades you can hire certain recruits that will allow you to train skills, generate crafting materials and sell items. The main advantage of these spires is the crafting. For example, within the forge if you have enough materials you can create unique and artifact equipment, that takes a certain amount of in-game time to complete. You can also upgrade any of your core armour items up to the maximum “Mastercrafted” tier. At the library you can discover new recipies and spell configurations, at the alchemy station you can brew potions etc. These do provide a significant boost in power, however they aren’t very in depth systems yet serve to complement the main story experience. Again they have a couple of issues, particularly with skill training and with the organisation of the spires. As you hire recruits they appear on top of the spires and then you talk to them to access their shop, training, whatever. The issue is you can have up to 6 recruits on each spire, each one providing a different service with some overlapping. It is frankly annoying to have to traipse through all your different spires to find the right recruit that trains the right thing or sells the right thing. A simple menu to collate these trainings would be much easier, or perhaps some kind of easily identifiable icon above the characters head. Either of these options would save 5 minutes of your time clicking on every recruit you have to try and find the skill you want to train. Skill training itself doesn’t feel like a good system. Currently, you can train 5 points in skills per level, and these skills count towards your overall experience level. The idea behind this is that you can’t just buy your way to power, you have to go out into the world and experience the content to level up. For me however it becomes annoying, because I want to maximise what I can get out this system, which means I need to travel back to the spires every time I level, instead of carrying on with the flow of the story. Again a simple fix would allow these skill training slots to accumulate, so if you don’t go back to the spires for a couple of levels you would get the option to train 10 skill points. It’s a minor gripe but feels like something that would be easily fixed. Overall I’d say the base system is very barebones, in this kind of RPG story based experience though I don’t think it matters. It serves to supplement your game experience and it does that well without piling on many micromanaging elements.
So what about the magic system, every RPG has to have a solid base for a magic system. Tyranny has certainly got this one right. Simple, effective and creative are how I would describe it. First off you have a spell “building” menu, where you construct spells on the fly and your character can use them. The spell building is made up of 3 components, first of which is Cores. The Cores are what element your magic will be, Frost, Fire, Electricity, Illusion etc. Then you have expressions, which is how your magic will manifest in the world, will it be a close combat spell? A ranged spell? An Aoe spell? A target in a line spell? I’m sure there are more options, however these are just a selection of what I’ve found. Then you have accents, these are what tweaks the abilities and damage of the spells. You can add simple effects such as more damage, more range and lower cooldowns but you also get more interesting effects such as marking the target (increasing the accuracy against that target) or adding an interrupt to the spell. You can’t just put every element you find into a spell to create the ultimate spell. Each of these elements has a Lore cost, and your character can’t cast a spell that requires more Lore than he/she currently has. This is a nice balancing mechanic that gives some strategy in choosing your spells, you’ll have to make choices such as sacrificing some damage to add a marked effect, or increasing cooldown to allow for and AoE effect. You also don’t start out with knowledge of all the cores, expressions and accents, you’ll need to find or purchase them to add to your collection and increase your options at building spells. Honestly, this system is really cool and I’ve spent a solid amount of time tinkering over which spells would be most useful and how to maximise the strength of my spells for the Lore that I have.
There are a couple of other mechanics heavily related to the story, so I won’t mention them here in case of spoilers. However, know that they appear too late in the game to have much use which as I mentioned above a little disappointing and a wasted opportunity.
Overall, I really enjoyed Tyranny and I’ll definitely be jumping in for a second playthrough. It has a strong story, characters and RPG mechanics though not without flaws. It is a shame though, while the game is really good, it doesn’t quite reach the standard that it sets with it’s impressive start. With the huge number of choices however I really wonder if all my points stand up with other peoples highly different game experiences.
Score – 79/100
Disclaimer – We graciously received a review code of Tyranny from the developers.