Thursday, June 1, 2017

Tyranny

"Hear the cry of war
Louder than before
With his sword in hand
To control the land

Leathern armies have prevailed
Phantom Lord has never failed"

Metallica - Phantom Lord


Fall to your kneeeeeeees!
And bow down to your phantom overlord Kyros!

Ahem.
All rise. The honorable fatebinder Werwolfe now presiding.
So there's my first tyrant. Not even level 20 by campaign's end. Skills scattered haphazardly across four trees in a mix of magic and squishy two-hander offense that I could barely make work until discovering the "iron light as air" skill and Kills-in-Shadow's "stampede" combo, at which point I immediately began gavelling copious amounts of rebel ass into submission. Ah, but Kills-in-Shadow deserves her own post.

So how should I start describing Tyranny? First off, buy it. It's worth the money, if barely, even at release pricing. I preordered it because I was pleasantly impressed by Pillars of Eternity and wanted to see to what other use Obsidian would put its newly minted game engine. Unlike Tides of Numenera, which heavily modified the interface for its faux-futuristic setting, Tyranny chose to copy-paste most of it (literally, in the case of item icons) and instead focus on its setting and storytelling for Obsidian's secondary, unadvertised, left-handed side project. Ultimately, this makes it the slightly more interesting, though admittedly less accomplished product.

While Tyranny doesn't necessarily get excessive criticism, I'm somewhat perplexed that the criticism I do see appears utter nonsense to anyone who's actually played. Guessing a great many people saw the basic premise and assumed they'd be aiding a plucky, cartoonishly good rebel alliance topple the conveniently evil empire. While possible but much more difficult to attain than other paths, it's obvious throughout that this game's just not about holding the moral high ground. Denied their absolutist moral relativism, desperate to find something to dislike about the game, critics attack it in facile but nonsensical fashion. For instance, you'll commonly see reviewers deride Tyranny as a 15-20 hour game. Here's my first playthrough for comparison:
Almost 50 hours. I'll admit I obsessively explored all I could and there are an hour or two of AFKing somewhere in there. My second playthrough, granted, took only 35 hours. For a smooth, relaxed and not every involved run you're probably looking at just under 30 hours. I can only explain the idiotic "15 hour" complaints by assuming these people don't read. Much of your time as fatebinder is spent learning about the world you inhabit, largely through dialogues which can seem a bit tedious as they're overly-fragmented. To those especially who decided to hate Tyranny as soon as they discovered they weren't Luke Skywalker, I'm sure learning more about tyrannizing must've seemed an onerous chore. Then again, I'm guessing these are the same cretins who never read any of the lore books in the Elder Scrolls games.

Equally moronic the complaints about lack of replay value. Tyranny means to offer role-playing as it should be, with branching paths and an expression of the player's own personality through the accumulation of decisions big and small. While a far cry from the freedom of a sandbox game, Tyranny makes a damn good show of outdoing its competitors in appending repercussions to your choices. You get four main paths (including joining the rebels, though they're hardly as cuddly/saintly as most players would like) but they're hardly obvious and many decisions will cause entire zones to open at completely different times in the game (or not at all) to the point where you'll still be tripping over your poor life choices in the "conquest" introduction three quarters into your campaign. Even the basic "grab the loot" is occasionally played as a choice between greed and obedience, with some macguffins also doubling as overpowered combat items in their own right.

You get more divergence by the first act of Tyranny than you would in an entire playthrough of most story-based games. Where your decisions would usually only spell a marginally different cinematic by the end, here they're constantly with you, carrying on from zone to zone, affecting your journey as well as the destination.

Aesthetics-wise, Tyranny sticks to an appropriately dark palette composed mostly of grays and browns, its sound/music is at times brilliant (especially the opening theme) and it manages to own its location themes of shattered landscapes, army camps and corpse-littered battlefields. The basic premise behind your character puts most other origin stories to shame. Your title of "fatebinder" in Tyranny is basically that of a judge - a battle-judge with lightning eyes and a license to kill (everything) but a judge nonetheless. You'll spend quite a few dialogues administering Overlord Kyros' "peace" deciding whether to use your dictatorial fiat for right, justice, law or greed. While in the Neverwinter Nights games for instance courtroom scenes were inescapably tacked-on, forced and irrelevant roleplaying in a maelstrom of hack'n'slash, Tyranny manages to integrate them because this is your character's freaking life!

The setting itself is equally interesting, dodging most fantasy tropes (no elves or dragons or heavens or hells) in favor of a gritty militaristic culture clash drawing largely on Roman expansion at the close of the bronze age, with provincial bronze falces clashing against legionnaire iron. This is given in-game relevance as well, with iron gear excelling in basic armor and armor penetration while bronze counterparts compensate slightly with speed and accuracy.

However, for all its good points, it's clear that Tyranny was left unfinished. Customers were legitimately dissatisfied with the ending, which abruptly truncates the last act before it even gets started as though the development team suddenly woke up one morning to realize they'd run out of money. Many of the accusations of "15 hours" can likely be traced to being hit in the face with the end credits when the adventure was just ramping up. Aside from leaving you with a fistful of stories that seem like they never got past their introduction (Bleden Mark is just the most obvious) this damages pretty much every aspect of the game.
The skill-based character progression runs out when you finally start figuring out what you're doing, for the simple reason that you run out of enemies.
While the first two thirds of the game feature carefully measured item advancement making you work for your gear upgrades, the last part bombards you with insanely overpowered loot seemingly out of nowhere.
The magic system has you collect modular spell components and combine them to yield a pretty wide variety of effects. Excellent! Then you're cut short just as you're getting enough "expressions" and "accents" to start making the most interesting combos like bouncing, piercing, stunning magic missiles.
As concerns dialogues the whole thing seems ridiculously front-loaded, as if the writers initially assumed they'd have more time. Even the basic disposable redshirt skill trainers in the first couple of zones are very eager to tell you their life stories in minutely detailed and verbose text trees, but by the end of the game the objectively much more important Big Boss NPCs can barely manage a paragraph or two of villainous monologue as you execute them.
In fact, for a game so dependent on writing, this thing desperately needed better editing. Characters' tone and speech patterns change abruptly, at times dipping into too-modern vernacular or seemingly being slapped together by separate writers. Even honest-to-goodness typos crop up here and there.

Someone fucked up the budget and/or production schedule. It happens. It's happened to a lot of very good games. For all that, Tyranny's a memorable piece of work, not least for its more mature take on the basic premise of playing the evil side. Graven Ashe and especially the Voices of Nerat's parting words to you, your pen-pal mentor's comments about the mythopoetic nature and growth of power in accordance with fame, Tunon's Lawful Evil adherence to his own rules, the portrayal of the various rebel groups' sneaky, backstabbing viciousness, it's all good stuff. Perhaps even more so than Pillars of Eternity's last-act conclusions about divinity, Tyranny dares to let its characters voice some uncomfortable truths. My favorite so far would have to be Lantry's response to the question "how do you feel about the evil invisible world-trampling Overlord Kyros whose minions almost tortured you to death?"


What is "tyranny" anyway? Is it just a matter of scale or overt power?

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