Tyranny is the latest offering from Obsidian, a company that once produced some of the best video game stories in the business; Kights of the Old Republic 2, Mask of the Betrayer, and Fallout: New Vegas. Pillars of Eternity was a huge disappointment for me unfortunately, and I hoped that Tyranny would restore my faith in one of my favorite game creators. Unfortunately, while Tyranny suffers the same problem as the game that first put them on my map: Knights of the Old Republic 2.
I need to write an article on how KOTOR 2 was in many ways a superior story than the original game, and brought a new profound depth to the universe of Star Wars. Unfortunately all its great storytelling was wasted on an ending that made Mass Effect 3’s look like a masterpiece in comparison. All your companions die because they stayed in a ship parked precariously on a cliffside, you have a final confrontation with the Big Bad, and then a fifteen second clip of the planet you’re on. It was awful. There was no resolution, no sense of accomplishment, just bitter disappointment.
After its release it was found that KOTOR 2 actually had a much deeper and satisfying ending in store for the audience, but simply ran out of time and money to finish making them.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly the sense I get from Tyranny. It has a truly compelling story to tell, but unfortunately the ending feels hastily cobbled together. They didn’t even take the time to cover up all the other elements of the game that spell out how much larger the game was originally supposed to be.
It ends not with a shout, not even with a whimper, but with an embarrassed shrug.
All that Matters is the Ending:
The opening moments of Tyranny are some of the best it has to offer and Obsidian clearly learned from some of their mistakes in Pillars of Eternity. Pillars overwhelmed you with information from the character creation screen: races, empires, religions, locations were all described when we hadn’t even made into the game yet. Fortunately the world of Tyranny is much easier to understand: an evil overlord has conquered the world. It’s actually far more complicated, but they leave you the player to uncover those complexities for yourself as you play, rather than burying you under exposition like Pillars did.
The game puts you in the shoes of a Fatebinder, who operates as both judge, jury, and executioner of Kyros the Overlord’s laws. You do not make the laws, nor are you above them, you merely enforce them. This is the kind of character I’ve always wanted to play in an RPG, an investigator. Working for an evil overlord I decided I was going to play my character like Odo from Deep Space 9, trying to uphold justice and order in the midst of chaos.
As a Fatebinder, you are ordered to accompany Kyros’ armies as they conquer the last free land still standing, the Tiers. Thus unlocks The Conquest section of the character creator, and this is easily one of the best introductions to an RPG I’ve seen, outmatched only by the origin stories of Dragon Age: Origins. You take your character through the three year conquest of the Tiers, choosing how you want to assist the two armies waging the war. This allows you to not only shape your character’s personality and history, but also gets you personally invested in the history of this world. It makes you want to know more about the world of Tyranny, a desire that Pillars of Eternity failed to inspire.
Most impressively, every action you take will have consequences in the game. On my first playthrough, I sided with the Disfavored, a legion of ironclad warriors bound by a code of honor. During my conquest, I was made governor of Lethian’s Crossing, where I made sure the Disfavored continue getting a steady supply of iron for their armies. Part of those efforts included banishing the local band of mercenaries so that the Disfavored could guard over it themselves. When I returned to Lethian’s Crossing in the game world, the Disfavored guarded the town of Lethian’s Crossing, and the band of mercenaries had been turned into bandits as they scratched a living in the wilderness. Upon a second playthrough and different choices, Lethian’s Crossing was still guarded by the mercenary band.
Unfortunately, once you begin to get past the impressive first act, Tyranny begins to falter, and you can see the tattered edges of the unfinished tapestry that is Tyranny‘s story. A lot of seemingly arbitrary restrictions are placed on you. Since I sided with the Disfavored army I had to report constantly to Graven Ashe, the Disfavored leader, even though I wasn’t under his command. Ostensibly this is so Graven Ashe can tell you where to go to continue your investigation, but why do I need to go to him to get that information?
Tunon makes it clear to you on the onset of your investigation that you are an independent investigator, you answer to no one but Tunon and the Overseer. Except I had to do a hell of a lot of reporting to Graven Ashe anyway. The strange thing is this seems totally unnecessary, the story is well written enough that anyone can figure out where they should go to investigate. At one point Tunon himself told me where to go to investigate, but instead of being able to go straight there, I still had to go to Graven Ashe, apparently he needed to sign my permission slip.
The biggest problem with Tyranny is that it’s only two acts. Act one is the introduction of the characters and preliminary world building. Act two is investigating the Archons, uncovering the mysteries of the Spires, and building up your base of power. Act three should have about coming into power as an Archon and confronting Kyros or, at the very least, the Archon Pox and his Plagueborne. Act three begins… and then just fizzles out. Archon Pox and his army are never seen, you cast an Edict on the Northern Empire, and then the credits roll.
There’s no fanfare, and while it does technically resolve the storyline, at the same time there’s no sense of accomplishment. All the intriguing background about Kyros and the Spires are simply left to die out as well. I think I resolved the entire third act in about… 20 minutes? 30 at the most? Not counting the irritatingly long battle with Bledan Mark. Obviously I didn’t actually time it, but that’s what it ended up feeling like.
It felt more like a footnote than an ending, and what’s truly baffling is just how much is left hanging.
During my Conquest my character was the one who read the Edict of Fire that burned the Vellum Citadel to the ground, and while I was playing through the game the Burning Library (as it was now called), was off limits. I thought this was because it was being saved for some kind of third act resolution. After all, this would be the second Edict that I had both invoked and broken. Since it was that act that began my rise to power, I felt sure that doing it again would unlock some latent ability. In fact I felt sure that this would be the third act’s ending: rushing to resolve the edict you invoked to unlock a power capable of stopping Pox’s invading armies. Narratively that would have been perfect.
Instead, I never got to go to the Burning Library. It was always inaccessible. Despite being a Fatebinder who, supposedly, can come and go as he pleases, I was forbidden from going to the Burning Library. Worse yet, it was never stated in game why I couldn’t go there, it was simply greyed out on the world map. I can accept limitations, and in many ways I enjoyed the more focused gameplay of Tyranny to a more exploration based cRPG, but I’d appreciate an in-game explanation as to why my movement is so limited.
Several mysteries are revealed throughout Tyranny’s storyline and they’re all left hanging. Keeping the nature of the Spires vague is fine with me, not everything needs to be explained. However, Kyros’ actions needed some more explaining. I like the fact that there’s enough evidence to suggest that Kyros wanted Ashe and The Voices of Nerat to fight and annihilate each other. It makes sense, with no more wars to fight, warlords like Ashe and The Voices, and their armies, would begin wreaking havoc in peacetime. However, what doesn’t make sense is Kyros’ actions regarding the player.
As I played through the game, and corresponded with an old Fatebinder about Kyros, it occurred to me that perhaps Kyros’ was grooming me for something. If, as I suspected, Kyros drew her power from the Spires as well, then it would make sense that if she needed a successor, she would send someone to the Spires to begin the process. I thought perhaps Kyros’ life had been extended by magic, but had reached the limits of that ability. Or perhaps Kyros was multiple individuals, each inheriting the mantle of godhood upon the former’s death.
At the end of the game, Kyros declares you an Archon, which seemed to confirm my hypothesis of Kyros grooming you. And then she immediately launches into trying to kill you as well. Why give me all this power, give me such standing in her hierarchy, when she considers me a threat to her power? Why not denounce me? Strip me of my rights? Render me an outcast?
For a game that had such rich roleplaying at the beginning, the ending railroads you down a single path regardless of how you played your character. My Fatebinder was a loyal servant of Kyros, I sought to bring Kyros’ Peace to the Tiers, and balanced justice with mercy as best I could. When I was made Archon of the Spires, I expected to be able to conquer my enemies and then declare my loyalty to the Overseer. Yet instead, I rebelled.
Not because I chose to, but because the game simply told me I was rebelling. When I was tried before Tunon himself, not only did he find me innocent, but he also declared his fealty to me. He proclaimed me the new Overlord. I couldn’t do a thing to stop it.
One criticism I received in my Dragon Age: Inquisition review from quite a few people was that I didn’t take into account that Inquisition’s story wasn’t complete. That in future expansions and new games in the Dragon Age series might retroactively fix many of Inquisition’s flaws. Tyranny is even more obviously building towards DLC, expansions, and new games in the series.
However, I can’t judge a story based on what it might become; and just because a story can be continued doesn’t mean you can just stick “To Be Continued” at the end of it and call it day. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the first of an eight book epic, but it also had a proper ending that resolved the story and left the door open for sequels. Had the Sorcerer’s Stone ending with an ambiguous non-ending like the one in Tyranny, I doubt it would have become the phenomenon it did. If Tyranny was a sentence, it wouldn’t have a period at the end, it would have a semicolon. Which is fine, I use semicolons myself obviously, but that sentence is the last sentence in the book, and they didn’t bother to put anything after the semicolon.
Which is a shame because I felt like Tyranny was trying to tell me something, there’s something about this story that I found incredibly compelling. In fact I think it was on the verge of telling me something profound, it just didn’t give itself the time it needed to finish telling me that story.
All that said, I still loved Tyranny‘s world and the story it was telling, I just wish they had finish telling it. Setting it in the Bronze Age was a stroke of genius. Fantasy settings so commonly use the medieval period as their setting that Tyranny‘s Bronze Age adds to the otherworldly quality of its setting. The first act also features some of the best roleplaying I’ve ever experienced, with a wide variety of choices for how to deal with the amazingly written scenarios you encounter.
There’s so much potential here, and just like Pillars of Eternity, I would happily invest in a sequel (providing they actually have a complete story next time) and more games in this series.
Unfortunately, like the unlit symbols of the main spire, there are so many missing pieces of the story in Tyranny that it just doesn’t hold together as well as it should. However Obsidian estimates their project’s time to development, they’re being far too optimistic, because pushing out half-finished games due to time and budget constraints isn’t doing anyone any good.
Come on Obsidian, I believe in you, you have some great writers. Just slow down and take the time you need to tell the story you want. I want to hear your stories.
You just never finish telling them.