Oh, this is not going to be pretty.
I must admit to approaching Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire with an unaccustomed mix of resentment and resignation. It’s a feeling that reflects Obsidian’s fall from grace; after Pillars 1 and Tyranny, both extremely flawed games with only the Obsidian-brand reputation and faction systems to really make them stand out, in my eyes they’re no longer the accomplished masters of quest and mission narrative who came up with Mask of the Betrayer, Fallout: New Vegas and Alpha Protocol. Partially this is to do with other RPG developers raising their game, but there’s very little separating Tyranny from something like Torment: Tides of Numenera and Obsidian games have to do rather more to sell themselves to me these days. I had all but ignored the Deadfire crowdfunding campaign, was not really up for another game set in the rather tedious Pillars world, and only really bought it because I was done with BattleTech and Thrones of Britannia really wasn’t grabbing me.
I feel like Tyranny suffers from a slight marketing problem. Let’s take a quick look at the blurb on the Steam store:
In Tyranny, the grand war between good and evil is over – and the forces of evil, led by Kyros the Overlord, have won. The Overlord’s merciless armies dominate the face of the world, and its denizens must find their new roles within the war-torn realm… even as discord begins to rumble among the ranks of Kyros’ most powerful Archons.
Sounds interesting, right? Tyranny is actively sold as an RPG where you are — or at least, are working for — the bad guy. Having played all the way through Tyranny now, though, I’d say that maybe one third of that summary is accurate; discord is indeed rumbling among the ranks of Kyros’ Archons, to the point where the first act feels more like you’re wrangling a bunch of preschoolers squabbling over who gets to play with the pony next than it does dealing with the immensely powerful leaders of Kyros’ armies. As far as the rest of it goes I have some bad news for Kyros, as the dictionary definition of “dominate” is “to have a commanding position over”, and since Kyros’ forces are afraid to venture outside of their camps in nearly all of the territories that you visit during the course of the game I would say that he’s1 dominating the world in the same way that the USA dominated Vietnam back in the ‘70s. It’s that first sentence I really take issue with, though. There is plenty of scope for an RPG in which you’re on the side of evil for once — genuine evil, not the mwa-ha-ha-ing stereotypes found in Bioware titles. Psychopath playthrough of Alpha Protocol aside, I’ve not seen the genre come up with anything significantly new here since I told Zaalbar to kill Mission back in Knights Of The Old Republic and I was looking forward to an exploration of what being evil would mean and how it would change things both for your character and for the wider game world.
Unfortunately, Tyranny is not that game.
The first part of the White March expansion to Pillars of Eternity was released almost a year ago. I bought it, downloaded it and tried it, and bounced straight off almost immediately – partly this was down to a… questionable design decision that I’ll talk about in due course, but mostly it’s down to the game world. PoE’s fantasy universe succeeds in being more complicated and more nuanced than the entry-level D&D world of Baldur’s Gate, but that comes at the cost of accessibility and it turns out Pillars of Eternity is a damn hard game to get back into after six months, especially since the expansion does an absolutely terrible job of onboarding you into its content. I tried again in February on the release of part two of White March and got a little further, playing for an hour or so before I unaccountably lost interest; it turns out that you need to both be in the correct mood and have a sizeable run-up before you can really pick up White March with a seasoned adventuring party.
Pillars of Eternity is a game that’s trying to be too many things to too many people.
To Obsidian, it’s a chance to prove themselves; after years of putting out bugged/incomplete titles because of publisher interference, they can finally show what they can do when developing a game with their own funding on their own schedule. To the gaming world at large it has some sizeable shoes to fill as a spiritual successor to the old Infinity Engine games, a Baldur’s Gate 3 in all but name. And to the people who backed it on Kickstarter, and who have been waiting the best part of three years for the game to be finished, there were a lot of promises made. Strongholds! Cities! A 15-level mega-dungeon! All things that would require a lot of time and effort in order to do properly, and since Pillars of Eternity is also the most successful game Kickstarter that’s actually going to be released it’s fair to say that Obsidian must have been feeling the weight of expectation a little bit.
Given that, is it really any wonder that they’ve ended up playing it safe?
Now this is a surprise. I don’t think anybody was expecting Dungeon Siege III to be anything other than a by-the-numbers cash-in, a hack n’ slash action game churned out with little thought or care purely because Square Enix had the licence going spare and Obsidian needed some money. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to turn out to be one of the better games I’ve ended up playing this year.