Modern western RPGs have surged in popularity over the past decade; rich stories, complex grey morality, and beautifully crafted worlds have come together as the genre matures. Now Obsidian throw their hat in the ring with Tyranny, a game set in a world where evil has already won and conquered the land — and you work for them.
Developers Obsidian have enjoyed a strong foothold in the isometric RPG space thanks to the strength of previous outing Pillars of Eternity, releasing to critical acclaim in 2015 with well-penned storylines and an engaging world. Fans of Pillars of Eternity will find jumping into Tyranny as easy as sliding into your favorite pair of slippers thanks to similar interface design and gameplay, though Tyranny is built with a very different approach.
may the strongest rule
Where Pillars of Eternity was a broad paintbrush, Tyranny is a fine pen — it foregoes the expansive, explorable nature of Pillars in favor of building a focused experience with an emphasis on replayability through starting over with new choices, rather than having a single playthrough within a massive world.
It’s a gamble that pays off well, though fans of hundred-plus hour RPG experiences (à la The Witcher 3) may be deterred by the comparatively short playtime on offer.
Tyranny puts you in the shoes of a Fatebinder, a powerful servant of allegedly-evil world conqueror Kyros with the initial goal of overseeing a failing campaign where two of the most powerful military leaders are too busy butting heads to quell a local uprising. Armed with an Edict — terrifyingly powerful magic that cannot be stopped or prevented until its terms are met — it’s your job to proclaim that, unless the region is captured and controlled within a tight timeframe, every person in the area will meet a swift death. Congratulations: that includes you.
You’ll soon see that getting these two archons to cooperate is no small feat, either; one leads a band of highly disciplined warriors raised in tradition and honor, the other recruiting conquered common folk, loosely arming them and throwing them at the enemy. While you’ll have the chance to pick up party members from both sides, you’ll have to ally with one of the factions early in the campaign, and the choice is far from easy.
On one hand, you’ll have the Disfavored — highly trained warriors and experts in the art of warfare, though stubborn to a fault and greatly outnumbered by the enemy. On the other, the Scarlet Chorus — a massive disposable rabble whose strengths lie in sheer numbers and barbaric aggression, yet suffering an alarming rate of deceit, cowardice and treachery.
While choices aren’t quite on par with Telltale titles in how meaningful and difficult they feel, they have a welcome and sometimes surprising impact on how things play out later on, with your reputation and choices turning potential allies into hostile aggressors or opening new interaction options based on how understanding, intimidating, or downright merciless you choose to become. Tyranny offers a solid array of paths to travel; one playthrough you may choose to be a compassionate diplomatic, the next a selfish backstabber aiming squarely on amassing as much personal power and influence as possible.
trial by combat
When you’re not deciding the fate of those you converse with, you’re usually in battle, and Tyranny does an admirable job of blending the action of real-time combat with the tactical depth of having time to think thanks to the ability to pause at any moment and plan the next move of any character. As you progress through higher difficulties pausing often becomes a necessity, micromanagement becoming an essential part of juggling fights and keeping an eye on powerful enemies in order to interrupt particularly devastating abilities.
Characters progress as you’d expect, gaining experience and levelling up, unlocking new options in their talent trees as they go. Each has their own exclusive fields of specialisation, so while a wild and agile fighter like Verse has talent trees for duel wielding daggers or firing a bow, she can never grab a shield and become an indomitable tank like a more warrior-focused character can. The exception is your own character, who has a multitude of talent trees spanning virtually every standard class style, enabling you to deeply specialise in your preferred role or grab a general bunch of talents to be more well-rounded.
As you interact with factions and perform actions of note around the world, you’ll gain favor, fear or wrath with different people. As these increase, you unlock new abilities for use in combat. Gain enough favor with the Disfavored faction, for instance, and you’ll have access to abilities that help you fight through the pain and shrug off ailments.
Reputations with your party members unlock combination abilities that involve the two characters working in tandem, such as a sage channeling his healing power into the Fatebinder, radiating restorative energies and empowering nearby party members.
Party members too have reputations with and opinions of one another, and can form combination abilities playing to their strengths — a useful example being the nimble Verse rapidly unloading a quiver of arrows into juggernaut Barik, who in turn expulses the arrows into surrounding enemies. Combo abilities keep combat fun, though often come with a clause that only allows a single use of them until you rest up at a camp.
Most quests in Tyranny are standard fare — valuable goods go missing, scouts fail to check in, areas need to be cleared of enemies. There isn’t too much in the originality side, though curiosity on how your story will progress next is a good motivator to keep you moving forward.
However, occasionally the quests aren’t clear and can lead to some frustration. I had gone out of my way to divert over to an early optional sidequest and completed it successfully, but because I turned in a main storyline quest before noticing the sidequest NPC to get my reward, the quest was automatically failed with no recourse. Annoying, given that the fail was sudden and that the NPC looked like every other character in the area. A couple of later quests also become frustrating in that you’re essentially forced to guess and try things at random in order to progress, the quest log offering no help and not a clue in sight of what you’re actually meant to be doing.
While Tyranny runs with the tagline “Evil wins”, it often doesn’t feel like you’re on the side of evil in-game; rather, you’re simply part of an empire looking to bring order and structure to an otherwise fragmented and lawless land. While you’re able to influence the outcomes of many encounters and free to have plenty of people executed — even your own party members, should you wish — the game doesn’t really make you feel like one of the bad guys. If you’re hoping to play as a real diabolical scumbag raining death and fear upon your foes, the game may feel a little underwhelming. It’s closer to playing as the Empire in the world of Star Wars.
The characters you meet during your adventures are interesting and, while a little cliché, have engrossing personalities, backstories, and the odd hidden motive here and there. Imposing warrior Barik for instance, is permanently trapped within a hulking set of armor; as a Disfavored he’s already accustomed to a life devoted to war and the powerful new armor serves him well in battle, but being unable to ever remove any plating severely impacts his quality of life. Imagine having your clothes permanently stuck for months, and you’ll soon understand why the poor guy smells like an open sewer.
Overall, Tyranny is an engaging, RPG-newbie friendly adventure: combat is simpler than Pillars of Eternity with smaller party sizes and the removal of friendly fire, and the storyline — while much shorter — is finely weaved, keeping you on your toes and always looking forward to seeing how things will turn out next.