Tyranny, the latest fantasy role playing game from storied developer Obsidian Entertainment, asks a very compelling question: What’s it like to be a henchman for an evil and immeasurably powerful god-being who wants to subjugate the world? In Tyranny, you’ll perform dastardly deeds, befriend a bunch of psychotic and surprisingly likable characters – including a giant murderous lady-beast – and decide the fate of the Tiers – the last region in the world of Terratus to be conquered by an unstoppable empire.
In Tyranny, players take on the role of a Fatebinder, sort of a judge, jury, and executioner who is an expert on the laws of Kyros the aforementioned god-being who seeks to rule all of Terratus. Terratus is a world of powerful and terrifying magic, magic that Kyros has used to conquer almost the entire world in a centuries long campaign. You serve Tunon, an Archon of Justice and sort of a shadowy arbitrator who serves Kyros. Your station as Fatebinder gives you the authority to interpret the laws often for your own benefit. It’s that authority which allows you to command prisoners to be executed, blackmail merchants, and pretty much betray everyone around you. If you so choose, you can be a real dick.
Fittingly, Tyranny begins with players making hard choices. In a smart move, Tyranny first introduces bits and pieces of the world through what I’d liken to a short choose-your-own-adventure sequence. The decisions you make here, including your character’s background and actions taken during his or her previous campaigns really eases players into the lore of the world of Tyranny and serve as an appetizer for the kind of decisions players will have to make throughout the narrative. The choices made here are also referenced at key points of the story and provide a portion of the game’s potential for replayability.
You arrive at the Tiers to declare an Edict, a powerful conditional spell that requires a conduit such as yourself, with effects ranging from massive earthquakes, permanent nightfall, erupting volcanoes or in the case of the Edict you just unknowingly declared: killing everyone in the Tiers unless Kyros’s army takes the rebel stronghold within a little more than a week’s time. While it may seem like a lot to take in (and it certainly is) it’s a compelling premise bolstered by careful world building and a complex setting that ranks among some of the best RPGs ever made. It’s a testament to Obsidian’s mastery of storytelling that you’ll never feel lost in the plot. Bits and pieces of information about the world, its factions and its characters are readily available through dialogue with the game’s companions and NPCs. There are even in-game encyclopedia entries and tooltips that pop up about the places and people you encounter.
You’ll spend the bulk of the game managing your relationship with the two armies of Kyros stationed in the Tiers, the Scarlet Chorus and the Disfavored along with different factions within the Tiers. The disagreements between the two Archons, demi-gods leading their respective armies have grinded Kyros campaign in the Tiers to a halt. It doesn’t help that the ideological differences between the two factions are so pronounced and that they’re quickly evolving into enemies. The Scarlet Chorus are basically a horde of conscripts of conquered people with a terrifying amount of bloodlust. The Disfavored are loyal, honorable, headstrong and take pride in discipline. You’ll have to tiptoe between the two factions to maintain their loyalty or lose it all together.
The world of Terratus is brutal in no small part due to the hundreds of years of war waged by Kyros. As you travel through the Tiers you’ll see atrocities, murder, war crimes, and wanton cruelty. Throughout the instanced environments you’ll find evidence of battles fought long ago, people and monsters unsure of their future against the invading armies. You can find yourself being an agent of hope to the people of the Tiers. Or you can just as easily snuff out any and all who stand against you. Few games have featured such a realized world with so many varied choices and paths to walk down while painstakingly taking the effort to ensure that the narrative responds to the player’s ample choices.
Tyranny is a smartly written adventure with seemingly hundreds of pages worth of details and dialogue providing intrigue and fleshed out characters. While the majority of dialogue is not voice-acted, major characters and your party members have enough voiced lines during interactions and combat to flesh things out. Tyranny features 6 companions that you can recruit, each with differing motivations and loyalties. Thanks to the strong writing of the game’s companions, I really got a sense of their personalities and intuitively understood how my choices would affect them.
While Tyranny’s storytelling and writing is top-notch, a few of the game’s other elements leave something to be desired. The environmental texture resolutions are hit-or-miss though the details within the environments are fantastic and sometimes downright unsettling. The soundtrack is weighty and really conveys the idea that your actions have meaning and consequences in this world. I appreciate Tyranny’s old school isometric camera angle since it’s nostalgic for me, but it may be a turnoff for those who don’t generally like top down click-to-navigate gameplay. I also found the color palette to be a bit drab and there’s also an unevenness in the environmental textures that’s apparent in some areas. The animations tend to be hit or miss as some are fluid while other animations look like characters are LARPing. Thankfully the visual effects during combat are quite pleasant.
Speaking of combat, Tyranny’s combat system is actually a bit of a chore to play through in the early levels. It’s similar to combat systems found in Neverwinter Nights or Obsidian’s own Pillars of Eternity but a bit more streamlined. It’s real-time but you’ll quickly find that you’ll have to hammer that spacebar to pause the game and issue individual commands to your character (and up to three companions) on any difficulty above normal. The abilities are cooldown based meaning there isn’t any resource management to speak of besides watching your health bar. There’s a wounding mechanic at play that causes your characters to become weaker if they fall unconscious or in higher difficulties, if they sustain too much damage.
Combat gets progressively more difficult as the game throws larger and larger groups of enemies at you until you hit a point where you can craft better items and gain access to more powerful abilities through leveling. Characters also gain abilities based on the Fear and Loyalty system. You gain points in Fear or Loyalty with your companions influenced by your dialogue choices, and there are also faction-specific abilities tied to your reputation as well called Favor and Wrath. Towards the end of the game you might be fighting 6 or more enemies but I found these encounters to be trivial since your characters will have so many powerful abilities.
The combo abilities and the magic system are the highlight of Tyranny’s combat. Combo abilities allow your main character and a companion to team up for moves you can use use once per encounter. One of my favorites lets you chuck a companion in the air and have her rapidly shoot fire arrows at an enemy. Tyranny also has a robust spell crafting system. You can craft your own spells by discovering Sigils in the environment, allowing for deep customization of the kind of spells you want your characters to equip. With a high enough Lore skill (the skill that dictates your character’s magical prowess) you can wield some absurdly powerful magic that you can tweak to your liking.
Your combat abilities and even your success during key narrative moments rely on your ability to build your characters properly. Your characters’ strengths and weaknesses depend on their Attributes and Skills. Attributes dictate your overall survivability and damage output and leveling certain attributes also increases your rank in certain skills. For example, putting a point in the Finesse attribute will increase your Dual Wield Skill. Your skills get more powerful the more you use them and you can pay to train them as well. Certain skills, if high enough, can be used during conversations to trick, impress, or intimidate the people you’re talking to leading to several moments where I actually laughed out loud.
The game’s Fear and Loyalty system that tracks your companions’ disposition towards you. Perform actions that your companions like and you’ll gain Loyalty, earning new conversation options and enriching backstories. Do something they hate or treat them terribly and you’ll gain Fear. Increasing ranks in either unlocks certain combat abilities. Similarly, Tyranny‘s different factions operate on Favor and Wrath. Gain enough Wrath with a faction and they’ll attack you on sight. I’d often hope I wouldn’t have to fight anyone and instead that I’d be walking towards the next story beat and not another ambush. The battles are paced well enough however that they don’t feel too tedious and it allows you enough downtime to soak in Tyranny‘s rich story.
Few games in recent years have given players so much freedom of choice and fewer still have had these choices be meaningful ones. Tyranny does both exceptionally well. My greatest gripe with Tyranny is that it ends with a whimper. I thoroughly enjoyed my 20-hour experience but the game ends just as it feels like things are careening towards a huge climax. It’s a cliffhanger that just screams “Sequel!” Or an expansion. Thankfully Tyranny is at its core hugely replayable and I’d imagine it’s a must in order to get the full scope of the story.
Tyranny is as much a power trip simulator as it is an excellent exploration of what happens when the stereotypical all-powerful baddies actually win. It’s surprisingly timely in its demonstration of how evil can be normalized and accepted. It’s a unique experience to stand on the other side of good — to face the challenges of being a person in a position of power that’s forced to do terrible things. Or revel in it. Or rebel against it. The beauty of Tyranny is that the choice is yours.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.