Tyranny is the latest tactical RPG from Obsidian Entertainment, a studio that has proven time and time again their capability to expand upon much-loved universes like Star Wars, Fallout and South Park, as well as creating new worlds of their own in titles like Neverwinter Nights, or the ludicrously successful Pillars of Eternity. Tyranny certainly ticks a lot of the same boxes as Obsidian’s previous titles, it’s an isometric, pausable real-time combat RPG set in a fantasy world with rich lore and an intimidating amount of characters. For those who have played Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny will even look and feel very familiar. The main difference is that instead of playing the chosen hero who must defend against some great evil like in pretty much every Bioware game, in Tyranny you’re part of the conquering force. You’re the bad guys.
The evil overlord Kyros has conquered most of the northern kingdoms, with only the small southern realm of the Tiers left unclaimed. Tyranny starts with Kyros and his Archons (figures of great power) at long last marching south to finish the job. You play as a Fatebinder, an agent of the Archon of Justice, Tunon the Adjudicator. In a short prologue, you fill in for yourself what your character did during the conquest of the Tiers. This is all presented through beautiful maps and stylistic, 2D cutscenes. An example of one of these choices could be how you handled the siege of a particular city or which army you left behind in a small but important settlement of the campaign. These choices colour the world in which the rest of the game takes place, and are a constant reminder of your affect on this world.
It’s something I’ve never experienced in a game before: by the time the game starts the good guys have been crushed, their land utterly destroyed by either the invading armies or one of Kyros’ Edicts, extremely powerful spells Kyros casts through Fatebinders. Instead of playing as a rebel who, against all odds, is going to fight back against Kyros or die in the attempt, you’re playing as the invader. It feels so alien, especially early on, but what it demands is that the player actually role plays. Because the things you’re asked to do or choose between are things I’ve never done (and hopefully will never have to do), I’m forced to rely on my imagination. I’ve had to ask myself “what would my character do?” far more times than I would when playing, say, Mass Effect or Fallout. As my Fatebinder carries out atrocity after atrocity I, instead of feeling remorseful and reloading a save, shrug and think “well, that’s horrific, but that’s what my character would do”. It’s incredibly freeing and immersive.
The other side of this coin is that if you’re like me and struggle to follow through with an “ok this time I’m gonna be evil” playthrough of games like Mass Effect or The Witcher, then Tyranny will either make or break you. It’s possible you may not enjoy being evil, while others may relish the removal of ‘being good’ as an option. There are choices that enable your character to be merciful, the distinction being quite nuanced at times, but these options are often the lesser of two evils.
The introduction to the world of Tyranny, to all the different factions, Archons, realms, learning how magic works, it’s all overwhelming at first. Thankfully when reading dialogue you can mouse over certain names, locations or events to get a brief background on them, an incredibly helpful resource for those who don’t want to go delving through menus. After a few hours I managed to wrap my head around the hierarchy and machinations of Kyros’ forces and the land of the Tiers, an astoundingly satisfying nut to crack. Obsidian are masters of world-building and Tyranny is no exception.
Combat has significant depth and is near identical to Pillars of Eternity, but Tyranny’s difficulty is far more forgiving. The challenge is still there and pausing remains a necessity, but it’s definitely possible to cruise through the majority of combat encounters on normal difficulty. Your party consists of your Fatebinder and three companions. You come across the first three rather quickly, and while you will gain a few more in your travels, I grew attached to the original three and never had the desire to swap them out. This wasn’t merely a tactical decision, the other characters simply weren’t interesting or were actively irritating. One has a particularly grating manner of speaking and for this reason alone I kept her back at base. Compared to a series like Mass Effect, where I would always swap in my most recently acquired teammate in order to try out their abilities and get to know them, Tyranny’s roster is a little inconsistent.
There’s a robust reputation system that goes far beyond ‘bad’ and ‘less bad’. There’s loyalty, fear, favour and wrath. Gaining points in one of these bars doesn’t take away from any of the others, for example having someone in your party fear you does not make them less loyal, the two gauges are completely separate. As you fill up these various gauges, you’ll unlock different abilities, both passive and active. This goes for factions, Archons and individual party members too. As I said, it’s quite robust. This reputation system, coupled with the prologue conquest decisions mentioned earlier, really makes your Fatebinder, their decisions, actions and mistakes, all feel unique to you.
At the end of Act 1 you will acquire a stronghold of sorts. Over the course of the game you will discover a number of these, each of which can be upgraded to house a certain facility. A library or a forge for example. These all provide different bonuses and perks, including merchants, trainers, resources and crafting facilities. While this isn’t anything groundbreaking for an RPG of this scope, it’s a nice touch having them spread out across the world for you to uncover one by one, not all lumped in a single location. It prolongs that sense of discovery and adds weight to the decision of which upgrade to build next, as you don’t know how long it’ll be before you find another one.
It’s also worth mentioning the music. It’s fantastic. At its plainest it’s reminiscent of Pillars of Eternity or the Witcher, but at its peak it conjures the same emotional highs as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The voice acting is serviceable, with some performances standing tall over others. Generally speaking, it’s like a table read of a script, it doesn’t feel like the actors truly spent time developing these characters. The sound effects do the job, not standing out in a positive or negative way. Certain ambient sounds like the whispering of spirits in the wind or the bubbling of magma, add much to the atmosphere.
In 2016’s absolutely jam-packed holiday season you’d be forgiven for allowing Tyranny to slip by unnoticed. It’s a big game with a lot of lore and narrative to absorb and unpack. Given that huge games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are just around the corner, not to mention all the games from late last year you’ve no doubt yet to finish, Tyranny may seem like just another title to add to your backlog. It may be a while before you can find the time that Tyranny deserves, but no matter what you should make sure you find it. After all, Kyros is not one to tolerate disloyalty.