If you are a big fan of computer RPGs, then it is hard to not beam with pride for its resurgence in the past few years. Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, Pillars of Eternity – those games are but a few of recent titles that delivered on lofty promises. Many of these games arrived after long lead times and much anticipation. Others, like Tyranny, popped up almost out of nowhere. Despite coming from Obsidian, the studio that produced arguably the greatest RPG of at least the last fifteen years, Tyranny debuted with comparatively little fanfare. It was announced early this year and then released in November without a substantial marketing push or much detail about what it was going to be about. As a result, many people might play Tyranny expecting Pillars of Eternity 2.0, only to be disappointed. That is not to say that there aren’t resemblances between Tyranny and last year’s RPG masterpiece, because there are many.
Both games use the same engine and borrow many of the same mechanics. Despite these similarities though, Tyranny feels different – not just from Pillars of Eternity, but from just about every other RPG ever made. It feels almost like a great big experiment sometimes; the kind of game you can only make after you've become a success and can afford to take some chances. Tyranny takes a lot of chances and offers some brilliant new ideas, most of which pay off making for another worthy addition to the genre. Unfortunately, it clearly shows the rough edges of a limited budget and/or short development cycle, limitations that diminish the game’s appeal. Tyranny is worth playing despite these issues but temper your expectations.
The premise of Tyranny is an interesting one: the bad guys won and the evil Overlord is in control, leaving the job of maintaining order to the player. The game opens with a prologue in which Kyros (the game’s evil Overlord) conquers The Tiers, the last free realm. In this introduction, you make a handful of choices about your involvement in this conquest, and these choices grant the player character's starting reputation. Other RPGs allow the opportunity to pick an origin story or a background, but Tyranny comes with the most deepest and robust version of this popular feature. Choices are significant as NPCs reference and react to choices made, opening up dialog options that would not otherwise be available. This emphasis on choice and consequence ultimately defines and separates Tyranny from its competitors.
When the first act begins, The Tiers have erupted in revolt. Kyros’s two hostile army factions, The Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus, have been rendered impotent by their squabbling and, as a result, cannot put down this revolt. As an agent of Kyros, you have been sent to deliver an ultimatum to the two army factions that basically says “quit your bickering, get your act together, and put down this revolt or I am going to murder every last one of you”. And thus, you go about your business, reconquering The Tiers and, in the process, acquiring vast riches and power. Along the way, you make dozens if not hundreds of choices in dealing with almost every NPC and every faction in the game: You can side with The Disfavored, the Scarlet Chorus, or stay neutral. You can be a bloodthirsty psychopath or an emotionally detached agent of justice. You can forgive defeated enemies and, in some cases, avoid combat by negotiating a peaceful surrender, or act mercilessly and execute anyone that defies the will of Kyros. In one particularly memorable moment, you can send somebody plunging to a ghastly death by kicking them off of a tall spire. You can offer your opinions on the actions of others, earning Favor or Wrath in the process, or choose to remain silent. Almost every dialog tree in the game is rife with choices, moreso than perhaps any game that I have ever played. These choices affect how both factions and individuals treat you – whether they admire you and value your services, or whether they hate you and want to kill you on the spot.
Tyranny is certainly not the first game to boast of choice and consequences – player choice is practically an expected feature in every game these days. However, choice is often little more than cosmetic or short-lived consequences that gives the illusion of something greater and meaningful. Tyranny is different or does a better job of fooling the player. There is a sequence of linear events in the game, to be sure, but Tyranny gives you the feeling that you are writing your own story. You can alienate major factions, kill NPCs before they have a chance to join the party, and substantially alter dialog trees through decision making. Best of all, you can unlock special abilities as you earn loyalty, fear or wrath from various factions and NPCs.
The NPCs in Tyranny are some of the finest in a party-based RPG, and much of the dialog that they present is terrific. Unlike many of Obsidian’s other games, most of the in-game descriptions and dialog are written in plain language, which makes reading them less of a chore (Obsidian has always been a studio whose writing is high on poetry and low on efficiency). NPCs will notice what you say and frequently interject comments and criticisms, sometimes disagreeing with one another in the process. One nice little touch to the game’s conversations is that instead of showing a static portrait during each one, your companions’ portraits will change to show whatever body language is appropriate at the time. They face palm when they think that you have said or done something foolish and they fold their arms in a hostile manner when they are being cold and dismissive. These are but a few of the reasons why the NPCs and the interactions that you have with them are some of the richest that any party-based RPG has had to offer.
Dialog choices in RPGs are as old as dialog itself. For the overwhelming majority if these games, however, there is usually a Path of Least Resistance that involves sucking up to everyone that you meet so that you don’t spoil any relationships or invite anyone’s ire. Bad choices are usually punished, sometimes to the point where you can break a game. Tyranny, moreso than any game that I have ever played, makes all choices viable, giving you the opportunity to truly role play. Wrath is no less valuable to you than Favor, so you can feel free to choose what options come natural to you. You can give mercy, offer friendship or charity, and enact revenge against those that wronged you. Tyranny makes every path viable, but not in a way that makes it feel like every path is the same or that your choices don’t matter. It is in this way that the game is brilliant and unique. The opportunity to carve your own path through history, by itself, makes this game worth playing.
One of the clever mechanics that Tyranny uses to support its system of choices and consequences is the series of special abilities that you get when you earn Favor, Wrath, and Fear. Many party-based RPGs reward you for earning loyalty, but Tyranny also rewards you for earning hate. As you earn points of Loyalty, Fear, and Wrath, you gain levels in those categories with each faction or NPC. When you reach a certain level, you unlock some sort of special ability – usually some sort of special combat move. As an interesting twist, many of these abilities are “team” abilities that you execute with another NPC. For instance, the first NPC that joins you offers a “Death from Above” ability, where you walk over to her and toss her in the air as she fires off a shower of arrows from her bow. Each NPC offers one or more of these abilities that you can use in tandem with your character. Some of them also offer abilities that they can use in tandem with each other. These clever little additions give you the sense that you and your companions are truly a team. The abilities offered by gaining levels in Wrath or Fear keep all of Tyranny’s potential role playing styles viable.
Tyranny’s storytelling and interactions give the game a completely different feel from Pillars of Eternity, even though it is obvious that they share the same developer and the same engine. It is an isometric RPG with real-time-with-pause combat, green circles for friendlies, red circles for enemies, an inventory, paper dolls, and a special abilities hotbar. There is a world map with locations that unlock and there is even an upgradeable stronghold that acts as your home base. However, Tyranny occasionally comes up short with its nuts-and-bolts gameplay, especially when compared with Pillars of Eternity.
Most of the issues with Tyranny seem to be the result of a smaller budget and a shorter development cycle. If Pillars of Eternity was the summer cinema blockbuster, then Tyranny is the network TV series. The graphics aren’t as beautiful or as detailed. Assets repeat themselves more often and, on the whole, they aren’t as sharp or crisp looking. They lack the polish that was in Pillars of Eternity, like fantastic combat animations and highly detailed backgrounds. The loot isn’t as interesting. There is less variety in the types of enemies that you fight, which means that although there isn’t a lot of combat, it still gets repetitive by the end.
A lot of what disappoints with Tyranny falls under the category of lack of scale. The world is much smaller and when it comes to linearity versus openness, Tyranny feels a lot more like Icewind Dale than Baldurs Gate. This difference is made more disappointing by the fact that Tyranny is actually more expensive than Pillars of Eternity was at release. The areas themselves are small for some reason – sometimes only about a half or a third as big as the huge maps in Pillars of Eternity. Most NPCs have generic names and no dialog. “Cities” are small settlements with maybe one or two houses that you can enter. Your party only holds four characters (instead of six) and the battles never reach an epic scale – this is especially problematic for a game that is supposed to be a war game. The story speaks of great battles with huge legions of troops, but the battles in this game involve you taking on “armies” of maybe five enemies with your party of four. The game’s version of a “phalanx” is a dozen troops standing in a couple of rows. Even something simple like copying and pasting enemies for bigger battles would have made them more immersive. In the end, Tyranny offers a very unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths are special but, make no mistake, the weaknesses do exist.
Tyranny also uses much the same role playing system as Pillars of Eternity, but with some meaningful upgrades. When it comes to fundamental traits like Strength, Endurance, and Dexterity, Tyranny wisely returns to a more traditional approach to these abilities (albeit with different names like “Might” and “Finesse”). It also has a much more robust skill system, offering a wide variety of skills that are affected by your basic traits. These skills include basic combat skills like one-handed weapons and two-handed weapons, but also thieving skills like “Subterfuge” and role playing skills like “Lore”. When it comes to leveling up and advancing your skills, Tyranny borrows the Elder Scrolls approach of improving your skills by using them. So, when you lie to somebody or pick a lock you earn Subterfuge. When you use a weapon in combat, you earn skill points for that weapon. When you level up enough skills, you gain a character level and you get to spend a point in a talent tree. The system in the game works well and the categories are generally all useful.
One fine addition to the role playing system is spell crafting. Instead of picking spells from a pre-defined list, you collect runes on your journey that you can combine to build spells. The more powerful the spell you bulid, the higher Lore skill that you need to cast it. It is a very interesting way to implement magic. Technically, anyone can cast spells, but without a high Lore score, you can only cast weak ones. As you might expect, it is fun to find runes in the world and then experiment with different combinations to see what kind of powers you can create.
Tyranny offers about a 25 to 30-hour adventure, which isn’t necessarily bad for its $45 price tag, but it isn’t outstanding either. It is hard to come away from the game without wishing that there had been a little bit more meat to it. Bigger areas, more epic battles, more areas to explore, prettier environments, more loot to find, more NPCs who could join you – these types of additions could have put Tyranny over the top and into the same conversation as other all-time great computer RPGs.
That is not to say that Tyranny is a disappointing game, because it certainly isn’t, provided you know what to expect. It is a game that puts all of its effort into its storytelling, world building, and choices, possibly at the expense of some basic features that separate the excellent games from the merely good ones. It is for this reason that you should keep your expectations in check for this game, but this different and almost experimental approach to the genre is also what makes it worth playing. It is a new, quality take on the PC party-based role playing game that deserves to be in your library. Considering how many good and great PC party-based role playing games that we have gotten over the past few years, that is saying quite a lot.