Tyranny arrives in the shadow of Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian’s intimidatingly impressive classically-styled RPG released last year. As is often the case, when a developer absolutely dominates the scene with an instant classic, whatever project they put out next will be met with comparison. This review will not do that. While Tyranny shares the same engine and ostensibly similar characteristics to Pillars, it’s not intended to match what Pillars did. Pillars is an epic and long narrative with bustling towns, myths and gods battling one another, and a sometimes oppressively deep combat system – Tyranny dips into these qualities, with the developer outwardly admitting this is a 25 to 40 hour excursion depending on playstyle.
What Tyranny does offer is a replayable adventure heavily focused on the narrative rather than combat wherein evil triumphs over good. Would-be consumers might ask: Is this really about evil conquering good? Yes, almost entirely yes. The central thread is purely evil thrashing good, devastatingly so. Tyranny’s prelude invites players to make decisions about how Kyros, the Overlord, crushes the Tiers. Players get to make important decisions about the way in which Kyros imposes his will, whether by enslaving prisoners or killing them on the spot; baiting royalty into combat or taking a more docile approach – in a totally evil sort of way. Several of these choices can be made before the game even really starts, with similar choices offered throughout the waltz, just on a relatively smaller scale as the “protagonist” judges the outcome of spats and, yes, fetch quests.
Tyranny is like a dance in that the gravity oftentimes experienced in a good vs. evil tale isn’t evident here. We know Kyros is supremely powerful through her edicts, gigantic spells that decimate regions unless certain conditions are met, and we know that the conquering is already pretty much over. The tension lies primarily in the style with which the player carries out her authority. Players act as an adjudicator to Tunon, a sort of general of justice. While not officially an agent of militaristic authority, the player is oftentimes called upon to make grand, sweeping decisions about disputes through interpretations of Kyros’ laws (or not). The actual hierarchy of Kyros’ underlings isn’t entirely clear throughout the game, as generals of different factions oftentimes listen to the player and do as he says, but will also put their foot down and even threaten the player. The relationships are one of respect, but “don’t get cocky, kid.”
The player spends most of the game investigating the two mightiest generals of Kyros – Graven Ashe and The Voices of Nerat – and completing quests for them. While what’s expected of the player is oftentimes treachery, Obsidian does a capable job of offering several ways of exerting one’s authority. Binary decisions rarely occur, and even if the outcome is likely binary, the dialogue choices definitely feel like four or five options are typically offered. Unlike most RPGs in which players fight back the tides of evil, Tyranny takes on the challenging task of making players do evil things while also adhering to a set of laws and rules – which a faithful adjudicator always does.
I went into Tyranny already planning on being the absolute worst of the worst. My mentality going in was to test Obsidian and see how far they’d let me go. No act too depraved, no life too precious. This took some focus on my part, as I oftentimes play the role of the eye-rollingly altruistic hero, sacrificing my own life at every turn for street urchin and so on. Obsidian seems to offer that freedom at the cost of reputation, which is what Tyranny is all about. Every key ally and every faction has a Fear/Loyalty gauge clearly displayed. While everyone in Kyros’ army gladly harms innocents, the degree to which people are willing to go and the code of ethics one follows varies from person to person. I realized quickly that different kinds of evil exist with different strategies. Killing everyone is one way to go, but what about enslaving people and forcing them to kill their friends so that they may live and fight for you? Both are horrible choices, but each is a different kind of evil.
What Obsidian did here was make me question my initial intent, not just from a philosophical position, but also as I began to grow attached to companions and key NPCs. Okay, just murdering everyone isn’t going to work, because that’s not what Person A likes to do, and Person A makes some good points. Do I compromise my core philosophy for them, or is this how my character grows over time? I encountered a kind of challenging choice I never before experienced because I couldn’t follow my cookie-cutter self-sacrificing code of conduct. Out of my element, I had to re-learn how to role-play, and that makes Tyranny a huge winner in itself. I wasn’t just forced to make shock-value decisions or try something different, but the way in which the characters are written and scenarios delivered forced me to reflect on the kind of evil I wanted to be, and that is incredibly satisfying.
Not every turn offered a deep and insightful choice, however. At pivotal moments in the game, I was forced to make decisions I didn’t entirely believe in. Clearly, the scope of design cannot accommodate for myriad player decisions, but I was forced into binary decisions at key turns. Complaining about this is hard to do, because clearly designers have to put in thousands of extra hours to address even one more path as several variables need to be accounted for in each tree. Unfortunately, despite the reality of design (and cost of development), some of these binary decisions simply weren’t satisfying, and that is what a developer is tasked to do: some players will groan, so how can we make this decision less groan-worthy and more immersive? That said, although these instances were crucial to the flow of the game, to call the entire experience into question as a result would be short-sighted and petty. Suffice to say, the decisions made throughout Tyranny make for a memorable and rewarding adventure.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the story, but for good reason. Yes, the characters are authentically larger-than-life and fascinating, the atmosphere deliciously grim, and the writing genuinely Obsidian, but what about the combat? Well, truthishly, combat feels non-existent. Tyranny feels like an adventure title – a choose-your-own-adventure book. Semblances of deep game design exist, but Tyranny doesn’t seem to have been made with combat in mind, which is a shame, because some fascinating combat mechanics, abilities, and characters grace the battlefield. The spellcrafting system has shadows of a deeper design mechanic in which players discover runes, merge them together, and reflect on Sage lore all the while. The marriage of spellcrafting and story is fascinating, but almost feels surface-level and untouched. Ability trees unique to each character call for fascinating decisions that offer several ways to build each character.
But combat occurs so infrequently and so simply that one has to wonder if deadlines or the design philosophy stunted its growth. Obsidian seems to have made Tyranny with the story in mind, first and foremost. Which is fine – fantastic, in fact. However, while the battles are genuinely fun, they’re short-lived. That said, adding longer dungeons and grander battles would likely add tens of hours to a game designed for replayability, and therein lies the dilemma. Since Tyranny can be played multiple times – and should be – to experience other parts of the world and lore untouched by one path, adding more combat would cause conflict with this design decision.
Occurring real-time with pause, combat is further complicated by unusually poor AI, given that Tyranny seems to be using the same engine as Pillars of Eternity. At times, I had ordered characters to do one thing, only to have them interrupt this decision to do something else without any interrupts in the target or other programmed AI decision making. The fault may lie with me, but the lack of clarity created some frustration, especially since I found Pillars’ AI seamless. These frustrations were exacerbated by odd clickable objects. Almost the entire game, I battled the game in how I selected enemies. I hovered my cursor directly over an enemy, only to have the ability not go through. Fortunately, combat was not so challenging, even on Hard, and these missteps rarely resulted in defeat.
In terms of presentation, some may find the blocky artwork and models odd at first, but they quickly grew on me. In fact, I found the stills and world-building engrossing, with details laden throughout. If the visuals initially turn you off, please keep an open mind and give them some time. Taking time to look around the world is rewarding in itself as Obsidian painstakingly included details throughout. Aurally, the music, while well done, is forgettable and atmospheric in nature. No gripping or memorable music occurs throughout the experience, but the voice acting warrants praise. Although still intermittent as in Pillars, voice actors dominated more of the script here than in Obsidian’s previous project, and that’s something to be thankful for. The vocal talent brings the script to life, not that Obsidian’s written word requires help in demonstrating its mastery.
I applaud Obsidian in trying to tackle this oftentimes avoided perspective, but not only in trying: succeeding. Tyranny is the only game I can think of that so artfully places the player in a position of evil authority with tact, demanding reflection at almost every turn. While lacking in the traditional gameplay department, if Tyranny is approached as an interactive adventure title with fascinating choices, it will surely satisfy. I’m eager to thrust myself back into the world, perhaps with a more magnanimous bent, if Obsidian will allow.