Tyranny is the latest role-playing game created by Obsidian, using the same modified Unity engine that brought us the crowdfunding success Pillars of Eternity. Simply seeing the screenshots and promotional art, you might be forgiven for thinking it was just another iteration of the same formula, but Tyranny exemplifies why even the most venerable of frameworks can be given new life.
Players create the main character and are given background and combat-related choices. Most character building choices are directly related to combat; all the spells are largely combat-related, and many of the skills and attributes contribute directly to improved survivability. Difficulty settings are also mainly combat focused, with enemies in higher levels taking more hits and using abilities more effectively, with player characters more often receiving wounds that, if totalling ten for a given character, mean the character is gone for good. Recovery from wounds is easy enough, too easy really, requiring the use of camping supplies or levelling, though higher difficulties make this a bit harder. In addition to combat difficulty, the harder settings also hide information on dialogue options you don't qualify for and doesn't tell you why you qualified for others, perhaps preserving some suspense for repeated playthroughs, either with new characters or the game's new game plus mode.
Where Tyranny begins to show its unique flavour is the next step, where you describe what your character did during the war on the Tiers region, the last area on the continent to resist the conquering forces of the unseen overlord, and your boss, Kyros. You are a Fatebinder, a sort of judge-commander accompanying the conquering army, and your choices immediately alter your faction standing with the two main armies with each decision, the tough but risk-averse and prejudiced Disfavored, and the wild, opportunistic, and brutal Scarlet Chorus, as well as create a backstory that affects other factions and opportunities for the remainder of the game. Choices feel like they matter more than average, even for in-depth RPGs, and it strengthens the player-character's role as arbiter and harbinger of doom. Factions extend also to the companions you accumulate, important leaders, other forces and settlements, and even some artefacts you acquire, sometimes unlocking combat abilities whether a given faction likes you or fears you.
Outside of combat, the game dwells largely in dialogue trees. World lore, how you affected a situation during your character's background choices, or even what a character is mentally projecting to you can be expanded upon by mousing over highlighted text. Rather than forcing the player to read every detail it's there if you want it in a painless, succinct pop-up box. Choices can be affected by prior decisions, faction standing, and skill ratings, and the dialogue is generally well-written. The player is given a lot of power over the lives of people, but the Fatebinder is on a short leash, overseen by fellow Fatebiners and Tunon, the head judge of Kyros's empire, as well as his assassin. Being hated, feared, and closely watched, combined with the awesome musical score lends a feeling of oppression that permeates the game making your decisions feel weightier.
Despite all the attention given these things, combat is still a huge part of Tyranny, for good and ill. If a player prefers to fight there are plenty of opportunities, sometimes at the expense of options to talk. The combat system resembles the real-time-with-pause staple passed down from Darklands, Icewind Dale, and Baldur's Gate, with some abilities on cooldowns, others which can only be used once per encounter, and still others available once per rest. There are a good variety of weapon types, armour, spells and spell modifications, passive and active abilities, teamwork abilities that the main character and a companion can share, plenty of stat boosting consumables, and other effects to maximise abilities. The combat system is detailed enough that at times you might not be able to envision the general effectiveness of your characters, though some of that may be due to the relatively non-derivative combat rules. At higher difficulties, even a simple skirmish can feel like a slog at times, with armour ratings or spell resistances sometimes making your current setup less than ideal. Despite the need for some specialisation, it pays to have many of the options ready to go in case a change in tactics is necessary; few targets are wholly immune to effects, but you can make things much harder on yourself if you don't diversify.
Tyranny does not put the usual class restrictions you see in a lot of games, though. You can have a heavily armoured spellcaster, a lightly armoured fighter, a ranged attacker great at healing, or a deadly warrior that more than dabbles in throwing lightning and sorrow. Any spell can be modified: the more symbols you collect, the more effects that can be added to a given spell, increasing damage, range, or area of effect, adding debilitating status conditions, and others. It should feel like a chore to expand a spell when a character's lore stat allows for the increase, but it is often subtly gratifying to optimise spells. Skill points are gained through use both in and outside of combat, similar to games like Skyrim, though Tyranny is more limited in scope. A lot of importance is put into athletics, stealth, and especially lore, to the point that it seems like a waste NOT to double down on these skills when you can. Most of the other skills emphasise combat abilities, getting their share of practice regardless, but there is rarely a conversation or environmental obstacle that requires your combat levels to be high, so they feel divorced from the more tangible skills.
Progressing through the game you may have it tough early on as we did on the next-highest difficulty, with the challenge peaking midgame and sliding down toward the end, especially if you play the game thoroughly. Little felt like a grind, but it does mean that the early challenge slowly dissipates, making epic boss battles feel a bit easier than they probably should. Long-time players of RPGs will notice that despite some more powerful spells having long recharge times, none require you rest or regain spell points or the like, so it's just a matter of stalling and leveraging your better-optimised spells and spellcasters, which can often quickly overpower opponents that aren't resistant. Artefacts and armour combinations also make your characters pretty tough, and using special abilities liberally enough may begin to feel unfair for the enemy. Individual party members might have been knocked out for us, especially as their wound levels decrease their maximum health, but it rarely resulted in a total party kill, and wounds are not a significant enough threat as long as they're monitored. Results may vary, and when the stakes were high combat tended to be intense and satisfying, but it felt like there were a few gratuitous encounters, and the challenge level felt like it could have used some tweaking. It must also be said that a large portion of encounters include spirit-like creatures with strong weaknesses and immunities which usually inhabit the game's equivalent of puzzley dungeons. Initially both dungeons and creatures were intriguing, but before long both these enemies and their frequently featured domains began to grate, paling in comparison to the more varied and consequential overworld locations and their denizens, and this impression continued to some extent in the DLC we tried. There are domain-building elements in a good portion of the game, allowing some customisation, secrets, unique items, and new options for resources, although it almost feels like overkill at times: many of the resources may wind up unused as you gather momentum, and the skill-training options feel largely superfluous in a game that lets you practice any skill. This didn't undercut the fun of their more useful functions, however.
Other systems in the game include missives, which involve receiving and sending messages to important figures in the game. This is one of the game's best features and it's sadly underutilised, as it ramps up the intrigue and tension should you be hiding your intentions from your demigod superiors or be unsure of the consequences of speaking your mind. Traveling across the map can also result in encounters that allow multiple choice options, sometimes resulting in combat or rewards. These are expanded in the first DLC pack Tales from the Tiers, but we were not provided that expansion for review. Events that are part of the base game and the newer expansion can be an interesting diversion, as the events are portrayed in text and pushbutton decisions, but we ran into a lot of repeats after a while. While on the subject of DLC, the pack we were provided for review, Bastard's Wound, adds an area and several quests to the game, including adding backstory and character quests for a few of your companions. These companion quests are wholly welcome, but the new area has many shortcomings, feeling at times arbitrary and cryptic in its depiction of choices that is in stark contrast to the main game, with writing that often feels full of information that must be ploughed through, yet doesn't largely contribute to the quest. The main game, by comparison, is lean and impactful. The DLC hints at some very interesting mythology behind prominent creatures in the game, but its truths are elusive, and the path we wound up taking left us feeling adrift at the end despite all the effort we spent getting there.
Elusive truths, however, are not just present in the DLC. The main game front-loads a good portion of its world-building and wonder. Seeing the statue crying blood in the opening map, hurrying to survive under the weight of imminent doom amidst warring armies is a singular experience, and as the game expands wonders do continue, tough choices are made, hints at greater things and greater mysteries come to light, but then it feels as if things begin to dissipate toward the end. You learn about new factions as you encounter them, but the lore comes in trickles, and many of the mysteries, rather than left tantalisingly unsolved, at times feel abandoned. The first two chapters of the game feel rich, but the third feels suddenly anaemic, even rushed in places. You may find yourself deliberately lingering, trying to see if you missed something. On the whole the game has a great arc, and all the choices and vignettes make a sense, but there's a feeling of detachment in the latter third that's hard to shake, at least before the well-deserved moments of reckoning unfurl themselves at the end. Even a few more complications before the finale might have assuaged this, but despite this the overall impression is still strong, and this positive impression lies in its core premise.
Your decisions mean life or death for many, and you are given plenty of cruel options if you swing that way, but the real delicious choices boil down to two sides that are a rare thing to see. You can be the "good" person: loyal, trustworthy, honest, an effective leader backing what is clearly a brutal, totalitarian empire, or you can be the "bad" person: a backstabbing, conniving, traitorous opportunist, and to varying degrees undermine that regime. This upends what has been a pretty safe mode of fantasy game behaviour for many: rather than give you obviously good and bad paths, you are given at least two arguably good ones, each with unsavoury implications. It permeates everything you do and makes many choices a delight, and at times agonising. The game remembers many of your choices, helping you feel rewarded for having made them. However clinical it may feel merely getting faction point adjustments, they are still tallied. Tyranny really feels like living under a tyranny, grim and oppressive, and for that alone it's great.
The characters of the game are lively and memorable, well-performed, at times humorous and weighty, and have plenty of layers to explore. You will not likely be able to see all of what they have to offer, and so may find yourself concentrating on a few at the expense of the rest. Some may not provide the right array of abilities forcing you to sideline them. They are still companions, not quite independent characters, so at times the fourth wall will break a bit when they adamantly protest what you do but still stick with you; whatever story pretences there might be for this, we know it's there because it's a game and they're an investment. Sometimes wading through the conversations regarding their backstories can feel a bit much, having you wish for some of the leaner prose present in the main plot, but each character speaks to a niche within the world and feels fundamental to the overall experience.
For all the great choices one can expect some degree of error that will affect how your choices fit into a given section; at times we noticed the way people were acting didn't fit with the attitude you'd been displaying the entire game, suggesting you may not have been following expected paths. Thankfully this was rare. On our ageing hardware load times were significant, especially in certain locations, and we found it necessary to migrate all but the most recent saves to a folder we created in the save system to speed up main menu load times. This may not affect many gamers but don't be fooled by the older style of gameplay and expect it to run like a DOS emulation. We suffered a few crashes that forced a restart before an autosave was applied, but this was a couple out of many area load screens. There was an unfortunate, inexplicable spoiler that ruined the later status of one of the main characters embedded in the artefact section of the information menus. Other than a few stutters, again probably due to our older hardware, and some previously mentioned issues, the game worked well enough.
While veteran players will see strains of Baldur's Gate and other such Infinity Engine-inspired games in Tyranny, the game's real triumphs lie in the setting and situations themselves, some of which have little to no parallel in mainstream gaming. If the combat doesn't appeal to you, lower the difficulty and cut your way through it. If our description of the second DLC leaves you wary, skip it. While there are some fights that are rewarding to finish, and some moments in the DLC worth seeing, the core experience is in the game's mood, choices, and dialogue. In hindsight for this reviewer, the game's many flaws recede into the background; Tyranny's setting, premise, and themes left a lasting impression and deserve to be explored.
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