Tyranny followed a tight, no-nonsense schedule from being announced in March 2016 to delivery in November 2016. During that time, monthly info updates on their blog and social media were peppered with the hashtag #evilwon. Coinciding with a presidential election, Obsidian’s marketing tactics were considered and smart but unassuming. If this was a larger company with a bigger budget – and Tyranny attached their social media to the election coverage – the hype could’ve been pandemic. Can you imagine prominent Tyranny characters superimposed onto Clinton and Trump with out of context quotes, evil winning percentages and geographical battlegrounds (red and white states). The satire was ripe and could produce countless memes and gifs emulating the juxtaposition to comedic effect, like Crank Yankers or even South Park. As entertaining and engaging as this advertising strategy could’ve been; the incompatibility with Tyranny’s serious tone would likely result in the games relegation. Alternatively, maybe Batman: The Animated Series is more aligned in tone and style of Tyranny? But instead of playing Batman, you play as Harvey Dent. Law-abiding, influential, exemplar Harvey Dent. Strained, overreaching, corruptible Harvey Dent. In Tyranny you are the protagonist. The Fatebinder. And the Fatebinder can choose how Two-Faced Harvey Dent becomes.
War’s already won. What’s left to do now?
As the Fatebinder (law interpreter, mediator, executioner) your position is to oversee disputes large and small with people, groups and armies. Within the Tiers (the region the game takes place), The Fatebinder acts as an agent of the Overlords will, ensuring the last pockets of resistance are forced into submission. Those who live in the world of the Tiers struggle for survival. Even at the top there’s a barrenness to what they have. Kyros (the Overlord of the Tiers and the larger Terratus) does not have the luxury of being a public figure. The Archons (province governors) are paranoid and jealously fight among each other. Edicts (environmental afflictions) ravage the Tiers, while villagers are generally poor, downtrodden and fearful of conscription to ceaseless skirmishes between rival Archons. It’s a cheerless and unpredictable, harsh but resilient landscape.
As a Fatebinder you’re afforded privilege above most of the political squabbles. Inescapably the choices you make will result in becoming closer to some factionalism and further away from others. Political affiliations influence reputation. Reputation is displayed across a 2 way scale across favour and wrath, and loyalty and fear. Tyranny manages these affiliations like a forensic accountant – acknowledging choices and decisions on a scale while updating your whole political spreadsheet as the game progresses. The factions and people of the Tiers will address you based on your prior choices. For better or for worse. However you are free to choose now, to later renege on your first decision. Serve dutifully then backstab later. But there will be implications. There’s many discrete factions, leaders and characters all with their personal agendas. Infusing a political system inside Tyranny – compared with other RPGs’ binary paragon OR renegade, good OR evil scales – is the strongest achievement of Tyranny. Most decisions count, moral outcomes are usually grey and witnessing these choices reflected in the game is satisfying.
So.. Is Tyranny really evil?
..Well, there’s actions and events in Tyranny which are unsympathetic and vicious. There’s a particular choice featuring lineage and infanticide that’s dark and uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s just easier to expedite matters by quick and decisive violence. For example, most CRPGs will provide bigger rewards for players who delve further into a quest which looks suspiciously incomplete. The biggest culprit is the general quest where an accused murderer implores his innocence while emphatically stating he’s been framed. Playing the detective to legitimately discern his guilt by 1) talking to all the witnesses; 2) acquiring all the evidence; and 3) discovering the truth. Tyranny rarely rewards these investigations with a clean and democratically beneficial ending. Several occasions all I found were guilt and liars. Moreover, choosing certain outcomes can shift how companions, major characters and factions view your leadership and trust. I was tricked a number of times. This is the second biggest achievement of Tyranny. Unpredictability. This type of writing is refreshing when many quests other CRPGs delivery are formulaic. Playing the hero is linear, straight-forward and stable, right? Tyranny’s writing will often bluff you into a naïve comfort and string you along, only to reveal your assumptions are often wrong. And this is great.
The evilness of the Tiers is more clearly seen as behaviour which is just pragmatic, fear-driven and selfish. Everyone is affected by it. Frequently you will be subjected to it both as a Fatebinder and as a representative of the Overlords army. Few things are sacred. Survival is first and foremost. All other thoughts (including humanity) are trivial. Steering your Fatebinder down the evil paths are 2 opposing factions – the orderly Disfavored and the chaotic Scarlet Chorus. The leaders – Graven Ashe and the Voices of Nerat – instil their followers with these order/chaos traits, which grow to become a prominent theme throughout the game. Each would be the worst bosses you’ve ever had (an authoritarian or a maleovelent narcissist) and are two sides of the same shitty coin.
9am class: Introduction on being evil.
Tyranny begins with the optional Conquest Mode. Do it. This offers an interactive prologue with various choices which move the player across a map with accompanying decisions to make prior to the real action. The introduction Conquest mode is fun. Deliberating on politics and interpreting the law is fun. Choosing how you act and react to the decisions you have to make is fun. This type of introduction provides a novel and fun method of getting accustomed to the map, lore, characters and types of choices you’re able to make. Faithfully the implications of the choices will spread across the 3 Acts and remarked upon by individuals belonging to villages, armies or factions. Some large, some small – but appreciated regardless.
10am practical class: Introduction on being evil.
Despite a turn-around of less than a year from announcement to shipping – Tyranny is almost bug-free. The only bug I ever encountered did stray me from the path of a judicious and mild-mannered Fatebinder though. So, to claim a reward, my party returned to the trading village where the leader of a band of smiths had asked me to find her family member. I had just done so and convinced the family member to return. Confident the smith leader would acknowledge my efficiency, I disregarded the missing family member’s presence around the forge we were standing near. Striking up a conversation to fill my coin purse, the smith leader wouldn’t accept that I had completed her wishes. She was holding out on her end of the bargain! (Or, as I found out, the bug excluded me from completing her quest.) How dare a citizen be so arrogant and disrespectful to a Fatebinder! I. Decide. Who. Lives. And. Dies!! Furious, I engaged her again and again to no avail and then spoke with her colleagues. Interestingly one of them was different from the rest. More career-driven. Less bound to conscience. I quickly made another deal. With him the agreement was uncomplicated. After sudden shouting and sprays of bloodshed – my quest was over. Her colleague and now usurper had become the leader. Admittedly, the working staff of the forge were halved as a result of the melee. I checked my quest to see how it was now tracking. An amendment had been made and the leader of the smith’s quest had been forgotten. My Fatebinder had been absolved of insolence and that quest-line. Revenge / justice had been swift and although it’s not a highlight in my career – an example of her had to be made.
Tyranny very cleverly mixes a number of game-changing decisions and personal choices into a coherent and reactive story. Sometimes you’re angled into a rock and a hard place. Other times you will be surprised and reminded of your Fatebinders authority. Interspersed across the locations, small groups will disagree and ask you to resolve their argument. Cutting-in on conversations is fun and illustrates the position of your Fatebinder in society. Rarely in CRPGs is this kind reverence to your character exemplified. It’s somehow lost on many developers that, unmistakably, if we are the last great hope over omnipresent dangers – our opinion should also count in the daily lives of others. Meanwhile, the bulk of your quests still revolve around siding with one of two factions. Or not (spoiler-wink). Each try to coerce you into undertakings of questionable ethics. Navigating how you want to play the game with how the Disfavored and/or the Scarlet Chorus push and pull you stimulates the ongoing tension. In retrospect, some events that play out feel like the game is railroading you down a funnel. Especially towards the end. But this is acceptable given the juggling of moving political scales of companions and factions with choices that open or close to you in just one playthrough.
There’s 3 Acts across Tyranny and my 50 hour playthrough was an uneven split. The first Act took 15 hours, the second Act 30 and the third Act 5. Maybe slightly more to the 1st Act and less to the 3rd. Either way, the unpredictable flow and varying content in the Acts was fine until the jarring conclusion. I literally said to myself, “Is.. That it!?” It’s nowhere near as disappointing as the Mass Effect 3 ending, but it’s almost as confusing. Nevertheless, this drew the most ire from the community and media. Despite this there’s a balanced mix of combat and story progression. This is where Pillars of Eternity was let down. With this equilibrium, your party will cautiously approach new areas because you never sure of whether the next part of the story will end with words or weapons.
Is evil a choice?
As previously stated, one of the biggest achievements of Tyranny is the politico-morality system. Although similar to Dragon Age 2, the breadth of fear and loyalty (while only sometimes countering the other) is unique, flexible and nuanced. In effect no companion, influential person or faction will see you as either more good or more bad. This may be disappointing for Kantian moralists. The value of your actions are defined by how others interpret them. In effect, this coincides with points being added on a scale. For companions it’s across a fear and loyalty scale. For factions and influential people its favour and wrath. On top of this, skills are unlocked when reaching certain allotted points on the scale. On top of that top, it’s not a bad thing to have equal amounts of points on either side. In fact there’s more skills to unlock by doing so. Admittedly my group of companions felt both loyalty and fearful towards me. We rarely had problems, though.
Cartoonish graphics with hard lines and angles across a demure palette occasionally marked with splashes of bright colours. Wtf does that mean? Well, the graphics are unique, being hand painted and they work well. If it was a hair colour, Tyranny would be a Pillars of Eternity with highlights. Anyway, in conversations hyperlinks appear sporadically to inform larger and more general lore and world building you may have forgotten. This inclusion is helpfully digestible and allows content to be delivered in a succinct and user friendly way to refresh the reader on certain topics. Often lore dumps or text-heavy content can break immersion when developers lazily shovel information at the player. Other modern RPGs could definitely adopt this streamlined interface as it respects the casual and deep player while maintaining pace and balance. The user interface is minimalist and fine but could have been lengthened to include more of your abilities. In addition the U/I could have been made wider too, as tiny and easy-to-miss, lit text boxes appear over their portrait of your companions when they want to talk to you. Like Pillars of Eternity, the load times between areas feel unnecessarily long. Unlike PoE, some of the area maps in Tyranny are comparably tiny. The only ‘wow’ graphical moment in-game is at your Spire. Spires are your headquarters/house and also serve to legitimise your characters growing influence. Rising high above the lands and among the clouds, there’s a comforting disconnect with Earthly troubles when viewing the fuzzy outlines of the Tiers below.
Combat is decent, but simple and lacking variety. That being the case, combat is not really why you play Tyranny. The game features a classless system and rewards the player for using certain weapons and styles to level them faster – similar to the Elder Scrolls series. It also features cooldowns (similar to WoW) but with companion combo’s available per fight or per rest. However you’ll never really know when to activate them. With only a few boss fights, I only chose them after beginning to lose a battle (3-5 times throughout the whole game). The story (and partially to its credit) rarely situates you into a position where a fight is inevitable. The enemies are few in type, both racially (no elves or dwarves here – just spirits, humans and large wolves), with traditional strategies (spellcasters, ranged attackers, damage duelers and tanks). If the major abilities had longer cooldowns or every companion combo was only reset after rest it may feel more important and valued. So, combat is OK but tactics do get recycled. Sigils form the basis for classless spell-casting and can even be used by warrior types. They’re useful and probably overpowered – but due to the limited space in your quick spell slot – few will be regularly used. Those chosen will be adopted into the rotation/recycled combat tactics. The difficulty is fair to easy, with my Fatebinder plowing through combat until mini-bosses or bosses. Otherwise, it’s likely you’ll find a comfortable formula and throw in a dual companion attack or try a new spell every now and then to keep it interesting. Unfortunately some of the later spells, Sigil variations, abilities and skills will only be unlocked towards the completion of the game.
There’s 6 companions (non-romanceable) you can enlist in Tyranny. Comparative with other CRPGs, their dialogue is surprising and wildly unpredictable. This makes them feel more sensitive and genuine. Here’s how I experienced them different from their preview here and here.
If you’ve played Pillars of Eternity, Lantry is like a more an upbeat, quirkier and politically neutral version of Eder. We duelled him as a ranged fighter / support medic, given his background as a historian observing rather than contributing.
More determined and uncompromising than expected. Sentimentality and peaceful cooperation are adjectives she doesn’t like or understand. If you’re thinking of a Bioware styled approach of pandering to get into her ‘good books’ (or loyalty points) you’ll be abruptly mistaken. I made that folly a few times and she’s not above dropping the f-bomb back at you.
He’s more of a gentle giant than compared with Vhailor from Planescape: Torment. Barik is encased in a bladed suit of armour but arguably more compromised by his humility and ideals. He does come across as a failed hero, but he is a worthy tank.
Obsidian managed more with KiS than what you’d expect with this character. Sure – she’s a beast that’s socially feared and a hunted minority that talks like Batman; but there’s also a humanity to her and her tribe. From the stigma her race suffers forces a resolute defiance which makes her one of the few passionate and engaging companions to take. Oh, and in combat, she’s more Predator than furry Orc. The ability to hold a two-handed sword in one hand is also valuable while giving purpose to the plethora of two-handed swords abound in Tyranny.
Well.. She’s haughty, arrogant and gifted. Much like we presumed. As a companion she’s easy to dismiss if forgetting her powers. We used her as a bard-mage, which after time, could level anyone. Imagine Imoen from Baldur’s Gate – but on steroids and with a hardened personality.
She’s similar to how Bioware developed Wynne in Dragon Age: Origins. Eb is a motherly and useful spellcaster, but easy to overlook if creating a ‘tough crew’. Aside from her age; her story within the events of Tyranny is probably the most mature, interesting and well-rounded of the bunch.
But Tyranny needs loyalty missions and this is a major oversight. Dialogue inducing loyal n fear points is novel but not enough. Other games with great looking characters like Dota 2 and Overwatch already inspire the community into fanfic, cosplay and even porn. Not including loyalty missions misses a chance to engage and invest in the characters. Broadly Tyranny does feature a good, usable mix of companions. There’s pure spell-casters, a tank, support and a couple of fighters. However another companion (to total 7), who reflected the instability of the Tiers would have been perfect and added to the longevity of the game as a whole. Imagine a character like Ignus (Planescape: Torment), Cicero (Skyrim), and Durance (Pillars of Eternity), fused into one, who was chaotic and temperamental and bridged the gap of companions above the mess with the everyday people wading through it.
Pay to raise skills by trainers in camps and the Spire/s. Consequently this will also bump up your overall level and allow you to allocate more skill points.
Use Sigils to boost your offensive and defensive capabilities outside classes of the classless system. It’s almost like you don’t need any mages or spell-casters in the first place. ..Almost.
Don’t always choose the ‘white knight’ approach to actions and conversations. Although most RPGs have modeled us into taking every quest and being the morally good character for the highest xp and item rewards – Tyranny doesn’t always fit that incentive structure. Kudos to that.
Tyranny is beguiling and not just another love letter to isometric, real time with pause, party based RPGs. It’s unique. It’s balanced and feels like you’re both in control of your destiny and a pawn of conspirators at the same time. Above all, it’s an intriguing political thriller.
A few qualms keep it out of the instant classic collection and possibly due to the constraints of development time and budget. The abrupt ending; rudimentary combat and enemy type design; and lack of companion engagement or personal side quests; do hamper an otherwise exciting experience. The unpredictable story-telling, adaptive politico-moral system, replayability, sheer fun of unconstrained moral choices and the feeling like you’re someone rather than a no one makes this an enjoyable role playing adventure.