In most movies and games the good guys win through either the power of love, a magical McGuffin, or some sort of ancient prophecy they discovered 10 minutes ago. But have you ever wondered what would happen if the clearly superior villain ended up being the victor in that grand, climactic battle between good and evil? Would that be the end of all, or would the bad guys establish a new set of laws to govern the now unified nations of the world? And what about all of the armies of monsters and men that have suddenly found themselves without a cause to rally behind?
If you're interested in the answers you'll be glad to hear that it is exactly these topics that Tyranny explores, but not in a superficial and patronizing way, but with a surprising degree of nuance. The 'good guys' aren't all that pristine and will gladly resort to devious methods in order to achieve their goals, while the majority of the 'bad guys' are simply terrified cogs in the machine. All of this serves to make both sides feel like actual people, rather than overly simple representations of concepts such as good and evil, which goes a long way towards making the world of Tyranny all the more intriguing.
But since this is a game we're talking about after all, I'm sure the big question on everyone's mind is whether Tyranny is any fun to actually play? Well, allow me to show you what exactly its all about, and you can hopefully work it out from there!
With faces like these, you know they mean business
As with all RPGs that feature plenty of combat and skill-based exploration, I would like to first talk about the character creation system. Besides the usual stuff such as choosing your appearance and setting up your stats, Tyranny also sports a couple of rather unique little details not found in many other D&D inspired games. By this I mean the ability to multi-class from level 1, and the ability to start off by being proficient in not just one, but two fighting styles.
For most people this is completely irrelevant, but since I enjoy playing my RPGs as a War Mage, i.e. a fighter with the ability to buff himself and throw debuffs at the opposition, this has been a great boon. Instead of having to spend 20 hours before I'm able to even begin constructing my favorite playstyle, if I'm allowed to do so at all, in Tyranny I have the ability to just start out as one! And before you ask, no, Paladins don't count. They tend to be far too limited when it comes to roleplaying, and also a bit too selfrighteous for my tastes.
There's even an entire War Mage class!
The second thing you might want to pay attention to during character creation is your skills, most notably Athleticism, Lore, and Subterfuge. Much like all other classic RPGs, and this includes Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity, these skills are used both in combat and outside of it. What might come as surprise, however, is just how often they end up being useful! When I first started out I didn't know what to level up, so I dumped a bunch of points into Athleticism, just to make my character a bit beefier. As it turns out, that was a bloody brilliant idea as the first hour of gameplay probably had a dozen or so locations I could only reach by climbing, grappling, or otherwise using those glorious muscles I magically grafted onto myself.
Nothing excites me more in an RPG than being able to use my skills in order to access new locations or to steer the dialogue in a different way, so to see so many diverse choices in Tyranny is a wonderful thing indeed. And speaking of dialogues, I can't say I expected to see Athleticism being on equal ground with the rest. For example, if there is a hostage situation you can either use your knowledge of Diplomacy to diffuse the problem, use your Athleticism to feign surrender before disarming your opponent, or just plain ol' lie your ass off until they surrender with Subterfuge. There's plenty of other choices as well, but the important thing here is that you can solve nearly every situation (more on this later) in a variety of clever, and fairly sensible ways. And for an RPG, you really can't ask for much more!
Don't neglect the skills on the right as you'll find a surprising amount of use from them
The final part of character creation is perhaps the most intriguing one. Instead of simply chosing your backstory from a number of pre-set options that all boil down to one sentence, Tyranny lets you play through an entire "choose your own adventure" story in order to shape your character. By having to deal with actual problems, most of which have no obvious solution or best answer, you are better able to form what exactly your character is about, and more importantly, learn what the world of Tyranny is all about.
However, being dumped into this wast and complex world before you've even seen it is quite problematic. Unless you've spent an hour on the wiki before starting up Tyranny you'll probably have no idea who The Voices of Nerat is, or who in the world are The Disfavored. Thankfully, Obsidian was well aware of these issues and so they decided to do the only sensible thing - add a wiki into the game! Obviously its not as comprehensive as some of the fan sites out there, but the easy to access in-game descriptions for important locations and characters are great for players like me that want to know a little bit extra, but also for those wishing to learn what in the blazing hells is even happening. It certainly helped me a lot during my first few hours while Tyranny constantly kept chucking random names, locations, and events in my face without much in terms of explanation.
Its not much, but the in-game wiki goes a long way towards helping you avoid confusion
Mind you, this isn't because the writing in Tyranny is clumsy or misguided, far from it. The reason is that the world Obsidian has cooked up for Tyranny is so wast and expansive that its next to impossible to get anyone acclimated within a single hour. There are numerous factions you need to keep in mind given how pivotal of a role they play, there's the grand overlord Kyros who you simply must obey or die resisting, as well as a whole bunch of rebels trying to fight against the inevitable. When you combine all of these factions with numerous notable characters that inhabit each of them you'll get a proper mess, but to Tyranny's credit, it is one incredibly fascinating mess!
Instead of having the usual hero's journey where you go across the world to find magical artifacts with which you can beat the bad guy, you are instead trying to conquer those that still resist the already triumphant Kyros. And just to prove that Kyros is not kidding around, the very first thing that happens in game is that you get an ultimatum - either you ensure that the resistance is crushed within one week, or Kyros will demolish a massive chunk of the continent in order to show everyone how the job is done... and no, you don't get to retreat before that happens. With most villains that would be an empty threat, but Kyros does not joke around and as such the spell is already in motion - its up to you to stop it... or die trying.
Even simply speaking the words of Kyros is a terrifying thing
Given this rather... motivating order I was instantly compelled to do whatever it takes to actually win - and the first thing that went out of the window was my morality. In most RPGs I play as the paragon of virtue and justice, going around and being helpful towards anyone I can, but in Tyranny I must admit I became somewhat of a monster. I set entire stretches of farmland on fire, I razed cities to the ground, I butchered rebels by the hundreds, and I did some things I would rather not talk about. Worst of all, for my sanity anyway, it became easier after a while because you can swiftly justify everything by saying "If I don't do all of this, they'll all be dead in a week anyway". It is truly impressive how Tyranny slowly eases you into the role of a bad guy, and before you know it you're exactly the type of henchman other RPG players would fight as some sort of final boss.
With clever writing, superb voice acting, and some truly terrific plot points I really got immersed into the world of Tyranny. So much so that I've managed to complete the entire game within three days, and this includes plenty of hours where I've just roamed around the various encampments talking to anyone about anything - including boring and mundane things such as "how's the store going?" while sitting in the middle of a war zone. The only thing I can truly complain about in Tyranny's story is how some of the choices feel forced upon you, even though they feel like they should have multiple solutions. This is especially obvious with the conflict between The Disfavored and The Crimson Chorus, two factions I tried to keep as equal as possible, but which ended up forcing me to pick a favorite anyway.
The way morality is handled in Tyranny is interesting, to say the least
Thankfully, the companion characters are some of the most interesting people around, and unlike the factions you get to pick and choose the ones you enjoy playing with. My favorite ended up being Verse, a seemingly bloodthirsty madman with a wit as sharp as her blades. Ironically enough I started off by hating her, mostly because she was being a douchebag towards everyone we met, but after spending actual hours talking with her I've slowly come to realize who she really is, and why she acts like she does. I won't spoil the revelation for you, but let's just say it was worth all of the trouble! The same applies to pretty much all of the other characters as they mostly start grumpy and generally unlikable, but eventually open up and reveal what sort of insane circumstances got them stuck in the same hellhole as you. Its fascinating stuff, so if you end up playing Tyranny, make sure to occasionally have a chat with your fellow travelers - you might end up being surprised with what you hear from them.
Unfortunately, I have to end all of this story talk on a bit of a down note. While I've greatly enjoyed the world of Tyranny, so much so that I'm more than willing to overlook how linear it is, the ending had left me both furious and disappointed. I'll keep this as vague as possible in order to any avoid spoilers, but throughout the entire game the story was hyping up this big confrontation and a massive reveal about Kyros... only to then pull the rug in front of me and just end in the most unsatisfactory of ways. I can't say more without giving the plot away, but let's just say that its quite obvious Tyranny is setting itself up for a sequel. While I am really glad they are considering it given how compelling Tyranny has been so far, the final hour or two felt way too rushed to offer a satisfying conclusion, which is a massive shame considering what was constantly teased in front of me.
Verse can sometimes be insufferably smug, but I love her regardless
As for the combat part of this combat RPG, it is simply OK. If you've ever played Pillars of Eternity, or any of the modern D&D inspired games, you already know how this works. Where Tyranny does things differently, however, is in the amount of spells and abilities it allows you to have. Even rogues/rangers, classes that usually just sit around and autoattack in most other RPGs, have so many spells you can't even keep track of them all. This isn't a complaint, mind you, as the overabundance of spells allows you to get rather creative in how you dispatch your enemies, something I personally appreciate a great deal.
The second big thing Tyranny does differently is the spell system. Instead of simply giving you a frostbolt equivalent and calling it a day, Tyranny allows you to modify that frostbolt with a variety of affixes in order to create unique variants of that same spell. So that boring ol' frostbolt can become an area of effect spell, a spell that radiates intense cold from your hands in a small area, and things like that. And best of all, since Tyranny allows you to play as a melee/mage hybrid I was able to mold my War Mage into a nearly perfect close quarters combatant!
Since all of that sounds pretty good, at least to me anyway, I'm sure you're now wondering why I started this combat chapter by saying that its simply OK. Well, the answer to that question lies not in the combat mechanics, but in the enemies you fight. Much like Dark Souls 2, all you seem to fight in Tyranny is a wide variety of dudes in armor. There's dudes wearing heavy armor, dudes wearing light armor, dudes shooting arrows at you, and if you're lucky, dudes in dresses casting spells at you! What amazes me the most is the simple fact that Tyranny has some really cool non-humanoid enemies, but they appear incredibly rarely and only for a couple of encounters, before simply vanishing back into the nether.
This alone would be annoying, but Tyranny also has problems with balance, by which I mean that the normal difficulty is so easy I could practically beat it with my eyes closed. I did try out the harder difficulties, and to Tyranny's credit they do actually improve enemy AI rather than simply add more dudes to kill, but it still doesn't help ease the monotony. To be honest, I was grateful the normal difficulty was so easy because there is only so many dudes in armor you can cleave through before you start wishing for generic RPG critters to come back and spice things up. By the time I reached the midpoint I would've killed for some dire beavers to fight against, just anything that isn't a dude in armor!
There's so many dudes in armor its hard to tell which dudes are my dudes
The beatdown doesn't end there, however, as I have one final complaint - the friendly AI is lackluster. So if you don't like pausing your game constantly in order to ensure they don't just stop their attacks for no reason, you're probably going to get very annoyed with Tyranny. But while that is a minor bug, the biggest problem with the AI is pathfinding. Since you have some spells that require multiple characters to participate, one to knock an opponent down and the other to stab them for example, you need both of them to walk up to your target. You would think this is an easy thing to do, but often times my characters just kind of walked in place... or flat out stood still. And if you don't personally move them out of this trance you will have 2/4 of your party just sitting there, trying to cast a spell that will never go off because one of the participants is stuck giving combat hugs to the enemy.
While it might seem I'm unnecessarily harsh on Tyranny here, the reality is that I'm just saddened when I think about how glorious the combat could've been. The mechanics are there, the spells are there, the animations and effects are there, but the battles themselves are so repetitive I ended up just wishing for them to be over so that I can go back to the actually interesting stuff. On the positive side, I could easily see future patches and expansions fixing these problems, so here's to hoping Obsidian manages to do just that as Tyranny really does deserve better.
Tyranny is flawed, there's no doubt about that, but it is one of the rare few RPGs that dares explore some of the darker, more mature topics out there. And while the combat may have been disappointing, the lore and the characters have been so enticing to me that I've managed to binge through the entire game within three days. So if you're a fan of RPGs, and more importantly of Obsidian's previous work, I have a feeling you're going to enjoy Tyranny as well. Despite my criticism, I can comfortably say I've had a great deal of fun with it and that I would love to play it again after a couple of patches.
But even if all of my complaints put you off, I would still recommend keeping a close eye on Tyranny and its future developments. The current version might be a flawed gem, but through an expansion or two, and maybe even a sequel, I can easily see it polished up into a shining example for all RPGs. So don't write Tyranny off just yet, its not that far away from greatness.