Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: 10 November, 2016
Platform: Windows / Mac / Linux
By Chris Picone, 25 November 2016
Updated: 02 December 2016
Tyranny is the latest release by Obsidian Entertainment, the ex-Black Isle mob that brought us Pillars of Eternity. It is another isometric roleplaying game modelled after the likes of Baldur’s Gate, but set in an entirely new setting where an evil overlord named Kyros has conquered the known world with the exception of a small corner known as “the tiers.” This is where the game takes place; entire regions of the tiers have been damaged irrevocably or warped beyond recognition by powerful magic, almost all of civilization is in ruin, and only small rebellious armies stand between Kyros and total conquest. The magic of the world appears to be powered by reputation; fear and respect, and those who escalate to greatness receive power to match, becoming archons. These archons each lead their own faction; most notably Tunon’s Court, the Disfavoured, and the Scarlet Chorus. They all answer to Kyros, but only as long as Kyros’ goals align with their own. The individuals that serve these factions are just as black-hearted, greedy, and violent. The interesting part about all this is that – apart from Kyros – no one in the game is actually inherently evil. They are simply doing what they must to get by in a world where life is cheap, are simply wound up in the cogs of an evil mechanism where failure to serve can only result in their own death, or actually believe they are working toward a common good. I was so excited about this game I pre-ordered it, and I was not disappointed.
Before the game starts proper, there is an optional “conquest” prologue, where the game fast forwards you through the early years of Kyros’ conquest, which fills you in on the backstory while also setting you up for the rest of the game, as the decisions you make here have long-reaching impacts.
You play the role of a fatebinder, an official of Tunon’s court. Although you are lowly rank-and-file amongst his court, your role as an official places you in a position of authority when dealing with the other factions: your actions are Kyros’ will, so to defy you is to defy Kyros, and to defy Kyros is to invite death. An underestimated enemy and turmoil between the Disfavoured and the Scarlet Chorus brings Kyros’ conquest to a grinding halt. Your first act is to declare an edict, which is a conditional proclamation that unleashes great destructive magic if its conditions are not met. To give some indication of the gravity, this is the wording of the edict: "Those who defy Our just and lawful Order are traitors to Our Empire. Those who fail in their duty to bring justice to traitors are, in Our eyes, equally treasonous. Let Our armies prove their good faith by retaking Vendrien's Well from those who defy Our Will. Unless Our representative holds the Hall of Ascension on Our Day of Swords, all in the valley of Vendrien's Well shall perish." All in the valley shall perish – Disfavoured, Chorus, and rebellion alike. Day of Swords, if you’re interested, is only eight days away. Following the edict, as an agent of the court, you are tasked with bringing the tiers under Kyros’ control, but how you go about this is entirely up to you. You can side with one faction or the other, or even take control of the rebellion. Regardless of which path you choose to follow, you will explore a unique world, uncover betrayal, dispense Kyros’ justice, and gain infamy.
Tyranny’s in-game graphics are quite similar to those found in Obsidian’s previous title, Pillars of Eternity, and around the same quality. The environments are stunning, and even more so because they’re a step away from the traditional Forgotten Realms-esque environments we have grown overly familiar with. You will visit some really interesting places in this game. The only real let-downs were the character portraits during conversations, which were reminiscent of Warcraft 3 (stunning at the time, but that was 14 years ago). Simple faces, perhaps with a few expressions, would have been better. All of the “cinematics” and other complimentary graphics feature stylized artwork, which look great, are wonderfully unique, and fit the theme in a mythological sort of way.
The music is the sort of orchestral soundtrack you would expect to hear backing any fantasy movie or game. Mostly it’s just mood setting, reaching crescendo during fight scenes or other tense moments, and then going quiet and soft during lulls. High quality; a quiet achiever. The voice acting is mostly excellent; Verse and Lantry were personal favourites. Unfortunately, I found the archons' voices to be over-acted to the point of being ridiculous, but as you can imagine this is a fairly minor complaint.
For the most part, the game plays like any other isometric RPG and, more specifically, is very similar to Pillars of Eternity. The major differences revolve around the setting, and the importance placed on the decisions you make; for example, one of your biggest issues will be trying to balance your relationships with the various factions. If you favour one faction, you will gain respect from that faction but wrath with the other. However, if you try to sit on the fence, you will lose respect from both. There is no place for weakness in the tiers. Combat is pausable real-time, and focuses on a set of cooldown and once-per-encounter/rest skills that you acquire through the game. One of the most interesting aspects of combat is the use of combo skills that see two of your characters work together in a joint attack. These skills are unlocked as you gain respect or fear with the other characters.
The one thing I did find was missing that was present in Pillars was the mini-adventure dialogues when you took certain actions. These felt a bit half-baked in Pillars, and I was really hoping the spiritual successor would flesh them out more, but instead it did away with them entirely. Oh, there are still gaps to squeeze through and walls to climb, but now it's just a matter of pushing a button and you appear on the other side. And the difficulty levels for each of these seems to be set so low that there's no way you can fail no matter what character type you're running, which was an unfortunate bit of railroading I think the game would have been better off without. Again, only minor complaints.
Fun Factor / Replayability
I am absolutely loving the impact decision-making has on the game, it is something that seemed to have gone by the wayside in so-called “roleplaying” games lately, and it is refreshing to see it return. I’m also loving playing an anti-hero. It’s one thing to try and play an evil character in a game that is designed to see you play as a hero, but quite another where issues of morals aren’t portrayed as black and white. It can be difficult to be “good” in the game, as mercy can make you seem weak. However violence isn’t always the answer either. These are really the highlights for the game – otherwise, character development is simple and flexible, although it tends to railroad you down particular skillsets which means that each character could be replayed as entirely different classes if you were to play through again.
In my first playthrough with the Disfavoured faction, I felt like I had made a series of bad decisions and closed doors on opportunities - because that’s exactly what I had done. The game forces you to make those hard decisions, and then makes you pay the consequences for them, which is great. It made me want to go back and play again, as a different sort of character, and make entirely different decisions just to see where they would take me. After playing terrible linear “RPGs” like Fallout 4 where all roads lead to Rome and your decision making is entirely irrelevant, I was thrilled to find your decisions actually had a significant impact on the game. In my second playthrough with the Chorus faction, I was delighted to discover that not only are there multiple ways to complete the story quests, entire regions of the map are closed depending on which faction you play and which decisions you made during the Conquest phase. The game felt a little narrow at times, but it is clear that that was a deliberate decision to encourage players to go back and play the game again.
The lore of the game is well developed, and the only complaints I really had were fourth wall issues where the character seemed to be able to wipe out whole encampments on his own, where the professional army failed. This makes sense later in the game when your character grows into his own power, but the one-man-army stuff starts right from the beginning of the game. It would have been nice to work with one of the armies until you gained the power to stand on your own.
Tyranny brings RPGs back to where it all started; character development and decision making, and does so in a unique and interesting world. The main story arc is on the lean for an RPG (first playthrough took me ~20 hours), but it is designed to be replayed. If you’re already a fan of isometric RPGs, get stuck into it – the return to core RPG principles is refreshing. If you aren’t familiar with that sort of game, give this one a go. Unlike most RPGs, this one doesn’t require you to be familiar with an existing game world’s lore, is considerably shorter than most, and you will probably find the anti-hero aspects engaging. If you aren’t into isometric RPGs or don’t like pausable real-time combat, give this one a miss. The game isn’t without its flaws, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and can happily recommend it.