Tyranny Review – It’s Good To Be Bad

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Obsidian
Publisher: Obsidian
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Obsidian proved they were on to something with their Kickstarted Pillars of Eternity, and thanks to its success they’ve returned with a new game that isn’t a sequel but that does build on Pillars’ foundation.. Tyranny is that game, and frankly its really bloody good.

You’ll be stepping into the boots of a Fatebinder from Tunon’s Court, charged with dispensing the justice of Kyros and even proclaiming Kyros’ powerful Edicts, a form of magic capable of summoning firestorms, demolishing cities and much more. Confused? You should be, because Tyranny lays its carefully constructed world and story on quite thickly, very quickly.

The general gist is that you aren’t playing as some boy scout, rather your character, no matter his or her chosen background should be, has already taken part in Kyro’s conquest of the realm. As a trusted servant of Kyros you’ve actively engaged in the war, and have made numerous choices which have led to deaths. This isn’t to say you’re a complete dick. As the game’s own sales patter says, the battle between good and evil has already happened, and evil won, but as a Fatebinder you wield considerable power. Will you act as the living enforcer of Kyro’s will, or seek more power for yourself? Will you be ruthless, or show mercy?

There’s so much I’ve left unsaid, partially because like all good RPGs the story should be something the player discovers on their own, but largely because Tyranny has lore pouring out of every orifice. Before you even begin the game proper you’re given the chance to run through what your character did during the conquest of the continent, making choices that will have effects upon the rest of the game while also learning quite a lot about the world, it’s factions and your position within it. Once you get into the game deviating from the most direct dialogue choices will reveal tonnes of information just waiting to be absorbed. In fact, Obsidian pack even more knowledge into the game with colored text that you can hover over, providing juicy information on characters and factions. Oh, and then you can right-click on it for even more lore. It’s a level of world building that I often imagine enthusiastic writers doing, only for the rest of the team to slice and dice it down to a fraction of what it was, fearing that players wouldn’t be put off by it. Whereas here Obsidian said, “Oh, wrote a book did you? Yeah, we’ll stick it all in.”

It’s brave, too, because almost all of the dialog is delivered via text. There’s only a small amount of voice acting, kept purely for the most important moments. In today’s world of short videogames, bright colors and developers constantly streamlining their games for an audience they believe to be completely stupid it’s a breath of fresh air to play something like Tyranny, a title that trusts that its players want to delve into the world. In other words Obsidian does something that many big developers should take note of; they study their audience and then build a game for them, and not for everyone else. In doing this they’ve used their budget wisely, creating something for a specific group of people, whereas so many other developers get caught up in trying to throw money at a project to impress everyone, and thus wind up calling games that sell millions a failure.

Of course no amount of lore will help if it’s utter dross. Thankfully whatever poor human/s Obsidian decided to kidnap and lock in a small cupboard containing plastic bottles for peeing in and a typewriter has done a damn fine job. Descriptions of character’s expressions or body language as well as of the environment enrichen the story, and the various people you meet are written well. I want to know more about this world, its people and its customs. There is, however, one area where it flounders, and sadly I can’t really speak about it. Suffice to say it’s about building for a sequel without using Kyros correctly.

The core of the game comes down to choices, with the developers constantly giving you chances to mould the story in different ways. You’ll quickly find yourself in the middle of a dispute between Kyro’s two armies, for example: the Disfavored and their highly militirsied methods, and the Scarlet Chorus who remind me of the forces of Chaos from Warhammer. As a Fatebinder you can come in and either side with one or the other, or try to play it down the middle, remaining as neutral as possible. It’s worth remembering, however, that reputation systems are always at work, monitoring how every faction and even individuals feel about you. This will in turn effect how events play out, opening and closing different opportunities. While you can be a good person, not following Kyros’ laws can reflect badly on you, while many of your companions will view your mercy as a potential weakness.

The focus for Tyranny was to create a more replayable game by making each decision branch out so that players could fire up a new game, make some different choices and hopefully get a new experience. That doesn’t mean length has been entirely sacrificed, mind you. It’ll still take a solid 20-25 hours to finish up the story. However, I personally can’t comment on the replayability. Considering how long one runthrough can take, I only managed to get a little way into a second run before having to write this review. Therefore I won’t sit here and tell you that every moment of choice counts and can drastically alter how event’s unfold, but I can say that they all felt very important and there did seem to be plenty of moments where the game could branch off in different ways. I’ll update this chunk of the review if I get enough time to really delve back in to it.

As for the actual gameplay, Tyranny shares a lot in common with Pillars of Eternity, so if you’ve played that game then you’ll be in familiar territory. If you haven’t then think of Tyranny as a love letter to old-school RPGs, but with some modern tweaks to keep it fun. The viewpoint is isometric, with the environments being a “screen” separated by brief loading times. It all looks hand-painted, like someone lovingly wielded a paintbrush for hours upon end in order to make ever area look distinct and memorable. You’ll amble through this world taking on a variety of quests, most of which revolve around the traditional RPG fare of going somewhere and killing a bunch of stuff.

Combat is real-time, but almost feels turn-based due to the fact that even basic attacks have a gap between them that must be taken into account. As you wade into a fight it’s all about using your squad of four characters to the best of their abilities, picking out the right targets for the right man, woman or beastwoman. It’s perfectly serviceable. Absolutely fine. Look, if this reads unenthusiastic that’s because this style of combat has never clicked with me personally, because it doesn’t take long for me to feel like it’s a simple case of waiting for abilities to recharge rather than smarts. Tyranny doesn’t tackle that problem, but it does at least include enough abilities that combat feels more like a management sim at times. Do you use those few seconds to heal? or to deliver an attack? Maybe it’s a good time for one of those awesome combo abilities, but that would mean shifting your hulking tank character across the battlefield and disengaging gives the enemy a free attack. I’d be lying if I told you Tyranny had converted me, but I will say that it’s certainly one of the better examples within the genre.

Notice that I said four characters. That’s because Tyranny is a party-driven RPG. As you go along you’ll collect companions like a Scotsman collects ginger jokes, and you can have up to three of them tag along at any given time. They’re a pretty fun bunch of characters, from the lumbering Barik with his loyalty to the Disfavored ranks, the feisty Verse and her lust for a good fight and even a beastwoman who joins up with you because she says a prima capable of greatness. It’s an eclectic cast brought to life by great writing. Each of them has their own likes and dislikes, so as you go through the game they’ll gain more loyalty or even fear toward you, altering how certain things will play out and how much information they’ll be willing to share with you. It’s just a shame that I never felt like it was very hard to earn favor with my team. Without really concentrating on it I ended the story with all of my chosen constant companions being very loyal to me.

While there is quite a lot of fighting to be done, don’t go thinking  it’s all about the swords, blood and violence. Tyranny does provide ways to get around some of the fights by talking or even because you’ve got the right person in your group. Still, it’s a relatively combat heavy game.

Being an RPG there’s plenty of levelling up to be done, both with your own character and with the rest of your party. As the star of the show you’ve got five different skill trees to pick from, including magic, sword and shield, and my personal favorite agility. Your comrades are a touch more limited with just two trees each, so the heavily armed Barik can be built around a sword and shield or a brutal two-handed technique, while Verse can be used as either an agile dual-wielding rogue or turned into an archer.

The way the game handles levelling up is pretty good, taking the Skyrim approach of skills getting better the more they are used. This means you could give Barik a bow and while he would initially suck at it he’d eventually get better.

Further customisation can be done via the acquisition of glorious loot, from the most basic bronze swords to legendary weapons which come with their own unique abilities that can be activated mid-battle. This isn’t a loot-heavy game so there isn’t an absurd amount of stuff to collect, but what is there is satisfying. The only hiccup is that two of the party members, namely Barik and the beastwoman, can’t have anything done with their armor. Barik has to keep his, and the beastwoman simply doesn’t wear any. In my own time with the game that rendered heavy armor pretty much useless since the main character is the only one who can really use it, and I was opting for a dual-wielding build with an emphasis on speed and light armor.

Everybody needs a place to call home and in Tyranny you’ll get more than one in the form of towering Spires, ancient structures to which you seem to have some sort of odd connection. Oddly enough considering their size you don’t get to amble through the many corridors, though, rather you’re relegated to the top of each of them. But the flipside is that you get to build a structure on each of them, such as a forge or a library. These come with their own sets of benefits, giving you access to merchants, methods of upgrading weapons or even the ability to research new artifacts.

With its lack of media coverage I went in to Tyranny with no expectations, which is exactly how I like it. By the I emerged from playing it some 25 hours or so later I was delighted. From the start I was engaged with the world that Obsidian had crafted and the story being told. If there’s a flaw it’s that the ending, at least in my version of the story, felt anti-climatic, although Obsidian did at least attempt to wrap up every one of my decisions for a hefty dose of resolution.

If there is one major criticism you could level at the game it’s that Tyranny brings nothing new to the table, aside from its unique world, of course. This is firmly rooted in the soil of classic RPGs, but polished to a high standard with a couple of more modern tweaks, like the emphasis on choice and having a darker world. But while it’s a valid criticism since naturally we all want games to be moving forwards and progressing, it’s also not a punishing one. As much as games should always be looking to try something new there’s also nothing wrong with taking a solid, existing idea and executing it beautifully, and that’s exactly what Tyranny does. Like I said earlier, this is a case of a developer understanding its audience, what they want and how to do it. That deserves respect.

So would I recommend Tyranny? Absolutely. The combat is executed well, the story is compelling, there’s some great moments and memorable characters. If you’re looking for something that brings exciting new ideas to the table or that has a lot of flash then Tyranny won’t be for you but if you just want a damn good RPG then do yourself a favor and buy it. Go on.

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