After the success of developer Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity, which brought back the ideals of classic computer role-playing from the late ‘90s, from deep combat mechanics through to a rich multi-layered fantasy narrative -- the studio’s follow-up, Tyranny, aims to do things a little bit differently. And in the process, provide an experience that is at once more refined and ambitious than Pillars of Eternity, yet falls short in a few places. Due to its rather short running time.
Where Tyranny excels, is in its premise, setting, and the freedom it gives players to embody the many different shades of evil. From a sales-pitch perspective Tyranny has a great hook, it takes place in a world where evil reigns supreme. The Overlord Kyros, a mysterious being with god-like powers, has won The Great War and only really has a few battles left before the entire land of Terratus is under her control. And it’s her Archons, these evil generals, that are the ones you get to see as they compete for glory to take over the last scrap of land, enslave the people, and usher in the rule of Kyros.
Tyranny makes no attempt to provide a tale of the underdog, or shine a light on the noble and courageous few that resist the rule of Kyros. Thanks to the magic at her disposal, and the sheer size of her armies, this is a world where choice within a specific window of evil is everything. Where being the ‘good guy’ amounts to convincing a rag-tag group of rebels to drop their swords and join the Scarlet Chorus, where they will either be humiliated and systematically driven to become soulless killing machines or impaled on spikes.
Before the game begins you’re given an almost play-by-play of Kyros’ forces movements as they conquer the final piece of Terratus. As the Fatebinder, a messenger of sorts that can dispense the will of Kyros, you’re presented with different outcomes to choose from. Stuff like, let the locals celebrate a local tradition for a day or interrupt their festivities with a bloody ambush. These choices not only affect how you’re perceived by all the different factions from the beginning of the game proper, put pave the way for a role-playing experience where your choices continuously shape the narrative and outcome.
It’s rather impressive, and we can’t remember the last RPG that provided this sort of narrative freedom. Especially in a world this fascinating. Outside of the ‘be evil’ hook, the world of Tyranny is probably the real reason you’ll want to keep playing, and then re-start the experience once it’s all over. Be prepared to do a lot of reading though, as the first few hours are chock full of exposition, lore, history, and explanation. But once you learn all about Kyros, the various Archons, factions, Spires, Edicts, and so on, it’s hard not to be swept up in the intricate setting and thoughtful meditations on what it means to be evil.
To go into any sort of detail would probably enter spoiler territory, so all we’ll say is that Tyranny features one of the best RPG stories of recent times. Full of nuance, wonderful character beats, and exceptionally well written dialogue. And, one that gives you a surprising amount of freedom to shape and bend to your will. Side with this Archon, that Archon, kill everyone, enslave rebels, go it alone, it’s brilliantly executed. Which is probably why it kind of ends after about 20 or so hours. A fact that adds considerably to the replay value of Tyranny, but also one that adversely affects other aspects of the game. The RPG stuff. The combat, companion relationships, crafting, and so on.
Built on the same tech as Pillars of Eternity, fans of that game will feel right at home with Tyranny. From the pause-and-hand-out-commands combat system to the player customisation and the different skill trees. Thanks to this pedigree, it all works for the most part. But, kind of falls apart when you don’t have a lengthy campaign to back it all up. The relatively short running time means that you won’t have the time to really make use of more than one skill tree, which in turn makes the weapon-swap feature kind of pointless. And thanks to the crafting system which allows you to upgrade items at a forge, you’ll also won’t have any use for the countless weapons and bits of armour that you’ll find exploring each location. Because whatever you choose to upgrade, that’s pretty much your kit for the entire game.
So then, can this sort of old-school and deep RPG work with a relatively short campaign? Sure, and perhaps the problem is that Obsidian simply added to the core Pillars experience rather than fine tuning it for Tyranny. Take the Artefact Powers as an example, which are these huge magical abilities that can only be used once per rest. They’re amazing to look at, and often can change the tide of a battle in your favour. But as they’re tied to specific items and companion and faction relationships, they quickly become a core part of any meaningful encounter. Relegating switching out companions and items to another playthrough.
In fact, in our playthrough we became so solely focused on the story that at a certain point we simply dialed down the difficulty to keep the narrative moving at a steady clip. Only really upping it for the larger boss-like encounters. To make them feel more suitably epic. It’s a shame because with a combat and customisation system that was on par with the narrative, Tyranny would be one of the greats. As it stands though Tyranny is a narrative triumph, and thanks to the freedom it provides reinforces the notion that the RPG genre can be one of the best places to find rich multi-layered and rewarding story experiences. And few games handle player choice as well as Tyranny.
It also questions the very nature of what it means to be evil, greedy, or lust for power. And cements the powerful and prescient notion that a populace gripped by fear can lead to some rather dark times. Even in a world without magical Edicts by an evil Overlord that engulf entire regions with earthquakes and deadly storms.