Being evil is hard, because what makes you evil is simply your approach to a problem. After all, the perspective of what is considered good and evil is often how a story is framed; players tend to focus on the “good side” without much thought, and games that provide a degree of choice to their narratives often go to the extremes of each ideal; saintly good or cartoonish evil being the choices to emphasize a binary morality to them.
Video games often glorify “evil” with rebellious anti-heroes, passionate freedom fighters, or altruistic rule breakers all the time too, but what does it really mean to be truly evil, in the sense that your beliefs, your convictions are shaped by the circumstances you find yourself? What sacrifices do you make to your morality in the face of the greater good being against the law? This is the question Tyranny, the latest RPG from Obsidian, grapples with, and while providing a fair representation of evil beyond evil’s sake, it ultimately misses the mark in reaching its full potential.
Tyranny has you play a Fatebinder, a traveling warrior judge who was conscripted into the Empire of Kyros. Kyros’ empire has spanned for decades already, and his conquest is coming to an end as his armies’ march on the last free realms in the world, the Tiers. As a Fatebinder, you get embroiled in a plot involving the separate armies of Kyros, the surviving factions of the Tiers, and your own ambitions and judgments as events unfold around you, shaping the Tiers into a chaotic mess or an orderly controlled state of the Empire.
Kyros’ law and will control every aspect of your knowledge of the world, and how much you believe in Kyros and what they do can depend on the path you, as the Fatebinder take. We never do see Kyros at all, but its shadow looms over all the characters in the world- a very rich, if somewhat clichéd world that Obsidian expertly crafts. The Tiers already lost their battle against Kyros, and Tyranny takes place as the last pockets of resistance fight to survive, or bend a knee to the awful power of the new Empire.
The concept of the Empire is more interesting than the execution. Some parts of the game sell this brilliantly- the visual respect given to areas such as the occupied capital or the few towns you find show business as usual for the survivors of the war, now subjects of the Empire and beholden to the word of Kyros’ law. Elsewhere, some parts of the Tiers have been totally devastated by the conquest due to the magical powers of Kyros known as Edicts- massive spells that literally destroy the landscape. It is a stark contrast that shows that the Empire is business as usual where it’s safe, but a chaotic war-zone where the pockets of resistance refuse to accept defeat.
Some of the best dialogue in the game come in the form of small-scale judgment quests, where the Fatebinder resolves disputes by interpreting the law of Kyros to all of his subjects. We get a sense of the harsh, but fair machinations of the Empire and its inner workings; the sausage factory of evil exposed into a very pragmatic logic that ultimately makes sense from the perspective of the faithful to Kyros. Other moments also hit this home when characters simply refuse to listen to reason. When the Fatebinder asks a rebel “Why do you fight; you know you will lose?” it is reflective of what every cocksure villain has ever said to a hero, but given new context as to why you say it, and why people resist. Considering the circumstances, the Fatebinder goes through the hard task of bringing a sense of justice in a world where the perception of justice doesn’t exist anymore, struggling to find truth and order and simply care for people who are indifferent to their presence. Simple moments like this give a newfound respect to such a cliché, that maybe the Empire is harsh, but in its own way its existence is necessary despite what freedom really means for your adversaries.
The problem, however, is this is implied more through small moments in conversations and interpretation by the player, over actual substance in what we see. The main crux of the game has you working with two different factions in the army, the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus. The Disfavored are basically prideful Roman Centurions with a Fascist edge to them, proclaiming everyone who is not them slaves to their will or a body under their boots. The Scarlet Chorus are a brutal society with the mantra of might makes right; you survive long enough by sleeping with one eye open and a dagger behind your back. Both sides, in a weird but probably purposeful way, represent the opposites of what evil can be, from a lawful to a chaotic standpoint in using tabletop parlance. However, both swing so wildly in both directions the factions come across as deplorably evil without invoking much of the same nuance as the Fatebinder can achieve, to the point of almost shaking your head at how stupid the two factions act.
Part of the problem with Tyranny is not necessarily how you behave as an evil character, but how others behave around you. It simply makes no sense for the armies of Kyros to have two different factions representing the opposites of their ideology running a military conquest. It even forces the player to choose between them at certain points; and Tyranny is a game where even the most minor of choices is given a lot of weight in how factions, party members, even important people see you. All of the games many factions have levels of Favor or Wrath they can incur by your words and actions and neither is presented as a positive or negative to the player. The same goes for companions, who are not fully fleshed out compared to Pillars of Eternity but have a governing Loyalty and Fear that eventually gain access to special abilities they can use in combat.
In theory, these systems of loyalty work; you gain passive bonuses and powers based on the amount of loyalty you incur, and it opens up conversations down the line for players to engage in. From a gameplay perspective, it is a fine addition, but there are a number of times where the options not only don’t matter, but they can totally ruin any progress you may be making with certain factions. One example has me trying to broker peace between a group of knights fighting a losing battle in a place called the Blade Grave, a desolate wasteland created by one of Kyros’ Edicts. For the first two hours, I did everything in my power to gain their loyalty, even helping the faction fight off minions of my own army at one point, only to have it thrown out the window due to an unavoidable fight that even has dialogue prompts that hint at a peaceful solution.
Moments like this rob Tyranny of being ultimately great. The storyline is a typical rise to power, and the questions it asks about the nature of evil are interesting but lack the actual depth to make them really resonate for the player. A lot of this is boiled down to the writing, which is often overstuffed in providing every little detail to the player to provide context and tone of the words on-screen. The writing is not as tight as previous Obsidian games, and the moves and ambitions of certain characters go beyond all forms of logic and reason that they tangle you up in your own conversation web. It is rewarding in small moments- to see an impossible alliance created or taking pride in putting rebel factions in their place under Kyros law- but the disconnect between the gameplay and the story is very noticeable when combined with the results of the game mechanics and the choices the storyline locks you out of, simply because of a move you made ten hours ago in the game's prologue, no less.
It also doesn’t help that Tyranny feels small as a storyline, clocking in at 25 hours’ tops from start to finish. The world feels bigger, but we barely scratch the surface and savor it. Companion characters have a token amount of depth but lack any form of real personality, instead becoming serviceable arbiters of the different type of character classes you can be in the game (minus one exception who is a special class in herself). Major NPC’s have very little presence in the storyline, save for providing story quests or giving backstory to the Empire of Kyros. One example is the character of Bleden Mark, Kyros’ personal assassin, who we meet early in Act 2 but never speak to again until late in Act 3 of the game. We hear more about Mark’s deeds, than seeing Mark in action himself. It’s disappointing in a lot of ways that Mark and the rest of these powerful characters in the army of Kyros are given roles that service the plot, over complimenting what the world says about them.
Where Tyranny excels, however, is how it presents its character progression and combat mechanics. The game is much more action-heavy than it probably should be, although it never reaches the levels of Icewind Dale as a full-blown dungeon crawl. Compared to the likes of other isometric games such as Pillars of Eternity, Baldur’s Gate, and Planescape Torment, however, this is more emphasis on combat over clever problem solving, but the progression all but makes up for this overuse of action in being the only answer to a problem. The level up system borrows elements of the Elder Scrolls series, mixed in with a dose of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons in terms of power use, cool-downs and combo attacks that you earn through the loyalty, or fear, of your companions.
The mechanics of Tyranny have six core attributes, which determine the base value for your skills. Every action you do, from certain dialogue options, world interaction, completing quests, or use in combat, increase your skills, which in turn increase your level. Interacting with the world is commonplace in Tyranny, and the few puzzles, traps, and hidden objects in the game utilize your skills effectively to provide a diverse amount of interaction. The system very free form in this way; there is no fixed class in Tyranny, just character builds you can mix and match together without worrying about a fully optimal build. Your companions have less to experiment with, but for the player, the sky's the limit to what you can build in-game from a combat perspective.
It also translates the mechanics of Pillars of Eternity better than Pillars ever did. Some of the more annoying aspects of Pillars of Eternity was the over-reliance on too many mechanics, and a degree of luck combat encounters tend to have. In Tyranny, the system is streamlined where parts of the game, like grazing blows and critical hits, are not death sentences to the player. Combo abilities and the use of artifacts, another good edition that grant special abilities and bonuses, provide an edge in power against enemies in most situation. Even magic spells are customizable in the game’s best mechanic, a spell crafting system that sees the player enhance the power, accuracy, effects and even abilities of various spell types to fully customize magic-inclined characters.
The only downside is how drawn out combat situations can become, with many boss characters becoming HP sponges who constantly heal up against the player. Other issues that add complexity to combat include weapon damage types and resistance bonuses, which require an intimate knowledge of the games systems to really get through the harder difficulties. Still, Tyranny is much more user-friendly than Pillars of Eternity, and the style of the character progression and mechanics is a breath of fresh air in an isometric RPG. Tyranny feels much more modern in terms of an RPG, less crunchy and numbers-heavy than before due to the progression changes, and the addition of extra powers and malleable character builds provides a lot of freedom for the player to role play, at least in the sense of character builds.
The rest of the game is a typical Obsidian RPG. The isometric perspective is well done, the environments are small but have enough secrets and points of interest to be interactive, the quest lines boil down into the standard categories of fetch quests, long talking sequences, and find and kill the enemies you need, and the music is pretty good, but nothing special to write home about. Graphically the game is much more stable compared to Pillars of Eternity but opts to go for a semi-stylized, almost cel-shaded look with a bronze-age era setting, although once you are in-game it’s not as noticeable as it was in character creation. There is nothing really standout in Tyranny except the mechanics and the premise, it is a smaller game in design while being a bigger game in ambition.
Tyranny shows how hard it is to be evil, and how hard it is to write evil. While the main story ultimately falls back on more clichés, the ideas behind Tyranny still provide a strong foundation for future titles in this world; we after all only see one corner of Kyros’ Empire and it happens to be the last part conquered. Tyranny has a lot of potential as a series, and while the over-reliance on combat and the major plot snags hold it back from being truly great, there is a lot of hope for the future. Evil is a tough nut to crack, but Obsidian has made a few fractures in the shell surrounding it; the next step is to break it wide open with a sequel. Otherwise, Tyranny will likely remain a cult classic RPG in the vein of Arcanum or Suikoden; great ideas that ultimately fall short of their full potential.
Tyranny was reviewed on PC (Affiliate) via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available DRM-Free on GOG (Affiliate)
Evil is a tough nut to crack, but Obsidian have made a few fractures in the shell surrounding it; the next step is to break it wide open with a sequel. Otherwise, Tyranny will likely remain a cult classic RPG in the vein of Arcanum or Suikoden; great ideas that ultimately fall short of their full potential.(Review Policy)
- Questioning the Nature of Evil...
- Great Class and Progression System...
- Creating Your Own Spells...
- ...with Too Many Evil Clichés in the Way.
- ...That Clashes with the Narrative Too Much
- ...Factional Politics Not as Nuanced