Tyranny: Sometimes Evil Wins

Tyranny, a new RPG game on PC developed by Obsidian with publisher Paradox just came out recently. I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface so far, as this is the sort of game I can see going on for a long time, but I think it’s worth looking at some of the many things it gets right to make a great RPG computer game.

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Obsidian Entertainment were the developers of a lot of great RPGs in the past such as Knights of the Old Republic II and Fallout New Vegas. Before the founders made the company they had previously worked on some classics including Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment and Baldurs Gate. Their biggest recent success was the Kickstarter campaign launched in 2012 to fund Pillars of Eternity, an old school RPG very much in the style of Baldurs Gate or Planescape that launched early last year and was widely praised for its return to the good old days of PC RPGs.

Right from the start it is easy to see that Tyranny is heavily based on Pillars of Eternity, with almost identical gameplay and interfaces. But with these games most of the value comes from the story, exploration, and roleplay potential. Despite Pillars receiving such praise last year I found myself getting slightly bored of it after a while. While I could see the great amounts of depth and detail in the game and story, it just didn’t grab me. It was a fairly basic fantasy world in which the player character, with whichever backstory you make or choose, suddenly becomes some sort of special chosen one with extra powers, and you need to figure out what happened and why from there. I can appreciate the open ended start, but I didn’t find it particularly compelling.

Tyranny however really had my attention before it even came out. The simple premise is that in this world, the Evil empire has already taken over, and you work for it in whichever way you see fit. As a player who usually struggles to take the evil route in RPGs and always ends up being the typical lawful good paladin type, I thought this might make an interesting change. And so far after playing it, it has more than lived up to expectations.

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To start with, on top of the interesting and fairly unique premise, the world that the game is set in is something more than just a standard fantasy one. Now I’m usually perfectly happy with a normal medieval fantasy world with elves and stuff, but it is nice to have a change now and again. The world of Tyranny is set in a roughly bronze age land where iron and the skill to work it is a closely kept secret. The overlord, Kyros, is a mysterious figure that is never seen, but spoken of as if he is a god, and his will is acted through his lords, called archons. In the game you work for the Archon of Justice named Tunon the Adjudicator as a ‘Fatebinder’, which I find the best way to describe as being a judge like Judge Dredd. The game is mostly based around the forces of Kyros having already conquered the last lands in the world that held out against him, but there is some rebellion still alive a few years later. You are sent to where this rebellion has just risen up to get the armies of Kyros to get a move on and quell them quickly. To back this up, you are trapped within the region along with the armies and rebels by the mysterious magic of Kyros, and then have to proclaim one of his ‘Edicts’ which is a great work of magic that can destroy cities or bring plagues or any number of great disasters, but with defined rules to enact or repeal them. I won’t go any further than that, but that’s where the game starts. 

However, the game actually starts much earlier than that, with character creation of course. At first it seemed very similar to Pillars of Eternity, with decent options to create your backstory and define your character, but then it went into a prologue called ‘Conquest’ where you get to develop you character even further, as well as influence the events that lead up to the beginning of the game. It takes you to a map screen, where you are given objectives and events in the war to take over this land. You then make decisions and these greatly affect how characters and factions will react to you, specifically the two major armies of Kyros in the region that squabble oppose each other at every turn. On the surface it seems that one is very ordered and disciplined, and the other is a large rabble of killers, quality vs quantity. But there is a lot more to them when you dig deeper throughout the game, they are both evil in different ways, and the way the justify their methods can be interesting and lead to some conflict in your own head over who to favor, and as a Fatebinder it is your job to judge them, weigh the options, and decide who is right, or at least less bad.

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These decisions you make really come down to how you want to play your character. Unlike many other so called RPGs these days, you are really expected to play a role and be your character. Despite the game premise setting you as one of the ‘bad guys’ there’s still a lot of options here. How bad are you gonna be? and in what ways? do you maybe want to work against the system from the inside? or do you just want to get on with your job efficiently? There’s a lot of morally ambiguous decisions at moments in the game, and they really allow you to flesh out your character in some great ways. Supporting this there are the mechanics that come from character creation and the prologue, like what backstory and stats you chose open up different dialogue options and actions. That isn’t anything new, but it is quite extensive here and really well done. Also, the actions you take influence the opinions of everyone in the game. You have to decide how you want people to see and react to you, in  either approval, anger, or fear. Major characters have their own opinions of you, such as your companions you can meet, and the main leaders such as the archons and your boss, and NPCs all are linked to the opinion the faction they are tied to and how they think of you as a whole. Again, this isn’t anything particularly groundbreaking, but it is done very well and genuinely influences things that happen unlike other recent games that try to do this.

Also, some of the dialogue options in this game are really great. If you chose a certain backstory, combined with your stats, you could be a really witty diplomat who can talk your way through most situations and manipulate people in clever ways. My approach was that my character used to be a pit fighter and was really strong, so I had a lot of options to just exert my physical strength to dominate and force people to do things, something that could go well with some of the people in this evil world who bow down to the strong, or could go poorly if you can’t back up your bravado. I would also combine this with the [Glare Silently] option that is usually there, which can turn out surprisingly well, and is pretty funny when you unnerve people just by staring at them.

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So overall, I would say that this is a really great RPG so far, with a ton of options and replay value, a refreshing premise, setting and world design, great dialogue, and an interesting story with a lot going on but simple enough to follow as long as you pay attention. If I had one criticism to make it is that I don’t particularly care for the combat in the game. This is that same problem I had with Pillars of Eternity, as it is that sort of combat with abilities and cooldowns. With things like that I really rather prefer turn based combat that I can really sink my teeth into rather than the cluster on abilities going off we get here. A good example of what I would have preferred is the recent Divinity: Original Sin. However, I found it to be improved here over Pillars, as the abilities are more interesting. Plus you can easily just pause throughout combat to take your time in harder difficulties, as well as set up your companion’s combat AI to do everything for you. Also the easy mode here is basically a  ‘just give me the story’ mode, which is a good option to have for people like me, who really mostly want to roleplay in their roleplaying game.

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