Release date: November 10th 2016
The North is solidly under the control of the Overlord, and now they turn their hungry gaze South to the Tiers. The Overlord’s armies are strong and the fractured Southern nations are unable to unite, even in the face of certain doom. This sounds like your typical RPG plot, and it is, however the whole conquest takes place during character creation and instead of being the plucky adventurer destined to save the world, you’re one of the jerks doing the conquering.
Right, time to get the fantasy jargon, which Tyranny is surprisingly light on, out of the way. Kyros the Overlord is the Big Bad. Their most powerful servants are called Archons, who are way more powerful than your average mage, but not on the same level as Kyros. Tyranny casts you in the role of a Fatebinder, a sort of judge/adjudicator/trouble shooter in service of the Archon of Justice. An uprising has occurred in the Tiers and the two Archons who are supposed to be taking care of it are taking way too long. You’ve been dispatched to sort out whatever is causing the hold-up and get the war machine chugging along again.
Imagine Palpatine sending a hand-picked agent to ask Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin what the fuck they were playing at and why the Rebellion hadn’t been crushed yet. And to smack Vader with a rolled-up newspaper whenever he got a bit too choke-happy. That’s your job. You’re competent and well-trained (you can even *gasp* READ!), but have no real power beyond the threat of who you work for, which makes your encounters with the Archons suitably tense. You feel like Theo Rossi inLuke Cage and it feels gooooood.
It’s a great premise for an RPG, and consistently well-executed. Lean and focussed, every plot line and side quest feeds into this Evil Empire Middle Management fantasy. There’s no bloat, which is remarkably refreshing at a time when it seems like every major RPG franchise has felt the need to strap on huge, bland and largely pointless open worlds. When I completed my first play through, I completed every quest given to me and thoroughly explored every area. None of it felt extraneous and there was none of the usual ludonarrative dissonance that comes with picking fifty flowers and fetching someone’s laundry when the fate of the world is in your hands.
This tightness translates into a relatively slight completion time of around 24 hours. It’s still a hefty time investment compared to most games, but it’s considerably lighter than Bioware or CD Projekt’s latest offerings. It’s an RPG that you’re going to be able to finish, which isn’t just a boon for people who don’t have the time or inclination to plough dozens of hours into a single game. The manageable length means that replaying the game isn’t such a daunting task, and Tyranny is a game you’re going to want to replay.
Tyranny’s tight focus allows for a great deal of freedom of choice within your appointed role. Even before you’ve left character creation, you’re making decisions that will effect your entire game in profound ways. Entire settlements change hands, fame and infamy are gained, characters you don’t even know exist yet will come to love or despise you. This doesn’t just result in small changes, but recontextualises entire quests.
One simple mission involves a guy called Gino who has witnessed some Disfavored soldiers being naughty. You talk to him, find the evidence that holds up his story and decide what to do from there. Typical RPG stuff. What changes is how you encounter him. If the Disfavored are controlling the town, which is based on a decision you make during character creation, Gino is in hiding because there’s a bounty on his head for a crime he didn’t commit and you’re asked to bring him to justice. If you left the town in someone else’s hands, the Disfavored don’t have that authority, so they’ve spread vicious rumours instead, and Gino himself asks for your help getting to the bottom of the matter.
Giving the player a specific role, but great freedom within that role isn’t new to RPGs, but Tyranny takes the concept further than its peers. It’s comparable to Mass Effect allowing you to favour the Asari over your fellow humans, or to tell them all to go screw themselves and work for Saren instead. It’s not afraid to thrust hard decisions on you and force you to live with the consequences, or to cut off certain options before you even know they’re available. There was an entire region (out of four) that I wasn’t able to visit during my first game. When Tyranny tells you “No!” it’s always because of your actions and that makes all the times it says “Yes!” even better.
Under the hood is a robust reputation system that builds on the one Obsidian developed for Fallout: New Vegas. Your positive and negative reputation with every faction and major character is tracked separately. Do you inspire respect or hatred? Are your followers there out of loyalty or fear? You’re not going to be able to make everyone love you, even the ones who are supposed to be on your side. If, like me, you tend to try for solutions that make everyone happy, you’re going to be disappointed. Deliciously, delightfully disappointed.
While Tyranny is about being the bad guys, it’s not the puppy-murdering, mustache-twirling pantomime villainy available to you in, say, Knights of the Old Republic. You’re an agent of a colonial power who is just doing their job. Sure, there are depraved killers to be found, but there are also plenty of nice, likeable folks who are proudly bringing Kyros’ Peace to the squabbling, uncivilised South. The epitome of this is the Archon Graven Ashe, a large, bearded general who genuinely loves and cares for his troops like family, while simultaneously endorsing scorched earth tactics and being really, really racist. He’s manifest destiny personified and given a really big mace. The evil in Tyranny is rational and normalised and frequently mundane, which is why it’s frighteningly, uncomfortably realistic, and indeed timely, in this trash fire of a year.
It would be easy for Tyranny to fall into the trap of trying to be deep while being full of horrible bigoted fantasy tropes, however Obsidian have deftly avoided this. There’s no guff about whiter-than-white elves being discriminated against and no reliance on fantasy races or nations being stand-ins for real world oppressed groups. While visual character customisation is limited, the skin tones and portraits available are nicely diverse and there’s even a small selection of body types, although more variety here would have been appreciated. NPCs are similarly diverse, with the egalitarian North and kinda-matriarchal South coming across with plenty of women in positions of power and martial prowess. I didn’t spot any trans characters, however other LGB folks are well-represented and homosexual relationships and marriage are clearly no big deal in the setting.
While my usual caveat of being white and thus not exactly qualified to speak on matters of race stands, I feel that Obsidian have done a sterling job on the representation front. Instead of avoiding these issues by defaulting to straight, white and patriarchal, Tyranny allows players to be themselves and see themselves without having to deal with discrimination. As a queer woman, this is what I feel the standard approach to fantasy settings should be.
Combat is where Tyranny lets itself down. It’s routine, there’s too much of it and it’s entirely unavoidable. It’s far from the worst example of Baldur’s Gate-style real-time-with-pause combat and I’m quite taken with the underlying mechanics, which it shares with Pillars of Eternity. Even the worst-paced dungeon sections in the game don’t come close to the interminably slog of Dragon Age’s Deep Roads. However, after playing Age of Decadence (which I couldn’t help but think about during the game, thanks to the similar Roman-esque setting) and revelling in being able to talk or sneak my way through the entire game, it all feels rather forced and unnecessary.
It’s also kinda dull. I’m no fan of this kind of RPG combat, preferring the extremes of turn-based or full on action, and tend to play games in this style on the easiest difficulty in order to speed through them. I still found myself turning up the difficulty to normal early on in order to avoid boredom, and if I’d been particularly wanting a challenge, I would have had to crank it up again towards the end of the game. While I’d like to have seen better non-combat options, it certainly isn’t a deal breaker, and the pacing of fights, puzzles and NPC encounters are generally good enough to avoid boredom, even on repeat play throughs.
In spite of these flaws, Tyranny is an incredibly well-crafted game. While early Obsidian titles had troubled developments and a not-entirely-undeserved reputation for being buggy and unfinished, Tyranny and its brighter, more conventional sibling Pillars of Eternity ooze experience and craftsmanship. As much as I love the scope and flash of RPGs developed by the likes of Bioware and Bethesda, they’re very much weighed down by the expectations of AAA game development and I’m glad that Obsidian have the freedom to create such a thought-provoking and engrossing game without having to worry about budgeting for all those fully-voiced and animated conversations.
It saddens me to say, then, that I’m left feeling Tyranny is destined to become an overlooked gem. Even the majority of RPG aficionados I speak to have barely heard of the game. I foresee many “You haven’t playedTyranny? You really need to play Tyranny!” conversations happening in my future. Please don’t be one of the people I have that conversation with. Tyranny is by far the best RPG I’ve played this year and totally deserving of your time and money.