There are few positions in society more feared and admired than judges. Their word is law, and people’s futures often rest on their rulings. Games often task players to play judge and decide fates, but in Obsidian’s follow-up to last year’s Pillars of Eternity, they’ve taken it a step further. So does Tyranny present a case worth hearing, or should it be thrown out for contempt?
First thing’s first, there’s no need to worry about the conflict of good and evil in Tyranny, mostly because evil already won, about 400 years ago. The Overlord Kyros has conquered most of the world and now the campaign has ground to a halt in the Tiers, the last slice of earth to resist. You are a Fatebinder, a judge in service to Kyros and the second-in-command Tunon, dispatched to see what’s causing the rift between the two armies in the region and given a few days to fix it before everyone everywhere is killed for insubordination. Things go south, civil war breaks out, and it’s up to you to stop it, or use the chaos to your advantage and start your own resistance.
It’s difficult to really discuss the story, or even the story structure of Tyranny because of how many different ways there are to experience it. From the first moments of gameplay you’re given choices to make, and some of them completely re-write entire sections of the games. Some of the dialogue boxes in the first 15 minutes can create vastly different experiences for the next 15 hours, and the game demands multiple replays if you want to experience everything. It’s not just a matter of characters saying or doing different things, but entire sections of the game won’t be playable because of choices, and while that sounds terrible, it also means there’s a much greater reward in playing the game a second, third, or even fourth time around.
The actual plot strings are also far better than Pillars ever managed to present, and the more focused experience of Tyranny flows much better. There was rarely a moment of downtime, and information (both quest objectives and the “who, what, where, and why” of the world) were far easier to understand. I always knew where I was going and why, something that doesn’t happen as much in Pillars. There were also more interesting people to talk to, and Tyranny does a great job of presenting a wide cast of memorable people, all of whom have their own motivations and reasons for existing. At any moment you can pause the game and get lost in its expansive encyclopedia of backstory and lore, and during conversations important items will be highlighted for quick reference. For a game that’s absolutely front-loaded with world building it does a fantastic job of presenting it to the player.
Like Fallout: New Vegas before it, much of your time will be spent balancing your reputation between the different factions caught up in the conflict. There’s the two armies of Kyros, the focused and well trained Disfavoured and their stone faced leader Graven Ashe, and the chaotic and endless hordes of the Scarlet Chorus along with their leader the multiple personalities that make up the Voices of Nerat. Each army has their own distinct look and feel and the two warlords are some of the most memorable characters Obsidian has ever written. Beyond that there’s also the myriad of factions that make up the tiers, and they’re all interwoven into each other. Your actions in one village might change how another feels about you and rumours of your deeds will play a big part in your progression through the story. Every map has its own story to tell and some of the minor characters are incredibly detailed and interesting to learn about.
The actual gameplay is largely copied over from Pillars, which itself was just a modern re-working of Baldur’s Gate. You control a party of adventurers, this time limited to only four, and combat plays out in real time, but can be paused to issue orders or examine the fight by slamming spacebar. There’s a few new tweaks this time, like the new spell system that lets you create spells based on words of the ancient languages you find, or the combo abilities you earn based on your follower’s loyalties or fears. Still, the same basic formula of clicking around to move the party, talking to people or merchants, and fighting when necessary is the same stuff that was perfected nearly 20 years ago.
Unfortunately the gameplay just isn’t as satisfying as Pillars, and it’s difficult to pin down exactly why. The smaller party size plays into it, since it’s harder to have more specialised characters. Healing potions are used heavily over healing spells, since having the healer not throwing spears means taking longer to end fights. The combo moves are a double edged sword, since activating them takes half the party out of the fight till they’re finished, even if the animation work on them was amazing to watch. Worse, they only work between party members and the player character, and it would’ve been great to see NPC-NPC combo moves added to the roster.
Another issue seems to be that combat is less balanced for four characters, and fights are often either too easy or too hard, rarely hitting a comfortable middle spot. By the mid game there were so many legendary items equipped that none of the fights, save the occasional bosses, offered any real challenge, and even the bosses were just a matter of spamming special attacks over and over. It’s hard to tell what exactly went wrong, but somehow playing Tyranny never played quite as smoothly as Pillars did, and after playing it through returning to Pillars just felt more right. It’s never a bad game, or hard to play, but as far as CRPGs go it just doesn’t manage to scratch the same itch its predecessors have.
Another possible contributing factor is the new leveling system. Unlike its predecessors, characters in Tyranny level similar to what the Elder Scrolls series has adopted, insofar as your skills get better as you use them. This makes sense for a lot of reasons, but it also made it harder to feel excited about character progression. Worse, the system was easily exploitable and didn’t feel well implemented. For instance, an early side quest tasks you with convincing a group of soldiers to break their vows and join Kyros’ army. The first attempt at speaking to the soldiers ended in a massacre, as dozens of them swarmed my party, but after I went to a few different maps and disarmed some traps I suddenly had enough subterfuge ability to convince them to leave. It felt less like I had used my character’s abilities properly, and more like I had just broken the game a little, especially since I kept gaining levels in that skill and never once failed a speech check.
While combat failed to really connect, the conversation side of the gameplay is a new high for CRPGs. Every faction and major character has admiration and fear levels against the player and based on your actions and dialogue choices these fluctuate. Where this really shines is your companions, who actually earn new abilities based on if they love or loath you. There’s a mountain of written material, and while it can sometimes feel daunting to read through everything, since voice-acting is reserved for only a few select characters, it’s all worth it and this is some of the best writing of Obsidian’s career.
Graphically Tyranny sets a new high for isometric RPGs. While the maps are smaller than Pillars, they also have much greater detail poured into them, and every map felt completely unique and interesting to look at. The entire aesthetic of the game was pulled off well, creating a world evocative of the Roman occupation of Britain in the late Iron Age, with crazed tribals in the wild and the more cultured people hiding behind walls. This detail extends to the characters and every NPC managed to look unique enough to keep them memorable, with the player’s party particularly noticeable at all times.
The audio work in Tyranny is good, but not really great. Music is largely made up of horns, drums, and strings, and while some of the tracks are moody and tone-setting, a lot of them just seem to loop annoyingly in the background. Voice acting was minimal and ranged from OK to decent, with only one or two standout performances. It’s a bit unfortunate there wasn’t more, especially considering the amount of dialogue, but that’s never been a big expectation in these types of games. Sound effects are well done, with fights being boisterous and chaotic enough, as well as some excellent work on the passive sound effects like footsteps or the audio that plays when you open containers. Overall a decent sounding game, but nothing stellar.
Overall, Tyranny is a game about balances, both in terms of the laws it tasks you with passing, and its own performance. For every great moment of the plot there’s an unsatisfying combat section, and for every memorable character there’s a boring and uninteresting dungeon crawl. It’s not as much of a ground-breaker as Pillars of Eternity was last year, but Tyranny continues to show off Obsidian’s best qualities as RPG makers and their incredible ability to craft interesting worlds and characters. As an exploration of a world ruled by evil, it’s an interesting piece, and it’s worth playing for fans of Obsidian’s prior works, if only to experience the excellent world they’ve managed to construct.