Obsidian Entertainment has a long and varied history with RPGs. Most of them are great experiences, some were unfinished, and others like Tyranny are revelations.
Tyranny, Obsidian’s follow-up to the crowdsourced Pillars of Eternity, turns the formula of good and evil on its head, with your character and team playing the bad guys. The end result is a terrific experience that adds some great new twists to a formula established years ago with Baldur’s Gate, and stands on its own as a new RPG classic.
As much as I loved Pillars of Eternity I often felt the project was patched together, and as with many Obsidian games, it seemed like there was much left on the cutting room floor. In the case of Tyranny the experience is coherent and refined from the beginning, and that consistent polished thread really made me recall the high points of the cRPG era when classics like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment were released. The story is interesting, the gameplay is truly fun and varied, and the characters have distinct personalities, which added to the hook this game has in me.
The concept of Tyranny is that the bad guys won. Imagine if Chinggis Khan had conquered and subjugated the whole world. That’s the picture painted in this game. The Overlord, a nebulous and ageless entity referred to as “he” or “she” depending on the speaker, has led a successful and lengthy campaign taking over most of the known world, which is called The Tiers. I played as a Fatebinder, a special agent of the Overlord who is dispatched to quell lingering pockets of resistance as the total domination of The Tiers is completed.
One of the more impressive features at the start of Tyranny appeared when I played through the Conquest prologue and established myself as a key member of the Overlord’s forces. In Conquest I had a series of choices that had widespread and lingering effects on my character and the world I was about to explore. They shaped both my character’s starting position and some of the key skills I would use throughout the game. I found it reminiscent of System Shock 2 where you initially choose a path and then further choose actions that will benefit certain skills; these are games with short story moments that flesh out your role. Tyranny does this as well and I found it very interesting. Check out a Let’s Play I did exploring the start of Tyranny and my choices in Conquest.
Following that Introduction, my character was thrust into a conflict that had two of the Overlord’s armies competing to be the key players responsible for ending the strife in the area. There are the ordered and elite troops called the Disfavored led by Graven Ashe, and the chaotic but numerous Scarlet Chorus led by The Voices of Nerat. Both generals wanted me to join their cause and eventually I did have to choose a path, which once again shaped the remainder of the story. I ended up choosing the Scarlet Chorus, and that caused strife with the Disfavored while I continued to try to end the last remaining resistance in The Tiers.
I found this very interesting, and it really showed how evil can tend to devour itself. Both sides were so interested in glory and power that they fought each other and the global enemy, sometimes to the detriment of the overall mission at hand.
There are many choices to be made throughout Tyranny. I could choose to kill or spare prisoners, hand them over to the Nerat, or set them free. I could even recruit for the Scarlet Chorus or indiscriminately kill everyone I met. Most of my actions had repercussions in the form of loyalty or fear adjustments with factions and companions. If I went against the Scarlet Chorus too often I would lose loyalty but maybe gain fear instead. Both emotions generate passive bonuses or abilities that can be used in battle. My companions also had loyalty and fear reactions depending on what I said or did in the general story or in direct conversation with them.
That was another dynamic that I found really interesting; it added a level of strategy to conversations that I never really cared about before in games like this. Choices always tend to have story impact, but here they affect powers and bonuses too. My only gripe is that loyalty and fear levels with the companions were pretty easy to unlock quickly in the first conversation run-through with them. A gradual release of dialog options would have set the tone far better, but it is mostly available at the beginning.
Obsidian has always been good at building interesting characters to interact with, and in Tyranny they are at the top of their game. From Tunin, your direct boss, to Graven Ashe and The Voices of Nerat, all the way down to NPCs and your companions, the characters are interesting and complex. As The Tiers were subjugated and amalgamated I was surrounded by companions from many different factions and backgrounds. Some of the more interesting are the siblings Barric and Verse who fought for different armies; Sirin, an enslaved Archon; Lantry, a Sage who joins your cause; and a Beastwoman. They all have distinct personalities and class paths that make them all intriguing to have in my party. The dialog among them is always good and all of them reacted in different ways based on my actions.
Having high loyalty or fear with your companions unlocks cool abilities called combo actions, powerful spells or abilities that you do with one of your teammates. These are offered as once per encounter or once per rest action, similar to those types of powers in D&D 4th Edition. Everyone on the team also has access to abilities from their two main skill branches, but my character got to choose from four skill branches plus faction powers. On top of this I also had the ability to create custom spells based on combining a pool of resources from three separate branches. Suffice it to say there is a depth of choice and strategy possible when battling foes.
I found that slowing down and picking and choosing abilities got me through sticky situations, but by the time I had top-tier powers at around level 13 or 14 I felt overpowered. Maybe that is the point, but very few battles were challenging (aside from boss fights) after I had built a large stable of abilities. Thinking back to the brutality of Baldur’s Gate 2, I wish Tyranny was more challenging, maybe not as deathly hard as that classic game, but with more of a strategic give-and-take than the game has in its current iteration.
Being an RPG Tyranny also has tons of loot to equip my character and team. In a nice touch some characters have item slots locked out, which adds to the strategy of choosing characters and items to equip. Sirin has a helmet that restricts her powers so she is locked out of helmets; the Beastwoman is too big for armor so she can only equip weapons and accessories. Top-tier legendary items also sometimes have abilities that can be used in battle, and these items also gain in power as they are used.
All the items are very well displayed and in typical cRPG form have backstories (if they are rare enough) and detailed stats. I also noticed that when teammates are wearing armor and helmets their icon displays the item when you are in dialog. That’s a cool addition and shows that the icon is not a canned image, but a real-time render. More powerful items and weapons also have glows or energy trails and these were well represented visually as I adventured through The Tiers.
Altogether this gave me a game that pulled me in and never let go. Tyranny has a depth of options for equipping characters, deciding the fate of The Tiers, and even choosing how much you want to annoy your factions and teammates. The game is chock full of puzzles, conspiracies, dungeons, and of course an overarching plot showing that my character is more than she seems. Aesthetically Tyranny is striking with a really distinct art style and fantastic effects and backgrounds, making it a great-looking game. Obsidian has taken all they have learned in the last decade as well as the success and freedom they explored with Pillars of Eternity and created an RPG that stands as high on my list as classics like Planescape: Torment and Baldur’s Gate 2, and that is high praise indeed.