The rebels had me cornered. I had just two allies with me, both warriors from bitter rivals in the overlord’s mercenary ranks, and my foe outnumbered me both in terms of swords and spells. Then the renegade from the conqueror’s justice opened her mouth.
I had her.
We had a nice chat, and she left thinking I, a powerful emissary of the overlord, was open to negotiating instead of slaughtering the rebels. As news of my leniency spread through their ranks, I pressed the advantage, launching a campaign of slaughter as I cut my way to their leadership.
Tyranny is Obsidian Entertainment’s latest role-playing game, and it’s out today on digital game sellers like Steam for PC and Mac. This studio has a long history of making RPGs (some of its hits include Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity, and its members have worked on other classics like Planescape: Torment), and it’s the second such game from Sweden’s Paradox Interactive (a publishing house known for deep strategy games). The conceit here is that you’re playing the bad guys in a world where evil has won, and it’s up to you to decide how evil moves forward — with a gentle hand or a vicious whip. Imagine Obsidian (which did Star War: Knights of the Old Republic II) built a game about playing as an agent of the Empire after Palpatine cast down Jedi and declared himself Emperor.
After playing 12 hours of the campaign, I’m impressed with Tyranny’s approach, its script and choices, and how encounters with enemies feel more intense and strategic than they do in the studio’s previous RPG, Pillars of Eternity. You play as an emissary from the warlord’s agents of justice. I have a few concerns about your foes’ power and intelligence, and I’m curious about how my choices play out or if I end up just making a slew of decisions that ram me into one direction regardless of how I choose. But right now, Tyranny is looking like Obsidian’s best game in its 13-year history.
What you’ll like (so far)
A puzzle of choices
Most role-playing games pit you against would-be conquerors, not the warlords themselves. It’s a twist that changes your approach to the story. Do you want to show mercy? Do you want to take the bloodiest path to victory? Or do you want to play all sides as you advance your own agenda?
Tyranny begins by giving you a short narrative prologue in which you make choices on how you participated in Kyros’s campaign, and those decisions carry over. You companions and other characters reference those decisions, setting up your story.
Early on, you also find yourself balancing the bickering and desires of two mercenary camps, the Disfavored (a militaristic, no-nonsense group) and the Scarlet Chorus (a chaotic assemblage of rabble and malcontents). The fighting between the two leaders spills down to their followers. But you need both factions to advance your goals — or so the story leads you to believe — so finding a way to curry favor not just with the factions but also their representatives, while also advancing your goals, makes you read all the text. It’s like assembling a puzzle.
As much as I enjoy Pillars of Eternity, I didn’t pay painstaking attention to the story like I am with Tyranny, and it’s this puzzle of decisions that’s making it so rewarding for me thus far.
Your party members react to both your choices and the words of each other, and you see this in just the text but their pictures. I liked seeing Verse of the Scarlet Chorus make cover her ears while I asked Barik of the Disfavored about some … ahem, performance issues … from the big guy. I found this delightful.
Combat feels more challenging
Tyranny has the standard split of character roles (tank fighters, damage-dealing rogues and archers, and spellcasters). Nothing new with those. But compared to Pillars of Eternity, fights feel not just more fluid but more difficult as well.
It starts with the spell system. Tyranny doesn’t have a standard collection of spells. You mix-and-match symbols you learn and find to create your spellbook. You may fire off a frost spell, but you can add tweaks to its range or effects to it. This also breaks your spellcasters from archetypes, should you wish. My mage focuses on atrophy magic, but I also enjoy throwing out an illusion spell that makes the target has fallen into a pit. This is a good way to either soften up an enemy for your tanks and archers to take out or stall the odds in your favor when you find yourself outnumbered by too many foes.
Tyranny also has a combo system with your “hero” and other party members. A combo with Verse of the Scarlet Chorus can leave a foe on the ground prone, leaving it open to a bloody follow-up from your character. Lantry, a sage who fought with the rebels, is a healer who has a special heal for the hero. I found myself relying on these to get through tough battles, and I appreciated being able to pump out a little extra firepower or healing when I needed it.
A Roman flavor
Most fantasy RPGs feel like they’re stuck in either the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. Tyranny gives me the sense of playing as a leading figure in a Roman army. Iron is a vital resource, as many foes (and allies as well) don bronze arms and armor. The bureaucracy jockeying for favor in Kyros’s army also puts me in place of histories I’ve read about Rome. It’s a different take on a fantasy world, one that’s enticing me to play when I should be doing others things instead.
What you won’t like (so far)
Foes make some dumb decisions
I know why Kyros won. His foes are dumber than a bag of hammers.
In combat, the A.I. isn’t good at positioning its units to cut off party members. It doesn’t try to isolate my spellcasters. Some of the battles are hard, but I find that difficulty comes from either being outnumbered or poor tactics on my part (that entropy spell of mine never works as well as I think it should).
I hope future patches improve the A.I.’s tactical smarts.
Conclusion (so far)
Knights of the Old Republic 2 is one of Obsidian’s masterworks. Its storytelling stands out in Fallout: New Vegas and Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer as well, along with the trial scene in Neverwinter Nights 2. So far in my playthrough, Tyranny channels the studio at its best when it comes to its world-building, and I’m interested in seeing where the faction-building and my relationships with my party go from here.
But good could be just a little smarter.
Tyranny is out now on digital game retailers for PC and Mac. The publisher gave GamesBeat a PC download code for the purposes of this review.