I have played as the son of the God of Murder, as an amnesiac Lord of the Sith, as a hardboiled veteran monster hunter, as a fabled savior of the realm in an order of elite warriors, as the incarnation of Death…and never have I felt as powerful as in Tyranny. I mean, I got to lay waste to an entire region of the world with devastating earthquakes, consume a magical library-citadel in rivers of lava, or grip a fortress and the lands around it in a furious, unrelenting storm. And that’s just in the choose-your-own-adventure prologue.
Tyranny, Obsidian Entertainment’s latest nostalgia-RPG, is a game about power. Eschewing the traditional fantasy RPG’s novice, trainee, or variation of hapless pig-farmer who’s thrust into greatness, Tyranny’s narrative instead casts you right from the start as a “Fatebinder”, a respected—and feared if you so choose—general/judge who can command armies and pronounce binding verdicts as you see fit. You get to give the orders to attack, decide who should die, and declare which warlord is guilty of treason.
This feeling of power is impressively buoyed by an armada of small gameplay features. You get to design your own banner that flies on every building you capture and that features prominently on your companion characters. You have a “Power” meter that fills up when you capture locations, discover potent artifacts, or defeat significant individuals. You get to make people grovel and beg if they displease you. And my favorite: you get to send missives by carrier pigeon to nobles! There were honestly times where I had my characters take multiple back-to-back, eight-hour rests just so I could make in-game time pass and receive a reply by pigeon. There’s something about avian-mediated conversation (even if you never really see a bird: it’s just an icon) that’s so much more refreshing than plain old in-game dialogue. There’s more I want to say here about making players feel powerful, but for the sake of keeping spoilers at a minimum, let’s just say that Obsidian really knows how a stoke the power fantasy of a gamer-boy like me.
Of course, as we all know, with great power comes great bureaucratic responsibility. Tyranny presents one of the best diegetic (in-story) excuses I’ve seen for the barrage of mundane side-quests and micro-conversations that randos tend to fire at you. Who gets to keep what share of the loot? Is the sergeant being too brutal with the new recruit? Does the merchant’s trade permit hold water? In Tyranny, not only are these mini-missions fun, they also breathe life into the fact that, yes, your character is here for a reason, you have a job to do, and people expect you to do it. You’re supposed to mediate people’s minor issues. And if you decide to keep the loot for yourself, take the recruit under your own wing, or execute the (questionably criminal) merchant on the spot, that’s your call. You even get to confuse people by spouting convoluted legalese at them and then getting them to believe what you want through sheer confusion. Which, if you didn’t know, would be my dearest ambition were I actually a judicial agent for an all-powerful tyranny.
Also, I didn’t encounter a single fetch quest. Not one. I feel it’s important to mention that. Obsidian seems to have taken pains to trim the useless fat often found in RPGs: little pointless back-and-forth walking and small, focused dungeons made for a noticeably streamlined experience.
But let’s take a closer look at the word “Tyranny”, because game titles are important. The word “Tyranny” finds its roots in the Greek tyrannos, which meant an “absolute ruler unlimited by law or constitution”, and was used mainly to refer to those who usurped authority. No explicit connotation of evil acts or cruelty arose until the word matured in English. The game “Tyranny” is set in a world that for centuries has been controlled by an elusive but much-feared figure known as Kyros the Overlord. She’s clearly a conqueror, unafraid of inflicting terrible ruin on those who oppose her (or him: the game constantly and gleefully shifts Kyros’ gender because in-game, no-one really knows). But is she evil? Yes, some of her actions could be considered deplorable to many (and necessary to some), but does she possess a Sauron-like trait of “evil to the core”?
See what I’m trying to get at? This indifference to labelling something as inherently “bad” is one of the major themes in the game. Because for all my song-and-dance about the game being all about power, the game is really far more about what you do with that power. Tyranny embraces the Voldemortian ethos of “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.” There is no alignment system labelling you a damning “Evil”, or a beatific “Good”, no meter vacillating between an ominous red “dark side”, or a seraphic blue “light side”. If you decide to burn one of your detractors alive, you may receive congratulations for your tough stance. If you destroy the region’s breadbasket, you may be able to listen to the anguished stories of starving refugees. As a player, you get to construct your own ethical identity through your actions, through your relationships with NPCs and through the “wrath”, “loyalty”, “fear”, or “favor” you accrue from your companions and other power players—and yes, a companion can be both fearful and loyal to you simultaneously.
And you want to pay attention to your companions, because they really do feel like interesting and complex people. Talking with them (often at length) will reward you with cool dialogue and engrossing character development. Wanna get high with a sage? Wanna accidentally trade innuendo with a soldier trapped in his own armor, who by his own admission, has tried and failed countless times to masturbate? Interested in the guilt a bloodthirsty killer feels about letting her fellow warriors down? You probably will be as you play.
These systems are liberating in that they really puts the “R” back and “RPG”. You get to inhabit a character that’s very unlike you, and make decisions as them. The game is filled with choices, and each choice you make tells you a little more about who your character is. And as you’d expect from a retro-style RPG, your choices can have major consequences. Your decisions and shifting political relationships will determine how you progress through the plot, in quite major ways. And it’s telling that the game has a “story mode” where combat takes a back seat in order to let the player experience the narrative without hindrance, and not a “combat mode” where story is absent and it’s all gladiatorial fights. Obsidian is clearly deeply invested in storytelling.
That’s not to say that the game ignores combat. If you’ve played Pillars of Eternity, it’s similar— but, well, better. Your skills level up as you use them, giving you flexibility in your builds. The spell-crafting system lets you customize the kind of sorcerer you want to be, and even brutish-types can do a small bit of magic. You have these nifty companion abilities where you and a specific companion cooperate to execute really cool, and possibly a little over-the top, combo moves. (I’d heartily recommend the game’s harder difficulty levels, though, if you’ve ever played any other CRPG: the standard game is too easy, especially later on.)
Your reputation with different factions and characters lets you unlock new, unique abilities, and I will say that some of my story decisions were affected by the abilities I wished to get. Like, I REALLY wanted that wrath ability from the sages, so goodbye library! Goodbye the greatest repository of knowledge and culture in the world! You’ll make some nice kindling! Yeah, I kinda regretted that in the epilogue, but it served my short-term goals, right? And it was…err…necessary to maintain Kyros’ peace?
What I did not regret was playing 35 hours of Tyranny in one week. And then restarting the (very replayable) game. A hearty recommendation for for Tyranny.