Obsidian has a new grimdark fantasy game, Tyranny

March 22, 2016 by Kris Ligman

The all-new roleplaying game, from the developer behind Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity, might best be described as 'a Bronze Age Judge Dredd.'

Tyranny's hook is a simple one: imagine a world where evil won. Where Sauron defeated Aragorn and friends, say, or Darth Vader never had a change of heart. Capital-E type Evil. Imagine being born into a world where some horrible supernatural despot (possibly with very small hands) already controlled everything, and the best you could do is work within that reality.

If that sounds like it has the potential to either be the really good kind of dystopian fantasy or the really bad kind, you're not alone. But after seeing what I have of Tyranny, I'm at least tentatively optimistic for this game's brand of unrelenting pessimism.

We first caught a glimpse of Tyranny -- an isometric roleplaying game in the style of Pillars of Eternity and the old Infinity Engine games on which it is based, like Baldur's Gate -- at a press event last week in San Francisco. Obsidian is foregoing crowdfunding the game's production this time around, instead working directly with publisher Paradox Interactive (which previously helped distribute Pillars of Eternity) to deliver Tyranny straight into your hot little hands sometime later this year.

A different time and a different place

With a bombastic hook like 'what if evil won,' it'd be easy to write Tyranny off as yet another grimdark spin on Tolkien, but that's not quite what's going on here. For one thing, it's shooting for something a few thousand years older, and a tad more Mediterranean.

Game Director Brian Heins says Tyranny takes its aesthetic cues from "the end of the Bronze Age, entering into the Iron Age," or around 1200 BCE. It's not as clear in the stills or the teaser trailer (above), but armor and weaponry has a distinct Grecian flair, and the level of technology seen throughout the environments also more or less matches the setting. Don't expect an obsession with historical minutiae like you might find in one of Paradox's grand strategy games, though -- it's still an RPG at the end of the day, with experience points and a magic system, so a little leeway with historical accuracy is a given.

OK, so maybe it's history a la 300 more than Crusader Kings...

Oh, there's also the evil-god-controls-humanity thing, which is also maybe an outlier among the soberer entries of Paradox's catalog. As the player-character, you took part in said evil god's conquest, and now travel the land to further expand Kyros's reach.

"During character creation, you actually decide how that conquest played out, and what your character did during that conquest," says Heins. "Those choices shape the world you see in Tyranny. Each time you come back and make a new character, you see a different spin on the world dependent on your choices."

Oh dear, choices. I ask Heins if we can expect the same binary morality choices which are held up as a standard (and cliche) of games like this, and he assures me Obsidian is steering away from that angle. It's less about two choices, one objectively nice and one objectively dickish, than it is about making ambivalent decisions categorized in relative levels of Rat Bastard.

In the demonstration I attended, the player-character (known as a 'Fatebinder,' because 'Warden,' 'Commander' and 'Inquisitor' were all taken) is tasked with resolving a situation between a beastman and some locals. Not only does your purpose there depend on which factions you're allied with, it's never entirely clear what you're doing is a morally good idea: kill the beastman, and piss off the faction that needs him for information (but satisfy the mob calling for blood), or release him, pissing off the locals and potentially freeing a murderer and people-eater back into their midst.

It's possible the beastman has some tender redemption arc, maybe where you help him rescue his captive beastchildren (cubs?) but honestly that doesn't seem where Obsidian is going with it. Rather, if you've played Fallout: New Vegas at all, this seems like being drafted into Caesar's Legion right from the get-go and only having the option to satisfy gangs and petty warlords of varying influence from then on out.

"You're not the son of a farmer picking up a rusty dagger, killing rats, and becoming the hero of the age. You start out as someone in authority. You have the entire weight of Kyros's armies backing you in your decisions. You can think of it as a Judge Dredd character," Heins offers. "You can bring your brand of justice to the people you meet and the situations you find."

Players will be able to mix and match skills as well as craft their own spells, if you're into that sort of thing.

Bludgeoning the darkness to death

Tyranny's approach to combat is "classless," and anyone can use (pretty much) any weapon -- including magic staves, even if they make your armored Hercules protagonist look like a dork. How effective a given character is at a particular weapon depends on a combination of character traits and how much practice they've had with a given tool, and that extends beyond combat as well. The game will apparently reward the same amount of experience for solving a situation diplomatically as it would through pointy stabby negotiations, though how it allots that EXP will differ depending on what skills you use.

In other words, you may be a Bronze Age Judge Dredd, but you can choose to be a very non-violent Judge Dredd, if you put the time in. Hopefully this is an angle Obsidian is able to follow through to its conclusion, as other games that have promised this always seem to funnel the player back to combat eventually. And how great would it be if you got to the final boss (who I assume is your actual boss, that evil god I mentioned) and were able to just neatly talk him out of the whole conquest thing?

Apart from reducing the player's party size to four characters, gameplay shares a great deal in common with Pillars of Eternity and its predecessors, with an action-pause tactical combat system, attacks based on random number generators, and health points. Unlike Pillars of Eternity, the game is expected to ship with fully-functional companion combat AI, which Eternity obtained as a post-launch patch. If you've played virtually any modern squad-based RPG, companion combat AI will probably seem familiar to you: your companions act semi-autonomously based on preset roles (like 'healer' and 'the one that always dies'), while leaving the player the option to assume direct control if that AI ever stops working as intended.

Also, similar to the loyalty system in New Vegas, you can unlock new combo skills with your companions based on your rapport with them. However, unlike (say) Fire Emblem, these combo skills will be "mostly" limited to characters partnering with your avatar. Which honestly strikes me as a huge missed opportunity for Obsidian to attract the same passionate fanbase of shippers Bioware enjoys, but well, their loss, I suppose.

(One version of) Tyranny's overworld map. (One version of) Tyranny's overworld map.

For the twisted dark love of Kyros, Kris, stop adding your projections to these things

Look, it can't be helped, all right? Teasers like these are meant to invite our hopes, fears, and wishful thinking. The actual amount of information available for Tyranny right now is honestly scant -- we don't even have a firm release date -- and roleplaying game developers overpromising the level of 'player empowerment' and 'meaningful change' their games are able to offer has become such a cliche that even pointing it out has turned into a cliche.

That all being said, Obsidian would appear to have a good and understanding publisher in Paradox, one which is not likely to force an unfinished product out the door. And the subject matter is clearly of personal interest to Tyranny's key people, considering this is an internally-developed original setting rather than a licensed title. Whether those two elements will necessarily add up to something good is a matter for the future, but based on what I've seen with my own eyes, I'm at least interested in seeing where this game is going.

You'll often hear people lamenting how downbeat today's genre fiction is. Even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got a gritty reboot, for crying out loud. There's something to be said for the radical power of optimism in the face of all that, surely, but you can't deny how a bleak setting like Tyranny's can strike a chord in someone. It's the same reason why Star Wars's Finn is such a resonant, contemporary character: many of us grew up with the sneaking suspicion we were already part of an Evil Empire, where there were no good choices so much as varying degrees of bad ones, and adulthood didn't do much to disabuse us of that notion. So, what do we do now that we have some measure of control over our lives? Do we reject it? Do we use that power to make things a little better for someone else? Do we put all our skill points into Unarmed Combat when we should be boosting our Medicine stat?

I don't know. I guess we'll all have to find out together.

Kris Ligman is the News Editor for ZAM. In the interests of full disclosure, Kris was a Kickstarter backer on Pillars of Eternity, but has no financial or professional stake in Obsidian's current project. Argue with them on which was the best New Vegas DLC on Twitter @KrisLigman.