Writers love to subvert tropes. They’re the tools of their trade after all, and as much as they establish certain genres, often working against them produces far more fascinating. Today’s example does exactly that, as Tyranny sticks to the old fantasy tropes of ancient past civilisations, a war between good and evil, and a tyrannical overlord then twists them. Not only is the war long over, but the bad guys won, and you’re no hero but a Fatebinder AKA the overlord’s enforcer.
The idea of playing the villain is admittedly hardly original, with the famed Dungeon Keeper revelling in its cartoonish sadism; yet Obsidian has pushed to add considerable depth to the concept. The situations you find whilst serving as Sauron’s personal Judge Dredd, are far from completely black and white, and the story serves as an exploration of the problems which would plague such a domineering empire.
Rather than setting up situations with “this is wrong, but you’re doing it anyway” morality, Tyranny instead approaches the setting as if it is a different culture. Not an inherently wrong one, but a brutal and unforgiving place nevertheless, and ruled with an iron fist. Yet the moment you think things have gone too far, there will be enough shades of grey to hold your interest, and a few interesting twists to boot. Sometimes the oppressed masses are being mistreated for a reason, and in trying to mediate events you can only make things worse.
Naturally, upholding the law against major powers will earn you a few major enemies, but how you act about them ultimately shifts certain aspects of the world. Each has their own traditions and codes, some of which might be odd or amoral but you will earn favour by playing to them. These choices can influence multiple decisions, from how certain leaders view you to who serves as the major power of the land itself. Yet, try to play favourites and you can end up making an enemy of your boss. What makes the system truly interesting isn’t simply the sheer impact of these choices however, but the fact nothing is forgotten. Rather than the usual reputation meter, you have the Favor/Wrath bars. Each will rise or fall depending upon your decisions, and offer passive stat buffs, but it also means that your positive actions do not erase the choices which irked them. This naturally offers a staggering amount of replay value, and even the first two hours alone have dozens of choices which dramatically alter later events.
The core gameplay itself is largely what you would expect from Obsidian by this point, sticking to the tried and tested Baldur’s Gate style system. While there has been little evolution over past games it remains a solid build for an RPG, and encourages the use of abilities whilst punishing those who simply spam them. The main difference this time is largely down to the vastly improved pathfinding system, and the greater focus upon combining certain powers to break enemies. In effect, the developer stuck with what worked best in the past, and that seems to have worked for the best here.
With all this said, however, there are a few irritating factors which holds it back from a perfect score. For starters, the old Obsidian issue of front-loading masses of information on the player rears its head again, meaning there’s little opportunity to ease yourself into the setting. This can make the start especially daunting given the important story-shaping decisions which take place at the very start. In addition to this, certain characteristics and backgrounds have definite advantages over others. Drop a substantial number of points into Lore from the start and choose the Conquest background element, and you’ll have a distinct advantage over other characters when it comes to dialogue related interactions. A better balance in both cases would have definitely improved the first act, but a more notable issue is the control interface. The inventory screen in particular can be a nightmare to navigate, and merely looking through your loot can bring the experience to a screeching halt.
Despite a few minor shortcomings, Tyranny is nevertheless an astounding success even in a month brimming with fantastic games. This is easily the strongest choice driven dark fantasy outing since the Witcher series, and the astoundingly level of replay value alongside its strong narrative arc is a testament to Obsidian’s skill as a developer. If you have even the slightest investment in fantasy RPGs, make this one an essential purchase for this month.
TYRANNY / DEVELOPER: OBSIDIAN ENTERTAINMENT / PUBLISHER: PARADOX INTERACTIVE / PLATFORMS: MICROSOFT WINDOWS, OSX / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW