The last two decades have proven that Role Playing Games can prosper beyond the Tolkien stereotype of Good which must always prevail against Evil. Sure, there are cases which compromised to a certain degree and went down the morally ambiguous path. The Dragon Age series is a prominent example along with their Grey Warden “heroes”. Always choosing white or occasionally donning grey, black is rarely represented from a player’s perspective.
I am not a fan of conformity and it should come as no surprise that Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is one of my favorite video games of all time and an excellent RPG which features absolutely no “good guys”. In Tyranny, I shall get to role play a new character whose moral compass cannot shift from left to right and black to white. Another one of the damned and the fallen. Obsidian Entertainment is the dev team behind Tyranny and several other excellent RPGs which count among my favorites, such as Fallout: New Vegas, Alpha Protocol and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II.
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You’re a Fatebinder, a travelling judge in service to the Archon of Justice, Tunon. The closest equivalent I can think of in historical terms, would be an inquisitor. Yes, you’re definitely not one of “the good guys” yet the game doesn’t force players to excel in acts of cruelty and upholding the law can be achieved in a rational, unsympathetic manner without abusing your position. The Archons are powerful mages which once ruled over certain nations and domains until The Overlord defeated and forced them to bend the knee. Within Kyros’ Empire, each Archon is assigned a certain role which goes beyond mere administrative duties. Tunon is the de facto governor of The Tiers, a last bastion of defiance within an otherwise conquered continent named Terratus.
The sheer amount of lore and information which players have access to from the very first minutes of starting Tyranny, may be initially overwhelming but every little piece of the puzzle falls into place and it became obvious to me that the developer left no stone unturned in terms of details relating to this fictional, high fantasy setting. Certain elements may have been inspired from mythology, yet for most of the time, Tyranny presents an entirely new narrative which role playing games were in dire need of. While players shall have to mold their character from a series of presets and just under human form, the subtle differences between classes and origins along with initial choices detailing the first two years of the Tiers’ Conquest, shall have a significant impact on how the factions will interact with the player.
I chose the Diplomat origin along with mage skills and inclination towards magic. Having to roleplay as someone who wishes to avoid bloodshed as much as possible, I felt that it would be an even bigger hypocrisy in tune to the role of judge, jury and executioner which entitles all those bearing the “Fatebinder” moniker. Not the strongest of characters, his combat proficiency being sidelined by cunning and manipulative ways while his loyalty to Kyros’s cause remains firmly embedded along the notion that resistance is futile. I will explain exactly why I decided to “play it safe” and not start a rebellion. If you’re even remotely familiar to Obsidian’s past projects, you know by now that this developer emphasizes on pure freedom of choice. That includes the path towards anarchy.
One of New Vegas’ achievements is actually an anarchist slogan: “No Gods, No Masters”. Kyros isn’t the type of Evil you can vanquish by the swing of a few legendary swords. The antagonist can be described instead as a subtle force, not through its destructive potential but from the perspective of the influence which the Overlord seems to exercise over his vanquished enemies. By offering the chance to join him and serve in his future conquests, the advantages seem to outweigh the risks of future opposition. It’s less Sauron and more like a collection of traits found in Roman Emperors, such as the kind of cold pragmatism which is built upon a shaky foundation and equally so loyalties. Breaking enemies from all points of view until they become your servants is definitely not Chaotic Evil. I’d say that it falls in the Lawful spectrum instead if we’re to judge Tyranny by Dungeons & Dragons’ alignment scale. Yet power is such a fickle concept…
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Complex storyline and cast of character, just the way I like my RPGs. Any “invisible” antagonist whose power can still be felt across the game world, is a true challenge worthy of any anti-hero, such as the Fatebinder you’ll get to guide through Tyranny. If Kyros is abstract and has yet to show his form or motivations, his Archons have distinct personalities which shall come clashing in a civil war within the already war-torn Tiers region. The main character gets caught in the middle, naturally. Sides shall have to get picked and supported or betrayed. I really could continue writing another thousand words just about the factions, plotlines or quests, but you must enjoy discovering them yourself.
Unity Engine powers this RPG masterpiece and offers high quality 3D assets & characters over skillfully drawn 2D backgrounds. This stylistic hybrid proves to be the perfect compromise (even if I wish express it without any negative connotation) between beauty and stability. A fully 3D environment doesn’t quite work efficiently for isometric video games and players would require powerful hardware to fully take advantage of the graphic overhaul. Neverwinter Nights and its direct sequel stand as eloquent examples of this. Tyranny is gorgeous and I couldn’t find a single flaw in any department, let alone the graphics or its stability. It scales perfectly on 4K resolution and no frame rate dips were encountered at all.
It really is a far cry from the days of Baldur’s Gate and I’m glad that this old school style of role playing games hasn’t bit the dust yet. In fact its popularity isn’t even endangered and titles such as Tyranny, Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera are proudly carrying the torch and legacy of genre staples released almost 20 years ago. The cutscenes come in the form of drawings which remind me of comic books and what truly pleased me about Tyranny, is how easy it is for anyone to hide the entire HUD, pause the game at any time and simply zoom in or out thus turning those screenshots into wonderful desktop backgrounds.
Voice acting is top notch and the same can be said about the soundtrack. Though the number of NPCs which have recorded lines is rather low, the important characters such as the Archons, some of their minions and the companions joining your party, all sound convincing. Be aware that swearing is integral to the dialogue and personalities of some NPCs. Both in written form and audio, yet it certainly didn’t bother me. Overall, Tyranny’s sounds complemented the visuals.
You know the RPG you’re about to play is going to be great, when you realize that you’ve spent over an hour just in the Character Creation screen. cRPG, to be exact. That “C” stands for Computer more than for Classic, yet both apply and relate to the game’s structure, combat sections and last but not least, the leveling system. I’m glad that Tyranny opted for the meritocratic method of skill level up instead of gathering dozens of points and attributing them to areas in which you had no previous interest or experience. This method was quite successful in the Elder Scrolls series or to keep the isometric reference alive, the Dungeon Siege trilogy. In other words, if you wish to be a competent swordsman or archer, you better train yourself by actually using that weapon choice throughout the game.
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The plotline is structured in three Acts and players have very many options in regards to faction support, party composition and even quest approach choices. When I wrote above that I preferred some of my combat-oriented companions to do the skull bashing for me, I meant it so I could focus on doing the eloquent talking/negotiating and defusing as many conflicts as possible. Arguments mustn’t degenerate into a bloodbath at every turn and encounter. Afterall, pacifying a region implies that you still have living and healthy new subjects to govern. “Kyros’ Peace” isn’t always a sarcastic remark and I fully intended to role play that into the Tiers as a Fatebinder who knows where his loyalties and duties stand. Feel free to bash as many digital skulls as you like though, since Tyranny or I won’t judge you.
As for scenery & location diversity, the game map features several dozen points of interest, many of which contain plenty of combat and loot potential. Large settlements are few but this is a game design choice, not an oversight. The Tiers are seen as the last patch of land to be conquered on the continent, so it’s logical to assume that it holds little economic, cultural or strategic significance for the Overlord’s Empire, on the larger scale of schemes. A melting pot of disorganized city-states which ironically fell swiftly since they were more busy with in-fighting and petty scandals instead of uniting in front of the impending doom. “United we stand, divided we fall” rings true and that is precisely what a rebellious Fatebinder must do, if he wishes to defy his former masters.
Enemy types are just as diversified as the weapons and spells which can be used against them. Keep in mind that most unavoidable combat scenes are not going to be easy and they are meant to represent that through “boss fights” which put your tactical skills to the test. The Pause button isn’t there for screenshots, afterall. Use it in good faith and learn as much about your allies as you do in the case of your foes. The companions usually excel in a certain skillset which becomes obvious from the start. You still have the classical tank fighter or ranged/dual wielding rogue along with some potent spellcasters.
You cannot overcome violent encounters by yourself, so it’s wise to equip and level up the party members in such a manner as to assist and protect the main character. Another reason I went straight for a mage type, is Tyranny’s attention towards custom spells which in the late game stage, can really light up the screen and obliterate entire mobs of low-level foes. Early on, mages are glass cannons as in most other role playing games and as always, efforts and patience are rewarded in the long run. It’s worth it.
This game doesn’t deserve the negative reviews it received so far on Steam. If such a title bores you in any way, than it was your own mistake when purchasing something without being fully aware what it represents. Its sheer replay value alone not to mention, fascinating story and perspective onto morality, should hint that this isn’t a superficial attempt at high fantasy. If you were a fan of the classic RPGs at the start of PC gaming, you can’t possibly be disappointed by Tyranny. If you’re a new player which is still curious enough and patient, you still won’t find any flaws to this title. I’m looking forward to the sequels and future expansions, since Terratus has so much more to offer and Kyros deserves either a loyal subordinate or fierce opponent. The choice is yours but Evil always finds a way.
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.