Tyranny

Tyranny is an old-school RPG made by Obsidian Entertainment as a follow-up to the reasonable success of Pillars of Eternity. It’s… solid is probably the best word for it.

The basic premise is that and evil overlord Kyros rose up to conquer the world… and won.

The game takes place in a wake of the latest success of Kyros. The last free countries were conquered because they could not forge an alliance even in the face of a major threat, and now nothing stands between Kyros and world domination.

Not everything is fine under the new regime, however. While the free countries have surrendered and signed a peace treaty, the last remnants of their armies staged a rebellion shortly afterwards, and two armies of Kyros stationed there (the Disfavored, an elite force that makes up for small numbers with rigorous discipline and great skill, and the Scarlet Chorus, a rampaging horde led by a madman) are more invested in bickering with each other than doing anything productive.

To solve the issue, Kyros issued an Edict: a powerful conditional spell capable of affecting whole countries and a major reason for Kyros’ success in the war. The Edict states that either the stronghold of the rebellion would be conquered in seven days or everyone in the valley where said stronghold is located, rebels and Kyros’ armies alike, would die.

You play as a Fatebinder, a servant of the Archon of Justice charged with imposing Kyros’ laws where it’s needed and resolve disputes. Basically, Specter from ME but evil. Among other duties, Fatebinders also carry Kyros’ Edicts to declare them where Kyros dictates so their effect can take hold. You were chosen to carry the latest Edict and become trapped in the valley along with everyone else, forcing you to make sure that the armies would actually accomplish the task set before them before you all perish.

Well, as I said, the game is mostly just solid, which applies to both gameplay and plot.

Gameplay-wise, Tyranny is a pretty standard tactical RPG similar to Baldur’s Gates, only more polished. If you like the genre, you would like it. If you don’t, the gameplay would probably at least be tolerable.

The game lacks classes and is entirely skill-based. Skill ranks increase the more you use skills, which honestly a mechanic I don’t like much. I prefer having more control over character growth, plus it can easily lock you to a certain party configuration: use some characters long enough, and the others become obsolete since their skills are way lower than that of active characters.

I did like the spell creation system. It’s simple but reasonably versatile. Basically, you have a number of sigils: fire, ice, atrophy, emotion, etc. – that serve as spell foundation and define the prime effect (damage for fire, debuff for atrophy, etc.). Then you have expressions that define how the spell is cast (touch, distance, aura, etc.). And you have accents that modify spells farther (giving it more range, making it apply to an area, lowering cooldown, etc.). The only thing I didn’t like is that when you use a spell, all spells with the same sigil go into cooldown. It does mean that maintaining versatility in sigils is encouraged, which is good, but that also means that spell creation is less about designing spells for different situations and more about designing spells that are always useful since you want to cast spells constantly to increase their relative skills and with limited spell slots you can’t afford situational spells.

Still, though, it was a nice idea.

I also really liked character creation and how it affected the rest of the game. Aside from picking your origin, which affects some dialogue options, it also contains a conquest mini-game, which, well, details how the latest Kyros’ conquest went and what your role was in it. It affects a lot of stuff in the game, mostly concerning your reputation among various characters and factions. Which army you supported more, which characters you’ve met before, which atrocities you’ve committed, etc. While the actual effects on the plot are usually minor, you’re still going to be constantly reminded about the consequences of your choices, which helps you feel as a part of this world very well.

Speaking of reputation, that’s another mechanic. Each significant faction from two armies to your boss to citizens of an important merchant city to some factions within the armies all have two reputation scales: favor and wrath. Do enough stuff that benefits a faction or makes it respect you, and they’re going to like you and occasionally do something nice for you. Do enough stuff they dislike, and they would turn at you at any opportunity. Pretty intuitive.

Go up either scale far enough, and you’d unlock special abilities for your characters, which is nice, though unexplained. I guess knowing that a lot of very dangerous and very armed people hate your guts would help you know how to dodge attacks?

Unfortunately, while the reputation system was clearly intended to be a major part of the game and make you question what would be the best course of action, in practice, as it often happens with reputation system, it just simplifies everything. Most of the game revolves around the conflict between two armies. Since they can’t be united, the best course of action is to just do whatever pleases one of them and angers the other most. Or go against both of them and anger both of them most. Small factions like the merchant city and a band of mercenaries just don’t matter that much, so do whatever makes it easiest to unlock their abilities. Reputation with your boss is important, though, and may affect the plot at a certain point, so pleasing him may be worth it.

A similar system exists for your party members, and it actually works a bit better since you often face decisions that would anger at least one person in your party no matter what you do. Instead of favor and wrath, it has loyalty and fear scales, and I kinda suspect that originally they were intended as equivalent ways to manage your party: build personal loyalty by getting close to individual characters or scare the shit out of them until they become perfectly obedient. In the game proper, however, their function is pretty standard: do something the character likes or that marks you as a person they would respect, gain loyalty. Do something a character doesn’t like for whatever reason, gain fear. Loyalty and fear are occasionally checked for plot-related reasons, though for the most part you can get away with high fear just fine. Honestly, I think the system was rather toothless. At one point you can go against the Disfavored, and one of your party members is very loyal to them, but you can still convince him into following you against his general, which is kinda eh.

Another issue is that with some characters it’s really, really easy to max their loyalty just by talking to them and going through all dialogue options while picking the replies that would please them. That honestly felt pretty cheap, and I wish there were more dialogue options unlocked through plot rather than just talking.

Overall, though, the reputation system is not really worse than that in, say, Dragon Age, so I guess it works fine. Just don’t expect much complexity.

Speaking of the lack of complexity, the same applies to the plot. It’s actually pretty straightforward: you capture the stronghold of the rebels, then deal with the two armies duking it out, resolving various issues left to fester since the conquest. It isn’t particularly deep, there aren’t many unexpected twists, and it’s actually pretty short by the standards of RPGs, but it does carry the game well enough and remains reasonably entertaining.

A thing I liked the most about the narrative is probably the world-building. The idea of Edicts as these huge world-shaping spells is pretty cool and shows fairly well why Kyros is so feared and was so successful without Kyros ever appearing in person. Then there are Archons, generals of armies and the high judge. Archons are the most powerful servants of Kyros and the source of this world’s magic. The Archon of Battle (general of the Disfavored) shields his soldiers from harm and allows them to survive seemingly mortal injuries from any distance. The Archon of Secrets (general of the Scarlet Chorus and Kyros’ spymaster) is a gestalt soul composed of all the people they killed, capable of absorbing memories of people they interrogate. Other Archons are likewise pretty neat.

What’s interesting about them, however, is that most of them seem to grow into their power through reputation. The Archon of Battle was a renowned general who led many successful campaigns before he became an Archon. And that fame, that accomplishment is what made him an Archon in the first place.

Each Archon has a sigil associated with them, which is invoked by mages in order to perform a lesser version of magic available to Archons. Sigils of Archons currently alive or dead can be invoked just fine, and a major question magic researches try to answer is whether sigils of future Archons can be discovered in advance and used.

There are other interesting details as well here and there, and overall I like the lore well enough.

Now, as to the flaws… Tyranny does have enough of them.

Firs of all, there are scripting issues. In certain routes (the Scarlet Chorus is where I’ve encountered it), you have a series of quests only some of which can be completed before the game moves to the next stage. By itself it’s fine, time and war wait for no one, but the problem is that you can still visit a location of the quest you didn’t complete and resolve the issue here… and it’s scripted as if the game didn’t progress to that stage yet. In my case, the Archon of Secrets was dead by that point, yet the game still treated him as alive in dialogues, which just indicates bad plotting.

Fortunately, there is only one issue of such nature that I’ve found, but it was really immersion-breaking. It wasn’t even that hard to block the location, the game blocks and gives access to locations pretty liberally throughout the story.

A more persistent issue was a huge commitment of the game to fellate me. It was really, really big and hard on power fantasy, to the point of self-parody. I mean, OK, it starts with you being an evil Specter, but fine, it allows you to plunge into high-stakes conflicts right away without going through the obligatory “kill five giant rats for a gold coin” stage many RPGs suffer from. I get it and I don’t object.

But then you reawaken ancient ruins that stood silent for hundreds of years and make them do your bidding, then you go from there to absorbing resolved Edicts and being capable of casting them yourself and becoming a threat to the overlord. You’re the biggest baddest motherfucker in the land, and the game makes sure you remember it at every turn, with people slavishly asking for your favors and bowing to your power and generally having eyes on you at all times.

Where it gets ridiculous is in Kill-In-Shadows character, a beastwoman (think WoD werewolves permanently in war form) that joins you because she thinks you’re going to make it big and being under you is the surest way to survive and prosper. More specifically, when she explains her reasoning to you, she says that you “smell like Alpha.” And then her dialogue mentions again and again what a badass alpha you are in her eyes.

I would follow in Farla’s footsteps and chant ALPHA MALE here, but she actually reacts the same to a female character, so at least it’s an equal opportunity wanking.

Moving on… The theme of you being a servant of an evil empire is somewhat underplayed. Yeah, you’re a servant of an evil overlord fighting against noble rebels (in the first stage of the game, anyway, afterwards you switch to fighting unruly vassals of the overlord), but the game clearly pulls its punches in regards to what it actually means. Most people you meet may not be exactly happy with their lot in life, but they’re pretty content and don’t appear to suffer that much under the new regime. You still usually get a good option in quests allowing you to feel morally clean and not think about what other Fatebinders do in similar situations.The atrocities you can commit are also pretty general fare for RPGs like that, just more numerous.

It’s not that I expected the game to be a deep exploration of morality or anything like that, but it clearly doesn’t push the boundaries as much as it could, so ultimately the whole thing about being a servant of evil is more of a gimmick than something substantial.

So, yeah, the plot is solid enough to carry you through the game, but there are some serious flaws, and it’s not good enough to return to it.

Now, on gender issues and inclusiveness. The game does reasonably well on gender front. Your character is treated exactly the same regardless of gender, there are quite a few women around (I wouldn’t swear on them being balanced against the male cast, though. In particular, Archons are pretty male-dominated, with only one out of five/six of them being female, and she’s the youngest and least experienced of them all, plus she has a traditionally-feminine power of emotional manipulation, so yeah), and most women (aside from the Archon one, again) are not defined by their gender but by what they do: there are women in leadership positions, soldiers, villains (or heroes, I guess, depending on how you look at it), etc.

So that wasn’t bad.

On inclusiveness… it’s weird. There is one lesbian couple, married (Kyros, for being an evil overlord, actually has surprisingly progressive laws: women are guaranteed the same rights as men because all belong to Kyros equally, gay marriage is apparently allowed under the law…) and seemingly living happily… But then one of them gets killed and another asks you for vengeance, except it turns out that she was the one who killed her wife to gain ownership over the land that important merchant town I’ve mentioned is built upon. So we have one lesbian woman dead and another being a cold-blooded gold-digging murderer. Probably not the best decision here, devs.

To be fair, I don’t think it came from malice. Romance in general is rather noticeably absent from the games, with only a few passing mentions of related concepts here and there. I can remember only one other romantic couple, and their plot thread hinged on them conceiving a child. So, I can see the devs wanting to include a gay couple but struggling with where to put them until they hit the idea for that quest.

Still rather unfortunate, though.

I think that would be it.

Overall, the game is sold. The gameplay is not very memorable but isn’t boring or irritating either, though it’s clearly designed to appeal to genre fans more than to casual gamers. The plot is OK if flawed. Not something you’d want to experience again and again, but worth taking a look at. The power fantasy aspect is really overdone and made me feel like Kirito. Unclean. You know, there is a reason why most RPGs tend to start at a low point and build from there. Maybe hunting down five giant rats is not so bad…

In the end, I’d say the game is worth checking if you crave some old-school RPG but don’t want to fight Baldur’s Gates mechanics. Otherwise, you can play the game or pass it over, you won’t really miss that much.

One Comment

  1. Roarke says:

    Interesting. It sucks that the game turned out to be so tepid, because I’m all for the premise, even though I don’t have the guts to be evil in video games. This is typically the kind of premise for games that actively push the envelope. Like, nobody who grew up playing GTA III is going to be impressed, I suppose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *