Tyranny’s a game about what happens when the bad guys win – appropriate, given recent political events. You are a minion in the armies of the all-powerful Kyros, a mysterious and terrible figure possessed of almost godlike arcane power.
Kyros imposes her will with Edicts: magical decrees with enormous areas-of-effect that are activated and dispelled when certain conditions are met. During her war of conquest, Kyros uses Edicts to break stubborn resistance or to coerce disobedient underlings into action. Few things motivate like the wrath of a demigod.
You’re a Fatebinder -- a kind of medieval Judge Dredd charged with executing Kyros’ law in occupied territories. In this case, that means delivering an Edict – the Edict of Execution – to the mountainous, inhospitable territory known as The Tiers. The terms of the Edict state that unless the city of Vendrien’s Well flies Kyros’ colours five days hence, everyone in its vicinity will be killed. Including you.
So there’s your motivation. But of course nothing is ever straightforward, and before long you find yourself embroiled in a civil war between the two major factions comprising Kyros’ army: the disciplined, staunchly traditional Disfavored, and the chaotic, rapacious Scarlet Chorus. The side you choose – if indeed you choose a side at all – determines your trajectory through the unwinding narrative.
Before the game proper begins, you’re given the opportunity to complete an involved character creation process. In addition to defining the usual variables like appearance, stats, and abilities, you can also complete “conquest mode” – a thinly-augmented Choose Your Own Adventure in which you flesh-out your character’s backstory, making choices that reverberate through the rest of the narrative. Conquest mode isn’t mandatory, but for those of us who routinely spend hours crafting RPG characters, its socks-rocking stuff and not to be missed.
The first act proceeds at a brisk pace, introducing key mechanics, characters, and lore at a rate that’s almost overwhelming. Because Tyranny isn’t based in an established universe, it’s necessary to ingest bucketloads of info before you get a handle on what’s happening and why. To help make this easier, the game’s dialogue system features keywords that display tooltips on mouse-over, providing instant access to relevant info plucked from an internal wiki. It’s a godsend, especially if – like me – you’re terrible with names.
It’s during the second act that Tyranny’s problems become harder to ignore. The narrative slows to a crawl as you’re tasked with countless identical quests, each boiling down to the same basic directive: go here and kill the things. Combat, a turn-based affair lifted more or less wholesale from Baldur’s Gate, becomes a chore, with samey enemies requiring little in the way of tactical variety Depending on the difficulty, companion AI is either adequate or frustratingly ineffective. On hard and above, your party’s tendency to get stuck on one another while moving and stubborn refusal to cast certain spells makes them a liability when left to their own devices, necessitating micromanagement.
The bigger problem with your companions, though, is that they’re simply not very interesting. Typically of an Obsidian game, each embodies an interesting concept – Barik, for example, is fiercely loyal to Kyros despite being maimed by one of her Edicts – but fails to develop into a fleshed-out person with plausible, sympathetic motivations. I didn’t care about anyone in my party and I’m a sucker for well-written characters.
Without that emotional tether, it’s hard to become invested in the rest of Tyranny’s fiction. Unpleasant moral dilemmas are almost comically abundant and tend to be interesting only in an abstract, philosophical sense. As a servant (and potential rival) of Kyros, you’re given plenty of opportunity to act despicably or make well-intentioned mistakes, but even the most terrible outcomes lack the punch-in-the-gut queasiness games like Spec Ops and Papers, Please evoke.
Tyranny’s third act is abrupt in the way final acts in Obsidian games tend to be abrupt – i.e. in the “shit, we need to finish this thing NOW” way. After completing the torturously long second act, your character is well on the way to becoming a demigod in their own right, and a final, decisive confrontation seems imminent. And then... a fizzling cliffhanger. Come back next game!
As anti-climaxes go, this one is particularly galling, and honestly, I’m sick of giving Obsidian a pass on this sort of thing. In Neverwinter Nights 2 and KOTOR 2 and Alpha Protocol, it was… well not alright, but understandable. Obsidian was a new studio still trying to find its feet. But it’s been thirteen years now – more than enough time to work out kinks in the production process.
With a fantastic concept and strong start marred by repetitive design and a rushed finale, Tyranny is a typical Obsidian game – so here’s your typical Obsidian game review conclusion. Tyranny’s a good game that’s not as good as it ought to be. There’s a lot to like about it: the dialogue system’s a thing of beauty, spell creation’s a blast, and the writing is – mostly – top notch. That last act, though, leaves a sour taste. Obsidian can’t get a free pass on this stuff any more. It needs to do better.