We’re all used to playing the hero in RPGs. By default, you’re the stalwart paragon of goodness and light, and I feel like it’s a testament to better RPGs when they’re able to effectively present other options. Say what you will about Mass Effect, for instance, but Renegade Shepard tends to do a pretty good job of being a loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules as opposed to just being a bad guy doing good guy work. Jade Empire came close to being another fantastic example with the pragmatist Closed Fist philosophy that your character could follow, but too often that just resulted in your character being a baby-eating Saturday morning cartoon villain.
In any case, what happens when a game shrugs off the default option and goes in a different direction? Well, you get Tyranny, the latest classic role-playing game (CRPG) from Obsidian Entertainment.
Tyranny likes to remind us that the good guys don’t always win. In fact, by the time the game starts, they’ve lost long ago; the mighty mage-overlord Kyros has already conquered the majority of the known world, leaving only a few tiny holdout settlements here and there. Rather than controlling a plucky group of rebels who will launch a counterattack against Kyros and free the world from his iron grip, you play as a Fatebinder – essentially Fantasy Judge Dredd, an arbiter in the service of Kyros. Your duty is to help the big guy finish his conquest of the world…but maybe you’ve got some ideas of your own.
If you’ve played Pillars of Eternity you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect with Tyranny. This is an Infinity Engine-styled turn-based game, something akin to Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment for the modern age. It looks, sounds and plays like those classic games, right down to the isometric viewpoint, so you probably know what to expect when it comes to presentation. You should plan to do a lot of reading, as Tyranny is fairly dialogue-heavy compared to Pillars with emphasis placed on roleplaying your Fatebinder.
Said dialogue is interesting largely because of the conceit of playing as one of the bad guys; Tyranny feels very familiar and probably wouldn’t stand out much without this twist. The degree to which you’re evil can vary to some degree; flat-out Stupid Evil options, per Bioware, are of course available, while a more nuanced sort of nastiness is also a possibility. The game even supports working directly against your employer’s wishes, though that’s decidedly unwise and you’ll pay for it in spades. One nice touch is the game’s character creation, where you’ll play through a significant portion of your character’s history in the form of a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style mini-campaign; the choices you make here are referenced throughout Tyranny, so you’re invested in your character even before you start playing the game proper.
Much of the roleplaying here revolves around adjusting your reputation in the eyes of different factions and characters. The two main factions, for instance, are the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus, who represent a more refined and chaotic approach respectively. As you make decisions and follow dialogue trees, your reputation will shift, which affects how characters treat you later in the game and can even earn you unique abilities. I liked how this applies to your companions as well, since you can choose to inspire loyalty or fear in each of them and they’ll react appropriately.
Tyranny’s writing isn’t always top class; the game is clearly an adherent of the Church of Verbosity that’s so popular with this style of game, and as is often the case, quantity doesn’t necessarily beat quality. Tyranny has a tendency to be more flowery than a botanical garden, and at times I really wished the game would just get to the point already. On the other hand, the setting is interesting and unusual, you meet some interesting characters (though your companion options feel a little weak in this one – they’re largely Bioware-style character templates with a villainous twist) and playing Judge Dredd is just as fulfilling as it sounds.
If you embrace your dark side a little, you’ll get a lot out of this one, and that doesn’t necessarily mean choosing to burn down an orphanage and eat the babies if the opportunity arises. Evil can take many forms. You’ll just have to find which one fits for you.
As mentioned, Tyranny’s focus is on roleplaying; the game’s combat, by comparison, feels like it was less of a priority. I’ll admit that I did prefer battle in this game as opposed to Pillars of Eternity. That’s probably thanks to the smaller four-person party limit, which made it a little easier for poor strategy-addled me to keep track of what’s going on. The lack of a distinct class system was another plus in my eyes, since Tyranny’s improve-by-doing system allows you to be a little more open with your selection of companions than you might be otherwise.
You don’t have to worry quite as much about doubling up on a given role since your characters are a little more flexible. I also appreciated the presence of Chrono Trigger-style combo attacks where your Fatebinder teams up with their companions to perform unique moves, which was yet another reason to experiment with different companions.
All of that’s great, as is the game’s unique spell-crafting system that makes playing a mage a treat, but combat here lacks the sort of brutality you might be familiar with from Pillars or Baldur’s Gate. While I compulsively saved throughout Pillars because of the game’s crushing difficulty, Tyranny is much easier by comparison. Basic strategy such as using buffs and debuffs and prioritizing targets proved to be enough to get me through much of the game, and like many Infinity Engine-styled games, Tyranny feels like it gets easier rather than more difficult as you go.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to not have to replay battles until I’ve gotten everything perfect, but potentially dramatic moments such as an important siege early in the game were squelched a bit by my Fatebinder crushing all opposition beneath his heel. I can see some players being disappointed, even if I wasn’t.
They might also be disappointed in the game’s running length. Tyranny will only run you around 25 hours or so, assuming you take it easy and sift through the copious amounts of dialogue. Pillars felt a little more meaty, to say nothing of the classic Infinity Engine games. I’ll admit that I was really getting into my character in this one, which probably contributed to the game feeling like it was too short but speaks to a solid RPG experience.
The $45 price tag accounts for this, however, and it makes Tyranny a solid choice for RPG fans who are looking to shake things up a little. It’s a little easy and a little short, but still a great adventure by any definition. Frankly, it’s nice to play a game that doesn’t push you to be the hero or tacitly punish you when you work against its whims; in Tyranny, bad is good, there’s few moral gray areas, and it’s clear that if you want to be a think-for-yourselfer, you’re going to have to work for it. That’s kind of refreshing these days.