Without Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny wouldn’t exist. This is no exaggeration: the success of last year’s lauded RPG not only prevented developer Obsidian from going under, but allowed them the freedom to build on the resurgence of the isometric 2D genre and resurrect an idea that they had been bandying around for over a decade. It may lack the freshness of its predecessor, but it spins a much darker tale and gives you the option of becoming something far more sinister than your standard “hero with a party”.
Almost all of the known realm of Terratus is controlled by Kyros, an overlord of immense power who has subjugated the world. As a Fatebinder - something akin to a member of the Spanish Inquisition - you’re tasked with delivering an Edict to two of his most powerful warlords, The Voices of Nerat and Graven Ashe, who happen to be bitter rivals. The Voices of Nerat leads the Scarlet Chorus - a huge but disorganised and unruly army - whilst Graven Ashe controls the methodical Disfavored who are fewer in number but have the addition of Ashe’s healing ability to bring them back from almost certain death. Kyros’ aim is to take over the remaining free lands from the final rebellious faction, the Vendrien Guard, and the tyrant is impatient for the leaders to complete the task.
The first chapter allows you to either jump straight in, or craft the opening world state according to your whim via a series of decisions known as the Conquest. These involve picking between events in history, and deciding how Kyros came to power. Do you raze a library citadel to the ground, or overwhelm a formidable fortress? Do you execute a prisoner as the Disfavored demand, or hand them over to The Scarlet Chorus? The consequences of your choices will become apparent in-game, and we’d highly recommend playing out the Conquest if only to get a better understanding of the factions involved and the deep history that you’ll soon become bombarded with. After you’re done, you’ll find character creation to be the standard hotchpotch of skill, class and backstory selection, with little changing from similar CRPGs, or indeed, Pillars. The engine that was built for that game powers this one, albeit with a few tweaks. Your skills, which include Lore, Athletics and Subterfuge increase with experience as they are used, in a manner akin to the later Elder Scrolls entries. You can also get a boost from trainers you encounter in camps, and on the road.
You’re thrust into the action almost immediately, and after an introduction to the basic mechanics you’ll soon have to mediate the arguments of the two main factions. A time-sensitive quest to take over an area offers up ample opportunities to try and court each side, although the amount of time given is far too generous for there to be any genuine concern of failure. It does, however, allow you to study each faction in depth. Though they are both set upon a common goal, their means of achieving it differ wildly. The Disfavored are a ruthless, ordered elite who work to a stringent code, whilst the Scarlet Chorus embody an almost anarchic streak of Darwinism, with the strongest leaders rising to the top by fair means or foul. You can try and balance your favour between the two, but at some point you’ll need to choose who you are ultimately going to side with, which will set the scene for the rest of the game. The idea that you’re simply carrying out the whims of a dictator regardless of your choices is interesting, and the stark contrast between the lunatic Voices and the steadfast Ashe offers you a slightly different narrative whichever you pick. Essentially, you’re a lackey, rather than any sort of hero - an administrator granted the freedom to enact the will of their superior in whichever way you deem appropriate. Middle management has never felt so empowering.
The manner in which you go about your task is the cornerstone of Tyranny’s gameplay. You serve primarily as an adjudicator, determining who lives and who dies. Your choices can be merciful or severe, but each will usually result in gaining either Favor or Wrath with a faction. The more you annoy or pander to a faction, the more dialogue options become available to you and the more chance you have of obtaining specific faction abilities. For anyone who has read Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, the rule of Kyros is not at all dissimilar to that of Jagang, and there is a brutal objectivism which permeates throughout that may make you feel uncomfortable. Many RPG players will be used to making decisions which negatively affect some people, but in Tyranny you’re going to be doing it almost constantly.
As you wander the lands, you’ll meet possible companions from each faction who you can recruit into your party if you wish. In comparison to its peers, Tyranny’s line-up is a little disappointing. They include a feisty Scarlet Chorus girl, an earnest healer, a mouthy sage, a beastwoman and - in the tradition of chucking in something a bit different - a guy who is stuck in his armour. He’s not quite on the level of the emotion succubus from Planescape Torment or even the metallic golem of Pillars of Eternity, and one can’t help but feel that this side of the game has been scaled back in comparison, especially since you can only control yourself and three others at once (in contrast to Pillars’ total of six). Like the factions, you need to keep your party on your side which can be difficult given that almost every member is sworn to one faction or another. You can use your conversations or actions to increase their Loyalty and Fear meters, unlocking further abilities once they hit certain levels.
Conversations are a colourful salad, peppered with tooltips to provide backstory and, in some cases, offer secondary routes through dialogue trees - especially when talking to the Voices of Kerat. Like many RPGs of this nature, your character selection and skills can open up new responses, allowing a Diplomat to make suggestions unavailable to a Soldier, and giving a character with high Lore or Subterfuge the ability to pursue more devious lines of questioning. Not all extra options yield favourable results, but they do provide you with choices that may be worth pursuing if you’re hoping to gain favour with one faction over another. If you are looked upon favourably by characters, they are more likely to open up to you. That said, at times it felt like we were picking options purely for the boost they provide to our stats rather than necessarily agreeing with what was being said. This is a slight flaw in the role-playing aspect of the game, but not a huge one.
The pausable real-time elements of similar RPGs are present and correct, and are vital for your survival. Each of your characters can attack individually with spells and weapons, but can also team up with the Fatebinder to unleash once-per-encounter and even stronger once-per-rest abilities on enemies, such as working with the armour tank Barik to unleash a hail of swords in an area attack. Choosing when to use these can help turn the tide of battle; similarly, the amount of time abilities take to activate may be a deciding factor. Your party can have multiple weapon sets, but are also trained in multiple abilities. We played as a noble who was handy with both a bow and a staff, which opened up options for precision attacks as well as magic. Whilst it arguably dilutes the true role-playing experience somewhat, the lack of restriction is welcome even if basic attacks are often sidelined early on in favour of spamming more damaging abilities at your foe. A series of skill trees restores the balance slightly, giving you the option of making - for instance - your clanking armour companion either a sturdy damage sponge or a bad-ass whirlwind of metal death.
The spell system has also been altered from Pillars, and spells are now created by combining two Sigils - a Core and an Expression - two different types of scrolls which can be collected. The Core Sigil indicates the base spell, such as Frost or Flame, whilst the Expression Sigil determines the type of target and deployment (AoE, single person, and so on). In addition you can add a third type of learned scroll, an Accent, which can increase the power, range, armour penetration and other statistics to make the spell even more powerful. Once you’ve learned these scrolls, you can mix and match the variations to make different spells depending on the encounters you face - as long as you have enough Lore points to be able to wield them. It’s a fluid, interesting system which is a step up from the usual allocation of static spells to learn from a book.
So far, so admirable. An RPG with meaningful choices, an interesting hook, and some good improvements on the game engine that lay the frustrations of Pillars to rest. It’s not an entirely bug-free experience; we experienced some issues with side-quests which triggered in some saved games and not in others, and player characters that stayed dead between cutscenes. Even so, it’s a very stable game overall. But Tyranny feels odd in a way that’s hard to put a finger on. It’s possibly the amalgamation of numerous things that feel out of place. Perhaps it’s the way your companions are thrown at you almost immediately in the first eight hours or so (for example, you come across the Beastwoman in a forced scene on the way to another settlement). Maybe it’s that the decisions you make in the first half of the game seem to be far more consequential than those at the end. The reams and reams of text-heavy dialogue and lore could prove an obstacle for those unwilling to invest in its detailed backstory, and much of the voice acting is cheesy, bordering on cringeworthy (we’re looking at you again, Beastwoman). The combat is much nicer, much fairer, but also a little duller due to a setting which eschews high fantasy in favour of a realm on the brink of industrialisation, resulting in foes which are almost all human, or human-like. However, despite the copious reading you will need to commit to, Tyrannny has a rushed feeling at times - perhaps due to the shortened development cycle compared to its predecessor. Similarly, there’s a vibe of over-familiarity with much of the game, as if Pillars has been reskinned for a separate tale. The upgradeable stronghold, the succession of food items that prove more hassle than they’re worth to use in battle, the inventory system which finds new ways to annoy - they all make a reappearance.
What remains is a game that will immediately appeal to anyone who is happy to completely immerse themselves in a world akin to Planescape: Torment and its ilk, with more prose than you’d find in a standard fantasy novel. From a gameplay perspective, if you were expecting something leaps and bounds beyond Pillars of Eternity, you’ll be disappointed. But if you enjoyed that game, it won’t matter anyway - we’d suggest that the story here is far more interesting, and the freedom to betray your masters at numerous stages of the campaign offers you the chance to forge your own destiny in a truly evil way, even if the end result may leave you feeling a little empty as the credits roll. It’s a lengthy and at times ponderous slog amounting to dozens of hours, especially if you’re a sucker for completing every area and side-quest you encounter, but Obsidian have created a world that encourages exploration and a tale worth investing in. As far as RPGs go, that’s most of the battle won.