Tyranny is a game that I almost enjoyed. Almost. It’s certainly fun to play, though the combat was a little rough toward the beginning as I figured things out and tried to get used to the weird UI. Once everything clicked, though, I was more or less hooked. There are plenty of choices to be made, with you being free to side with this faction or that faction and actively work for or against tons of different characters. It’s almost overwhelming (highlighted text reminding you of how you know everyone proves to be a surprisingly handy feature). That’s not to say that there are no issues, though—how dialogue options go over with characters sometimes feels entirely random, the later parts of the game railroad you quite a bit, the music is repetitive, the inventory is a mess because you’re constantly picking items up and making it a hassle to go through and sell everything later on, and the writing has an annoying habit of contrasting really creative imagery with dialogue that’s a little too contrived to come across as natural. I could forgive all of that if the game had an ending, but it doesn’t. It ends suddenly and without warning right when you expect some kind of climactic boss fight and revelation that ties up all of the lingering plot threads in one fell swoop. That doesn’t happen. Nothing is resolved unless you contort your thoughts to where you can accept that “yeah, the game was really only about this ridiculously small skirmish and totally not at all the larger conflict that was blatantly built up to throughout the entire game!”
Tyranny has an interesting premise
The game’s been marketed as one where you’re evil rather than being an ordinary “hero” game, and that’s true to a certain extent. It starts with you being informed that someone known as Kyros the Overlord has taken over the entire world, basically, subjugating or destroying even the powerful individuals known as Archons. One of these Archons is Tunon, a mysterious figure who upholds Kyros’ laws (because the flavor of evil here is very much lawful evil rather than kill-everyone-all-the-time), and to that end Tunon selects individuals to be Fatebinders who act as judge, jury, and sometimes executioner. The game starts with you, a Fatebinder in Tunon’s service, proclaiming one of Kyros’ powerful magic proclamations known as an Edict as an ultimatum to compel his quarreling generals to work together to stop an insurrection. If they fail to resolve the situation before a certain date, everyone in the area dies. That’s just the setup, too; you see various other Edicts that Kyros has used as you travel, and all of it is used to hint at Kyros being absurdly powerful.
At its core, however, Tyranny is your average “you are the hero of the world” type of game. Even after I turned on both generals for their gross incompetence (a totally legitimate choice which had implications throughout the entire game), I found my actions to be in the best interests of everyone; most of the various factions and individuals you come across are blatantly evil when compared to the more neutral morality of normal citizens, so my brutal massacres of opposing groups ended up being to the betterment of all. Even putting that aside, you’ll be forced into rebelling against Kyros at the end like a hero would, and you have zero choice in the matter. You can stab random people and be as merciless as you want, but at the end of the day, you’re still acting in the larger interests of the world, and that basically makes this a darker version of your ordinary go-out-and-slay-the-big-bad story.
But none of your questions are answered
At least it would be if that’s what happens, but as I mentioned before, Tyranny has no ending. Even worse, thanks to a weird bipolar shift on Kyros’ part, you end the game somehow managing to know even less about them than when you started. Even something as obvious as their gender is left in the air (and while that seems like arbitrary information, you learn during character creation that only women can own land and only men can own ships, which one would think would allow for an interesting legal challenge to Kyros’ conquest should they turn out to be male). What makes that so frustrating is that numerous characters you meet throughout the game have met with Kyros in person. At least two of them can swear themselves to you instead of Kyros if you play your cards right, too, so their unwillingness to provide you with the smallest bit of information is ridiculous.
This game isn’t incomplete because the developers ran out of time or money, either; on several occasions, they deliberately wrote conversations to create more questions than answers when sharing actual information would have required no more effort than the increasingly contrived reasons for evasive answers they included. The game is filled to the brim with all kinds of little details fleshing out the back story of each location, and yet none of that effort was put into revealing anything about Kyros. If they had intended to finish the story in this game, those little details would be present to build up to your eventual meeting with them. Instead, you’re given nothing but question marks so that Obsidian and Paradox can sell you the answers later down the line as DLC or in a sequel. For a game that costs 45 dollars (and has more expensive versions available) and is supposedly complete, this kind of nickel-and-diming is absolutely disgusting behavior.
Combat is standard RTwP
Tyranny has a real time with pause (RTwP) system like those found in Pillars of Eternity, the Baldur’s Gate games, Planescape: Torment, and various other examples in the genre. If you’re interested in this game, chances are you’ve played one of those and already know what to expect. In combat, you select your characters, click the enemies, occasionally use spells or skills to manage the situation, and everything eventually dies. The only real differences between this and older games is that the UI is weirdly organized, you “engage” enemies and anyone leaving the engagement area gives their opponent a free attack, and magic has a cooldown timer instead of requiring you to rest. Oh, and there are also wounds like in The Dark Eye games (such as Drakensang) that reduce all a character’s skills when their health is reduced far enough, and that persist until that character either levels up or rests. Even taking all of that into consideration, the game’s a bit on the easy side compared to other examples in the genre, but that only means that requiring camping supplies to rest feels like much less of a annoying liability here than it did in Pillars. Everything fits together well enough.
Attributes, skills, and talents
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the more interesting stuff that influences combat and various other elements of gameplay, the nitty-gritty number-y stuff that happens in the background. Tyranny is much more streamlined than most other examples in the genre, with you only really having to pay attention to your attributes, skills, and talents. Your attributes are your Might, Finesse, Quickness, Vitality, Wits, and Resolve. They basically align with the Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and other such stats from other games, but if you ever get confused about what does what, going to a character page shows you the bonuses (or penalties if below 10) each stat is conferring to each character. Every level you gain earns you a point to put into one of these, though you need 2 points if you want to raise one of them above 19. I didn’t bother, personally, but that may end up being much more of a factor if you’re playing on the hardest difficulty.
Skills are basically what your character is good at, such as One-Handed Weapons, Bows, Dodge, and several others. The three most notable, however, are Lore, Subterfuge, and Athletics, because these factor into conversations and various skill checks that are littered around the game world. Lore is your magical aptitude and allows you to craft better spells (more on that in a bit) in addition to offering clever insight in conversations and sometimes knowing enough to get the best outcome in seemingly impossible situations. Magic is such a fun part of the game that I highly, highly recommend focusing heavily on Lore. Subterfuge is your ability to successfully find traps, which makes the game’s occasional dungeons much less annoying, and it also allows you to lie, cheat, and steal in conversations. Athletics is brute strength, basically, so if you want to punch someone in the face in conversation, scare off one or two opponents before combat starts, climb or jump to secret areas, or force gates open, Athletics is the way to go. You don’t have to pick and choose, though, and my main character managed to keep all three up to the point where she could successfully pass every skill check for each.
Magic is the best part of the game
Rather than giving you various already-existing spells, magic is constructed from three parts: the core, the expression, and the optional accent. The core determines what kind of magic it is, such as fire magic, lightning magic, healing magic, etctera. The expression dictates what the spell actually is, though that’s not as flexible as it probably sounds. Instead, choosing an expression is little more than choosing from a few default spells for each core. Accents, on the other hand, give you quite a bit of flexibility. These increase the amount of Lore required to use them quite a bit (though they don’t lengthen cooldown times or otherwise cause spells to “cost more,” so if your Lore skill is high enough, there’s no reason to not indulge), but allow you to mess with spells in various ways. You can increase their strength, make them add extra status effects to enemies, cause healing spells to travel in an arc and effect everyone in the path, reduce cooldowns, and a few other interesting things that can come in handy. Since you have to buy and find cores, expressions, and accents, though, you don’t get to use this to its fullest until you’re nearing the end. It’s still totally worth it to play around with them, though.
The systems don’t always make sense
Early in the game, I glared at one of the two generals. As a result, I gained favor with him, his faction, and my ally from the opposing faction. That makes no sense whatsoever. Later on, I saw someone fleeing from combat and threatened them for their cowardice. As a result, every single of his allies—being attacked by monsters at the same time—became hostile and prioritized attacking me over staving off the things that were killing them all. That’s stupid. Some of the ways things work here are stupid. What frustrated me the most, however, was that I turned on the early generals because I had intended to ally with another faction once I found one that struck me as being honorable enough to be useful. By the time I found one that spoke to me, the only option that allowed me to get out of mandatory dialogue with them was to massacre their entire outpost, at which point everyone else in the faction decided to fight me over it. It made it impossible to ally with a group I genuinely wanted to help, so I got railroaded big time there, and while it was amusing finishing the game having exterminated every faction but one (who only survived by staying out of my way), it wasn’t something I chose intentionally.
I actually didn’t face many bugs
Games like this that have many systems working behind the scenes typically suffer from countless bugs, but apart from one or two quests not triggering or completing correctly and a strange levitation bug that forced me to reload an earlier save (as always, save often and in different slots), the experience was surprisingly bug-free. That said, I deeply regret installing the game on my old 5400 RPM hard drive. Loading times were fine for the most part, but whenever I would start up the game for the first time and load a save, it’d take around 40 seconds to a minute to load everything. Looking around the internet, this seems to be largely mitigated by installing the game on an SSD, but it was playable enough on my old hard drive that I never felt inconvenienced enough to bother reinstalling the game.
Tyranny is far more colorful than I expected
When the game was first introduced and I was going through the screenshots, my first thought was “wow, this looks like Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader.” I hadn’t played Lionheart back then, mind you, so the comparison was based solely on screenshots of the two, but I went in to this game expecting something bland-looking. Instead, I got something unexpectedly vibrant. The opening screens explaining the game’s lore are all incredibly colorful (and these types of screens pop up a few more times throughout the story as you make progress), and even the more brownish-gray areas are often contrasted by various splashes of color. The areas that are bland and underwhelming are actually in the minority here, and I was really impressed by the art as a whole. They even put in different stances for character portraits during conversations depending on what’s happening, which is kind of a pointless feature, but one of those pointless features that makes you appreciate how much effort went into parts of the game.
I’m not a huge fan of the music
After creating my character (a magic-using dual-wielding former-lawbreaker named Marimba Resonance), I jumped into the game and immediately went “ugh, the strings seem to be playing something that’d be more at home in The Sixth Sense.” Later on, the music sounded like it had come straight out of Game of Thrones, which wasn’t really a fitting kind of atmosphere given the evil-everywhere theme. It’s not that the music is bad, though—it’s just unremarkable orchestral fluff that doesn’t suit most of the game, and it all repeats far too much.