Review: Tyranny

I had been courteous enough to, having received his sword as reward for eliminating a group of his enemies, answer the Disfavored officer’s questions – a favor which he repaid by telling me that if I were under his command, he’d make me, I quote, “clean the latrines with it [my tongue] – after I shit in them.” for disclosing secrets.

Tyranny is the type of game that allows me to answer that provocation by stabbing him with his own sword, driving it through his heart as he looks at me incredulously, and for that I am very grateful.

This is a cRPG whose moral spectrum starts where most other games’ ends: being evil is the norm, and good actions are not only hard to come by, but usually don’t fit in the situations you could dole them out – as a Fatebinder of Tunon, an inquisitor responsible for upholding Kyro’s Law, it is expected of you to act within the boundaries of the Overlord’s tyrannical laws. More than once I had to decide between outright killing someone, having him tortured and enslaved or going directly against the law and pardoning them.

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I picked the noose as my symbol for a reason.

You’ll start the game by creating your character, selecting an excerpt about your past, choosing combat styles and attributes and customizing your appearance and your banner. Then comes the Conquest, an interactive tidbit where you’ll choose your actions as a high-ranking officer of Kyros during the conquest of the Tiers, and here Tyranny already starts to set itself apart from its brother of yesteryear, Pillars of Eternity.

During the Conquest, Kyros’ armies – chiefly the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus – swept across the Tiers, splitting their time between fighting one with the other and actually subjugating the Tiersmen. A chain of locations and events, some of which are mutually exclusive, will have you managing conflicts between the two and deciding how the conquest went by, something your allies and the people you conquered will remember, and often act upon, throughout the game.

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While the conquest’s options more obviously influence your reputation with the two armies, they will also reflect on the opinion of the Tiersmen.

Mediating conflicts, and choosing sides if (or when) said mediation fails, is a central aspect of Tyranny, not only in terms of gameplay but as what is expected of a Fatebinder, a judge, jury and executioner whose word is the law. There are dozens of situations where your intercession will be requested, and where you’ll be able to bequeath final judgement, the legality of which will be dictated by your knowledge of Kyros’ law. A robust reputation system translates your deeds into Favor or Wrath  with the factions and people of Kyros’ armies and the Tiers, such that when you make a poor judgement call or decide to turn a blind eye for a moderate compensation, the Archon of Justice will gain wrath toward you and be less likely to act in your favor in the future.

A factions’ perception of you will in turn alter how they act toward you, dictating those who are friendly or aggressive, and from the very first act you’ll have to choose who will be your allies in your quest of expediting the conquest of the Tiers. There are over a dozen factions and archons with which to build your reputation with, and their allegiance or enmity will dictate the details of many of your quests and possibilities.

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The frequent requests for your decision on certain matters are interesting and give weight to your role as a Fatebinder, often requiring you to not only remember the specifics of Kyros’ Law, but weigh the consequences of a sentence against your own, personal goals.

These relations, the characters, the world and the factions, all have decent amounts of accompanying lore and backstory, and Tyranny has an undeniable heavy word-count. Often to the detriment of my enjoyment I felt a compulsive need to read everything, from my companions’ views on every group in the Tiers to what an Archon thought of me. Fortunately, Tyranny employs clever use of highlighted words and sentences that allows you to quickly check up on who a person is while in the middle of a dialogue.

In that sense, Tyranny reminded me a lot of Fallout: New Vegas: while the game’s first act will be more or less the same regardless of how you are playing your character, how you proceed afterwards depends entirely on whose side you take, and Tyranny isn’t shy in closing and opening different doors depending on your choices. As someone with the power to proclaim the cataclysmic edicts, your hand in the current shape of the Tiers – both as a consequence of the Conquest and of your ongoing game’s actions – is a significant one. Decisions you might have made lightly could lead to leveled towns or slaughtered villages, and the game is sure to never let you live down your choices.

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Building a name for yourself is another theme in Tyranny, here expressed by how the different factions, your companions and the archons view you; and how noteworthy the artifacts you wield have become.

The combat is very much akin to the real time with pause affair that’s been doing the rounds in cRPGs since the Infinity Engine games, although the combat system is more similar to that of Pillars of Eternity. In terms of its system, Tyranny takes a classless approach based on skill use and progression. Skills improve by use, not leveling, and your talent points can be spent across any of six different talent trees, each with a different emphasis – melee combat, spellcasting, leadership, etc. Despite using the same progression system for skills, your companions have a couple of talent trees (three, in one character’s case), each with their own abilities and each placing emphasis on one of their possible combat styles.

This change comes as a double-edged sword, however, when accompanied by the reduced amount of skills: there are only three interactive/conversation skills, them being athletics, lore and subterfuge, and getting all of them to levels that allow you to cross any river, tell any lie and know all the minutiae of the Tiers is easily accomplished regardless of your character’s build. When added to the lack of attribute checks in conversations and interactions, this leads to a situation where it’s very easy to have every possibility – bar those locked away due to your previous choices during the game and the conquest – open to you, even if you’re supposed to be a simple-minded soldier.

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Barik’s talent trees allow you to choose between consolidating him as a heavy bruiser with high damage, or a protective ally that can keep enemies off of you and your backline.

There are six companions to fill your party of four with, and while all of them have backstories and interactions with one another, they aren’t as fleshed out as they could’ve been. The companions don’t have quests of their own for you to do, and their interactions with one another are sparse and far in between. They do, however, respond to your actions – Barik will fear you if you kill his Disfavored comrades or display disdain for Graven Ashe, while Eb might not appreciate it if you are a power-hungry warmonger – and in doing so feel less like the usual, unresponsive companions that are fine with whatever their party leader does. The addition was welcome, but the end result was bittersweet: it felt like the developers answered the plea for having more reactive companions, but took away part of their depth by not introducing any companion quests.

I’d like to give special mention to the spell system. Gone are the grimoires and increasing amounts of spells per rest that we’ve grown used to since Baldur’s Gate, replaced by a system where everything is based on cooldowns and spells are crafted rather than learned. As you progress you’ll unlock different types of sigils, each falling within three categories: the Core, which will dictate the element/type of a spell; the Expression, which will define the spell as a buff, single-target, AoE, disable, among others; and Accents, which modify spells by buffing certain aspects, giving them increased damage or range, reducing their cooldown or making them chain to other targets. As someone who generally avoids playing spellcasters due to a tendency of always wanting to save the spells for that-upcoming-hard-fight-that-I’m-sure-is-right-around-the-corner, having a malleable system that not only allows me to make my spells but use them at will was a wonder, and I greatly enjoyed my playthrough as a warmage, slinging fireballs and lightning storms one after the other.

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There are thousands of permutations to create and kill your foes with.

I do wish there more enemy types to throw these spells at, however, as Tyranny has only three of them – humans, bane and beastmen, with the latter barely appearing as enemies – and while some of the boss fights do mitigate this feeling, there’s no denying it lacks the oomph other cRPGs give when they pit you against a giant, a dragon or a broodmother and her dozens of spiderlings. Most of your time will be spent fighting humans of the different factions, and while they have distinctive colors and names, they fall into the same rut of looking slightly different but having the same roles. Halfway through the game most of the combat already felt like I was just going through the motions, repeating the same moves I’d done so many times that guaranteed my victory without getting wounded.

In terms of length – and yes, I realize length in cRPGs does matter – Tyranny will take you from twenty to thirty hours to complete, depending on how thorough you are. It didn’t feel short, despite being undeniably shorter than other games of its genre, but I did wish it gave you more time to bask in your glory and acquired power – instead, it ends abruptly with a situation that’s very clearly a set-up for a sequel.

As I mentioned above, this is a game that changes significantly according to the decisions you make, and as someone who’s played through a couple of times, I can safely tell you that quests and the approach you take to them vary significantly according to your decisions, and while you’ll repeat visits to certain areas across different playthroughs, they are all unique enough that if the lore and world enraptures you, you’ll want to see it from all of its different angles.

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Tyranny isn’t Pillars of Eternity. It came at a different time and situation, and lacks its scope and size. Take away the yardstick, however, and Tyranny is a solid, if a bit rough around the edges, cRPG. Evil is evil, in a way that I struggle to remember seeing in other games, and Tyranny allows you to choose just what shade of bad you wish to be. The world feels reactive and your actions have true weight, and while the end is abrupt and sort of places you on hold for a sequel, the journey to get there is branching and full of twists.

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