I recently finished a playthrough of Tyranny by Obsidian Entertainment. I was a huge fan (and Kickstarter backer) of Pillars of Eternity, so once I heard about Tyranny, I knew it was going to be for me. Tyranny also has a lot in common, thematically, with Stardock Entertainment’s Sorcerer King, which I also reviewed. And yeah, I’m totally backing Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. In this review, I’ll start with the non-spoilery parts and move to the more spoiler-y parts. I strongly recommend going through your first playthrough as un-spoiled as possible. This review will include a number of critiques, some of them sharp, so let me say up-front that I love this game, and none of my critiques should negate that.
Tyranny is an isometric RPG, very much in the style of PoE, Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate, and so on. You play the Fatebinder, a servant of the Archon of Justice within the ever-expanding and tyrannical empire of Kyros the Overlord. At the opening of the game, you make a series of key decisions in the brutal conquest of the Tiers, the last free realm in the whole world of Terratus. These decisions play forward throughout the game, informing many of your NPC interactions and, in a lot of cases, who is in charge of what. An insurgency among the conquered armies of the Tiers sets the action into motion, and you have to navigate your way between the conflicting factions of Kyros’s army.
If you’re thinking about picking this game up, please pay serious attention to the fact that your character in this game serves a tyrannical ruler. There are some not-fucking-around content warnings that need to be attached to this game, particularly in the area of violence against children. I’ll get into the specifics below the Spoiler header; it was the one element of the game that really left a bad taste in my mouth. I seem to recall references to rape, but it’s not depicted in the course of play or something that your character has any connection to.
The profane, scatological, or simply crude parts of the dialogue and Companion barks gives an impression that the game wanted to be edgy, but it’s often a bit forced. When it’s a bark that’s going to come up a LOT, it’s particularly grating.
I can’t think of another RPG in which the player starts off with as much authority and social cachet as you do here, or one that works as hard as this one does to teach you the societal rules that govern your position. There are all kinds of ways to violate those rules (largely through the game’s dialogue), and the game rewards any kind of engagement and decision. Murderhobo is an option, but very against the default. The game makes you the enforcer of society’s rules and gives you options that express your competence in that task.
You also choose a Background for your character at the start of play, and it’s reasonably common for dialogue responses to be locked to a particular Background. Those responses aren’t always the most advantageous ones, but they’re often really interesting. I played a War Mage, which meant I spent a ton of time being curious about all of the other Backgrounds I didn’t choose. Lawbreaker, Hunter, and Soldier all look like they might do interesting things, just guessing from where they appear. I would like maybe 50% more of that, especially for 2+ Backgrounds to offer their own responses more of the time. At the same time, it’s a choice you make during character creation, without even the vaguest hint of the stakes. It would be great if there were Background-related quests for each game path.
As with every other game of its lineage, you gather a coterie of Companions, who have their own personalities and strong opinions on things. A lot of these opinions boil down to disagreeing on everything, much like the character conflicts of Dragon Age: Origins, and much like in DA:O, one of your best tools for managing their good opinion of you is to control who is in the party to hear you make decisions. There are occasional scenes that can include all six Companions, which is a nice touch. They also have their own secrets that come out over the course of your relationship with them. I was genuinely surprised by the identity of one Companion.
The NPC personalities are generally very well-drawn and compelling. I love everything about the presentation of Graven Ashe, the Voices of Nerat, Tunon the Adjudicator, and Bleden Mark. Lesser NPCs are also well-handled, but those four are the pillars of the game’s theme and story (other than Kyros, who never appears in the flesh).
As you might expect, your maximum party size at any one time (4 – yourself and three Companions) is such that you probably fall into a rut of using just one party configuration for most of the game. On the plus side, Companions not in your party do advance somewhat; on the downside, depending on your main character’s skill set, you might never have any use at all for some Companions.
Every Companion has two “opinion” bars, Loyalty and Fear, rather than simply liking you or disliking you. Your Companions are sworn to your service and won’t leave no matter what you do, which is a nice nod to those social rules I mentioned. You gain cool Combo Powers with them on both tracks, and it’s possible to go max out one track and at least go pretty far up the other. As you’d expect, Loyalty and Fear have major effects on unlocking new dialogue options and responses from your Companions.
Likewise, you have two opinion bars with every major faction in the game, Favor and Wrath. You gain a passive power and an active power from each. It’s possible to max out one side and also progress pretty far up the other. Favor and Wrath have major effects on unlocking new dialogue options, or just pushing you into combat with members of that faction. There are some factions you kinda can’t help but max out Wrath with, unless there are options I totally missed. (Definitely possible – the game has a lot of semi-hidden options.)
There are also Artifacts, very powerful magic items that have an active power, with Renown tracks in addition to their base stats. But equipping an Artifact is worth a huge Renown increase that unlocks the Artifact’s cool power all by itself, and everything else is just scaling up the effectiveness of that power. I felt that this was missing a lot of opportunity. It was also so easy to build up Renown that my Artifacts jumped from level 1 to level 5 while I was going along doing my thing. Still, it did a lot to make these magic items more compelling and special.
Spellcasting is really neat: you learn Spell Runes, which you then combine into various spells. Each character has a Lore skill and can prepare any spell with a Lore total less than that skill. The spell runes are amazing, and it’s pretty satisfying to just sit there and retune your spell prep every 5-10 points of Lore. That said, you spend 60% of the game with very few runes, and only really have enough – and enough Lore – to make that satisfying in the last third of Act II. I also like that every character can do a little spellcasting, though this can get you into some trouble with their AIs if you don’t super micromanage them. (But give everyone a healing spell, because the cooldown on your healing spells is one of the game’s main survival constraints.) As you might expect of me, my character was a dedicated spellcaster. Early gameplay was a little underwhelming, but it didn’t take too long to get good, and after that it just kept getting cooler.
There are two crafting systems that you unlock midway through the game, one to research and create new items and one to upgrade existing items. The problem is that you don’t get enough crafting supplies to do some of one and some of the other, so if the new items you can create aren’t a tailored fit to what you want, you are saving time and energy just upgrading your existing gear. Your starting gear can be upgraded to be competitive with almost anything short of Artifacts. I’m an absolute fiend for crafting systems and found this one to fall a little short of its apparent promise.
I find the skill/XP system interesting. Your skills gain XP from fighting, using them in conversation, and completing quests. When your skills gain a rank, that rank goes to your level-gain XP. The higher the rank you’re gaining, the more XP you gain. Cash-for-training becomes cash-for-levels, and is overall super important to making some of the midgame/late game features compelling.
I played the game on Hard, and found that the game lived up to this in the first third or so, then either I got better or the difficulty curve dropped off a cliff. The game changes immensely once you shift from only single-target spells to larger and larger AoEs.
If your character doesn’t wear heavy armor, there’s no point to any of the heavy armor loot in the game, since Barik can’t change out of his starting armor, and none of your other Companions would even want to wear it. This feels like a huge waste, though you can make scads of money selling it. I went through a lot of the game hoping that there would be a quest to fix Barik’s problem. There isn’t, and in fact none of the Companions get the kind of “loyalty mission” or personal-story mission that the last few decades of story-rich CRPGs have led me to expect. I dearly hope there might be DLC that eventually corrects this, because all of the characters’ big secrets feel like promises of a cool opportunity to resolve them, and it’s intensely disappointing that none of those stories have any closure.
I found the game’s graphics to be solid and its UI to do everything I needed it to do; my only issue was that for awhile there, tooltip windows wouldn’t open, so I had to go on remembering every icon and its effects. Yeah, no. That self-corrected and didn’t recur. While I’m talking about tooltips, though – the game handled its incredibly dense, deep lore better than literally any other game of its ilk, because every mention of a key lore person, place, thing, or event had a tooltip to remind me what it was. That was seriously the most useful single feature in the whole game. The game also uses tooltips in a different text color for times when a character communicates with you telepathically; I thought that was awesome.
Okay, between here and the Conclusion header, there will be spoilers.
I mostly threw my support to the Disfavored during the Conquest. I was completely blindsided by the choice between Graven Ashe and the Voices of Nerat, and sided with Graven Ashe. This informs most of the rest of my commentary, and I haven’t tried a second playthrough yet. The game does look like it will have some of the strongest replay value of any story-heavy RPG I’ve ever played. At minimum, I want to figure out how you ally with the Tiersmen and play from their perspective, but it may also be a bit before I start the game from the beginning again. Most games go for bringing the narrative back together after as little divergence as they can get away with; it looks like Tyranny doesn’t do that at all. The Conquest opener creates a wide initial divergence.
In the Disfavored playthrough, I have literally no inkling of what I could have done to gather more incriminating information on the Voices of Nerat for the Final Judgment. I find that very frustrating, but because I was in so much more contact with the Disfavored and Graven Ashe, I learned a lot more about his sins. I had nowhere near enough contact with Bleden Mark to win his favor and keep him as a vassal, but I’m guessing that’s only really possible on an Anarchist playthrough.
In the Disfavored playthrough, and I assume in the Scarlet Chorus playthrough, you only go through three of the four regions. You complete one, then choose one of two, but the game doesn’t hint that you won’t get to go to the one you don’t choose. My regional path went Blade Grave -> Haven -> Stone Sea; when I chose to go to Haven, I was locking out my chance to go to the Contested Lands. I don’t know what other paths I could have potentially chosen, of course – since Haven was open while I was in the Blade Grave, I don’t know what I would have locked out (if anything) if I had pushed harder to play through that first. I was intensely disappointed that I couldn’t go to the Vellum Citadel, for reasons that are abundantly obvious to anyone who knows me.
The third region of Act II, the Stone Sea, is really the emotional Act IV of a five-act structure. The options narrow way down into, essentially, a railroad; if you don’t rebel and turn against the Disfavored before you get on that train, you stop having options. Graven Ashe’s dialogue particularly stonewalls you in this. A lot of the game is about getting co-opted and backed into the Overlord’s despotic rule and looking for a way out; this is one of the only places it completely shuts you down in looking for any other path. I deeply resented the game giving me no way forward at all other than killing the Stonestalker tribe (especially the… cubs? Don’t remember what they call their young) and completing the ritual to kill Cairn, and my last chance to turn from that course was before I knew what I was going to be asked to do. This is what I was talking about in my content-warning note.
The Companions have a lot of really interesting conversation options that show up just once, like Lantry’s awesome conversation about inks. That conversation cuts off after you use two of his inks, which feels like a promise that you can come back to it. It’s… not. I’m also not sure there’s any way to build up large amounts of Loyalty or Fear with Sirin? At least not the way I approached the game. I feel like I never really learned the cool secret of her story, and Eb’s story similarly felt underplayed.
I loved the Oldwalls dungeons and I would play another dozen zones of dungeons like that. I have to admit, I really wanted to discover deeper levels and have the Oldwalls just turn into the Endless Paths of Od Nua. Both their aesthetics and their puzzles appealed to me immensely. I also liked that Lantry got to be extra-cool there, though I think that locking that option inside his talent tree was not great. Lantry is one of the only characters where I wanted to go deep on all of his options, though I wound up liking a balanced build on both Eb and Sirin as well.
The conversations that come through the Missive tab are interesting, though I think they could have done a lot more without this before it wore out its welcome. Giving you a list of characters you can initiate letter exchanges with from the start of play would have been great.
The additional, random traveling encounters from Tales of the Tiers are nice, but kinda filler-y as DLC goes. I don’t regret having them, but the game doesn’t need them, either. As I’ve said, I hope there will be a lot more DLC to come, because I like the world and I plan to play the game again from the start at some point.
Act III feels super rushed – it’s much more the fifth act of a five-act structure, tying up the loose ends with the other Archons. I loved that I talked Tunon and Graven Ashe into submitting rather than having to fight them. That was a genuinely satisfying payoff for my emotional investment and in-game effort to sustain those relationships (and to be a good Fatebinder). That means, of course, that I had to fight Bleden Mark and the Voices of Nerat. My first attempt at Bleden Mark was doomed to failure when Lantry got murdered early, but we hung on for a long, long time until some of his attacks bugged and my characters were stuck in stasis. I beat him on my second try; I would say that he was the second-hardest fight in the game for me, right after the climactic fight of Act I. (I mentioned the game mostly gets easier as it goes?)
I absolutely loved this game, even though I have my issues with it and feel like it fell short of its promise in a number of areas. Even with that, it’s some of the best writing I’ve seen in a video game since Planescape: Torment (and for a minute I thought the game was heading for a very PS:T-like reveal; I’m a little sad it didn’t). With only a few exceptions, the writing quality, story pacing, characterization, and gradual widening of scope were as satisfying as a very well-run tabletop game, which is high praise indeed. I recommend this to anyone interested in tactical story-rich RPGs; just go in with your eyes open, because the content is fucking bleak, and my content warning above is not a joke. Also, I would leap at the chance to play a tabletop game set in Terratus.
My rating: 4 stars out of 5, or 3 smiley faces on the FACE scale.