Tyranny was a game I came into with a great deal of anticipations, but few preconceptions. It takes the unusual step of casting you as a bad guy in a world ravaged by war, and in which evil has triumphed, you are tasked with enforcing the ruling power’s laws in the suitably portentous position of Fatebringer. Thrown into the middle of an escalating division between the two competing sides of the victorious army, it is up to you to explore the realm of the Tiers and pass judgement on the various factions that are based there.
Whilst the general gameplay and mechanics will be familiar to anyone who has played an isometric RPG, whether old classics such as Baldur’s Gate or Obsidian Entertainment’s own Pillars of Eternity, the setting and writing of Tyranny is what makes it stand out from the crowd. The game manages to offer you the opportunity to be as evil as you wish whilst avoiding the pantomime dynamics that so often characterise moral choices in videogames. This nuanced approach results in a world that is a pleasure to explore and attempt to dominate.
This is fortunate, given the vast amount of text and associated lore that must be negotiated as you progress. I’m not afraid of a bit of reading – I’ve got a Doctorate in Renaissance Literature to my name, after all – but there were occasions when the seemingly endless succession of dialogue boxes became daunting. This information overload is alleviated somewhat by the clever use of the journal and contextual details. Many terms appear in a different colour to the main text and serve as links to more thorough, optional encyclopedia discussions. This approach is welcome, but does serve to highlight how dense the world-building process is.
Before beginning the game itself, you proceed through the events of the conquest in which you made a name for yourself. Presented as a series of moral choices in the form of a visual novel of sorts, this prologue works extremely well. Once you start exploring the world in the main game, it is impressive to see how much of an effect your choices had, from restricting access to particular areas to offering alternative dialogue options. This further cements the narrative strengths of Tyranny.
As well as being a well-told story, Tyranny is refreshingly progressive in its gender politics. Female characters are far from being token eye-candy or love interests, but instead well-rounded characters with individual personalities – whether that be coquettish or psychotic. Same-sex couples are present and presented without any fanfare, as well.
I greatly enjoyed the narrative and world-building aspects of Tyranny and was expecting it to make its way high onto my game of the year list for 2016. However, there are a number of more disappointing aspects that hold it back. Chief among these is the chaotic, cluttered, and repetitive combat. Most of the battles in the game (and there are many) feature faceless mobs with little in the way of character or individual tactics and there are none of the epic fights that were a highlight of the likes of Baldur’s Gate.
After the first Act, the combat had bored me to the point of turning the difficulty down and letting the game play itself out. There seemed to be an almost endless range of abilities and countless spells attained through a novel crafting system, but little real need to experiment with them. Each character has access to a number of weapon slots, but in practice this mainly meant that you had alternative sharp and blunt weapons and switched between them if one proved ineffective. Apart from the artefact items that become important towards the end of the game, loot was largely pointless, and I didn’t buy a single weapon or piece of armour from any of the game’s merchants.
A pattern of picking up everything and then selling it on became the norm, with the money raised used to support the party’s bases. These bases, called Spires, can be unlocked as the game progresses, but only one is essential to the plot. Once controlled, you can build training centres on them and employ merchants and hunters. This aspect works well in illustrating your character’s increasing power and influence, but the training aspect is fiddly and poorly explained. Your characters can pay to train a skill five times each level, but you must travel to a trainer every time you level up to maximise these improvements. This is yet another example of the excessive busy-work that makes up most of the gameplay. It is a testament to the game’s narrative strengths that I wanted to persevere and reach the end.
The end of the game, however, is cause for an article all by itself. The early parts of the game are full of intrigue and interest, whilst the middle Act is drawn out by interminable battles and exploring lands that are well designed visually but offer little to do. Everything seems to be set up for an epic conclusion when you are pitted against the Archons (the commanders of the conquering army) in a battle for supremacy.
What actually happens, however, is that the final Act consists of four encounters which can be resolved through combat or conversation depending on your decisions throughout the game, followed by a sudden ending complete with static text descriptions of your party’s actions after the game. To call this disappointing would be an understatement. Future DLC may resolve some of the loose ends left by this ending, but cannot erase the bitter taste of such a lost opportunity.
Tyranny is in many ways the Hamlet of videogames. By which I mean it is a fascinating exploration of the ways in which human behaviour can descend into evil, featuring a lengthy middle section defined by delay and conversation, before everything suddenly ends in a flurry of violence and a disappointing final exchange. There is much to like about Tyranny, but the game itself doesn’t live up to its narrative strengths.