Obsidian returns to the world of old-school RPG gaming with aplomb through Tyranny, a fantasy epic armed to the teeth with a plot of deception and intrigue.
Although Obsidian Entertainment has been grabbing headlines over recent months due to its work on the upcoming South Park: The Fractured But Whole, along with its desire to work on a new Fallout game, the developer has also been returning to its roots in C-RPGs. Last year, the developer released Pillars of Eternity, which had tremendous success as a callback to the days of what many consider to be the height of the power of Western RPGs. Now, Obsidian has again gone back to that game style with the launch of Tyranny.
Once again, Tyranny will look extremely familiar to those who played the likes of Baldur's Gate - albeit with a Bronze-to-Iron Age setting that sets it apart from its peers. It's another isometric-style RPG, complete with lavish pre-rendered backdrops and gameplay that focuses heavily on tactics over quick, real-time reactions. The title received plenty of praise upon its announcement, and the game was considered among the best RPGs of E3 2016. Thankfully, the title more than lives up to the expectations set of it.
This will no doubt come as a relief to fans of the developer's work, particularly those who were jubilant over the revival of the old-school RPG genre with Pillars of Eternity. The Kickstarter-backed title had a phenomenal critical reception, receiving high praise as one of the most noteworthy games of 2015, and so the onus was on Obsidian to prove that Pillars of Eternity, and the revival of the C-RPG, was more than just a flash in the pan. As a result, it's perhaps not surprising to see that Tyranny follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, at least from a stylistic and structural standpoint.
This is particularly true of Tyranny's gameplay. The player builds a party of adventurers, and moves across multiple static maps, solving quests and partaking in short battles. Those who have played the likes of Icewind Dale or Planescape: Torment will know how the game works, once again emulating that same feel from within the malleable Unity engine. However, there are a few differences that fans of the genre will no doubt pick up.
Obsidian has once again diversified the combat typings, building on the slight changes found in Pillars of Eternity. Although there are still the standard sword-and-shield warriors and magic users, there are other unique classes this time around. In particular, players may find the characters of Lantry the sage and Sirin, Archon of Song, to be rewarding party members, not only because of their interesting characters but due to their unique play styles.
The actual use of magic feels a little different, too. Arcane users often focus on a particular element, and although this may seem restrictive to some, this sense of railroading is offset by the player's ability to build their own magic spells throughout the game. This gives the game more of a feeling of mysticism, as opposed to the pure Dungeons & Dragons feel of Pillars of Eternity in particular.
Something that may throw old-school RPG fans out is the reduction of party size. Traditionally, games of this type has given the player character a party of six to work with, allowing for a solid level of flexibility and an ability to deal with all comers in an effective way. However, Tyranny knocks this down to four, meaning that the player will need to think extremely carefully about the party's strengths and weaknesses, and balance accordingly.
These slight changes, however, pale in comparison to what is both Tyranny's largest gamble and biggest asset. Obsidian has placed a huge thematic and tonal shift on the game, resulting in a total change of emphasis within both the plot and within the player's own actions. As revealed in the game's announcement trailer, Tyranny is set in a world where evil has conquered good, and the player character starts as one of the villains.
A god-like conqueror known as Kyros has taken over the world, with few pockets of resistance remaining. The player is a Fatebinder, and is tasked with serving Kyros in one of the parts of the world still holding against the conqueror's rule. There, the player, and the other factions of Kyros' forces, must defeat a resistance stronghold, or face unleashing a magical Edict which will destroy all those in the region.
It's certainly a bold plot choice, and a risk that definitely pays off. Tyranny thrusts the player into a game that feels sparse and unwelcoming, but it fits perfectly with the tone of the title. The world is suffering under the rule of Kyros, with towns in fear and corruption and violence rampant. This is not your standard fantasy fare, and there are few lush green lands and welcoming innkeepers here.
To help break the Edict, the player can then choose their own path. This could result in the Fatebinder betraying their former (evil) allies and siding with those trying to avoid domination, or even deciding to subjugate the masses themselves and taking a claim for power based on their own might. There is also the mystery of the Old Walls that cover the land, and the Spires: monoliths filled with ancient power that the Fatebinder is somehow able to unlock.
Through these two plot elements Obsidian has done a great job of telling a refreshing story in a genre that has often felt stale. Gone are the tropes of the hardy Dwarf, the nimble Elf, and the stoic Paladin, instead replaced with much more by way of nuance. There are no totally loyal followers or truly stable alliances here, with each character and faction having their own motives for following the Fatebinder, be it a chance of survival, a debt to be repaid, or a selfish opportunity to grab for power.
The story of the Fatebinder is also one that greatly improves the game. Tyranny has a 'Chosen One' narrative in some respect, but this is perverted through hints that previous Fatebinders have been unceremoniously 'dealt with' by those loyal to Kyros. Instead of some fate-woven future, it's the player's actions, not some prophecy, that is propelling their story, and this gives the player an added level of autonomy in the proceedings. The player is not necessarily destined to succeed in their plan, and instead must fight tooth and nail in every battle, and think carefully about each and every decision and dialogue option.
This cautious nature is another element that is key to Tyranny, as there is a heavy focus on diplomacy in the game. Throughout the title, the Fatebinder is pulling the strings of different forces and characters, attempting to appear true to the will of Kyros while instead manipulating events in a way that the conqueror may not necessarily approve of. Deception is key in Tyranny, and the player needs to be careful with their words, and who deserves the truth - if anyone.
In short, this is Game of Thrones, not Lord of the Rings. Being noble is all well and good in a standard fantasy story, but Tyranny makes sure that being smart is key. This is truly where Tyranny's quality really shines, steering the player off the path of a perfect avatar of incorruptible will.
Of course, the game is not perfect, and some may find the odd all-or-nothing decision regarding forces to recruit jarring, or the locations within the world itself a little too devoid of scope to be a truly immersive experience. However, it's in the large concepts, and in its gentle manipulation of the player's trained responses, that Tyranny finds its purpose. A must-have for fans of the genre, and a worthwhile title for those after a truly different experience.
Tyranny is out November 10, 2016, for PC and Mac. Game Rant was provided with a PC code for the purposes of this review.