Tyranny review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win
Publisher Paradox Interactive
Developer Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date 2016

It’s appropriate that I would be tasked with playing Tyranny, a game where "sometimes, evil wins," as the tagline says, during a week where discussions about good and evil were all over the news. It’s tough to sit down and review a game that begins with the choices that Tyranny does when election week in America hits and we’re collectively trying to figure out if we did the right thing, or if we did enough, or if we’re going to survive come 2017.

Obsidian Entertainment and Paradox Interactive’s impeccable timing on the game’s release was not purposeful — I hope — but it ensured that Tyranny, where the player has to pick between the literal lesser of two evils on the side of a fascist dictator, is more relevant than ever. It’s a game where I was constantly questioning if I was going down the correct path, which meant that following Nov. 8 and the deep depression that followed, I put it down for three days.

While Tyranny is a traditional RPG in a lot of ways, it’s most important feature is in the dialogue options, where the player traverses an exaggerated morality system without any of the extremes. There’s no such thing as "lawful good" in the land of Terratus. It’s only different shades of evil and gray, and the player is tasked with figuring out how to conduct themselves as their overlord conquers and destroys native lands. The bulk of this conquest occurs during the prologue section, which presents itself as a choose-your-own-adventure that allows you to decide how you serve your general and how relentless you are. Everything else — if you can stop an invasion, for instance — is out of your hands.

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I struggled at first to find the enjoyment. Tyranny tasks the player with making many brutal and stomach-churning choices. This makes for an interesting discussion from a game design standpoint, but could the constant tragedies and death that covered each level survive through dozens of hours of gameplay? It was a tough sit, especially through the prologue level, where you make story decisions that affect your priorities and quests during the main game. My Fatebinder character was required to summon a volcano to destroy an ancient and culturally important library. It wasn’t a matter of how I did this or if I should. It was simply a matter of when — would I give the people inside time to escape or let them burn?

Where is the appeal in choosing between the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus — two factions that differ only in how they kill their victims? The two troops are constantly at war, and you must side with one over the other, but the Disfavored are Nazis and the Scarlet Chorus is a disorganized collection of psychopaths.

But the immoral nature of the game doesn’t disguise what it seems to be saying about the impact of choice. In Tyranny, your decisions matter, not only in the ending you might receive (usually one of the few things that can switch up in other games like Mass Effect), but also which areas you’ll visit on a quest, which party members you can recruit, your reputation among the warring factions and the abilities you garner from said relationships. You are graded on a scale that includes fear, wrath and loyalty with each faction and party member, and each action can skew your ranking. And no side is exactly better than the other. While a player might feel more comfortable inspiring loyalty rather than fear, the game doesn’t punish them either way. You gain advantages only by interacting more. If you reach a certain level of fear or loyalty with something, for example, you’ll gain bonuses in battle. In Tyranny, morality doesn’t matter, only how close you adhere to laws.

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Where the game sticks closer to a typical cRPG is combat. Tyranny works on a turn-based, pausing system that allows the player to choose between either carefully planning out each turn or button-mashing to see what happens. Both work, although how well depends on the difficulty and, luckily, you can easily change it by going into the options menu at any time (as long as you’re not in combat). The party members you can recruit, along with the abilities you can give your character from the start, are varied enough that you have a number of different strategies to choose from.

In character creation, you can give your Fatebinder primary and secondary abilities, allowing you to play around with different fighting styles. In the game’s early stages, it’s easy to switch between, for example, frost magic and unarmed melee, letting you try out different techniques without having to start over. The more you use those abilities in battle, the faster they level up, so you’re rewarded for sticking to one style, but not punished for being unable to choose.

By the fourth act, I settled on my Fatebinder’s fighting style, especially after the number of battles I took part in. It’s possible to avoid confrontations with certain dialogue options, but your position on the side of the conquerors means you’re motivated to fight. The Fatebinder is constantly trying to quell rebellions, protect disenfranchised settlers, and provoke tribes and groups that hate their guts, so there are plenty of conflicts.

However, after a while, the battles became tiresome. Save for bosses, most enemies are the same, the only difference being how large a group is or the ratio of physical and magical foes. The repetition isn’t as jarring on higher difficulties, where the focus is more on strategy, or in situations where you get the chance to switch out party members or weapons. But it took away from the power of the choices presented. There was no point in trying to be a diplomat with generic enemy tribes when I knew I could plow through them.

In the same way, the weight of the choices I had to make lightened, leaving me to wonder if I'd become complacent or if the decisions mattered less. By act three, the consequences began to impact the story, forcing me to choose between the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus in a rushed sequence that moved into my Fatebinder facing and beating a number of bosses. By then, I had leveled up my character and had discovered my destiny as an overpowered magical lord, so taking out my rivals before they killed me first seemed trivial.

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Despite how Tyranny wants you to think about the severity of your choices, they don’t matter when you’re all-powerful and there are few stakes. I knew I was going to come out on top.

The game’s emphasis on its decision-making then becomes a detriment, since other elements get pushed aside. The Fatebinder meets several people on the journey, but because the focus is on your character, the player rarely gets to know the NPCs outside sparse dialogue. Once the story moves into the latter half, which is more about you and your quest into power, there is little weight in the morality choices because little else matters beyond advancing the plot.

When Tyranny does end, it concludes abruptly, as if there was story that the developers didn’t have time to include. Unlike other games of its ilk, I was able to complete it in less than 20 hours. However, the choices are varied enough that I felt the need to try other options. That’s where the game’s enjoyment comes from, if you could call it that. While my options were awful, my choices mattered. And there are so many outcomes that I immediately went back and replayed some sections.

Wrap Up:

Tyranny's dedication to bad guy morality works

Tyranny's bad guy morality system is a little on the nose, and other aspects of the game sometimes suffer. But the game's dedication to that conceit works, setting a path of bargaining and self-examination. Even amidst self-doubt, I did summon a volcano and destroy a library — and I’d probably do it again.

Tyranny was reviewed using a pre-release Steam key provided by Obsidian. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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7.5 Win