I usually play good characters in RPGs, but in Tyranny, I’ve found myself drifting toward the most diabolical path possible.
Tyranny, the latest classic-style RPG from Pillars of Eternity and Fallout: New Vegas developer Obsidian, takes place in a world where evil won. Overlord Kyros (a name that falls just below “Adolf Sauron” on the evilness scale, but only slightly) has ravaged the land. As the Fatebinder, it’s up to you to whip the bickering factions under Kyros’ rule into shape and conquer the Tiers, where all sorts of disruptive types reside.
You’re a dick. You serve a dick, and you associate almost exclusively with dicks. In Tyranny’s world, evil runs the show, and people have to cope with it. It’s your job to make that hard for them. Based on what I’ve played so far, though, the game does a good job of avoiding cackling, ridiculous evil and instead errs on the side of believable evil… despite characters having names like Overlord Kyros.
That’s Tyranny’s biggest strength: Even for someone like me — a prolific player of goody two-shoes paladin sorts — this game gives the dark side a powerful allure. Characters are the key. You get to know your party members, and they’re likeable, sometimes even noble, in their own twisted ways.
For instance, there’s Verse, the first person to join your party. She’s a killer. It’s what she loves doing. But she’s also a no-bullshit badarse who’s full of snark and smarts. When you talk to her, it’s easy to forget that she gleefully slaughters folks who are fighting to protect their loved ones. She’s funny, not to mention a refreshing presence after a day of dealing with Kyros’ Archons, who are so pompous and self-important that you wish you could strangle them, except that one of them literally doesn’t have a neck, so you’re pretty much SOL.
Based on what you say and do, you can either curry favour with or piss off characters and factions. And so, I’ve found myself liking certain characters and thinking things like, “If I let this body-looting merchant off the hook, Verse would not approve at all. So I can’t just be a little evil right now. I have to be Full Evil.”
Slowly but surely, I’ve started rationalising these decisions within my character’s broader story. Originally, I wanted to angle her toward a sort of redemption arc — where she helped the forces of good in the end. Plucked from a tribe of increasingly deranged Beastmen, she became a loyal servant of Kyros. However, during the game’s opening, there’s a bit where you lay siege to one of the world’s foremost scholarly institutions. I had my character agree to look over books and ensure they contained no seditious material before letting soldiers plunder them. In my head-canon, that was the moment my character started to have doubts. She was always clever and canny, sure, but on that night she became a voracious learner, an independent thinker.
Now that I’ve gotten into the meat of the game, though, I find myself angling less toward redemption and more in the direction of effective brutality, the kind that impresses my party members and the factions I like. My character is an exacting sort of evil: If it gets the job done cleanly and effectively, nothing is off-limits. Oh, and she really likes setting people on fire. Also entire cities.
But now I’m beginning to wonder: Am I really that weak-willed? Is the approval of others all it’d take to get me to perform detestable actions against people I didn’t know? Given the times we live in, it’s not unreasonable to ask yourself what you’d do if wanton violence against certain groups became the societally accepted and encouraged norm. Tyranny makes that sort of evil normal, depicts it as Just The Way Things Are with a cast of likeable characters who also do things other than murder and prejudice, because that’s how people work. It’s worth thinking about. Yeah, it’s just a video game about wizards in funny clothes, but you still might discover some startling things about yourself while playing it.
I haven’t finished Tyranny yet, so I can’t give full impressions of every element. So far, though, combat is very much akin to Pillars of Eternity, except with rad cooperative attacks, four party members instead of six and some disappointingly shallow encounters. There’s also a really cool modular spell-crafting system that lets you pick elements, the form spells will take and add special effects as you discover them.
The game is also unapologetically laden with lore. To help players wade through the winding word labyrinth, the game uses a Wiki-like system where you can mouse over terms and places to get explanations and histories. It’s dense, though, and sometimes still fails to explain the real, in-game significance of things. I’ve gone into a handful of big moments not knowing the true stakes of my decisions. In a game where your choices really do matter, that can be intensely frustrating.
At this point, I’m finding Tyranny to be an interesting step off the more traditional path laid down by Pillars of Eternity. It oozes personality in a way that’s seduced me into doing seriously heinous stuff. I want to impress the people I like — many of whom are garbage humans, but charismatic ones — so I’ve grown comfortable doing worse and worse things. Despite all its fantasy trappings, Tyranny is strikingly true-to-life in that sense. Evil isn’t constantly leering and insidious. It’s often mundane, other times inviting and attractive. It’s at its most powerful when it’s perpetrated by people we like, rather than those we loathe. Because then we find ways to rationalise it and, ultimately, perform it ourselves.