Tyranny is an interesting new spin on an age-old idea. Whereas most games in this vein posit, 'What if YOU were the bad guy?', Tyranny instead muses, 'What if EVERYONE was the bad guy?' It’s an RPG where all the heroic battles have been fought and lost, and it’s simply a case of waiting for the fat lady to finish cooking in the middle. If you’ve ever played an RPG and felt guilty about choosing the nasty options, Tyranny makes it easier on you by crossing all the nice options out.
But Tyranny isn’t simply content with letting the player be the baddie. Developer Obsidian uses its premise to offer a thorough examination of the nature of evil, in all its shades of grey and black. While it lets you act as a total, unhinged monster if you so wish, Tyranny is more about evil in the ordinary, the kind that hides behind words like loyalty, nobility, and honour. You can revel in it, try to find some glory in it, or cling on to whatever shreds of humanity you can find. But Tyranny never forgets the unfathomable human tragedy that has led to the broken, beaten world you explore.
That said, it does lose its focus sometimes. While Tyranny’s analysis of evil is fascinating, it’s based upon staunchly traditional RPG systems, and sometimes those systems either drift away from or directly obstruct the game’s more interesting qualities.
Tyranny places you in the role of a Fatebinder, a powerful enforcer of the almighty Kyros the Overlord. Nearly all the known world grinds painfully beneath Kyros’ iron heel, except for one tiny peninsula known as the Tiers. Unable to abide even the slightest hint of dissent, Kyros sends two armies, known as the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus, to crush the Tiers’ sputtering rebellion.
But the Tiersmen prove a hardier foe than expected, and the leaders of Kyros’ armies are too busy arguing amongst themselves to form an effective strategy. That’s where you come in, dispatched to the epicentre of the conflict at Vendrien’s Well, you’re tasked with issuing an Edict, a magically imbued command that will kill everyone in the valley unless the rebellion is broken within eight days.
While it’s the Edict that kicks the plot into gear, Tyranny begins telling its story as far back as the character creation screen. Before the game begins in earnest, you’re offered the opportunity to play through an optional 'Conquest' mode, a choose-your-own-adventure story that details your role in the campaign in the Tiers up to the moments before you announce the Edict. I’d strongly recommend you play this, partly because it helps ground you in the lore-heavy world Obsidian has created, but mostly because the choices you make in this section affect your relationships with various factions going forward.
I’d also recommend that you pay closer attention than I did in this section, as the decisions you make here have far-reaching consequences. More far-reaching than is probably wise at such an early stage in the game, in fact. There were points 10 or 15 hours in where characters would say, 'Remember when you did THIS HORRIBLE THING YOU MONSTER?!', and I’d respond, 'Er…not particularly?'
The Conquest mode is a sub-strain of Tyranny’s most notable feature, its reputation system. In the absence of a meaningful good/evil alignment, your interactions with the world and its inhabitants are dependent upon how factions and individuals feel about you. The most significant of these relationships is with Kyros’ two armies. On the one hand you have the Disfavored, Kyros’ elite force of soldiers that embodies virtues like honour and order. But its military mantras are threaded through with racism, and mercy is a foreign concept. By comparison, the Scarlet Chorus will accept anyone into its ranks, and provided this band of thugs and cut-throats kill when their told to, they’re otherwise allowed to do pretty much as they please. But this also means life in the Chorus is violent, chaotic, and fraught with treachery.