Magic And Myth In A Post-War World: Tyranny

I’ve seen Tyranny [official site] several times before and I even played it out at E3, but it was only after a hands-on session at Gamescom that I felt ready to write about Obsidian’s next RPG. It’s a tricky one to preview, seeing as so much of the pitch relates to a world that changes to reflect the Big Choices you make. In a game that’s so keen to gesture toward the bigger picture, it can be difficult to get a sense of how well the smaller moments work toward that end.

At Gamescom, I played a new section of the game, crafted some spells, and decided that even if I can’t know how well the bigger picture will come together, there’s enough here to understand at least some of what Obsidian are building. It’s strong stuff.

At one point, I thought I’d landed on the perfect summary sentence: “Tyranny is the Icewind Dale to Pillars of Eternity’s Baldur’s Gate”. Problem with that perfect summary is that it’s probably based on a false premise. What I’ve played of Tyranny focuses on combat and more traditional RPG dungeons and quests, with plenty of traps to disarm and roving gangs of enemies to stumble across, but that’s most likely because those are the parts of the game easiest to demonstrate in half an hour or less.

Start digging into the turning points in the narrative during those short sessions and you’re likely to run into problems. If I can pick a side in a localised conflict, which will then have an impact on the wider world, I’m not going to see that impact half an hour later. Give me some spells, skills, legendary weapons and a tricky dungeon layout to play with, and I can see exactly how the whole thing works.

The combat system in Tyranny is excellent. I’ve always preferred a full-on turn-based combat system to Infinity Engine style pauses for thought, but the four-person parties here are manageable and specialised. Every character has something to offer and it’s easy to see the impact of skills that aggro enemies, directing their attention toward a tough-as-nails bastard who can take the damage, as well as those that chip away at armour or create vulnerabilities.

Armour is very important. Unleashing your strongest attacks won’t achieve a great deal if an opponent is protected, so the order in which you direct your attacks can be as important as their targets. In the portion I played at Gamescom, ethereal horrors were spawning and spilling out of the walls. Some were vulnerable to ice, some were vulnerable to fire or electricity. The tougher, boss variants were slightly vulnerable to just about everything but didn’t have any one specific weakness to exploit.

If you’re anything like me, those kind of encounters lead to lots of pausing and hovering over spells and skills to find just the right one for the occasion. Then you hover over the enemies to make sure you’re definitely delivering the fireball to the creature that, like every Brit right now, complains as soon as the world around them ceases to qualify as ‘dank’. There are combos to consider, both in the form of skills that actually require two characters to commit to them and sequences of attacks that work well together one after the other. For me, that kind of tactical play mostly involved using a rogue to knock somebody over and then having everyone else pile on top. And I’m playing the good guys.

At least I think I am. Tyranny’s pitch is easy to misunderstand; it’s not necessarily a game about playing the villain, rather it’s a game where the bad guys won. A sequel to a game you’ve never played, in which the heroic band of adventurers failed and evil triumphed. In your position of privilege in the new world order, you have an enormous amount of responsibility – you’re carrying out big tasks for The Man and The Man is a Bad Man – but you’re not being used as a tool to terrorise the factions and individuals you meet along the way. You’re part of the post-conflict plan, switching between warrior, peacekeeper and diplomat as the situation dictates. The great promise of Tyranny’s story is that it’ll tell the high fantasy version of post-occupation blues, and in what I’ve seen there are some tricky decisions to be made about asserting control of populations and cultures in a power vacuum or the aftermath of brutality.

Quite how that sits alongside the much more traditional dungeon crawling of this most recent demo, I’m not entirely sure. Down in the ruins of the world, in this case part of an enormous wall that has fallen into neglect and nightmare, it appears to be RPG business as usual.

That’s no bad thing, and the addition of a spellcrafting system and flavoursome legendary weapons is very attractive indeed. The spellcrafting works around collecting sigils (either from characters or in the world) and combining them to create new abilities, utilising a base element, form of expression (cone, AOE strike, bolt, beam, touch) and additional, optional modifiers. Based on what I’ve seen, which is very little, the spells you can create aren’t as weird or exciting as those on Divinity Original Sin 2’s vast cocktail menu, but even if they’re all iterations or variations on the usual D&D arsenal, the ability to modify and name them makes them feel more personal to the characters they’re attached to.

The same is true of legendary weapons. They have spiffy names and provide a brand spanking new skill to whoever wields them, but they’re not game-changers so much as embellishments on the world and your characters. As the lore goes, they’re named, unique items within the world, and there’s a lovely touch in that the more you use them, the more famous they become. Although they’ve already made a mark on history, you’re adding to the list of their legendary deeds, and that makes them more powerful still.

I might not be clear on how attractive the bigger picture will be but a lot of Tyranny’s smaller details are adding up into something substantial and evocative. At this point, I want to see more of the world and I want to see how I can change it, but – importantly – I also want to spend time playing with the combat system and exploring dungeons. Having a levelling system based entirely around skillsets rather than classes means I can change that wizardy fellow into a flame-spewing tank if that seems like a good idea, and I can have a speedy rogue-like who packs a real punch.

The grand schemes of this oppressed world might be unclear until we actually get to sit down and play the whole thing from start to finish once or twice, but I’m becoming comfortably excited about that prospect.

Tyranny will be out later this year.

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  1. Emeraude says:

    First I hear about the magic/crafting systems, sounds promising – though depending on implementation I can already picture ways to abuse the base set up.

    If the game can deliver on its promises, it’s probably going to be my most important game this year, weirdly as it sounds.

  2. McGuit says:

    This is on my radar. Looking forward to hearing more….

  3. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I’ve been watching The Man in the High Castle lately (and by Cthulu’s wiggly beard, what an excellent show it is), so I definitely have an appetite for a game in which you play a decent human being under a tyrannical regime. This sounds great.

    The Icewind Dale/Pillars comparison alarmed me (before you explained why it wasn’t quite accurate), because I felt like the writing in Pillars waxed philosophical far too much and didn’t offer much emotional engagement. An isometric game with even weaker writing wouldn’t have much appeal to the Baldur’s Gate crowd, methinks.

    • Emeraude says:

      Thinking back on it, I’d say it’s not so much the writing quality that was the biggest issue with Pillars as much as the ways narrative elements are woven within the fabric of the game itself.

      All too often, it felt more like interactions were a way to gate/pace-control content more than make individual narrative elements coalesce into various iterations/variations of working wholes, depending on players choices.

      God, I’m starting to make no sense again, am I not? Time for a rest.

    • Fry says:

      The writing in Pillars was, unfortunately, a bit of a rush job and suffered greatly from lack of iteration and ill-timed infodumps. The head writer has admitted in interviews that quite a bit of it was first pass stuff that he greatly regrets not being able to spend more time with.

      Hopefully, they’re not repeating this mistake with Tyranny.

      • Someoldguy says:

        There was some inferior writing in PoE but I think the worst part was talking to bunches of backer NPCs before realising that their ‘histories’ were disconnected lumps that had no bearing on the rest of the world. Once I learned to avoid those the story was better, but could still have improved a lot.

        I do like the sound of wrestling with my conscience in obeying the orders of the boss or revelling in the cruelty. Perhaps this will be the second game where occasionally being a real bastard feels appropriate. That hasn’t happened to me in a game since Torment. I’m more worried that it might just turn out to be a shallow hook to hang more dungeon crawling on. I’m hoping for a more meaty plot.

        • Chaoslord AJ says:

          When the backers deliver more lines than the actual writers: something’s wrong.
          Ended up just dismissing those texts. It’s just like Elder Scrolls lore books but those deliver some background at least about species or daedra or history so I read them all at once in one pdf but those are just background stories from random disconnected NPCs.

      • Zekiel says:

        I thought the writing was fine -on a micro-level (individual conversations) it was almost always excellent, on a macro-level (story as a whole) it wasn’t excellent but it wasn’t awful either.

        The interview I’ve read with a writer said it would have been better with more time for re-writes – but also that this is the case with every single game ever. It doesn’t appear to me like PoE’s writing was any more rushed than any other comparable RPG. Very happy to read evidence to the contrary though!

    • napoleonic says:

      Try reading the book instead. link to

  4. Yontevnknow says:

    I’ll consider checking this out once Pillars of Eternity has all of its major bugs fixed. As much as i loved the game, iv’e been holding off on a full playthrough till most everything gets fixed. Last patch seems to have broken as much as it fixed.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I’ve played it through twice without any significant issues and thoroughly enjoyed it. What’s holding you back?

      • J.C. says:

        Probably, in actuality, their giant backlog.

      • Yontevnknow says:

        link to

        That covers most of it, excluding the issues that people have when trying to play the game without buying the dlc. I’m not in “grrr, am mad, smash” mode, just waiting till the game is free of game effecting bugs before i do a full playthrough. Previous attempts ended in bug infested failure late into the main campaign.

  5. Rizlar says:

    Love the premise, skills and spells sound surprisingly interesting too.

    Really hope it goes proper metal though. The premise is so great, it would be disappointing if it turned out to be the same old RPG stuff in slightly darker clothing (help me with my problem! oh, you’re so kind).

    For once I want to play a game where you get to be a sick fuck and still feel like the good(ish) guy. Where all the nice people are dead or in chains and diplomacy is conducted by tearing a demon’s arms off or threatening to turn a place into ash. Where you don’t feel bad about sneaking into homes and murdering people in their sleep or strutting up and just taking what you want, cos they are all bad bastards, they just happen to be on your side.

  6. newguy2012 says:

    Nope for me, given how bad Pillars was. Man what a boring snoozefest.

  7. Tayh says:

    The more I read about this game, the more hyped I am to finally play it and be the Bad Guy that you so rarely get to be.

  8. dare says:

    Looks interesting! Can we then have a prequel, where you play a trusted lieutenant of the Bad Man, sent to infiltrate a ragtag band of adventurers and thwart a prophecy that says they will stop him from conquering the world?

  9. Zekiel says:

    I am really hopeful about this. It does sound like an interestingly different premise for a CRPG, and if they can build on Pillars of Eternity (which I adore) then it could be amazing. The idea of actually playing an RPG protagonist who is in an authority structure is surprisingly rare – I can’t really recall a single game that’s done it (examples please!)

    My main fears are:
    a) That it’ll have higher system requirements than Pillars and my aging computer won’t be able to run it
    b) That the combat system sounds a bit simplistic: you return to full health after every fight, abilities are cooldown-limited, there’s no friendly fire… makes me a bit worried that you’ll find the optimal approach and then do the same thing for every encounter.

    Still, I’m hopeful.

  10. Chaoslord AJ says:

    I liked both Icewind Dale and Pillars less than Baldur’s Gate, hm.
    But that “tyranny”-story sounds intriguing. Will be watching out for this.

  11. Booker says:

    Well, as far as I’m concerned Obs can do no wrong. They have yet to make the game I do not love.

    Pillars was totally awesome and my only concern was that Tyranny might be too similar (same engine etc…). But then again, it’s been a while since I played it, so it should be fine.

    • Harlequin says:

      I hope they do the rounds with their Pillars of Eternity engine, much like what happened with the Infinity Engine. With Pillars, Tyranny and Torment either out or on the horizon, it’s not exactly something absurd to hope for.

  12. Cik says:

    Already played them, which were great…Baldur’s and Pillars…but another boring same-ol rpg game isn’t needed.