Tyranny and the Time I Needed a Walkthrough to Not Be Evil

WTF is Tyranny?

Tyranny is a new old-style RPG released in November 2016. The premise of the game is that an evil overload has successfully conquered the once-free peoples of a distant realm, and is in the process of crushing the last of the rebels who offer opposition. Your character is part of the evil overlord’s army – a “Fatebinder,” which is a mid-ranking member of the judiciary. Your task is to enforce the overlord’s laws and bring order to the conquered lands.

During the opening sequence of the game, players create their own character partly through traditional RPG mechanisms – like choosing a guild and distributing skill points – and partly through completing a prologue sequence in which they explain what their character did on the overlord’s behalf during the initial invasion.This sets the stage for the game’s first mission, which is to help two competing branches of the overlord’s army take a citadel from the rebel army.

Everything goes sideways after that, in one of four directions, depending on player choice.

The game primarily consists of turn-based combat with a party of up to four members (players can recruit six NPC followers in total and rotate them in and out of the party as needed), but also involves some dialogue choices that can influence the player character’s reputation and standing with many competing factions.

On three of the four available paths, the player character is evil. On one of the paths, she can choose to be good.

The first act of Tyranny is way the hell different from the rest of Tyranny

This is very important to understand, because it’s likely that most of the early reviewers only played the first act.

In the first act of Tyranny, you’re thrust into a time-pressured do-or-die situation in which you have to claim the citadel at Vendrien’s Well to save your own life. It seems like every small choice you make has the power to influence your standing with both factions of the overlord’s army – the disciplined Disfavoured, and the chaotic Scarlet Chorus – your boss, Tunon the Adjudicator, and the rebels fighting to hold the territory. The decisions seem very layered – the options seem very open. But they’re not.

The game’s built to follow a sequence where the final decision you make in Vendrien’s Well (which group to support in the fight for the citadel) sets you on one of three distinct, fairly inflexible paths at the start of Act Two. During the second act, you can choose to betray whichever group you ended up with and jump to a fourth path where everyone hates you, but you can’t ever befriend someone you alienated during Act One.

In theory, this doesn’t seem like a horrible way to design a game – especially on a budget – but, in practice, it didn’t measure up to what I felt I had been promised during the opening sequences. In fact, I got so angry half way through my first play – when I accidentally joined up with the Disfavoured and then apparently had such a hard-on for them that I wanted to murder every random person I met and my dialogue options reduced to six different ways of saying “I’m gonna kill you a skull-fuck your corpse!” – that I restarted and followed written instructions I found on the internet, telling me how to join the rebels instead.

Based on reading the comments online, it seems like the Disfavoured path may be the worst one, and that most people who are dissatisfied got angry at the same point I did, but I definitely felt like I was no longer playing an RPG. I felt like the game had decided who my character was based on one decision and closed off any meaningful choice after that.

I also felt conflicted about what I wanted

I bought Tyranny for the same reason everyone else did – because the premise of the game was so different. I know everyone chooses to be a Sith Lord when they play Knights of the Old Republic, but this is the first game I’ve heard of where the whole premise is that you’re on the wrong side of the war and there might not be anything you can do to change it. I did have a lot more fun playing the rebel path than I did playing Disfavoured, but that experience also wasn’t different from a million other RPGs.

I think what I really wanted – and what some of the angry forum posters wanted, it seems – is a game that had more ambiguity. I would have liked to play a game where my character was loyal to the idea of justice and tried to do her job in imperfect circumstances rather than a game where she suddenly became insanely loyal to one of three groups of people. The way I wanted to play was to be impartial – not impartial in a way where I indiscriminately swore death on everyone, which is the only kind of impartiality the game seems to offer, but impartial in a way where I could try to do what was best for the realm. Unfortunately, that’s not allowed, because…

The evil empire knows naught of subtlety

The most annoying thing about joining the rebels is that you have to blatantly fuck over the evil empire to do it. There’s no way to be circumspect at all. You just have to throw all caution to the wind and boldly announce in front of the whole world that you’re disloyal to the murderous armies surrounding you. This is a really stupid thing to do, and I resented that I had to do it, but it’s just one example of the story being secondary or even tertiary to the game mechanics.

On my first play, I was sent on a mission to find out which of the other Archons was disloyal to the overlord – the Disfavoured leader, Graven Ashe, or the leader of the Scarlet Chorus, The Voices of Nerat. I was all buddied-up with the Disfavoured and slowly gathering evidence that Graven Ashe was actually the traitor, which pleased me, because I thought that maybe we could work together to overthrow the empire. Gentle reader, I even spent some time considering whether I should back off of gathering evidence on Graven Ashe and work on framing the Voices of Nerat instead, so that we could collectively strike a blow against the evil army.

I soon realized that I had been assuming the story line was much more sophisticated than it was. The only purpose in gathering evidence against Graven Ashe and the Voices of Nerat is that, if you do a good enough job, you can get one of them executed and save yourself a boss battle toward the end. It never turns into anything more than that. There are no layers. There’s just literally, exactly what you’re told.

Everybody has a cool name

There are some details in the world-building and the art and the design of Tyranny that I really liked, despite my frustration with story line and lack of actual role-playing. The characters have cool names and, if you talk to them, they also have some pretty cool back stories. Even though I barely knew The Voices of Nerat, I loved saying “The Voices of Nerat” and I loved how creepy and weird he was. He ate somebody’s son and was, like, haunted by him in his blood.

I like the six companions you can pick up and I like that there are hidden rewards to uncover by talking to them. I like the spell-crafting system even if it became overwhelming at times, and I like that the game is not misogynist. Your character can be either male or female with one of many different skin tones; four of the six companions are women, and many of the important, high-ranking characters within each of the military groups you encounter are women as well. There’s even a detail where nobody knows for sure if the overlord is male or female, and another detail where, if you want to randomly hire a hooker (because I guess it’s a requirement that, no matter how modest the game budget is, you need to be able to hire a hooker at some point) you can hire a man or a woman regardless of your gender.

I don’t like the combat very much

And, since that’s the meat of this game, it’s a pretty big deal.

The combat system itself is fine. It’s straight-forward and intuitive, and you can bend your party’s skills and strategy to suit a style of your choosing. I normally make a character who’s good at sword fighting, but I made one who’s good at magic this time, and the magic system was really fun.

The problem is that, once you settle on your core party members and start stacking their skills and abilities, you become an invincible juggernaut. By the time I hit the boss battles at the end, I wasn’t even concerned, because I could mow down wave after wave of enemies just by cycling through the same set of actions. That’s not a product of me being so awesome at Tyranny. It’s a product of Tyranny not being awesome at combat.

Because the gameplay is roughly 95% fighting, and you have no option to avoid the fights that your allegiance has predetermined you’ll have, it means that playing for an hour quickly turns into walking around for two minutes, talking to someone for one minute, and then blasting everybody with the exact same set of spells for the remaining fifty-seven minutes.

In conclusion, I guess I don’t want to be evil

Tyranny was not the game I was hoping for, but it did make me ask myself some questions about what I want from an RPG, and about what I actually mean when I say that I like evil characters. And, what I mean when I say that I like evil characters is that I like characters who are more complicated than “good.” I hate the kind of “good” that comes from never having suffered, and I like the kind of “good” that comes from doing your best when sometimes your best kind of sucks.

What I want from an RPG is more confusing. I know I talked a lot of smack up top about how the rebel path forced me to betray my evil alliance in a really un-smart way, but it’s also true that I very quickly bought into my career in the evil empire and didn’t really want to do a Princess Leia by standing against it. On my evil play through, I felt bad about crushing the rebels, but I was also kind of pleased about how good the game was at manipulating me into crushing them anyway. It took me a long time to realize that there had even been a possibility of helping them. That’s sort of good story-telling, if the point is that your default option is to be complacent in the face of evil, and you really have to go out of your way to challenge it.

On the other hand, when I play an RPG, I often make decisions not based on what I would do, personally (which is usually the lamest, least exciting thing), but based on what I think my character would do. It didn’t feel organic to me that someone who was born and raised inside the evil empire and had the background that my character had (which I was asked to map out in great detail during the set-up and prologue) would all of a sudden, apropos of nothing, start questioning the overlord’s ways. It felt like, if I was supposed to jump ship to the rebels, there should have been an inciting incident that triggered me to change my point of view.

That said, maybe if I’d made a different character with a different background, it would have seemed completely normal to me to jump ship at the first opportunity.

Setting aside the question of whether I or the pixelated character I made should take the blame for my instinctive turn to evil, it’s still true that all but one of the really interesting decision points in Tyranny happen in the game’s first act, which is kind of a let-down. The biggest issue with the game overall is that it seems like a really great concept that wasn’t developed enough to support the full length of the story.

And, in related news, I’m way too afraid to play The Beholder precisely because I think it has more of the ambivalence I just said I’m looking for.

Image: Tyranny; Paradox Interactive | February 10, 2017