Tyranny hands-on: Sow dissent and reshape the world in this branching bad-guy RPG

If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice

Tyranny (E3 2016)

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Tyranny is the first isometric CRPG I might play twice back-to-back. There are others I’ve gone back to and replayed after a number of years—Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment—but always in pursuit of reliving earlier memories.

Not Tyranny. Here, it’ll be to see how different the game is on a second run.

Or at least that’s the impression I had after a brief (maybe thirty minutes) hands-on demo last week during E3. From the start, Obsidian made it clear my experience wouldn’t necessarily be the same as every other person at E3. They’d actually brought three demos to the show.

Tyranny (E3 2016)

Not three separate sections, though. Rather, this was the same battle—over a citadel known as Ascension Hall—but with different allegiances. Your protagonist in Tyranny, an agent of the law known as a Fatebinder, is part of and yet separate from every faction in the game. As such, you can go into the battle for Ascension Hall aligned with any of three groups: The Rebels, the Scarlet Chorus, or the Disfavored.

I was paired with the Rebels, who are actually in possession of the citadel at the demo’s start—besieged by both the Scarlet Chorus and the Disfavored. Through some political machinations I’d managed to spark some infighting amongst the Chorus and Disfavored, but they’d finally gotten their wits about them and were about to launch an all-out assault.

I could just as easily have been aligned with the Chorus or the Disfavored, each of which has its own reasons for assaulting Ascension Hall—or rather, the same reason but in conflict with each other. Each leader wants the glory from capturing the citadel and returning it to the supreme leader Kyros.

Tyranny (E3 2016)

This level of gray-morality faction politicking seems in line with Obsidian’s work on Alpha Protocol or Fallout: New Vegas and it’s got me excited at the possibilities. For all that I loved Pillars of Eternity, your allegiances rarely came into play outside of a general good/evil karma system and a few key quests.

But here, even the number of inflection points I saw in a twelve minute demo were staggering. Not only can you play the battle for Ascension Hall from three perspectives, but you can then choose to betray your chosen faction halfway through. And as this story beat is only a few hours into Tyranny, it seems as though it will have dire ramifications for the rest of the game regardless of your choice.

I certainly hope so. I’d love to play another RPG that’s content to let me miss out on parts of the story because of choices I made—like The Witcher 2. A game that’s actually worth replaying. What I’ve seen of Tyranny has me thinking it’s that sort of game, but of course we won’t know for sure until it releases later this year.

Tyranny (E3 2016)

It’s also worth pointing out how much environments can change in Tyranny. When Obsidian announced the game at GDC it showed off how cities will differ depending on questions you answer during character creation—in their example, one permutation meant half of a city had fallen into the void.

What I didn’t realize is that system actively extends into the game. As we saw in the Pillars of Eternity expansions, Obsidian’s engine is capable of some spectacular in-game cinematics—like relighting the White Forge. Tyranny looks like it will take full advantage of those capabilities, as evidenced by the Disfavored blowing up an entire wall of the citadel. “Will it be like that for the rest of the game?” I asked, and Obsidian confirmed yes, it will be. It's hard to know whether it’s avoidable if playing as a different faction, but it was a huge moment in my hands-on time.

As for actually playing Tyranny? This was a combat-heavy demo, which doesn’t really give me much to talk about except to say “It’s a lot like any other active-pause RPG.” That includes Pillars of Eternity. The key difference is you’re limited to a party of four, but my group filled out the standard archetypes—rogue, tank, healer, and a barbarian-type. Combat is smoother than Pillars (more per-encounter spells and very few per-rest) and a bit flashier, but the point is: If you’ve played an Infinity Engine RPG, you’ll feel right at home in Tyranny.

And with that, Tyranny goes straight to the top of my most-anticipated list—or maybe it was there already. Look for it later this year.

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