You can opt to side with either force, or disavow them both and take on the enemies of Kyros entirely by yourself. Any of these decisions will dramatically alter your experience of the game. Yet while the reputation system is impressively flexible, it’s also inconsistent and occasionally a little broken. There are times when Obsidian indulges in a bit of narrative railroading, usually at the most crucial points in the story. Then there are other times when it feels like there should be different ways to proceed, but the game fails to offer them to you. At one point I had to destroy an entire faction simply to cross a bridge, even though the game kept hinting that I should speak to different members of the faction to find a non-violent solution.
Unlike most RPGs, resorting to violence feels far less like the wrong decision, or a failure on the player’s part. Extending the hand of mercy can cause you problems further down the line, as your enemies continue to resist you despite your leniency. It can also result in scorn and mocking from your party who, as ever with Obsidian, are a motley bunch of miscreants. Each, like yourself, is varying degrees of flawed human and emerging monster.
Take Barik, for example, a proud and loyal Disfavored soldier whose armour was fused to his body during an Edict which you proclaim in the Conquest phase of the game. Barik believes in the Disfavored’s moral code to the core. If you make what he believes to be a tactical error, or show mercy to someone he deems undeserving, he’ll dislike you for it. At the same time, his dire situation makes it difficult not to feel some sympathy for him. Entrapped in twisted, heavy steel, Barik is constantly smeared in a coating of his own excrement, incapable of washing or eating anything that isn’t mush.
Other characters, like Lantry and Eb, are fundamentally decent people who join your malevolent crusade simply because it’s the most sensible way to survive in the world. As the game progresses, their respect for you may grow, but in doing so it clouds their own morality. Even as they fight alongside you, they become victims of Kyros’ crusade.
The ways in which your party’s attitudes can shift toward you is hugely impressive, although it doesn’t have the impact on the game it perhaps deserves to. This is because the party isn’t as fleshed out as in Obsidian’s previous game, Pillars of Eternity. There they were often the focal point of the game, with entire quests dedicated to exploring their backstories. Here, they’re very much along for your ride, and although their relationship with you may change dramatically, they themselves don’t really grow as individuals.
That said, character relationships are important in combat. As your reputation with each of your party grows, you unlock powerful joint abilities that can devastate your enemies. Lantry, for example, gains access to 'Quicken', a powerful healing spell that affects all the party. Barik, meanwhile, can summon a ball of twisted iron swords that fire out individually at enemies.
It’s the standout feature of a combat system which otherwise sticks to tried and tested methods. Each character has at least two ability trees that let them specialise in a particular role. Eb, for example, can focus on water- or electricity-based spells, while Barik can double-down on damage dealing or damage absorption. Whatever you choose, it’s best to stick with standard RPG class builds, using one character to kite enemies and absorb damage while the others focus on dispatching your opponents.
Overall, it’s a well-honed system, with plenty of room to tailor it to your own personal tastes. There’s even the ability to craft your own spells by collecting runes found in dungeons throughout the world. But it isn’t strong enough to support the sheer amount of combat in the game. Tyranny throws enemies at you relentlessly, and there isn’t a massive amount of variety in enemy types. After a while, it begins to feel like the combat is getting in the way of the story.
This also goes for some of the quests, which are needlessly long and convoluted. The worst of these takes place in the Blade Grave, a giant battlefield devastated by a huge magical storm, leaving behind only swords and armour fused into the Earth itself. It’s a striking and morbid place. Five hours later, I was glad to see the back of it, after a quest which involves a seemingly endless trek through the surrounding province searching for a way to disable a magical barrier.
At times, Tyranny struggles to reconcile its premise with the adventuring component of fantasy RPGs. It minimises side-quest busywork, because nobody is going to ask one of Kyros’ minions to help clear rats from their basement. But it then incorporates some of this busywork into the main quest, forcing you down quest lines which, although not tangential to the story, feel as if they are.
Still, when Tyranny focusses on its own examination of evil, it’s a captivating and at times disturbing experience. That it possesses such a strong theme, and yet finds so many different ways to explore it, is remarkable. There’s no question that this is a story deserving of your attention, probably more-so than Pillars of Eternity, despite this game exhibiting greater flaws. Tyranny is not a perfect game by any means, but it is a fascinating one nonetheless.