Tyranny is not your typical RPG. Instead of being filled with hope and wide-eyed enthusiasm for justice, it places you in a world that has already fallen to the forces of evil—the forces you work for. At E3, I got a chance to go hands on with Tyranny for about a half an hour, exploring a bit of the story and new refinements to both the combat and just the game in general, some which were subtle but also extremely welcome. And while I walked into that demo already excited for Tyranny, I'm walking out even more so.
In Tyranny, my main character is known as a Fatebinder, a judge, jury, and executioner for my tyrannical overlord Kyros. Beforehand, Obsidian had asked me some questions in order to make some decisions for me to set the stage for the story. Things open up in a rather bleak way, an edict has been given that a fortress currently occupied by rebel forces must fall. Originally my master sent two armies to do the job, but when neither could get it done he sent me to clean up the mess in any way possible.
What always surprises me about Obsidian is how powerful their worldbuilding is, and even though this opening bit of context was likely halfway through the game, I didn't feel lost so much as enchanted by what was happening. Edicts are powerful spells that the overlord can cast, creating a binding contract of sorts for all those affected. If I fail to take the fortress with the help of the two armies, everyone, including me, will die.
When I arrive at the fortress, Obsidian's pre-demo questionnaire determined I would align myself with the Disfavored, one of the two forces. When I arrive, it is to find them quarreling with the second army, the Scarlet Chorus, over who should get to take the castle instead of, y'know, actually taking it. It's even possible that I could've selected a third option and chosen to defend the rebels in the castle.
Immediately a challenge was laid out: The door to the inner courtyard of the fortress was being reinforced by mages from within the castle, and someone needed to find an alternate way in. That someone was me. Heading north with my party, we quickly encountered enemy forces that we had to dispatch, and it was here that the first of Tyranny's adjustments from Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian's last RPG, were felt.
Unlike Pillars, which very much wanted you to micromanage a party, Tyranny is a much more hands off affair. While you're certainly free to micromanage, the game also doesn't punish you for looking after your main character and letting your party's AI do its thing. There's a wealth of new and original abilities to play with, and I was so happy I chose a mage because Tyranny has some really unique spells.
In reality, the spells aren't anything groundbreaking, but Obsidian has given them a flavor that really invites you to take the action on screen and crack it wide open with your imagination. Instead of a simple knock-down spell, I had one that would make enemies feel like they were falling into a bottomless pit. It was ingeniously evil.
Something else that is new are special abilities you can trigger alongside one of your party members. For example, one of my team had an ability where they would trip an opponent so that I could follow up with a devastating blow of my own. And I loved playing with these little synergies.
I eventually battled my way onto the castle walls, cutting down more rebels before pushing into the inner courtyard for a rather large fight against the mages who were reinforcing the door. Once they were dispatched, I met up with the Disfavored general to chat before the final push into the keep.
The dialogue system in Tyranny remains largely unchanged, but there are some subtle improvements I really enjoy. One of them is a system that highlights special keywords that you can mouseover for additional information. In an unfamiliar fantasy setting as densely wrought as this, being able to get a quick refresher on a certain faction or location is a godsend.
There's also a favor system, which changes your reputation with certain factions depending on the choices you make in the story. That reputation will eventually lead to certain abilities being unlocked for your group depending on how that faction feels about you, and apparently it's even possible to get yourself into a bit of a love/hate relationship as the two factors aren't binary.
Inside the keep, a final fight with the rebel general put my combat skills to the test, and as I dispatched her I was given a series of options to make which beautifully highlighted just what a freeform experience Tyranny should be. Instead of trying to string you along on one path with a decent variance of choice, Tyranny feels like you're basically given free reign to do whatever you please.
Case in point: I killed the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus generals and claimed the castle in my own name, effectively betraying my overlord too. Later, when talking to a rep from Obsidian, I asked how long Tyranny was expected to be, and they told me that the game is actually shorter than Pillars of Eternity. Instead, Tyranny has been built to be replayable because each of the branching choices is so distinct from one another—and that's something that really excites me.
While I love a good, long fantasy epic, the idea of Tyranny being a more concise but more replayable experience really speaks to me. It's going to be hard waiting until later this year so that I can finally see the consequence of my betrayal.