The proposition of the game is "what if Sauron won?", but it takes inspiraton from real-world tyrants, gangsters and manipulators as much as fictional ones. The player will most likely end up working for the bad guys – either an elite force of racists who exterminate everyone they conquer, or a horde of unruly terrorists who conscript the people they defeat in shockingly brutal ways. Either of those paths would test the moral limits of the player. They will be instructed to do terrible things, and must decide whether the ends (peace and order) justify the means (conquest and submission to a tyrant).

I shied away from those moral compromises, choosing to betray both sides and seize power myself. This doesn't make you a good person either – in fact, it involves quite a lot more killing than if you just pick one side and fight the other. The dead bodies pile up much higher in the quest to make your name and build up enough renown to be able to challenge the political elites of the world – demigods called Archons whose reputations give them magical abilities.

That is the key metaphor in Tyranny, and one of the strengths of the game. Magical powers are products of knowledge (fiercely controlled by the distant autocrat who directs the Archons – the unknowable Kyros) but also the way you are perceived in the world. Your reputation – both positive and negative – with different companions and factions (and even certain items you are using) will give you new powers. This has big implications mechanically – you can't just sit on the fence and try to get everyone to like you. Instead, the game rewards you for choosing a side. To unlock the most powerful abilities you should aim to have a lot of favour with one faction, and correspondingly a lot of wrath with another. Likewise, although you may want your companions to like you, getting them to fear you as well will mean a wider menu of combo abilities. At the end of both reputation scales is where the bonuses lie. 

This was a roleplaying challenge for me, as I usually play a goody two shoes in RPGs and try not to offend anyone. Tyranny is very upfront about the necessity of not doing this – you are told you have to pick a side, and if you hesitate in the interests of keeping everyone happy you actually lose favour with everyone. Nonetheless, it's the mechanical incentives the game provides which hammer the point home and bring the metaphor to life. Power is literally about what others think of you and can be gained through favour or wrath, loyalty or fear. And in order to build those things up and become an Archon, you have to make enemies.

Kyros's power is also the source of their magic, and vice versa – but it's on a different scale to the Archons they command. Kyros can pronounce commandments called "edicts", which like the twelve plagues of Egypt fundamentally change the character of the landscape. This ability to project power is what allows them (the gender is unknown) to rule from a distance. As the game develops you see the limits of this – on the edges of the empire opportunities arise for its servants to acquire the kind of power and renown that can pose a threat to the emperor. The player character can break edicts, and eventually make them as well. While Kyros's origins remain a mystery in the game, the implication is that they mirror your own. Your investigations into the magical underpinnings of the world give you the power to shape it, and an empire much like Kyros's may become part of your destiny.

The world of Tyranny is rich with detail and novelty. It has a classical rather than medieval flavour – where most weapons are bronze rather than iron and demigods walk among men. The lore can be a bit overwhelming, with many new terms and concepts to learn, but the basics are intuitively explained, and most of the depths are accessed through conversations, which the player can skip if they are uninterested in learning more. You get the sense that the narrative designers really enjoyed pursuing the implications of what a world under Kyros would be like, and you can spend a lot of the otherwise short running time tumbling down those rabbit holes.

Tyranny's biggest flaw is its combat system, and given that you do a lot of fighting it's a significant one. There isn't a lot of tactical crunch, where the strengths and abilities of an enemy require you to change your approach and navigate debuffs and counters. Instead, you end up doing the same thing over and over again – the same buffs, the same opening gambits, the same positioning. Unlike Baldur's Gate, where encounters require a lot of prep but can be over very quickly, in Tyranny fights take a while and end up just being about setting up a chokepoint with your tank and managing the cooldowns of your mages and ranged characters.

The boss fights are where it gets more interesting, particularly when they disrupt the chokepoints you set up. For example, the Voices of Nerat can teleport around and can summon help to attack from the opposite end of the arena. This requires you to constantly shift position to keep your fighters in front of your mages, adding a bit of challenge and variety. Fighting the elemental bosses is enjoyable in a similar way. They also summon help, which they absorb to heal themselves. So rather than focus fire on the boss to take it down before they unleash the next wave of summons, you wear down the boss by dealing with the summons first.

The game's systems are actually pretty complicated. There are many different types of damage (piercing, crushing, arcane) and ways of avoiding it (dodge, parry, armour), so it's really quite strange that the combat ends up being rather monotonous (to the point where this reviewer reduced the difficulty and just let the AI sort it all out). Other systems, like base-management, crafting and inventory, benefit from being stripped back. An interesting innovation is the way dialogue can impact on combat. You can use your knowledge or physical presence to intimidate enemies and change the make-up of encounters. This robs the player of the ability to set up ambushes – the game forces you to talk to people before you attack them. But at least that dialogue has a tactical as well as a narrative significance.

The game was envisioned to be much longer and was edited down, making its ending quite abrupt. You don't get to defeat Kyros, you merely make them flinch – casting an edict of your own and forcing their armies to retreat. Nevertheless, the game really sells how significant this is. No one has been able to do this before you, and the feeling of empowerment is similar to the ending of Baldur's Gate, where you're vying with gods and demons. Baldur's Gate is ultimately a better series in terms of gameplay. Tyranny is more of a flawed masterpiece like Planescape: Torment, where the joy is in the writing, world-building and role-playing choices rather than the play itself. The difference is that Torment explores evil on a micro-scale, and is all about how to atone for it. Tyranny takes that game's villain, the practical incarnation of the player character, and shows what would result on a macro-scale if they were unleashed on the word. It's an accomplished look at the building blocks of political authority, and the ways we make our compromises with it.

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