Minor story and gameplay spoilers follow:
Supergiant Games is best known for 2011’s Bastion and 2014’s Transistor. Both featured breathtaking art, an amazing soundtrack, and an engaging but poignant story. Both were role-playing games- Bastion, an action role-playing game and Transistor, a mixture of real-time and turn-based combat. Pyre technically follows the trend set by those two games. Pyre is gorgeous- almost every screenshot is wallpaper worthy. It also has a great soundtrack by Darren Korb, composer of Bastion and Transistor’s soundtracks. The world building and lore created for it are amazing, and the story is the usual mix of melancholy and hope. It possesses role-playing game elements, and claims to be a “party-based RPG.” That’s technically true, but what I found was mentioned nowhere outside of user reviews and gameplay footage was this – Pyre is a fantasy-themed ballgame.
The only reason I’m making this point so dramatically is because nowhere in Pyre’s official description are hints made of its sports-like nature. Expectations aside, Pyre delivers on great gameplay with RPG elements- as usual. Supergiant Giant games also stresses the inability to achieve a “game over” in Pyre. If you play as the developers intended, you are meant to live with your failures and victories as they shape the story.
The player takes the role of a nameless criminal exiled to the Downside – a vast inhospitable land where the Commonwealth cast their criminals. You play as a never-shown person known only as “the Reader” – someone who is literate in a land where literacy is illegal. Shortly before succumbing to the Downside, the Reader is rescued by a group of travelers that tell you that the only way to escape is to succeed in three-versus- three competitions called Rites. These Rites are conducted by teams known appropriately as Triumvirates, and your team is named the Nightwings.
What feels like the entire first half of the campaign is a classic quest that follows the Nightwings as they assemble their party and compete in Rites with other Triumvirates. This serves as a sort of extended tutorial that eases the player into how the Rites are performed, as well showing the player around the Downside and teaching the player inventory management, skill trees and everything else needed to be successful. There is very little voice acting and animation – much of the story is delivered through text. Pyre stresses character interaction and player choice as you discover early on what you say and do can have consequences that last throughout your playthrough. With several different possible character interactions and player choices, Pyre offers replayability both by being able to explore different narrative choices as well as offering addictive gameplay with the Rites. Unfortunately, the campaign suffers from a lot of downtime and what feels like padding. Upon my second playthrough I found myself wishing I could skip dialogue and cutscenes entirely, instead of merely being able to speed them up. Worse, sometimes they can’t be sped up at all, and you are forced to wait as the camera slowly pans across landscape you’ve seen a dozen times before.
In the second half of the campaign the map opens up, giving you a bit more freedom, with the ability to do some rudimentary exploring and to choose the next Triumvirate you face. This section is more formulaic as you travel to an area and decide on actions you want to take. Usually these consist of events such as foraging for items, or helping members of your Triumvirate gain experience known as Enlightenment. After this, you travel to the Rite you have chosen to perform, where you have the choice to interact with a merchant or get right on with it.
Each Rite is essentially a three-versus-three ballgame that is a crazy, strange fantasy hybrid of soccer and basketball. The ball in this case is a Celestial Orb, and the goal is to throw it into your opponent’s pyre to score, er, “douse the flames.” You can only control one character at a time during Rites, so when one character is active, the others are stationary. You can pass the ball to any of your teammates, even from across the arena. In addition, characters have defensive auras, and are generally able to shoot them at other characters to banish (eliminate) them for a short while. Even just touching an aura can banish a character. These auras allow for an element of goal-tending, as you can leave characters with large auras at your pyre to try and thwart attempts at scoring. You are able to dash to avoid auras, as well as jump over them. Bringing the Celestial Orb to a pyre is as simple as running into it, but sometimes requires you to jump in or throw it from afar. If you are in possession of the Celestial Orb, you are mostly defenseless – you can run and jump, but you lose your aura.
Each different character that you meet along the way during the campaign represents a different race. Each different race is essentially a different character class- possessing their own abilities and aptitudes to be used during the Rites. There are the small and quick Wyrms, the large and slow Demons, and the winged Harps that are capable of short bursts of flight – to name a few of the 9 races. Each race has two skill trees, as well as skills inherent to them such as “Hope” which affects how long a character stays banished, or “Presence” which determines the size of their aura. In addition to skills and stats, there are also items called “Talismans” that that provide all sorts of buffs as well as skills.
The biggest disappointment of Pyre is the fact that there is no online multiplayer support, but there is a versus mode that allows you to spar against a friend locally, or with bots at varying difficulty levels. In versus mode, most of the characters that you interact with in the game are made playable. These matches are able to be customized to allow or disallow the use of Talismans, skills, etc. to get into the action even faster. Versus mode is also perfect for those wanting to get to the action without all the downtime the campaign has, or for those who want to try combinations of Exiles that aren’t possible in the campaign.
Pyre originally struck me as an odd game – it certainly was not what I was expecting. Supergiant Games succeeds despite my expectations and delivers a solid, beautiful game with an amazing soundtrack and a great story that is filled to the brim with lore. Even without online multiplayer support, Versus adds extra gameplay for those who can’t get enough of the Rites. Pyre is available now on Steam for Windows and Linux, as well as PlayStation 4.