After making Bastion my one and only 100% completion game on Xbox 360 and enjoying Transistor nearly as much, I couldn’t wait to see what Supergiant Games would make next. Pyre, their latest game which released a few weeks ago, is part 3v3 basketball and part text-heavy RPG. It sounds weird but it works so, so well. Pyre is a mixture of genres you didn’t know you were missing. It’s a true gem.
- TL;DR: A truly unique game worthy of the highest praise.
- Platforms: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
- Developer: Supergiant Games
- Time Played: 13:45
- What I Played: Completed the campaign on normal difficulty with a record of 23-2. Triggered every conversation I could.
Pyre takes place in the Downside, a land of exiles and convicts that have been cast out of the Commonwealth. A band of three masked figures — a human, a demon, and a well-dressed dog — happen upon you in the desert. When the fact that you can read the Book of Rites, knowledge forbidden in the Commonwealth, comes to light, the group adds you to their ranks. They call themselves the Nightwings and say the only way out of the Downside is to follow the stars and execute the Rites.
So, just what is a Rite? Gameplay in Pyre is most easily described as 3v3 basketball. Two teams of three spawn on opposite ends of an arena guarding their pyre. A ball spawns in the middle of the arena and each team is trying to douse the other team’s flame with the ball. A pyre’s health is reduced each time the ball goes into it before the ball respawns at midfield. The first team to fully extinguish the other’s flame is declared the winner. You only control one character at a time that can walk, sprint, pass, and jump their way around the arena.
Banishment is where Pyre really sets itself apart. Characters have an aura that instantly removes any enemy it touches from the battlefield for a short time. Aura size varies by character as does the way it can be cast. Each character has a unique way to use their aura offensively whether it be shooting in a straight line, spreading in a wide arc, exploding in a burst of light, and more. Whoever holds the ball loses their aura while holding it and dunking the ball in a pyre results in banishment for that character until the next round. Between running into other characters, being hit with aura casts, and dunking, Pyre rounds are rarely at full 3v3 strength and are constant pushing and shoving matches with advancing fronts, defensive retreats, and flanking runs.
Choosing your team of three from Pyre’s cast of characters is a joy because each character is so different from the rest. The three characters you meet right away form quite the team: Hedwyn is a jack of all trades, the demon Jodariel is a lumbering beast with a huge aura, and Rukey Greentail is a nimble dog that can make daring runs. My two favorite characters are definitely Sir Gilman and Vagabond Girl. Have you ever wanted to befriend the most noble and honorable sea-wyrm? Sir Gilman is your man. He wears his emotions on whatever the wyrm equivalent of a sleeve is and is pretty damn funny, once thanking a harpy for not tying him in a knot. The Vagabond Girl is “moon-touched” which is code for slightly insane. She’s often seen talking to herself or the wall of your traveling wagon. She doesn’t even have an official name. All that she remembers is that it rhymes with grey. Yes, you can name her Bae. No, I did not (I went with Fae).
The different types of aura casting and jumps, ranging from small hops to long leaps to flying, set characters apart in battle. Everyone also has a different distribution of base stats: glory (damage done to pyres), presence (aura size), hope (banishment recovery time), and quickness (movement speed). Pyre forces you to play with every character instead of sticking with a consistent team by forcing characters to sit out certain matches due to reasons like illness or fear. This also leads to a deeper connection with your team as a whole rather than only with whoever your best or favorite players may be. I’m always one to mix and match skills and builds in games so shuffling characters around to form my triumvirate was a welcome challenge.
Fae, Jodariel, and the gang can be further modified through level ups. Each character has two small skill trees for passive skills including extra pyre damage while yours burns brighter, shorter aura cast cooldown, and infinite sprint after banishing an enemy. Falcon Ron, a traveling merchant who talks way too much and elicits long sighs from the group, sells trinkets and talismans that augment various stats and abilities. Characters also have their own unique trinkets earned through special 1v3 Rites conducted by Sandra, a lost soul trapped in a crystal ball for over 800 years.
Pyre’s cast of characters breathes life into the sections between Rites. Traveling with the same crew for over a dozen hours would be boring if not for their backstories and interactions which, even though they are done through text, are surprisingly emotive. Smart use of capital letters and punctuation along with flashing backgrounds behind speaking characters, like red for anger and black for fear, help the words jump off the screen. Throughout my playthrough I’ve laughed with, stared wide-eyed at, and genuinely worried about my crew.
Loss is an integral part of Pyre when it comes to both the characters losing their pre-exile lives and in the Rites themselves. I mentioned my record was 23-2. Losing a Rite in Pyre isn’t a game over. You just have to move on. It sucks to not gain experience and to not move your team closer to regaining what they’ve lost. It sucks to watch the enemy team cheer and talk trash to you. But it’s also a driving force in why each Rite is so tense. You come to truly feel for the characters and want to help them. I had my fair share of fist pumps and face palm moments while conducting the Rites.
Supergiant loves to add difficulty modifiers as gameplay elements which Pyre does through Titan Stars. Prior to each Rite, you can activate any of the dozen Titan Stars to augment the upcoming match by giving the enemy team extra hope/presence/qiuckness, adding to their Pyre’s starting health, allowing them to instantly return from banishment, and more. You gain more experience based on which stars you activate, adding incentive to take a risk.
Non-gameplay elements of Pyre are adaptive as well. You’ll face the same teams more than once and they will remember what happened in previous matchups. Members of your group will act and react differently based on what you say and do as the Reader and default leader of the group. You’ll typically have two or three routes to your chosen Rite’s destination with each one impacting your team differently, either positively or negatively. While different Pyre playthroughs will have the same generic structure, the details of how your specific story unfolds will be different from mine.
The world of Pyre is certainly an interesting one. Everyone is clamoring to get back to the Commonwealth, a place you only hear about from others. Roving bands of Rite-seekers travel in wagons by the light of the stars and battle on the sites of fallen gods. A faceless voice narrates the Rites with some of the most smarmy and flowery language I’ve ever seen. If you take too long to pick a team he’ll yell at you to hurry up. He once told me that “the rules of the Rites were not made for you to besmirch”. He’s a bright spot in an otherwise fairly desperate world. I expected nothing less from the narrator of a Supergiant game.
I also expected a top notch soundtrack and was not disappointed. Each character and enemy team has their own unique song as do various locations and important gameplay moments. Songs range from a passionate duet played on lutes to pounding metal to medieval horns. Listening to the soundtrack while hanging out in the wagon is a great way to break up the intensity of the Rites.
My chief complaint with Pyre is with its pacing. The opening three or so hours are a bit slow compared to the rest of the game as Rites are spaced about 15-20 minutes apart from each other leaving room for exposition and character development. The major plot twist after the first act is one that truly defines the game and one that I won’t spoil, but it was a slight drag until I got there.
Pyre is not only one of the best games I’ve played this year but easily the most unique. The combination of a sports game, an RPG, and a novel sounds crazy but it combines in a wonderful way. Pyre has both deeply tactical gameplay and an incredibly fleshed out world. The characters are memorable and become a sort of family that you truly care for. Both the visual and sound design are top tier. Creating a wholly new type of game in 2017 is quite the feat. That’s what Pyre is and I loved every second of it.