Despite only making two titles previously, Supergiant Games have earned themselves a reputation for creating outstanding video games. Bastion and Transistor are considered indie classics by the majority of folks that have played them. So when they announced Pyre, expectations were predictably high. They also have a tradition of making each title feel distinct from the last, so does Pyre manage to do this?
There are a few constants Supergiant is known for, one of which is art direction, and Pyre is no exception. Its painting-like art style is absolutely gorgeous. You traverse its stunning landscape in an imp-powered wagon that rattles through the games colourful vistas. The artwork for the characters look great too because they’re so expressive, you’ll immediately understand any characters personality from a quick glance.
The music is also brilliant. Darren Korb, who created Transistor’s superb soundtrack, is involved once again, providing an eclectic mix of styles including a catchy thrash number that serves as a theme to one of the characters as well as peaceful piano-led pieces. Much like Transistor, it’s a soundtrack that could proudly stand on its own. Strong art and music continue to be a staple of the developers then, but how does Pyre’s gameplay make it stand out?
Well, most notably it’s a sports game in a fantasy setting. No, seriously. The setup to this is relatively simple. You and your merry band of exiles are stuck in a place known as the Downside and must take part in Rites to earn your freedom. You’re not a participant though, you are the Reader, a guy or gal who is chosen for their ability to, well, read. In Pyre this fairly normal trait is illegal and is the reason for your exile. Once you find a magic book, however, it allows you to guide your team to the various locations of the Rites. These are where the sports portion of the game comes in. It’s a mix of basketball with elements of American football and, of course, magic.
Each team has a flame with 100 health called a Pyre and it’s your objective to whittle this down to zero by diving head first into the flame with a celestial orb (the ball) or by tossing it in. Diving in means the person who scores the point gets removed from play until another goal is scored, this is known as banishing. If you throw the ball in you’re not punished by going a teammate down, but it’s a bit trickier to pull off. The rules are easy enough to understand but that doesn’t mean the gameplay doesn’t have excellent depth.
Every player has a jump, sprint and salute, all of which can trigger a number of effects depending on the character. They also have their own aura, which varies in size depending on the class and it can be used to temporarily banish an opponent by touching them with it. It can also be cast at enemies so you can eliminate them from a distance.
When carrying the orb you lose your aura so you have to either dodge through enemy attempts to banish you or strategically banish your opposition to make an opening to score. These are very basic tactics that barely scratch the surface of the potential strategies you can deploy. Each class has its own take on these abilities and that makes them useful for different reasons.
Pamitha, a Harpy can fly for a brief time instead of jumping, which makes her much harder to stop as airborne enemies must be intercepted to knock the orb out of their grasp instead of just moving your aura over them. Meanwhile, Ti’Zo a little imp fellow can detonate himself in a huge area to potentially wipe out the entire enemy team allowing one of your nippier members to score with little resistance.
All of your team members can also be upgraded with 4 of 8 possible masteries to enhance their playstyle and equip a Talisman that can drastically change how useful they can be. One Talisman can increase the health of your Pyre at the start of a Rite, allowing for more mistakes, while another can protect one of your team from banishment after scoring, meaning you won’t need to be a body down until the next goal.
All of these various strategies lead to some thrilling and satisfying plays. Even something as simple as dodging all enemy defence attempts before leaping head first into the Pyre is great fun. The slow down as your character dives in serves to give you a little breather as well as a moment to savour getting a step closer to victory. It’s a great mix of arcade action and strategy that’s incredibly enjoyable to play.
Playing fantasy basketball is only about half of the game though. The rest of your time in the Downside will be spent in a choose your own adventure style setup. As you travel from Rite to Rite you will be able to interact with your party, learning their endearing back stories and motivations. These interactions can result in buffs or nerfs to their stats depending on the choices you make in conversation. It’s an interesting idea that tapping into your crew’s personality can have these outcomes but the effects are so minor you won’t really notice them.
Instead, you’ll just see it as an opportunity to get to know them all a little better. Each character has their own distinct personality and reason for being exiled which you slowly discover as you play through the story. It’s all very well written, save for a few missteps involving romantic subplots later in the game, and you’ll find yourself quite attached to most, if not all, of your characters.
From the kind-hearted Hedwyn to loveable fool Sir Gilman, a worm-like knight on a mission to restore his honour, it’s impressive how they’ve managed to meld this eclectic cast together. They’re a good mixture of serious and light-hearted so it doesn’t become overly macabre but not so ridiculous the more sombre overarching theme loses all impact. This isn’t limited to your own team either, you’ll find yourself growing fond of your adversaries as well as you come up against them time after time.
You might even find yourself in situations where you want to lose and that’s a route you can take. Pyre’s story will persist regardless of the result and this will change the narrative accordingly. One example is allowing Pamitha’s sister to defeat you so that they may rekindle their relationship in the future.
There are other choices you can make that will have a fairly small impact on the story too, such as informing Rukey, a dog-like creature, that his moustache doesn’t suit him. He’ll disappear to cut it off and keep it this way for the rest of the game. It allows for plenty of different outcomes that will make your playthrough feel unique, even if the main trajectory of the narrative doesn’t change.
It also gives Pyre replay value if you enjoy exploring different narrative threads. The problem is starting a new game is a lot more arduous than it needs to be. Instead of choosing to start a new game from the main menu you will have to go into settings and select save slots where you will then be able to start a new game. It isn’t a deal breaker but it is needlessly obtuse.
Whether you will want to start a new game will depend on how repetitive you start to find Pyre. Once you’ve played against all of the opposing teams once you will gain access to the entirety of the map and will be able to zip around to each Rite. You will then simply play through these until you get the opportunity to free one of your team and this loop then continues, it can start to feel stale very quickly.
To the game’s credit, it does try to keep things interesting. You will unlock different star formations that can buff your opponents in return for more experience for your team. This ranges from simply increasing their speed to their players maintaining their aura when they are holding the ball, making them harder to banish. It’s an excellent way to stave off the repetition for a while as these star signs do make the gameplay feel different.
Pyre will also force you to make use of all the characters. If you use the same character in too many Rites they will get banishment sickness, meaning they cannot take part in the same Rite. Also when you are victorious in a Rite that will free one of your team, you can no longer use them. This is either a good or bad thing depending on how you play games. If you like to have a set playstyle and perfect that, then Pyre may not be for you but if you relish the challenge of having to continuously alter your tactics, then this is an excellent feature.
There are a few other niggles beyond a repetitive game loop that stop Pyre being a smooth experience but there’s a chance you may not encounter them. During one Rite I had the ball become stuck outside of the field and it could not be retrieved, forcing me to restart. This only happened once in my entire play through, so it’s fair to say it’s rare but be aware it can happen.
On a more notably irritating level, a few of the Rites in the latter stages of the game had some very noticeable framerate drops. This made gaining a victory that much more difficult and tarnished the polish the game otherwise has.
Other than these niggles and its repetitive gameplay loop, Pyre is an immensely fun game. The core gameplay within the Rites is excellent and has a surprising amount of depth when it comes to tactics. The story is engaging with incredibly likeable characters and multiple branches encouraging further playthroughs. It’s unlikely to be the best game you play this year but it will be one of the most memorable.