In an era where indie games make up a vast majority of the gaming landscape as we know it today, developer Supergiant Games has stood out in a very particular way from the rest. Bursting onto the scene with Bastion in 2011 and following it up with Transistor a few years later, Supergiant immediately established its own quality of game, and the studio’s third title, Pyre, might just be Supergiant’s most adventurous project yet.
On the outside looking in, Pyre shares the same sorts of mystic, ethereal qualities that made Bastion and Transistor such engaging experiences before it. However, that’s about all that can be said comparatively about the titles, as Pyre plays so differently not only from those two games, but from pretty much anything else that 2017 has seen yet (with maybe only NieR: Automata coming close to it).
Part action-RPG, part sports title, and part text adventure, Pyre seems like the type of gameplay mixture that shouldn’t work on paper. In practice though, Supergiant pulls off the experience beautifully, and has crafted a game that’s equally strange as it is wonderful.
Set in an exotic world that blends both whimsy and darkness, Pyre puts players into the role of The Reader, a character with little other identity otherwise. Exiled from their home, the Commonwealth, the Reader eventually becomes entangled with a band of travelers known as the Nightwings, who travel throughout the lands performing a series of ancient “Rites” — the only way that you and your companions have a shot of escaping the Purgatory-like region you progress through, called the Downside.
The Rites themselves are where the core action of Pyre takes place, in which two opposing factions trade magical blows against one another. However, Pyre is no turn-based RPG. Instead, the Rites play out much more like high fantasy versions of basketball or football, in which the competing teams of three are exchanging plays and blows, with the ultimate goal being to extinguish the opposing team’s pyre (the “goal,” essentially).
The basics of the Rites are pretty easy to grasp, especially given their basis in something relative to competitive sports. However, the strategy and depth of Rites in Pyre quickly expands over the course of the game as new team members and abilities come into play. This makes Pyre feel less about building a party in the same way as one might in a more traditional RPG, and instead about improvisation and adapting to new developments on the playing field quickly.
During a Rite, players will actively control one team member at a time and switch between the trio of heroes available. The ultimate goal of the match comes down to obtaining a Celestial Orb — the quote unquote “ball” — and sending it into the opposing team’s pyre to snuff it out by the match’s end. Whether that’s accomplished by successfully throwing the Orb from a reasonable distance or sending your character into a Hail Mary for the goal, Pyre‘s “combat” offers a compelling back-and-forth between learning when to be aggressive or when to hold back.
Much like offensive or defensive plays in football, being aggressive with the Orb can get you closer towards the enemy pyre more quickly, but any character that’s in possession of the Orb loses their protective “aura,” leaving them vulnerable to a knockout by the enemy team. Conversely, staying on the defensive lets you anticipate enemy movements more easily and momentarily knock them out of the game, leaving a window to gain some traction on the field, at the cost of more immediate attacks on the enemy pyre.
Aside from the basic running, passing, and throwing mechanics that will be the bread-and-butter of Pyre‘s Rites, players also unlock more substantive ways that they can tailor their specific characters to their own playstyles. While players will encounter a rotating cast of characters that each feature their own powers and abilities, players can also obtain Talismans that allow equippable special talents or skills, while winning matches and gaining experience (known as Enlightenment) will allow players more permanent skills and abilities for their characters, known as Masteries.
There’s a lot to take in what Pyre offers as far as combat, but when the game’s many moving parts click, it becomes a thrilling experience like no other. Much like my time in Rocket League or similar titles with a competitive edge, there were plenty of Rites in Pyre where the matches came incredibly close and kept me on the edge of my seat, with only one goal coming between whether my Nightwings team or the enemy team was able to claim victory. Even though the idea of an RPG system delivered in the packaging of a sports-like game might seem like a terrible idea at first, Supergiant more than delivered in making Pyre easy to grasp, but with plenty of depth and strategy for those that want to really be invested in it.
As compelling as Pyre‘s Rites and core gameplay loop are, the one area where the title struggles the most is in providing a consistent sense of pacing and difficulty ramping. Most players should finish the title somewhere between 10-15 hours, which makes it a fairly hefty adventure for the price of admission. However, there is definitely a sense that Supergiant stretches the Rites out a bit too thin, and not quite nailing a progression when it comes to steady difficulty between matches. There were plenty of matches towards the game’s beginning that I breezed through fairly quickly with little in my way. However, only a match or two later I’d hit the hard wall of failure, due to either not having the right type of character or a reliable counter to a specific strategy or skillset from the enemy team.
Learning the ins-and-outs of the characters and gameplay is only part of the experience of Pyre, as the rest of the game entails learning about the various characters that you’ll meet along the way and learning their backstories. Like Supergiant has mastered in their previous titles, Pyre offers an intriguing world of mysticism and lore that is immediately gripping, and offers a unique cast of characters. Aside from playing alongside them in Rites, between matches Pyre provides visual novel-like segments where you can interact with your party members, uncover more about their histories and backstories, and also take on tasks for them.
Most importantly, Pyre instills a sense of decision making throughout the journey that made me feel many things as a result of interacting with its characters: heartbreak, regret, sadness, and happiness among them. It’s hard to go into detail as to exactly why, as that will spoil a significant portion of what what players will experience gradually in Pyre. But to keep it vague, Pyre does an excellent job of crafting sympathetic and relatable characters you’ll grow to love over the journey, even if your time with them may be fleeting, for various reasons.
While the engaging gameplay and characters are the core of Pyre, the exceptional presentation of the game is what ties it all together. Outdoing even Bastion and Transistor, Pyre pops off the screen with lush animations and visuals that make this fantastical world believable and tangible. Likewise, longtime Supergiant composer Darren Korb works his magic once more to craft a score that envelops the player in Pyre‘s world, and complements the visuals with lively, vibrant, and darker, more ominous tones and moods.
Mixing together so many different influences and styles of gameplay together could have made Pyre an unwieldy, confusing experience. However, Supergiant apparently found just the right mixture of ingredients to make Pyre work almost perfectly, as its addicting Rites “combat” shows. Thanks to a compelling mix of gameplay and atmosphere bound by an incredible art style, Supergiant Games has crafted one of this year’s most unique titles that’s equally tense and thought-provoking throughout its journey. Coming from the studio that already has provided memorable titles like Bastion and Transistor, Pyre has me eagerly waiting for the next story that they have to tell.