Platform: PlayStation 4, PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Pyre is definitely a strange experience. From the creators of the epic indie classic Bastion, Supergiant Games seems to have a determination to come out with very unique titles, as they continue to prove with Pyre. It’s one part fantasy RPG, one part visual novel, and one part… basketball?
Yes, basketball. Supergiant’s past two titles were action games with a few RPG elements, both with their own twists. It’s as if Supergiant wants fans to talk about their games and when someone asks what genre it is, the fan can only say, “It’s… well, you’ll have to play it and see.” As a huge fan of Bastion and Transistor, this strategy is very well praised when pulled off well.
Pyre is definitely a new experience.
It’s set in a world where those who break the law are sent to a purgatory-like dessert called the Downside to live out the rest of their lives. The world is harsh but beautiful, a fact covered later in this review. The player, a faceless character AKA you, are dumped into the Downside and get picked up by a group of masks people called the Nightwings, or at least that’s the name they’ve assumed. They ask you a few questions about yourself, which you get the choice to answer how you wish. One choice is to tell them why you were outcasted. Through this option, you learn that literacy is banned in the Commonwealth where you’re from. From that point, the characters refer to you as Reader.
Your name isn’t just your crime, it’s also your role in the game. The band of characters that found you bring you aboard their caravan. You take part in their adventure as they perform sacred ceremonies that can grant people the chance to return to the Commonwealth known as rites. You, as the reader, open a sacred book and preside over the ritual… which is really reminiscent of basketball or some other 3v3 sport. This is where the ‘action’ of the game happens.
As the reader, the player controls his allies as they try to bring an orb to the enemies pyre. It’s basically like bringing the ball to the goal, in sports terms. You do it enough times, whittle down the enemy’s pyre number enough and you win. You start with three characters, each a different class that plays the rites differently. Eventually, more characters join your team and the strategy of who to field begins.
The game starts out slow, but eventually, rites become a game of strategy.
At first, the rites portion of the game seemed like a letdown. But two or three rituals later, and the depth starts to reveal itself. As you unlock new abilities and character types, the game gets more complex and choice-filled, which is much more akin to Supergiant’s forte.
Fielding characters gain them more experience (called enlightenment), and as they rank up, they unlock special abilities to further the advantage their class type has. Once these new skills are unlocked, the rites portion of the game is pretty fun. At first, it feels a bit slow, and I found myself wondering why anyone would run with anyone else but the fastest class, the Cur. But as the games continued, the advantages became more clear and a balanced game revealed itself.
The world outside the rites is beautiful, and that’s actually a problem.
Maybe it’s because I’m playing this as a Supergiant Games fan, but Bastion and Transistor had players running around their beautiful landscapes. Bastion in its crumbling, colorful world falling apart from the rapture, and Transistor with its Cyber-noir, neon lights and fancy coats. The world of Pyre is beautiful and weird. Very colorful landscapes dot the Downside filled with slummy trading towns akin to Mos Eisley, amazing looking shrines, and even dead gods. But all these interesting, enticing landmarks are just sight dressing.
The only part of the game you truly dig into is the rites, which never change locale, as it literally takes place on top of an open book. The concept is cool and otherworldly, but being able to explore the world you travel around in to perform each rite would be icing on the cake. Supergiant Games makes beautiful landscapes to go along with their soundtracks from their God-amongst-Musicians Darren Korb.
The amount of exploration in the game is virtually zero. You move along a map by clicking your destination, sometimes text-based decisions are made along the trail, and then you’re onto the next rite. With as much intrigue as the narrative gives the player, the world is only learned about in reference. Hovering over highlighted proper nouns tells you what they refer to. It’s kind of an interesting play on the whole ‘Reader’ motif and learning about the world from an index, but it’s just too pretty not to want to walk around in.
The characters are very interesting, the story is multi-pathed, and the most interesting thing is: You cannot lose the game.
No, not like when your little brother loses in New Super Mario Bros. and just becomes a bubble. Losing is built into the narrative.
As mentioned before, performing the rites and winning grants you freedom. If you lose and another team gains their freedom, your story will simply have to continue onward. There’s a twist you’ll probably never see in a traditional sports game. But don’t let the sports comparison confuse, the narrative is very intertwined. The game can be finished by trashing all other teams, or not winning a single match, or anything in between. The ending depends on which one of these you do.
While I wish there was more actual world to explore, as Supergiant is most known for, I can appreciate the changes made, especially knowing their tendency to shake up the status quo. It’s not like Supergiant to make a sequel to any of their titles, but running around the Downside in a caravan, trading, fighting and stealing would be a lot of fun. But Pyre was still fun with the platform they ultimately decided on.