Supergiant Games is starting to develop a reputation for delivering quality RPGs highlighted by quality stories and unconventional gameplay mechanics for the genre. Its third effort, Pyre, continues this trend by blending yet another compelling experience with the unexpected point of conflict boiling down to what translates as an otherworldly take on three-on-three basketball. Just like with Transistor and Bastion, however, Pyre will surprise you with how well everything comes together in an unforgettable game full of twists and turns.
Pyre begins with your character being cast into the Downside, a wasteland of sorts where all exiles are sent for breaking the law in the Commonwealth, civilization’s shining city on a hill. There, starving and injured from the perilous journey from the Commonwealth, you are found by three fellow exiles. It seems you are just the person these exiles have been looking for, as you are one known as a “Reader.” Literacy is banned in the Commonwealth, but those who break this rule are held in high regard in the Downside, as they can interpret ancient texts that can lead exiles back to the Commonwealth—and freedom—in a ceremony called The Rites. With no other choice but to join your would-be saviors, you agree to work together in order to reclaim what you’ve lost. Unfortunately, it won’t be long before you realize that freedom always comes at a price.
What’s interesting about Pyre is that while the player character’s Reader fills an integral role to the entire story, you never actually see your character, and customization ends at choosing whether to be male, female, or neither (for the sake of conversational pronouns). The entire game plays out from a first-person perspective, with your roster of exiles speaking directly to you the entire game. Over the course of these conversations, you’ll have to make integral decisions on how you and your team will progress towards your freedom, directly influencing what path you take, and which other exiles you will fight in The Rites. When combined with a world map that consists of you just telling your wagon where to go next, this gave Pyre a distinct point-and-click adventure feel when it comes to how its story actually plays out. However, it also offered welcome nuance to how I could shape my own individual tale, and made sure my adventure was unlikely to be exactly the same as anyone else’s.
Your decisions can also affect who ends up joining or leaving your party over the course of the game, growing your stable of exiles to over half-a-dozen capable beings if you so choose. I say “beings” because the world of Pyre is a rich one full of more than just humans. There are the dog-like Curs, the living tree Saps, the monstrous Demons, and more. Each race can participate in The Rites, and each one offers unique skills to be taken advantage of. For example, the Wyrms (aptly named worm-like creatures) may be small in stature, but their slime trail lets them move lightning quick on the field. Leveling up exiles after each battle—or, as the game puts it, “moving closer to enlightenment”—will open up new abilities that further enhance each race’s specific strengths.
Pyre also has an astonishing amount of lore to it. Each race has its own history, and each exile their own tale to tell if you can befriend them enough during your down time in the wagon. As the Reader, you can also look at holy books that fill in the background of the universe you find yourself in; from how The Rites were started to those who participated in them before you, it’s all at your fingertips should you allow yourself to fall down Pyre’s extremely deep rabbit hole.
Once The Rites commence, however, the real fun begins. The Reader almost takes on the role of a coach, watching from the sidelines, but in reality as the player, assuming control of your three-exile team. As your party expands, you’ll be able to choose what three exiles will comprise your team to go against others in the Downside, as well as analyze opposing teams for weaknesses to better stack your lineup in your favor. Once teams are chosen and talisman bought from nearby shops to boost your stats assigned, a celestial orb is placed in the middle of the field. From there, players will attempt to pass, shoot, or even carry the orb into an opposing team’s burning pyre. By doing so, you’ll remove a numbers of points from the pyre (different characters can do more or less damage to the pyre), and whittling down the enemy pyre to zero before the computer does the same to yours ensures victory.
I was pleasantly surprised by how deep the strategy element of The Rites is in Pyre. Sometimes speed is the way to go, and taking small chunks away from your enemy’s pyre at a time is the key. Other times, it’s best to hang back and play defensively, using your aura—a mythical barrier that protects all players—to knock back or even remove foes from the field for a time. Balancing your team up with a variety of light and heavy characters, or leaning more heavily on a particular statistic, will be up to you and your analysis of each situation.
As you progress in the game, you’ll come to find that your band of exiles—known as the Nightwings amongst those in the Downside—are in an unusual position for a game of this nature: they’re the best team at conducting The Rites, at least historically. As the stakes continue to climb, and a leaderboard with standings unlocks to show off your position at the top, every other team of exiles in the Downside is looking to take you down. In fact, sometimes they’re even ready to bend the rules a little to try to take away whatever edge you may think you have. It’s one of several clever twists Pyre’s story will throw at you in order to help distract from what can sometimes become repetitive gameplay.
This didn’t stop me, however, from marching to a 26-0 record and the game’s best ending. There were only a few times (on normal difficulty mind you) that I felt challenged, and once I reached a certain level with my characters, even that fell by the wayside. If you should fail, however, the game merely continues pressing on, like any sports game would. Faltering in key, story-heavy match-ups could affect your ending, however, and that helps increase the pressure you might put on yourself, serving as a driving factor to keep going while staying on your toes.
Even if the gameplay starts to feel a little grind-y, one thing that Pyre takes away from its Supergiant predecessors is some slick art direction. Visually, the game’s color burst off the screen like a stained glass window, with vibrant shades used for every climate the Downside offers—from freezing snow capped peaks or blistering white hot deserts, to the turbulent seas off its coasts or lush jungles of its interior. Every climate also features a fallen Titan, a massive creature from Downside lore that sticks out of the expanse more than any crag or outcropping and provides far more character to the world.
The audio also doesn’t disappoint. While your exiles don’t really talk (they only make gibberish sounds when their words appear on screen as text), the conductor of The Rites—the one being higher than you in the Downside—speaks with a voice. His spoken word helps fill in the gaps of the narrative, while also taunting you like the most malicious of fans, hurling insults from the safety of a ballpark’s bleachers as The Rites take place. The music is simply top-notch as well, with Darren Korb again knowing exactly what strings to pluck (or chords to play) in order to add that extra bit of emotional gravitas to the game’s heavier scenes, or to get your blood pumping as the action begins to pick up.
Although the bulk of Pyre is the 10-hour or so campaign—easily the longest single-player experience Supergiant has made to date—considering the nature of its team versus team gameplay, it would’ve been surprising had the game not featured a multiplayer. Pyre does tout a local versus option that allows you and a friend to choose from any of the game’s 10 color schemes and over 20 of its most important characters, both from the Nightwings and your enemies’ sidelines. You can customize the hit points your pyres have, items you can use, and what field you can play on as well. My only knock against it is that there is no online option; it’s understandable given Supergiant’s small size as an indie developer that online multiplayer wasn’t likely doable simply from a logistics standpoint, but it would’ve been nice, and could’ve added some extra replayability.
Pyre is yet another surprise from the folks at Supergiant Games. Its story is full of twists and turns, yet still finds a way to be accommodating and customizable to every player who picks it up. It also features gameplay you would never otherwise find in an RPG or adventure game of this ilk, and uses it to create a lush, vibrant world with depth and beauty. It can get a tad repetitive at times, and replayability might be an issue if you’re like me and get the best ending right off the bat, but it’s still an adventure well worth having at least once—and shows once again how mixing up a formula can provide fantastic results.
Pyre mashes up point-and-click adventures, RPGs, and sports games—and comes out the other end with one of the more memorable stories we’ve seen in some time. It’s a tale of freedom, sacrifice, and rising against the odds, even when they seem to be in your favor. While it can be a bit repetitive gameplay-wise, the colorful world and even more colorful characters should be more than enough to motivate you to fight for the exiles of the Downside.
E10+ - Everyone
|Pyre is available on PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Supergiant Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Ray has extensive roots in geek culture, as he’s written about videogames, comics, and movies for such outlets as Newsday.com, ESPNNewYork.com, Classic Game Room on YouTube, Collider.com, and Comicvine.com before finally settling into his role as EGM’s reviews editor. His main goal in life? To become king of all geek media, of course!