TL; DR(eview) - If Bastion and Transistor were Supergiant Games approaches to the action and tactical RPGs, respectively, Pyre represents their foray into a Sports RPG. The art and music direction continues to be the most visible link between games from this studio as they continue to reinvent through their game design. Here, they’ve crafted an incredibly fun - albeit difficult to explain - sport.
Pyre is the latest title from Supergiant Games, the studio behind Bastion and Transistor. The main thrust of the game puts you in the shoes of The Reader, an outcast with the rare (and illegal) ability of literacy. You are discovered by a group of fellow Exiles who nurse you back to health in the hope that you can help them return to their former lives. It is here that the main gameplay element is introduced: a series of rites that pit your band of exiles against others in three vs. three competition.
Your band ventures across the Downside participating in these rituals, guided by your interpretation of the stars, and your direction in the rites themselves. Each member of your cohort has their own unique skills in the rites, which are perhaps best compared to something like basketball. Both sides have a Pyre of flame burning brightly and the goal is to use the Celestial Orb presented in the Rite to douse the opponent’s flame.
When on defence, each player on the field has a protective aura surrounding them, if their aura touches an opposing player, that player is temporarily banished from the field for a few seconds. Some characters can shoot that aura in a beam at their opponents, but doing so leaves them temporarily vulnerable. Characters are also uniquely suited with different abilities regarding their movement. Utilizing their stamina, they might be able to dash, jump, or fly around the arena with varying quickness, typically balanced against their aura. For example, one of your allies Jodariel is a rather slow mover but she has one of the game’s largest auras and can jump around the field, pushing back opponents in her landing radius.
The offensive goal is to grab the Celestial Orb and get it into your opponent’s Pyre. Like a basketball, the orb can be passed around from player to player but you only control one person’s movement at a time. There is not auto-pilot for the other characters, they remain static when not being controlled. Additionally, when a character is holding the orb, all of their aura is passed into the orb itself and they are defenceless against the opponent’s auras. Getting the celestial orb passed defenders into the Pyre will douse the flame. A typically game has each Pyre starting with 100 health and, like quickness and aura-size, each character can do varying levels of damage to the flame. Jodariel is slow, but if she can reach the flame, she’ll do far more damage than her smaller, faster allies.
A character can deliver the orb into the Pyre directly (a la a basketball dunk) or they can throw the orb into the flame. If delivered directly, the full level of damage is dealt to the flame but your character is banished from the match for until either side’s Pyre is doused again. This effectively turns the next volley of the match into a three-on-two match. Alternatively, you can attempt to throw the orb into the Pyre from a distance. This takes longer and the damage dealt is dependent on how long your character holds the throw. The upside of throwing the orb into the Pyre though is that your character is not banished for the next bit of the match.
The rite continues until one side’s Pyre is completely doused. As a team accrues victories in these competitions, they will eventually be summoned to a Liberation Rite, in which you play for one of your band’s freedom. If you win in the Liberation Rite, one of your allies is forgiven the crimes that led them to Exile and given the chance to return to the Commonwealth. If you lose, then the opposing team’s leader returns instead. The goal set in place is for free all of your allies from Exile.
The fact that it takes so long to really explain the core mechanic of Pyre may serve as a detriment to the game’s accessibility but it feels a lot more natural to experience than it does to explain and the assorted strategies and varied team line-ups you will encounter make for some incredible thrills, just as your would find in most sports.
In between Rites, you and your band of Exiles, the Nightwings, travel around the Downside from site to site, learning about the land and getting to know your allies through conversations in your wagon. You’ll often be tasked with choosing which routes to take across the land. These are often accompanied by notes saying something like “Ally A thinks you’ll find some valuable loot if you go this route” or “Ally B believes they will receive a blessing if you take this route.” This provides a bit of a “choose-your-own-adventure” approach to travel around the world.
There’s also some minor RPG elements in that your characters can level up and acquire new abilities through their participation in the Rites. You can also find or purchase Talismans on your characters that will provide an additional bonus of some sort. Many of these Talismans call also be leveled up. For example, a Level 1 Talisman might offer you a 30% of instantly returning from banishment when a character is taken out by another’s aura, while the Level 20 version of the same Talisman might ramp that up to a 70% likelihood.
The combinations of characters, abilities, and Talismans are seemingly endless leading to tons of different strategies. One of my favorite aspects of the game became mixing up my approach to each team to identify which tactics best suited my playstyle in any given match. If I was facing difficulty with a team that continued to banish my players as they approached the Pyre, I tried a team of smaller, faster members who could get in and out before the other team could react. They might have taken longer as they didn’t do as much damage to the flame but they got the job done all the same.
As with past Supergiant Games titles, Pyre eventually opens up a mechanic called the “Titan Stars,” modifiers that will make a Rite more difficult in a variety of ways but provide you with more experience in victory. The game also allows you a challenge mode of sorts with it’s two-player Versus Mode that exists outsides the game’s main story. You can play against a computer of varying difficulty or against a local friend (the game does not support online multiplayer).
Lastly, the music and art direction of Pyre are among my favorite of any game I’ve played this year. These elements are always standouts for me in Supergiant Games titles and Pyre is no different. The world map and character designs look beautiful and different characters and settings have musical themes that left me smiling throughout my time in the Downside. The only real gripe was that the characters all speak in a gibberish language with the exception of the Voice from on high that speaks directly to the Reader as a preamble to the Rites. Part of me would have appreciated the characters speaking what is written in the dialogue but I also recognize that, by its “choose-your-own-adventure” design, this would have been incredibly difficult to manage so the gibberish serves as shorthand for the characters.
Supergiant Games continue to invent new mechanics and game styles with each of their entries and Pyre benefits greatly from their approach to the Sports genre, it’s not as intuitive or easy to explain as something like Rocket League but “Fantasy Basketball” (as one of my friends online called it) is a ton of fun and worth checking out.