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Pyre is the latest game from Supergiant Games, the creators of Bastion and Transistor, set in an original world where those who break the law are exiled and have to participate in mystical sports-like rituals to return home. What this means is, above all else, Supergiant Games should be praised for not falling into a trap of creating an endless string of sequels, prequels, and other nasty things that come to mind when one hears the dreaded word "franchise".
Each of Supergiant's games is unique, both in terms of gameplay and presentation, and while you could draw some similarities between Bastion and Transistor in that they're both single-character plot-driven RPGs with mostly linear stories, Pyre is a different beast altogether. It's as if the developers tried to pull a “Costanza” and do the opposite of what their instincts told them. Surprisingly enough, they've actually sort-of, kind-of succeeded.
In Pyre, you play as a Reader. As the team has crafted it, this is a world where the ability to read books comes with the added bonus of being able to read minds. As such, literacy is prohibited by law, and for breaking that law you are exiled to the Downside. Now, Downside is a bit of a mix between an alternate dimension and that thing Hollow Earth theorists and Jules Verne talk about - an entirely separate ecosystem hidden deep beneath the surface of the world.
An exile to the Downside comes with a life sentence and upon weighing your odds, you decide to just sit in the middle of a desert and beat the system by shortening that sentence as much as you can. This is where you're discovered by a trio of travelers who have found a way to lead a miserable but sustainable existence in the Downside. Upon learning that you're a Reader, they ask you to decipher the Book of Rites, a sacred tome that's said to have clues on how to escape the Downside.
Flipping through the book, you learn about the Rites and how participating in them can lead you back home. The story gets more complicated later on, but already we can see the basic gameplay loop of Pyre – you travel across the Downside from one Rite to another, and then you take part in them as one of the multiple triumvirates, or teams, all competing for the same thing - freedom.
And even though the choices you make along the way affect your team's performance in the Rites in various minor ways, for the most part the journey and the Rites are two entirely separate things, so let's consider them separately.
Traversing the Downside
The first thing you notice about the Downside is how beautiful it is. Inhospitable, deadly, treacherous, but beautiful. Supergiant's art is second to none and Pyre is yet another example of that. Every single screen in the game oozes with style, Supergiant's attention to detail is staggering, and all in all, the game is simply a joy to look at.
The Blackwagon, your new mobile home, is pushed forward by specially trained drive-imps, and as the team's Reader you pick the destination by clicking on nodes at the frequent forks in the road, guided by your newfound companions' advice.
Your starting companions are a man, a horned demon, and an anthropomorphic dog with a mustache. Initially you know very little about them but as you travel together you begin to slowly gain their trust. Later on your team will grow to include a sea worm who's also a knight, a harpy with clipped wings, and a plethora of other strange characters all with their unique backstories, reasons for being exiled, and aspirations for when they get out.
This is where the game's character-driven nature comes into play. The overarching story of escaping the Downside takes the back seat to actually getting to know the people you travel with. How their stories develop depends on whose advice you take when choosing where to go, and who you pick to participate in the Rites.
Your AI opponents have their own ambitions and sometimes history with certain members of your team, adding another layer to your decision-making process. For example, one of your companions might develop a crush on one of your opponents, another one might have a sister on the opposing team, and so forth. Because of that, even though your input during the Blackwagon sections of the game is mostly limited to picking left or right, the decisions you make over time compound to create a story unique to you and you alone.
On the other hand, the overarching story suffers because of that. It doesn't get the chance to fully develop and you may even feel like you're being railroaded into a particular path that you wouldn't have ever chosen if it were up to you. Without spoiling much, the simple premise of escaping later on transforms into a noble plan to overthrow the government that had exiled you. The thing is, you go along with this plan even though you have just met the character that lays it onto you and have absolutely no reason to trust him at that point.
Main story aside, during Pyre's Blackwagon sections You make decisions that affect your team's performance in the upcoming Rites and learn more about them by doing so. You foster relationships with your teammates and spark rivalries with your opponents. You uncover things about the game's world and acquire a bunch of knickknacks and mementos along the way. You simply enjoy the journey, despite how inhospitable the Downside may be, and despite the lack of traditional gameplay elements associated with RPGs during these sections.
Add your opponents' goals that often clash with your own into the mix and the world starts to feel alive, draws you in and compels you to keep pushing forward just to learn a bit more, even though gameplay-wise you're just clicking on nodes and reading the dialogue boxes that pop up in response to that.
The Rites are a sports-like 3 on 3 competition where most of Pyre's RPG elements come into play. Over the course of the game you acquire a roster of up to 9 players, each of them with a unique set of abilities, strengths and weaknesses.
The ultimate goal in any given Rite is to douse the opposing team's pyre by either running a player with the Celestial Orb, that's really just a fancy name for Pyre's ball, into it, or by tossing the ball into the pyre. Throwing the ball is trickier and usually awards less points but running a player in makes that player unavailable for the next drive.
You can only control one player at a time, and when you do, you can sprint, jump, pass the ball, and use the player's Aura to banish opponents from the field for several seconds. With these basics in mind, the specific movesets differ greatly between the characters. Take jumping for example - some of the characters leap short distances, others launch themselves high into the air and then descend back down knocking everyone away, and others still simply fly over the field.
The variable playstyles are further augmented by 4 stats that determine each individual player's efficiency on the field. And on top of that, each player can equip a talisman that acts as a piece of upgradable gear. Some talismans simply offer a considerable boost to one of the stats, while others offer character-specific modifiers that change the way that character plays.
As your exiles participate in the Rites they gain experience and upon leveling up, you can choose a new passive skill for them. These passive skills all offer noticeable and unique to that character benefits that shake things up a great deal, and as such the fact that each character only has a pool of 8 skills is not as bad as it may initially appear.
Moveset variety, different builds, all the talismans - if you really get into it, you'll be surprised by how complex Pyre's Rites truly are, especially considering that you're incentivized, and at certain points forced, to switch up your team composition and not get complacent with just one winning comp.
This complexity, however, is a double-edged sword. Over the course of the game I've often found myself in situations where I didn't feel completely in control. There's so much nuance to everything, that keeping track of things during the split-second decisions of the real-time Rites can be a bit tricky.
This doesn't mean that the game itself is overly difficult. In fact, the default difficulty setting feels extremely easy early on. Thankfully, it gradually becomes harder, and by the end of the game provides a satisfying level of challenge. And since challenge is a subjective thing, the developers offer three difficulty settings and optional modifiers you can use on a Rite-by-Rite basis. These modifiers make things harder for you, but in return increase the experience your exiles gain.
What's also curious about the Rites, is that they're competitions and not battles. Nobody is harmed in the process, which makes losing just as viable as winning and one result is not necessarily better than the other in the end.
This is why the developers discourage replaying the Rites and you only have one autosave slot per campaign to record your progress. However, you still can cheese the system and restart an ongoing Rite. And while it may seem like it would go against the spirit of the game, this is a feature you might want to keep in mind. Every arena you play on has some gimmick and you have no way to know about it beforehand. For example, there's an arena with bottomless pits in it and if a player falls into one - they get banished. At the same time, another arena has similar looking pits that instead of banishing your player propel them forward. It may feel unfair to be losing just because you had no way of knowing all the variables, so the restart button helps with that.
The biggest downside, pardon the pun, of Pyre's “combat” system is that your mechanical skill trumps all. The character builds, the bonuses you accrue along the way, your players' levels - they're all secondary to how good you are at pressing buttons and scoring goals. Perhaps a turn-based system would have served Pyre better, I'm not sure, I just know that I would have liked my decisions to have a visible impact not only on the story, but on the Rites as well.
We've already established that Pyre looks absolutely gorgeous, but Pyre's soundtrack by Supergiant's in-house composer Darren Korb also deserves a mention. This eclectic collection of nearly two hours of music stands so good on its own that you can purchase it separately and enjoy it without having even played the game.
Another of Supregiant's staples - narration by Logan Cunningham - also makes a comeback in Pyre. And it's both good and bad. Bad, because it plays a much lesser part here than in the previous games - instead of a narrator that follows you wherever you go, here he plays The Voice, a sports commentator that introduces the teams and makes snarky remarks as the Rites proceed. And here's the good part - as the game progresses, you discover that The Voice is not an idle observer and instead has his own stake in all of this, one that goes directly against your goals. As a result you get to see a gradual descent from regal overconfidence into petty insults as you get closer to finishing the game, which, considering Logan Cunningham's talent, is quite entertaining.
The rest of the dialogue-heavy game, however, is not really voice-acted. Instead, whenever a character speaks, we get some gibberish that vaguely resembles the alien language from Knights of the Old Republic. Thankfully, in Pyre we only get a few syllables of that per sentence, as opposed to a drawn-out tirade of nonsense.
What I've also appreciated about Pyre is the way it handles its lore. You're free to learn as much or as little about it as you desire. As you perform certain actions that range from visiting particular locations, meeting certain characters, or even buying items, you unlock more and more pages in the Book of Rites that tell you the story of Pyre's world. You may strive to uncover as many of the pages as possible, or just not care about them at all.
On a more technical side - the game runs well, saves instantly, and doesn't take too long to load. It hasn't crashed on me once during my roughly 15 hour playthrough, which falls on the higher end of the average 10-15 hour estimate the developers have for the game.
I've enjoyed Pyre, although admittedly less so than Supergiant's other games, and if you go into it with an open mind and a desire to play a good game, you'll likely end up satisfied. On the other hand, if you get stuck on the eternal question of what an RPG is and whether or not Pyre qualifies, you might find yourself frustrated. Frustrated by the lack of actual gameplay and the prevalence of sections where you just talk to your companions, by Supergiant's decision to make a 180-degree turn on trying to connect narrative with gameplay, and by the fact that you're playing a strange sports game instead of fighting goblins in a dungeon like you're used to.
But if you're interested in a noteworthy experience, forget all that and just give Pyre a chance. It's a fun and emotional title with a level of depth that will, perhaps, surprise you.