I caution you, Bastion and Transistor veterans, to learn a little more about Pyre before you buy. Not because it’s bad, it’s terrific for what it is, but because it’s different from Supergiant Games’ past offerings. This Pyre is stoked with three parts visual novel, one part fantasy basketball (including team management), one part RPG and a pinch of point-and-click adventure. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever played. Some Supergiant specialties are still on display including lush art, a unique setting, a top tier soundtrack and quality writing, lots of that one.
You play as a nameless exile freshly banished to The Downside, this world’s designated lands for criminals like you. Most of its denizens don’t believe there is any way to return to The Commonwealth. You can’t sail there nor fly there, though many have tried. A select few do know of a way and you have a skill that is valuable to them. It’s the skill that got you exiled: you know how to read. And so you are quickly recruited to lead a team known as the Nightwings in the ceremonial Rites that offer a chance at regaining your freedom.
As the Reader for the Nightwings you will make many decisions for the team as well as direct them during the Rites. Virtually every decision you make will be sandwiched by dialogue. There is a repeated pattern for journeying to where the next Rite will be held that will give you plenty of opportunities to get to know your teammates, your adversaries and this land. These travel phases are where the visual novel elements are most at play. They, along with the discussions surrounding each Rite, will make up the bulk of your playtime.
Thankfully, the writing is up to the task of carrying this game and does so with steady shoulders. Along the way you’ll meet a diverse and compelling cast of characters, not all of whom are teammates. The writing does a great job of giving each character a distinct voice. I loved seeing their preexisting bonds with certain characters, as well as their animosities toward others. There’s depth to be found as characters grow and face personal struggles. I believed that these characters existed before the events of the game and enjoy imagining their life afterward.
At times you will be allowed to take part in a Liberation Rite, where one of your companions may earn a glorious return to the Commonwealth. There’s a lot to consider when choosing who will go. Assuming you win the match that character will be gone for good. Do you pick your favorite? The one who will do the most good on the other side? Do you leave out the ones you consider most useful in future Rites? Are there character issues to consider like splitting them from a loved one? To add to it all, your success means your opponent’s failure and sometimes their champion seems just as worthy.
The main plot revolves around these Liberation Rites. There is more to them that I will not spoil but you can safely assume that the cycle doesn’t repeat forever. The core fight for freedom isn’t all that interesting but it enables the stories of the individuals and the story of the Nightwings to shine. The topics they cover range all over including politics, race, war, corruption, redemption, and even fantasy religion. Its biggest triumph is that it gets you to invest in your teammates, knowing that their freedom is on the line, and makes you feel like you’re one of them.
The Book of Rites is a digital book that you can flip through. It contains a vast amount of lore on a multitude of subjects that enrich the world around you. You unlock pages pertinent to the places you visit, the people you run into and the events unfolding. The information isn’t crucial but it is a welcome optional resource especially for things like the felled Titans looming near each Rite arena. There are times I felt that the game did too much telling and not enough showing though. For instance, The Downside is supposed to be a populated place where the majority don’t know of the Rites, but you meet so few of those folks that it makes the land feel small and desolate.
Pyre’s pacing is stellar for about the first 2/3rds of the game. The beginning is quite linear as new people, places and gameplay details are regularly introduced. Even as the world is opened up to you this steady stream of new features continues, keeping things fresh and interesting. There were a few conversations that were more long winded than they needed to be, but these are thankfully rare. I felt that the ending was foreshadowed too early on in order to create an urgency that, while not bad itself, was leaned on for too long.
Gameplay during the Rites has you controlling one of three team members at a time as you try to throw or carry an orb into your opponents’ pyre. Possessing the orb strips your defenses which makes choosing when to pick up the orb a key strategic decision. Each character has some form jump, sprint and an attack that can temporarily banish enemies. There are a multitude of different playstyles that are determined by the race of the character. For example, two races can fly instead of jump while another teleports a moderate distance forward as a form of sprinting.
Competing in the Rites didn’t grow stale for me. New team members and adversaries keep things interesting for quite a while and then optional challenges with experience point rewards are introduced. RPG elements come into play here as each character has a set of four attributes that influence how they play. You get to choose from two or three masteries each time you level up, allowing for a small amount of customization. A single talisman slot is the only form of swappable gear but they can have a big impact.
There are three keyboard control presets in addition to custom remaps and controller support. All are very functional and designed to appeal to a wide variety of players. I should note that it took me a while to get my PlayStation 2 controller working. My usual tricks failed and instead it had to be enabled in the Steam menus which I had never encountered before. If you need this you’ll find it in the Steam Settings “Controller” tab where you’ll click on the “General Controller Settings” button.
This is a stunningly beautiful game. Vivid colors are everywhere in its distinct art style that doesn’t try too hard to emulate real life. Character designs are varied and fit the characters’ personalities. The landscapes of The Downside have an otherworldly quality that is a joy to behold. If it weren’t so beautiful I might complain about how little is animated, but the largely static images are used to such great effect that I didn’t care.
With Pyre’s soundtrack, Darren Korb shows again why he is one of my favorite composers. The track structure reminds me of RPGs where many characters and locations have their own theme. Each of the teams you face off against has a unique theme that amplifies their defining characteristics. If you choose to purchase the soundtrack, which I recommend, you’ll get 3 hours and 51 minutes of music, about half of which is acoustic or alternative versions of tracks.
There isn’t any standard voice over work in Pyre. Instead, the dialogue is accompanied by short spoken lines of gibberish that serve to impart tone and emotion into the text. This is a creative solution for a small studio on a budget and it does the job admirably well. The gibberish gives an enjoyable sense that everyone is talking in a language unique to their world. Some optional side conversations later in the game had a noticeable lack of vocal backing. It’s jarring when it’s not there but thankfully the vast majority has it.
Most players will finish the game in the 14-18 hour range. Its replayability is excellent due to all the player choices that have significant impacts. For instance, the first character you liberate ends up missing the majority of the game, but had you chosen differently they could have stayed with you until the end. There must be a staggering quantity of dialogue options that exist in order to adjust for the variations in which characters are present. At $20 full price I consider this a great value. The only addition I would have liked to have seen is the ability to play Versus Mode online.
Pyre is my favorite Supergiant title to date, but my recommendation must come with some caveats due to its strange combination of genres. Supergiant Games fans will very likely still enjoy Pyre but you should heed your reservations if the visual novel tag sounds like a deal breaker. RPG and sport game fans should also consider carefully since marketing for the game somewhat misleading makes it seem like the Rites are the primary focus when really they are secondary to the story being told.
- Deep characters in a lore rich world
- Outstanding soundtrack with a lot of personality
- Quick to learn, hard to master fantasy sport
- Misleading PR makes the sport seem like the focus
- Final third of the game is too drawn out
- Dialogue can be long winded on occasion