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‘Pyre’: Our first take

Magic and sports action go hand-in-hand in Supergiant’s ‘Pyre’

There’s one good way to sum up the competitive multiplayer mode in Pyre: it’s kind of like a 3-on-3 version of the classic basketball game NBA Jam, except that, instead of basketball players, your team is made up of three wizards who can murder the other team with jets of flame. The goal: slam a magic ball into the other team’s ring to score points.

It’s an intriguing change of pace for developer Supergiant Games, the team behind action-role-playing games Bastion and Transistor — games that designed as single-player experiences, with an emphasis on art style, fast-paced strategic play, and narrative.

Pyre will have a single-player campaign as well, but from the sounds of things, its sport-style competition will be a big part of the game. Even though it’s also an action-RPG, much of it seems to be about slamming a ball into a fiery hoop. And after trying Pyre’s multiplayer, it seems like that competition system is going to be a different experience that leverages a lot of Supergiant’s best ideas in fun new ways.

Three characters, one player

The competitive game at the heart of Pyre takes a few minutes to pick up. Two players each control a team of three different characters: there’s a small, fast dog; a medium-size, medium-speed person; and a hulking horned humanoid creature.

Each character is surrounded by a fiery aura that’s determined by their size. Touching an enemy character with that aura temporarily removes them from the game, with a timer running down until they reappear. That creates a bit of a rock-paper-scissors situation: the bigger characters have bigger auras, so they automatically beat the smaller characters, but bigger characters are also much slower and less maneuverable than their smaller counterparts.

Wrecking your way through a game of Pyre is an exciting experience.

In addition to auras, though, the characters can shoot waves of flame, with their attack sizes also determined by the size of the character. A fire wave can take out a character at range or while they’re on the move, but it also drains your character’s aura for a short time, leaving you vulnerable. After firing off a wave, the biggest characters are easily defeated by the smaller ones, so there’s a tactical consideration in attacking and trying to eliminate characters.

With all that covered, the competition starts. Each team has a fiery spot — the titular pyre — on their side of the field, which they must protect, and there’s a mystical ball located in the center of the field. Both teams are trying to snag the ball and carry it to the enemy team’s pyre to score points. You can throw the ball at the pyre, or dunk it by getting there with the ball in person. You score more points with a bigger, slower character to score than a smaller one, but the character holding the ball loses their aura, which leaves them vulnerable to attack.

Pyre

Like a sports game, one player controls the whole team. You can quickly switch between each member with one button (X on a PlayStation 4 controller), and that includes passing the ball between them as well. So every game becomes about strategic positioning, careful ball control, well-placed magical attacks, and dodging enemy attacks. Like a chess game, not paying attention to your other characters and any jeopardy they face can cost you.

The fast and the flaming

Wrecking your way through a game of Pyre is an exciting experience. On a moment-to-moment basis, it’s a game of careful avoidance and strategically deployment. Your giant hulk character, for instance, scores the most points, but is the toughest to get in position, and takes the longest to respawn. Your dog, on the other hand, scores the fewest points, but can strike quickly.

Those who can manage their team and put all that data to good use will be killer at Pyre

But probably the most important part of Pyre is moving your characters around at key moments to control the field and keep them from getting lit up by magical flames. Losing characters and giving your opponent an advantage is the quickest way to lose, of course, and everything you do — from touching the ball to trying to fight back against the other player — can put you at risk.

At first, keeping track of all of these factors feels overwhelming, and that might be what holds the game back among players, if anything does. Pyre asks you to mentally balance a large amount of information, starting with your three different characters and their uses, then moving onto things like respawn times, flame aura recharge rates, ball moves versus defense moves, jumps and dodges, and more. Those who can manage their team and put all that data to good use will be killer at Pyre, but there’s going to be a learning curve in being skillful at the game. That might keep it from being anything more than a bit of casual craziness to indulge in every once in awhile, at least in terms of multiplayer competition.

Pyre

To some degree, though, balancing all of Pyre’s systems starts to feel natural after a bit — or at the very least, you learn to start ignoring some of the info and keep focus on the moment-to-moment play.

As a multiplayer sport-esque experience, it asks a lot of you, but the chaos is what holds Pyre together and makes it fun. Unexpected stuff happens all the time as characters die and respawn on the field, or a well-placed attack sweeps up the ball carrier just before they can make their move. The game manages that important feeling of intensity when it comes to scoring — like a well-placed slapshot or a crazy header to the corner, every point scored in Pyre feels like it could have gone the other way if not for a split-second combination of timing, planning and luck.

Pyre’s multiplayer is a game that kicks up a lot of drama in competition, and in which victories often feel hard-fought. Those are always the best kind.

Look for Pyre on PlayStation 4 and PC sometime in 2017.

Highs

  • Blends fantasy and sports in a unique way
  • Characters and move variety creates a lot of exciting chaos in every match
  • Fast, but strategic
  • Beautiful art direction

Lows

  • Hard to keep track of everything happening at once
  • Learning curve might turn off some players, as it’s tough to get used to keeping everything in mind