Any critic will tell you that the longer you spend reviewing a particular medium, the harder it is for it to surprise you. Giving credence to the old adage “there’s nothing new under the sun,” features and mechanics crystallize into predictable genres, and rely on fresh style and technical execution to set them apart, rather than core gameplay innovation. While Pyre, the third game from Bastion and Transistor developer Supergiant Games, draws inspiration from a range of existing games, the game at its core is genuinely new.
Pyre is more or less an action-RPG, insofar as it’s a fantastical, story-driven adventure in which you assemble and upgrade a party of heroes to save the world. Pyre is also, at it’s core, a sports game. Instead of combat, your party competes in a 3-on-3 sport, vaguely reminiscent of rugby. Pyre isn’t quite like anything we’ve ever played before, and we love it for that.
Putting the “Fantasy” in Fantasy Football
You play as a nameless, faceless person known simply as the Reader, who has been banished from the Commonwealth into Downside, a sort of Purgatory where the society sends its undesirables. You have been cast out for the crime of literacy, which is banned in the world up above. Fortunately, this rare ability is also the key to your salvation, since it soon leads to your being recruited to help out a scrappy band of outcasts in the so-called Rite, an ancient ritual competition that allows outcasts of the Downside to find redemption and return to the Commonwealth, forgiven.
As the reader, you interpret the rules of the Rite from tomes collected by your team (the Nightwings), and lead them on the field. The Rite itself is a 3-on-3 sport. At the start of the round, an orb is dropped into the center of the arena. Moving only one player at a time (but switching freely between them, in real time), each team competes to take the orb and run it into their opponents’ flaming pyre and reduce its health to zero, while protecting their own. Players are typically surrounded by a large, circular aura on the ground, which banishes opposing players from the field on contact until they reappear at their team’s pyre a short time later. Players can also sacrifice their aura to shoot a beam and defend themselves more proactively. Carrying the orb causes a player’s aura to retract completely, however, leaving them vulnerable.
Each Character has varying statistics, falling generally on the axis of being small and fast or large and slow. More nimble characters have an easier time running the orb through their opponent’s defenses, but they also do less damage to the pyre when they do so.
Competing in the Rite earns your characters experience, which you can use to unlock and improve your players’ abilities. As the game progresses, you add more members to your party with more specialized abilities, giving you greater latitude to construct your team in response to changing enemies and arenas.
The Rite is fun, fast-playing, and surprisingly manageable for how busy it can look sometimes. Limiting you to moving one character at a time keeps your attention honed, but the ability to switch between three characters on the fly, each of which can be customized, leaves a very high skill cap for mastering the game. Once you have strong understanding of it, you can also tweak the difficulty in more fine-grained ways, selecting “Titan Stars” at the beginning of a match to add particular challenges (such as a lower starting health for your pyre) in exchange for more experience (calling back to a similar system of buffs/debuffs in Bastion).
Downside is the most complete and interesting world that Supergiant has created to date.
The Rites are framed by your party wandering from arena to arena in a sort of covered wagon, with light, text-adventure choices to make in between. Depending on the route you take, you might find valuables to sell, have a heart-to-heart with one of your characters that improves their mood for the next match, or take time to study the Rites and gain small, universal bonuses. The consequences of these choices do not greatly affect the story, but do give you more to think about between Rites, enhance your relationship with the characters, and increase the game’s overall replay value with branching possibilities.
There is also a multiplayer mode for custom local matches against human or AI opponents, which features a much larger roster of playable NPCs from the game in addition to your party. With no online multiplayer currently, Pyre isn’t about to become the next big esport, but it’s a great way to enjoy the core game in custom, bite-sized portions without worrying about the campaign.
Compelling core gameplay design is crucial to Pyre’s success, but what really takes it to the next level is its absolutely stunning presentation. Supergiant has a well-deserved reputation for making beautiful games, and Pyre absolutely continues the fantastic art design and music composition that made Bastion and Transistor so memorable.
Between Rites the characters are brought to life in exquisite, hand-painted 2D artwork, prominently featured in dialogue. Although the character art is static, animated flourishes of color occasionally spring up behind them, reminiscent of anime. Character sprites are 3D, but all of the environments are similarly lush, colorful, and beautiful 2D art. The gorgeous, wide-view landscapes that your wagon trundles through are reminiscent of the hand-drawn artwork in The Banner Saga (let alone the hulking, horned race of humanoid demons that look like a deliberate nod to The Banner Saga’s giant Varls). That artwork helps bring to life a charming and memorable cast of characters, each with their own backstories into which you can dig.
Downside is the most complete and interesting world that Supergiant has created to date. Names and important terms are highlighted for you to mouse over and get a bit of context and flavor text, and there’s an in-game lore book that gradually fills in over the course of the campaign, but none of it ever feels like forced exposition. The world invites you in simply by being coherent and interesting. Uncovering the logic of Downside, the Commonwealth, and the Rites goes hand-in-hand with picking up the larger narrative, as your struggle expands to encompass more than earning your own freedom back through the Rites, but also how and why this system exists in the first place.Our Take
Supergiant has once again demonstrated an absolute mastery over the craft of game design. Bastion was a fantastically well-done action RPG with a few interesting framing ideas. Transistor went even further, introducing a novel and exciting combat mechanic. Pyre continues along that trajectory toward increasingly original core gameplay design. The artists and designers at Supergiant are so studied that they manage to ground their most interesting ideas in a shell that makes them smooth and accessible. It’s our favorite game of theirs, and that says a lot.
Pyre was reviewed on PC, with a code provided by the publisher.
Is there a better alternative?
No, more than most games we review, Pyre feels unique.
How long will it last?
Our run through the main story took approximately 10 hours, but we can definitely see ourselves going through again to try different choices and skills. The game also features local multiplayer, which may prompt you to dust it off and test your skill in the rite with a friend now and again.
Should you buy it?
Yes. Fans of Supergiant’s previous titles in particular or anyone who likes interestingly-designed and beautifully-presented games should check this out.