Pyre is one of the most stylish games I have ever played. From the very outset, the game drips colour, a beautiful art style, and a magnificent soundtrack. However, it is the opposing gameplay styles that prove the game is something wholly different and unlike anything else I’ve ever played. Pyre strikes an impressive balance between being an interactive visual novel and an arcade sports game in a way that would seem impossible when examining the two genres separately; Supergiant Games somehow caused them to collide and create a truly bizarre and wonderful result. Is this PlayStation 4 game worth playing?
Pyre opens in a desolate wasteland known as the Downside. The player lays collapsed as a wagon approaches, and out emerge three outcasts who spare your life and take you in. You have a valuable skill that few in the downside possess: you can read. In exchange for your life, you agree to assist in helping the crew read from a book known as the Book of Rites. The book details the methods through which the characters can escape this horrible place and return home to the Commonwealth, as each of them had been cast out of normal society to the Downside as punishment; once you have been exiled there is but a single option to return to the Commonwealth — prove yourself in the Rites to earn back your freedom.
Unfortunately, there are many other triumvirates in the Downside who are attempting to do the exact same thing. Each team has they own logo, mascot and captain that speaks for the team and acts as their face, and each Rites stadium is unique as well. This makes the Rites feel like their own sports league, with the champion gaining freedom. Beneath the sports-laden surface, there is an underlying narrative of boiling civil unrest and political intrigue that truly brings Pyre’s narrative to life.
The Rites are the most important aspect of Pyre and where the bulk of the gameplay takes place. Each Rite is a match to be played with two teams of three competitors each. The concept is simple; pick up an orb that spawns in the middle of the playing field and put that orb into the other teams’ pyre, or goal. Each pyre begins with a varying amount of points depending on multipliers in place, and for each time you score on your opponent, their pyre is reduced by a small number of points. Once one pyre is reduced to zero, the match ends and the surviving team is the victor. The concept is introduced incredibly simple, but as the story progresses, the true depths of the rites quickly becomes apparent.
The Rites play like NBA Jam with RPG elements, and it does it very well. Players can pass the orb like a basketball, shoot it into the pyre from afar, or dunk it by simply running into the pyre. But, for each time you score, the scoring player is temporarily banished until another player on your triumvirate scores, or your opponents score on you. If you score again, you then gain back your previously banished teammate in exchange for the newly scored player. If your opponent scores, you gain back all three of your players, and they lose one. There are other ways to banish players temporarily too, with a feature called
There are other ways to banish players temporarily too, with a feature called the aura. Every character is constantly surrounded by an aura; if a member of the opposing team touches this aura it banishes them temporarily until a countdown completes, and then they respawn in front of their respective pyre. While holding the orb, your aura vanishes, making you vulnerable to your opponents and making scoring without being touched the real trick to victory. You can also fire your aura, so long as you aren’t carrying the orb. If you manage to hit an opponent with the aura, they will be banished; if they are carrying the orb they will drop it where they were banished. At the press of a button, you can switch between any of your three team members to defend your pyre or make an offensive strike toward the opponents making the sport feeling very active, bouncing between maintaining a defence and setting up offensive plays to score.
There are eight playable classes in the rites, all of which control completely differently. Every character’s aura size and aura firing style is different. Some can jump, allowing you to hop over other players and their auras, while some can even fly. For each character you have on your team, they all have their own branching skill trees to invest in as they level up, opening new skills and abilities, active and passive, for them to utilize. Each character type does a different amount of damage to the opponents’ pyre based on their speed and size, with smaller, faster classes doing less damage than the more lumbering, large classes. Each character can also be equipped with talismans, which stack additional abilities on top of their pre-existing ones. Needless to say, the depth of the gameplay is endless. The further along the game gets, the more complex and difficult each match becomes, as foes also gain these multipliers.
When not participating in the rites, the player is interacting with their party, which is ever expanding. This gives you the opportunity to dive deep into the psychology of every member you accrue, examine why they were banished and what their true intentions are. The cast is filled to the brim with colour — from thieving scamps to harpies and bog-witches, the races of Pyre are fascinating. When exploring the downside on your way toward your next rite-match, the caravan is guided by the Reader — you. While mostly linear, the journey has varying branching paths where you can decide which direction to take to get to the destination. Perhaps one path will help one party member find enlightenment, and they will gain a stat boost for the next match. Alternatively, the second path may contain a rare item. The choices are yours to make, but they ultimately don’t affect the story arc. Wins and losses certainly do, though. Falling to another triumvirate can have game-long consequences, as any loss does not halt progress. Whether you win or lose a rite, the game continues on and you must accept the results. The attention to detail in these wins and losses is remarkable. If you lose to a triumvirate once, the next time you face them they will taunt you more and your own team will be more nervous to participate.
The end of each “season” of the rites involves a Liberation Rite between your triumvirate and another, with the winner allowing one team member to return to the Commonwealth. This adds tension and difficult decision-making to the game mix, as the party member you select to be freed upon victory is gone for the remainder of the game — you cannot get them back and you can never play with them on your team again. If you lose in these Liberation Rites, the opposing team captain is set free and you never face their triumvirate again. I lost in a Liberation Rite once, and it still eats at me, as I could have set one more of my teammates free. A loss in these matches is a heavy burden.
Supergiant Games previous two releases, Bastion and Transistor were two very different products and that showed the studio was more willing to take risks through experimentation than make safe bets through sequels, and Pyre only further propels this theory. What all three games share in common, however, allows a thread to be traced through each. First, the art design is crisp and colourful. The characters in Pyre are all still animations that change depending on simple mood changes, such as anger and happiness, but it works so well. I never felt distanced from my triumvirate or like I didn’t know who they were; the rich dialogue and strong world building were enough to keep me connected to them. The soundtrack is also very much in line with Bastion and Transistor as the same composer, Darren Korb is at the helm for the third time. The musical variation, from sea faring guitar medleys to ominous trap tunes, creates a vibrant musical experience. Each opposing triumvirate has a unique musical style associated with them, often playing off of key details about their character and fits every situation precisely. The narration is another detail all 3 games share, with the narrator in Pyre only speaking during the rites in the form of a sportscaster, making calls around your plays such who is the winner or losing. His performance eventually becomes more pivotal and engaging to the story as events unfold.
My grievances with Pyre are few and far between. Not having an online multiplayer mode is very disappointing. The gameplay is so fun against AI opponents that the human element could potentially elevate it to new heights. Unfortunately, the only way to do this is through local multiplayer. A ripe online component could have given the game more staying power, allowing players to create their own triumvirate with unique names, logos, and team compositions. Additionally, the game may drag on a little longer than one expects, as I was certainly surprised with its length. In total, the experience is between 10 to 15 hours and I only expected it to be about six to eight. Toward the end, the game opens up, becoming less linear and the story that is very thickly laid in the earlier parts of the game is pushed aside in place of the rites, and the focus of the game seems to shift — decisions late game feel much less vital than those you make early on. Eventually, your decisions do all culminate and are explained in a satisfying fashion, but not without a few missteps late.
Pyre is certainly likely unlike anything else that will release this year, and on that merit alone I was impressed, but the levels of detail and polish are what make it stand on its own. Distilled down, Pyre acts as a homage to sports games from an earlier generation, but the precision with which it is executed proves it surpasses merely being placed in a box of comparison. Pyre effectively fuses what feels almost like two completely different game and utilizes style, sound and an imaginative world to tether them together into an inseparable product that couldn’t exist without both parts firing on all cylinders.