After spending dozens of hours with Bastion and Transistor (The previous two Supergiant games) loving every second of those games I was naturally excited about Pyre. Once announced, I was skeptical as I could not see how the 3 versus 3 battle system reminiscent of arcade sports games and the visual novel story telling that has no game over screens would mix together. After spending 14 hours on Pyre, I feel that it finely balances both genres in an enjoyable experience that is rewarding to interact with, and satisfying in narrative terms; sprinkle in some of that Supergiant magic and design, narrative and gameplay decisions and you have a great, thought-provoking, memorable and fun experience.
I want to start with addressing the elements I was most skeptical about; the mix of genres and how well they would coexist, which for me was done excellently but with a few missteps. As with both previous Supergiant games, Pyre is ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ as the player character-known as the reader due to his ability to read written text and derive meaning while most others cannot-directs his comrades through an ancient ritual known as the rites; mystical challenges that pit two opposing groups against each other with the goal of extinguishing each other’s pyre. The rites are easy to learn the basics of, all the characters have abilities that can be used to for traversal, offense and defense, yet every movement, ability, character and opponent has their own unique advantage and disadvantage, thus giving each battle a tactical feel to it.
To go into more depth on the combat, I really enjoyed the faux arcade sport game battle system. As the game progresses new tactical options are added such as making the opposition more resilient or faster but you get rewarded with more experience. Furthermore, as I progressed through the story, new characters were added and each character had their own unique contributions to the team; some were fast and agile but did less damage than others while some were especially suited to defensive roles. The same can be said about opponents which made the game as much about skill as tactical preparations which in turn made each victory feel like I bested my opponents on skill and wit, as well as each defeat a miscalculation from my part, providing grounds to improve on. Speaking of which, there are many games that advertise the “no game over screens” feature, but only a few handle it as well as Pyre does. The characters and the story respond to your victories as well as your defeats, and in both circumstances do so believably, making them both not only viable but part of my story. Few games made defeats feel acceptable or even an option which the player chooses as well as Pyre does. For example, ‘Liberation rites’ are a whirlwind of emotions on their own as you can only anoint characters who are high level enough, which means I had spent a lot of time learning their moves, strengths, weaknesses and where they fit in my system and the prospect of letting them go was a bittersweet one as most of the time, the decision to anoint those characters was a narrative one which made their absence in the combat and in the story more intimidating to me but also necessary. That leads me to my only real complaint with the combat which is that I chose to let go some characters I really enjoyed using and was left with characters I wasn’t really good with for a chunk of the ending. I know that was my decision and what the game was all about but it did make the ending less enjoyable for me and one of those occasions where the strengths of the narrative made the gameplay less enjoyable. Having said that, I enjoyed most of the characters I had at my disposal thus this small annoyance did not ruin my experience with the game.
Moving on to the narrative of Pyre, which was the standout feature of the game for me. Firstly, I was immediately sold on the premise of the game; Exiles in the Downside, a magical purgatory, fighting for their freedom with my character being the Reader, one of the few who is literate and can derive meaning from words others can’t, aiding them through several rites in order to gain access to a ‘liberation rite’ that will grant the anointed from the victorious their freedom. The premise follows a structure that the game, mostly, sticks to; complete a number of rites before having a liberation rite to determine which anointed individual are rewarded their freedom. This could have been that, however the insistence on creating a continuous tale of success and failures is what makes the game stand out. When I had conducted a rite, it was not merely an excuse for gameplay; it was an opportunity to learn more about my party and the opponents. For example, victory meant that I lowered my opponent’s chance of participating in the ‘liberation rite’ but it also meant that I knew more about them and my party; some opponents were sore losers throwing insults my way, some were respectful. Same goes for my party as some were quick to congratulate me on my skills and others were singing their praises on their own contributions. On the same note, failure meant that some of my opponents acted like jerks and taunted me while others were genuinely surprised; meanwhile in my party some were eager to blame me and others were willing to lay the blame on the squad. All of these interactions and character building led to the ‘liberation rite’ which decided who gets to go free. Who do I anoint? This character who I genuinely believe should go free, but is one of my favorite and useful characters in gameplay terms or another who is less valuable in gameplay but I still don’t know enough about them to see if they truly deserve their freedom. Even yet, I could choose to let the other team win and grant their anointed character their freedom, because I also know enough about them and how much freedom means to them. Furthermore, the game does an excellent job in building a world with racial tensions, social issues and injustices, all set in a civilization that clearly stirred way off its intended path alongside dialogues that are written with highlighted text which I could hover on to get insider information thus allowing for more natural conversations and speeches and you have a narrative that feels meaningful and impactful, set in a world that is very much like our own with characters that are endearing and charming. The narrative also complements the gameplay; in almost all other games if you lose you restart. But in Pyre-even though you can still restart- you may lose on purpose or you may be beaten fair and square, but you are rewarded if you stick with the results no matter what they are. Moreover, something that came as a surprise to me was how well the game was paced. From the start, up until 2 hours before the end, new game changing concepts-both gameplay and narrative wise- were introduced, which never felt out of place or overbearing. Lastly, with Pyre going for so many things in terms of narrative it is not difficult to imagine how the ending could have been bad, but I found it to be satisfying, answering many questions raised through the game in funny, heartwarming and sometimes gut wrenching and disappointing ways. Thus, the visual novel part is well done, thanks to the incredible world building, visuals and the interesting story driving it.
The large scrolls of text and character interactions were truly interesting and fun to follow, although I have to say that, at times, I found myself having difficulty concentrating while reading the book of rites. This isn’t to say it was dull-in fact I found most of it to be intriguing short stories that gave history and context to the world and its residents- but because there were times large chunks of it were unlocked at once-usually after rites as well- and felt the need to read it all before moving on which made me either skip parts of the text or read them while not really concentrating on the previous text to piece it all together. All in all, in narrative terms Pyre succeeded in telling a poignant story with elements of humor, betrayal, social commentary and a tale of pushing through adversities and emerging the other side-wherever that leads you- as a more experienced and better human being.
Besides the narrative and the combat, the rest of Pyre is excellent as well. A strong visual style that imagines and portrays the fantastical purgatory that is Downside with beautiful visuals as well as a barren wasteland is pleasing to look at and unique. Sound design is well done whether it was the old, beaten up wagon making its way on an unwelcoming land or the fountain pen writing the text I was reading it all sounded like every sound in the game: Just right. Even traditional features of the Supergiant games DNA make a return, such as the narrator being an active and entertaining part of the game and the soundtrack being a highlight, as well as integrated within the game beautifully.
To end with, Pyre, just like Bastion and Transistor before it, is a masterfully executed game. It nails what it is going for with very few missteps along the way and thus Pyre is a worthy continuation of the excellent games coming out of Supergiant. It does not rank as high as Bastion for me, but nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Pyre and can’t wait for the next Supergiant game. Hopefully, just like the characters and the world in Pyre, you will persevere through the difficulties of game development and come out the other side with another excellent game.