Lead a team of exiles from the brink of collapse to the cusp of victory.
PC Release: July 25, 2017
By Ian Coppock
Has anyone seen the new Gatorade ad urging viewers to “make defeat your fuel”? As much as bringing that ad up may seem like a cynical attempt to boost this review’s search rankings (and as much as Gatorade is a mediocre beverage), the ad does raise an interesting point about defeat. Setbacks can be crushing, but they can also spur people to make a roaring comeback and surpass their personal demons. Just as that sports drink advertisement is unusual in its examination of defeat, so too is the subject of tonight’s review: Pyre.
Pyre is the latest creation of Supergiant Games, the indie studio behind universally acclaimed titles Bastion and Transistor. Like its two predecessors, Pyre is a game that puts players in a vibrant world and sets out to tell a compelling story with as much showing and as little telling as possible. Unlike Bastion and Transistor, Pyre is a party-based role-playing game that challenges players to manage an entire group of novel heroes instead of just one.
Pyre is set in the Downside, a world whose magic, monsters, and audacious battles all make for a much livelier place than the name “the Downside” implies. The downside of the Downside is that it’s a purgatory; a place where a government called the Commonwealth sends those it deems criminals. Players take command of one such band of exiles on a quest to find a way out (if such a thing exists) of the Downside and back to the Commonwealth.
Pyre‘s story begins when the aforementioned hipster, talking dog, and angry horned lady fish the player character out of a desert. The character is an anonymous female scholar nicknamed the Reader, so labeled because of her ability to, well… read (from this it can be inferred that the Downside’s literacy rate ain’t all that high). The exiles who rescue her have a bunch of old tomes sitting in their wagon; from them the Reader learns that escape from the Downside might be possible if the exiles participate in the Rites.
The Rites are both the main plot device and the primary gameplay mechanic of Pyre; a series of magical games in which teams of three face off for a chance at escape from the Downside. The exiles agree to form their own squad and set off in their trusty wagon, intent on confronting other triumvirates of castaways and getting the hell out of hell. It’s up to players to manage their team of Rite participants, decide which routes to take between battles, and see their companions through the perils of the Downside.
Pyre‘s gameplay marks a significant departure from the isometric adventuring of Bastion and Transistor. Players navigate the world of the Downside in a visual novel-style interface where animated action plays out in the background and important info is presented in the foreground. Players can chat up characters and make important decisions regarding their journey, like which path to take through the wilderness. The Reader can also access the wagon’s interior during pit stops or visit the slugmarket (so named for the physiology of its proprietor) to trade goods.
The Rites comprise Pyre‘s other piece of gameplay. Once the exiles have arrived to the next battle site, it’s up to players to select a team of three companions to face off against a triumvirate of opponents. Each team is given a pyre (hey!) to defend. Once the match begins, a magical orb is dropped onto the field for players to jockey for. The goal of the game is to carry that orb past the opponent’s defenses and slam dunk it into their pyre, weakening its flame. Whichever team can extinguish the enemy’s pyre first wins the match. Each round is narrated by a sarcastic, condescending wizard who’s as likely to chide the player for being a screw-up as he is to laud their inventiveness.
Rites in Pyre play like a combination of Rocket League and Interloper. Characters exude a circular aura that functions like a shield, and when two opponents’ auras overlap, the character with the weaker aura will disintegrate and be banished from the field for a few moments. Characters can also cast a deadly spell that carpet bombs a straight path ahead of them, eliminating any foes that get caught in the blast. Both of these perks are rescinded when a character grabs the orb, making them vulnerable.
Characters in Pyre can roughly be divided into light, medium, and heavy weight classes. Light characters are fleet-footed on the battlefield but only do so much damage to the enemy pyre. By contrast, heavy characters move across the battlefield at a slow lumber, but their attack spell does much more damage to foes and they can take twice as many life points away from the enemy pyre as light characters. Each character also has his or her own abilities useful for getting around faster and dodging enemy attacks.
Although these magic-ball matches are fun and make for quite a little adrenaline rush, they’re not without their clunkiness. Players can only control one character at a time; sure, it’s not hard to rapidly switch between contestants, but it’s awkward to take one character out onto the field and leave the other ones idling near the pyre. Additionally, some character classes just ain’t all that great at magic-ball. The aforementioned heavy character is a beast at taking out foes, but getting her to the enemy pyre is difficult.
Then again, getting the characters to work as a team is one of the main points of Pyre. Perhaps it’s better to use the heavy character to wipe out enemies and then switch over to the light character to deliver the orb-dunk. Combatants also gain experience after each match whether it ends in victory or defeat, and can learn valuable new abilities with each level-up. Players can also equip their athletes with ability-enhancing trinkets found out in the game world.
Though Pyre‘s gameplay is quite different from that of Bastion or Transistor, the game is in lockstep with its predecessors when it comes to the quality of its writing. Once again, Supergiant has succeeded in creating a vibrant, alluring world with its own original lore. Unlike its two predecessors, though, Pyre comes loaded with exposition. Players can consult the history of the Downside in their tome or by mousing over highlighted words in characters’ dialogue.
The character writing in Pyre is the best that Supergiant has ever penned. Each participant in the Rites is far more than just a magical athlete; they’re people with checkered pasts and their own hopes and dreams for lives outside of the Downside. They evolve in response to the journey and in reaction to the actions of their teammates; as the journey wears on, players’ affection for these characters swell. Pyre starts off with the three characters pictured above but lets players acquire more of them, including a sultry bird lady and a heroic worm clad in armor.
Pyre also represents the zenith of Supergiant’s skill with a paint brush, somehow being even more gorgeously colorful and detailed than either of the studio’s previous two games. This isn’t to say that Bastion and Transistor aren’t also lovely; only that Pyre includes more sophisticated object detail, character animations, and a brighter swath of colors. The Downside has a bad rap because of its status as a prison, but that sure doesn’t sour its many beautiful regions, all of which the player travels through on their road to freedom.
Additionally, whereas the musical scores in Bastion and Transistor both followed singular themes (the former being string-driven and the latter being jazzy), Pyre‘s soundtrack is much more eclectic. From R&B keystrokes to acoustic guitars, each track in the game seems to be an ode to each genre of music. This can leave the placement of some songs sounding random, but they’re all so good that that randomness is moot (this is a game whose soundtrack is as much a must-own as the game itself).
As mentioned earlier, Pyre is a novel study of defeat and how a person comes back from it. All of the game’s visual and written design elements inform that motif. Players can learn why characters were banished to the Downside and see the effects of that banishment made manifest on the land itself. These nods toward a quest for redemption give Pyre a somber, sadly beautiful atmosphere. Everybody, even the smack-talking enemy team captain, is a sympathetic character, as they all just want to get out of this awful place and get home.
It’s that sympathy that makes Pyre such a heart-breaker. It’s difficult to elaborate without spoiling, but suffice it to say that some characters might get to go home before others. Who goes and who stays? Who will be missed the most? How will one character’s absence affect the rest of the group? No two decisions play out the same way, and Pyre masterfully telegraphs the impact of each choice to the rest of the narrative. The chance at freedom becomes as bittersweet as the backstories of the Downside’s exiles, and that’s what makes Pyre such a masterclass in studying tragic characters.
Although Pyre‘s Rites need some refinement and the magic-ball competitions feel mechanically disjointed from the rest of the game, the title is Supergiant’s best work. The game aptly combines charming writing and gorgeous visuals to produce an unforgettable world. Each character is a fascinating piece of the Downside to whom players quickly become attached, and the world itself is a treasure for any fantasy fan. The icing is that the game runs bug-free (at least in the run for this review) and its options menu is competent. Defeat can be a great teacher, and no game explores that motif in a more eloquent manner than Pyre.
You can buy Pyre here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.