Supergiant Games never makes the same thing twice. Bastion tackled a fantasy post-apocalypse, melding it with a grizzled narration, some western twang, and hooked players with engrossing isometric action and light RPG elements. Transistor told what can best be described as a Shakespearean techo-revenge tale that leaned more heavily into turn-based RPG elements. Pyre goes for something completely different: A story following a ragtag group of misfits who play a religious sports tournament to earn their freedom from exile. If NBA Jam had a visual novel component, gorgeous visuals, and endearing characters, it would be called Pyre.
In the world of Pyre, the Commonwealth stands as the last powerful empire. Those who run afoul of its laws or make the wrong enemies are exiled from its safety into another world, the Downside, a harsh purgatory where only the strong survive. In this environment, criminals and ne’er-do-wells fall prey to their vices or, in rare cases, find redemption and new purpose.
Pyre thrusts players into the role of an unnamed character known only as “the Reader,” an individual who broke one of the most sacred laws of the Commonwealth by learning how to read. Near death, the Reader is found by a trio of Downside wanderers who invite them to read a set of texts that detail an ancient set of rituals, known as the Rites, which can set one free from exile to begin a new life in the Commonwealth. These Rites are only known to a few and represent the one and only chance for an exile to rejoin society.
The trio reveal themselves to be a new incarnation of the Nightwings, a familiar name among those who pursue the Rites. The Nightwings have reformed to seek their freedom, overturn the order of the Commonwealth, and bring an end to Downside exile forever. To that end, the player travels the Downside to participate in the Rites, clashing with other teams who participate in the religious tournament.
These competitions represent the meat of Pyre’s gameplay. To win the Rite, players must douse the flames of the opposing team’s pyre with a stellar orb that falls from the sky. Each side controls three different characters, but can only move one at any given time. Every character controls differently and possesses different powers that must be used strategically in order to emerge victorious. Each character can jump, sprint, pass or throw the orb, and cast their aura, a mystic energy field that banishes any opposing character that comes into contact with it. Banished character return to the match after a set period of time, but that might be just enough time to get the orb into the pyre. A few small glitches occasionally rear their heads with some head-scratching hit detection, but for the most part, the quick, smooth gameplay experience feels great (the game even includes a local multiplayer mode).
This all works very well, capturing the arcade feel of an SNES sports title in modern form. However, the gameplay only represents half of the overall experience. Between matches, players travel from location to location, often making decisions that affect how the Rites will proceed. Perhaps you spend time tutoring a member of the Nightwings, digging for buried treasure, or sabotaging the opposing team. Maybe you have time for a heart-to-heart conversation with one of your teammates where you could learn more about what sent them into exile and what they hope to accomplish when they return home.
In the text and characterization of the Reader’s companions we find the beating heart of Pyre. You see, the more you use a character in the Rites, the more powerful they become. However, the more useful the character, the more you learn about what drives them and the more worthy of freedom they seem. The dirty secret of the Rites is that only one person may go free with each season of the ritual games. Often the best character on your team might be the one you select to go free and live out their days in the Commonwealth. By structuring character growth in this way, Supergiant Games creates a natural and emotional roller coaster for each character.
And by each character, I really do mean each character. Every character encountered in Pyre has their own arc and can achieve liberation through the Rites. The option is always left open to lose a Rite, to allow an adversary to ascend back to the Commonwealth instead of an ally. In clashing time and time again, players learn about the cast of antagonists, some of whom might be deserving of their liberation, too. That’s the whole tragedy of the Downside – everyone can be redeemed, but not everyone is. It stands as the defining power Pyre gives over to players; deciding who possesses qualities worthy of salvation within a corrupt system.
A larger story functions merely as a vehicle for players to interact with these characters and experience the thrill of the Rites. The overarching narrative deals with revolution and the role stories play in wider societal change. In many ways, Pyre is about how the games we play, the stories we create can change the world, for better or worse.
There are three levels of drama to Pyre’s adventure through the wastes. One the most immediate level, the second-to-second excitement of the Rites. It’s visceral, tangible. Then you have the intermediate drama, the relationship with the characters that extends beyond the Rites. Players learning who characters are by interacting with them directly or by witnessing them interacting with one another. This deepens the drama on the base level because Supergiant manages to make players care about the individual characters who all have stakes in the Rites. Finally, the overarching narrative adds a more abstract scenario that limits how often players can interact with the other Nightwings, how many people can go free, which places a final, excruciating weight to the player’s decisions up until that point.
I'd be remiss at this point if I didn't give Pyre praise for its incredible art direction. Jen Zee has to be one of the most striking artists working in games right now. Her style remains instantly recognizable and captivating. Her hand-drawn approach to visually designing the ethereal world of Downside gives rise to haunting visions of giants, lively, expressive characters, and a hostile beauty.
Darren Korb returns to Supergiant with a full, rambunctious musical score in which one can hear hints of the old Bastion country twang. Korb's musical style works hand-in-hand with the visuals to allow the player's imagination to run wild, filling in the gaps created by the constraints of Pyre's visual novel approach to storytelling. In this case, Korb has a literal stand-in character in the form of The Lone Minstrel, Tariq, a celestial being with a haunting voice - one of only two intelligible speakers in Pyre.
Supergiant Games stands as one of the most fascinating developers working today. Their games possess vision and take bold risks. Bastion and Transistor hammered home their overall narratives with great skill. Pyre relegates the overall narrative to the background while highlighting the characters. It’s bold; it’s different; and it doesn’t quite work as well as its predecessors.
The reason for this seems to be the focus on characters above all else. The narrative ostensibly deals with a revolution in the Commonwealth, but the game itself stays far removed from those events. This keeps the focus squarely on the cast, but it puts them and the player in a reactionary role, rather than a proactive one. Players merely react to changing circumstances rather than having any direct agency in changing events. That lack of agency could very well tie in with the theme Pyre goes for, but it doesn’t manifest as clearly as the themes in previous Supergiant titles.
All of that said, Pyre stands as a great game. The weakest Supergiant title still holds its own as one of the most original and interesting games in the industry. What other studio could successfully meld NBA Jam with a gladiatorial revolution while retaining a cute, gorgeous charm? Pyre’s one of the most unique games available today and certainly worth experiencing, especially if you are looking for something different.
Pyre is available now for PlayStation 4 and PC.