Pyre is a party-based RPG game from Supergiant Games. You are The Reader. You read books and stars. It is your task to help a group of adventurers, exiled from their homes, on a journey that may – one day – bring them their freedom… by reading the stars. It boasts beautiful auditory and visual features – as only Supergiant can do – a vast, exciting world filled with a loveable and well-written cast of characters. It stole my heart from the moment it began, and although my interest waned slightly in the crux of it, it was not enough for me to give-in before being smacked in the face with one of the most climactic and well-written finishes of the year.
Pyre takes place in two parts: an overworld “journey” part, and an arena based “combat” part. Both of these vastly contrasting gameplay elements are unique and wonderful in their own right. As you travel throughout the world of the “Downside” with your rag-tag group of Exiles, you are given choices on how to spend your days in an attempt to be allowed re-entry into the civilized world of the Commonwealth. Should you scavenge for treasure with Companion X, or is Companion Y’s desire to beseech the favour of the gods going to aid you better? It is not specifically a moral choice system (although often is your morality questioned), but you best believe that the decisions you make in Pyre are going to have heavy consequences on how the game is played. These decisions throughout the Downside is where a majority of the story takes place.
The journey scenes are a brilliant vessel to deliver not only the overarching narrative of the game; but each individual character’s personality, backstory, and relationships with other characters in the game. Then, every once in a while, you are thrust into an arena to do battle against one of the other rag-tag group of Exiles that exist in the Downside. It’s a fantasy world, okay? There is a lot of rag-tag things. Inside the battle, you face a 3v3 combat scenario known as ‘The Rites’, where you must move one character at a time and attempt to get the Astral Orb into your opponents pyre (Ohhhh, that’s where the name of the game comes from! Roll credits.) Each combatant has their own ability set that will bring different boons and banes in different environments. It is a brilliantly designed experience that is more chess than basketball.
Each time you partake in ‘The Rites’ you are faced with a new set of challenges; your opponents become stronger the more times you face them and after a while, you begin to understand their AI tactics and choose your participants around that fact. This is what you are constantly working towards throughout the whole game; getting to the next stage of The Rites. The outcome of The Rites, win or lose, is somewhat irrelevant to the continuation of the game – which is a feature that I adore – as the game continues on regardless. However, the opportunities that you are given to progress towards the “end of the game” are limited and too many losses will result in a less satisfactory ending than could be desired. This was luckily not a problem in my playthrough as the difficulty curve is not super prevalent within the game. The opponents do get stronger, as is to be expected, but the skills I learnt through training and The Rites themselves proved more than enough for me to succeed a majority of the time.
These two very distinct features of Pyre’s gameplay are both welcome and necessary to the brilliance of the game. I never once found myself stuck in one longing for the other. The pacing of each element is executed wonderfully and served two very different roles in the overall game design.
If you have ever spoken to someone who has played a Supergiant game, they will have undoubtedly spoken about their awe-inspiring audio and stunning visuals. Pyre is no different. In fact, Pyre excels beyond that of any past Supergiant games. Its multi-layered, 2D environments come together in a nearly seamless blend that brings the world to life. From the rolling waves to the bubbling geysers, all the way through to the animations of the characters as they plunge into the Pyre. Every visual is crafted with a caring hand of a team that knows how important visuals play to our favourite interactive media. The soundtrack, composed once again by Darren Korb of Transistor and Bastion, suits the game brilliantly. No spoilers, I swear, but there is a moment towards the end of the game where you are heading towards a very important performance of The Rites, and this track kicks in to make the moment one of the most memorable of the entire year. It really is something special that has an air of conclusion about it. But this is all I’ll say.
The real star of the show here is the theming of the entire game. Where the audio and the visual are brilliant in and of their own right (rite?), it is the way they work together that makes Pyre the breathtaking experience that it is. There are many moments, such as the one I mentioned earlier, that make you want to simply sit and enjoy the moment – either to let a track play out or to explore the nuances that are taking place in the world around you.
…a vast, exciting world filled with a loveable and well-written cast of characters. It stole my heart from the moment it began…
Throughout Pyre, you encounter a vast range of weird and wonderful characters. You collect their backstories, learn of their dreams, their flaws, and their successes. Each character is wonderfully made and fleshed out, even the NPCs you encounter along the road have rich personalities and history, explained through biographies that become more encompassing as the game progresses. A lot of the game’s gripping “moments” would not have the same effect if it were not for the wonderfully consistent and unique characters. It is them that gives the heartbreaking moments their heart in the first place. You can watch a stranger get hit by a truck on the internet and feel completely disconnected, but watching it happen to a friend is something entirely different. Pyre uses its characters to great effect, it plays on your desire to want to see them succeed in their goals and avoid catastrophes at all cost.
The strength of these characters is only fastened by the relationships that they have with one another. Whether it be a race to see who is the quickest, a bitter rivalry forced to be put aside for the sake of the team, or a once strong romantic attraction. Each relationship is unique, fleshed out and delivered with the attention to detail that one has come to expect from Supergiant Games. There is no one “hero” – besides you as The Readers, obviously – each character has their own unique set of skills that are required from time to time. It is the very definition of “no I in team”.
The story of Pyre is where it falters the most. It is not a bad story, not by any means. However, it carries an air of unoriginality with it. Luckily, the “lacklustre” story-beats were carried on the shoulders of some very strong story telling. Pyre is not a narrative game, it is a novel. A play. It is the way your mother used to read to you as a child and you hung on her every word. Its story may be a little weak, but the way it is delivered is second to none. As the characters are fleshed out through their own biographies, so too is the backstory of the Downside and the Commonwealth; How the two came to be, the history of The Rites, The Scribes, and everything in between. This is done through the Book of Rites – which personally – was way too much. The story that is told of the Eight Scribes did not grab my attention well enough for me to continue revisiting it. Which is a shame, as the world that Supergiant Games have created is so rich with whimsy and wonder that I wanted to know more until I realised that it not that exciting at all. I’m glad this was done in the way that it was, though. As forcing the history of “how the world came to be” down my throat in a cutscene is NOT the way to go about it either (LOOKING AT YOU, LEGEND OF ZELDA). I know there will be fanatics out there who are all about this, and I will not say it’s not well done, it’s just not for me.
The game’s choice system does not affect the story in the way most multiple choice games have done so in the past. It will not change the story of the game, but it will alter so much about the way you view your future decisions and plan around the best possible outcome for all of your teammates if a good outcome is possible at all. It is not a moral choice system, but morality plays a part in it. It perfectly encapsulates the feeling of leadership and how you are often forced to make seemingly impossible decisions.
Pyre is a brilliant twist on interactive storytelling games. It takes a well-known genre and twists it in the way that Supergiant Games does best. It built me up, broke me down and left me feeling confused about what I had just done. In fact, I’m still a little confused. But my shrink and I are working through it together.