Review: Pyre

Supergiant Games have, with just three games under their belt, become one of my favorite developers. The consistently deliver well written, gorgeously animated and brilliantly voiced games that are matched by great gameplay. The companies latest, Pyre, does all this and more, and is arguably the best game they have created. If I am honest though, the first game, Bastion, will always have a special place in my heart.

Pyre is set in the downside, a harsh hellish landscape where people convicted of crimes in a higher society, the commonwealth, are sent. Banished for all time, they must struggle to survive not only the environment but the other inhabitants. There is, however, a way back in the form of the rites.

You play as a ‘reader’ which is exactly as the name says. Literacy is banned in the commonwealth, and the few who can read are deemed worthy of banishment. This also means that in the downside, you can read the book of rites, which actually opens up most of the gameplay. As soon your character arrives you are taken in by a band of exiles called the Nightwings, and embark on a quest to return to your home.

You can be forgiven for thinking that Pyre is a visual novel, because for a lot of its play time, that is exactly what it is. You look at gorgeous artwork of the various characters and settings and read a lot of dialogue exchanges, but that isn't all that Pyre has to offer. The game is also both a sports game and an RPG, and it all combines to make something fantastic.

The Nightwings are a triumvirate, which is basically a 3 man team, who compete in the rites to win their way back to the commonwealth. They do this by playing what is essentially mystical basketball. When you embark on a rite, you must take on a competing A.I. team to grab a glowing orb and get it into the opposing teams pyre. Once one teams pyre hits zero, the match is over and the game continues. As the player, this means that win or lose, it isn’t game over.

That last point might not sound like much, but it actually really adds to the feeling that this is an established universe. The setting of Pyre existed before you booted up the game, and will exist long after you close it down for the final time. The other teams react to whether they beat you or not realistically, talking smack or telling you it won’t happen again, and it can really build up a sense of team rivalry even a lot of real world sports games fail to match.

Brilliantly, this sport isn’t just some throw away addition that the developers through in to help break up the gameplay, no, this is as deep as you can want. Each character who can take part in the rite has unique abilities that must be mastered to be truly competitive, these range from one being faster than the others or another being slow but big and powerful.

These abilities might be something relatively passive, or something more aggressive. Each character has an ‘aura’, a blue circle on the ground. If the enemy hits that, the character is banished and out of the match for several seconds, which applies for your team hitting theirs too. You can fire this aura out to try and get members of the opposing team out of the match and make your life easier.

It allows you to set up various plays, and as the roster of the Nightwings increases over the game more tactics become available to you. Finding the right balance against the team you face is crucial, and planning ahead key. It is not perfect, but it provides heart pounding moments every few seconds and the feeling of accomplishment as the last ball is thrown into the enemy pyre is second to none.

The RPG element comes in after a match, as each character that takes part earns xp and can gain new abilities which  can change not only the size of the aura people produce or how fast they run, but make that blast bounce off obstacles or ignore them completely. It might be that if one character catches the orb mid air, they are granted infinite stamina for a few seconds. Picking wisely here will allow you to tailor your play style, but if you mess up, the in game shop can help.

This shop is a merchant called Falcon Ron. He rides on his dad’s shoulders, and he is awesome. He provides Talisman’s that can grant various bonuses as RPG’s are want to do, but also an item to re-select chosen abilities. I never found a need for these, but it some people might like to switch things up more than I did.

Developers often have their own style, and Supergiant certainly have theirs, personified in Pyre. I mentioned at the start that the company always delivers well written and acted games, and this is no different here except that while Transistor and Bastion had a lot of voice acting, it takes a back seat here to let the true star - the writing - shine. It’s what brings everything together, and fleshes it out into a coherent universe.

This includes little things, like one character, Rukey, asking if you if he should keep his mustache or not. If you say no, he returns a second later without it, or just small incidental moments where you simply have a chat with a character because something is weighing on their mind.

Animation and art are other areas this developer shines, and Pyre is probably the most gorgeous game they have done to date. The way that the wagon moves on your travels around the downside, the particle effects and flashes when playing a rite, even the way just clicking on an item in the main hub area is expertly crafted and looks stunning.

That's not to mention the hand drawn art style of the character’s and maps, it is so good you could almost print and frame a screenshot for your hallway. It is the most striking style you will see in some time, and gives the whole game a very distinct look that makes it stand out.

It’s not all amazing, as sometimes the A.I. can feel overpowered for no reason at all, just taking you out before you have time just to switch your brain on. This is especially true if you turn on the extra modifiers that make things harder for great rewards.

It can also be hard to determine which characters to send home, which you have to decide periodically. While this might not seem like an issue, there are characters with abilities that will make your life easier, send the wrong one home and you have to readjust. This extends, without getting too spoiler heavy, to a story based element.

One character states that he has calculated something to do with each of the others, but at no point does the game surface that information to help you decide who to send home. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, but given the quality of the rest of the game, it is jarring to have this one bit of dialogue in there for what appears to be no reason at all.

Honestly though, they are the only bad things I can come up with. The rites are deep enough to really get your teeth into, and there is an online mode just to play against others. The art is stunning and the writing excellent, the lore created presents an interesting universe that is fully fleshed out, and gives insight into more than just the games focus.

If you want an awesome looking game that plays great and is a bit on the sporty side, give Pyre a go, to date it is the developers greatest work, and you will not be disappointed.