Growing up in Argentina, I often played soccer during recess. It’s just something you did growing up there. It wasn’t hard from the imagination of a child to pretend that this game was something more, a simulacra of struggle, a ritual. As I grew older and studied anthropology, psychology and other things ending in “ology”, I found that the fancies of my active imagination were much closer to reality than expected. Sports are about simulating struggle. They are about ritual, meaning, and story. Super Giant’s new game Pyre taps into that in the most literal of ways, telling a story of a group’s struggle earn their freedom via a highly ritualized sport.
Pyre opens with you, the player character, having been exiled from your country, named the ‘Commonwealth,’ to a hellish landscape called the Downside. You are on the verge of death when you are found by three masked strangers who save you and figure out you can read. Reading, a crime in the Commonwealth, gives you the ability to read sacred books that detail how to perform liberation rituals. The rituals, your companions explain, are the only way to leave the Downside, and your reading ability allows you to understand how to perform the rites, but also to read the stars in the sky to figure out where and against whom the rites are taking place. You are physically weak, but your ability to read gives you the capacity to give instructions to your team and lead them to glory. In other words, you are a physically useless nerd and instead of playing, you get to be the coach.
The rituals take place in an a field with two pyres, one on either side. A sphere/orb (or dare I say, ball) is dropped in the center of the arena. Each side fields three participants to the ritual. The objective is to douse the other team’s flame by plunging the sphere into their pyre as much as possible while keeping the other triumvirate from dousing your own. Each team can only move one player at the time. Don’t be confused, this is not a turn based game. You will be switching between your characters on the fly. If you have possession of the ball, you will pass the ball around, and the character that has the ball will move. If you are on defense, the button used to pass switches which player you are currently controlling. Defending characters have auras, which when they come into contact with an opposing team’s player, will banish them from the field. Banishment means that player is taken from the game for a few seconds. How long depends on their stats. The size of the aura depends on the character’s race. Bigger, slower races such as demons and saps (Pyre’s version of treants) have larger auras. Smaller, faster characters have smaller auras. Defenders can also also project their aura which banishes opposing players on contact. Most characters throw a beam along the ground which other characters can jump over, but as you recruit players of more races you find they have different moves they can perform when projecting their aura.
On attack, you can pass, jump, and throw. Jumping is useful to get by enemy auras and plunge into the enemy pyre from afar, but the defenders can block you by jumping themselves. Throwing gets rid of the ball, and has some tactical use. In a move that channels Jackie Chan’s best antics you can throw the ball at the enemy and have them catch it, which denies them of their aura and restores yours to score a quick banishment. Some characters, equipped with the right upgrades, can also banish enemies by just chucking the orb at them. As you gain team members of different races, you will get access to new abilities. Harpies can fly for fairly long periods of time, helping you avoid defensive set ups and obstacles. Wyrms can slither around enemies at high speeds to mount astonishingly fast counterattacks. Crones can channel Michael Jordan, and dunk the orb from so far away they are getting Nike sponsorships while R. Kelly sings I believe I can fly. Plunging into the enemy’s pyre banishes that player for the next kick off until the next time someone plunges the orb in to the pyre. Throwing the orb into the pyre allows that player to continue playing the game, which makes it more desirable as it means you’ll avoid being a man down. However, it takes time to build up power for throws so they are usually far weaker than plunging in the pyre, and while this power is building up, you are far more vulnerable to auras or having your orb throw intercepted by the other team.
This makes for a game that can get frantic and complex, but lacks depth in the long term. Probably the earliest and most obvious issue is that mobility trumps just about everything else. To try to make up for this, the developers made it so bigger, slower characters damage the pyre more than smaller ones, but the truth is that its so much easier to score with speed, that the added damage bonuses for slower, bulkier players does not make up for the lack of mobility. They usually fare better on defense, as their large auras makes it easier to stop attacking players, but having one big dude permanently on defense is not worth it when you are often left a man down after scoring, and fast players are effective on defense regardless. Having three fast players is generally optimal, which takes out a lot of the strategic decision making Supergiant was clearly looking to put in this game.
Because Supergiant Games insists Pyre is a strategy RPG, the game features a leveling system. Each character can rank up to level 5, and when they do so they get different skills you can choose. These skills can make a world of difference, and more than once they transformed characters I did not feel would ever be a part of my team into viable, even preferred members of the team. In addition to the skills there are talismans, which you can buy or obtain from choices made during the campaign. Each character also gets a special talisman that is gained by completing brief challenges. These talismans often have very strong effects, so they are worth the trouble. Most talismans can be enhanced, which makes them even more powerful. Like skills, they can go a long way towards making some characters go from nearly useless to viable.
Pyre tries to keep things even by also giving your enemies skills and talismans as the game progresses. And while it does start incredibly easy, the AI eventually starts putting up a much better fight. The game goes on until the end regardless of your match results, the game boasts, but I cannot confirm this myself. I haven’t lost a match. There were some that came very close, even to where my pyre had less than 5… pyre points? and one more hit would end me, but I was able to squeeze in a victory regardless. Part of this is understanding the game, but part of it is that the AI, while generally good, doesn’t always make the best decisions. Computer opponents tend to get caught up in the obstacles that litter a lot of the arenas. The AI doesn’t always just go for the point. It tends to favor throwing the ball into the pyre, which is smart, as it means that it will avoid being a man down next round, but it also gives you plenty of time to defend from that attack. Most of the time it works well, but it can be anticlimactic to win a close game because the AI could’t figure out how to get around a rock.
Supergiant Game’s signature narrator is back, this time around he does the announcement of the matches, and it goes a long towards infusing the rituals with that feeling of pomp and circumstance you often feel while watching the most storied of sporting contests. The voice work is, as usual, flawless. But if you were expecting to have Logan Cunnigham’s versatile voice with you through most of the game as you did in Bastion or Transistor, you will be disappointed. Most of the game’s narration is and back story requires reading. The characters make little gibberish sounds, similar to what you see in Nintendo games, but those nonsense voices are joined by a lot of text. The sound effects at least do a good job of infusing characters with personality, while at the same time avoiding the high cost of having a fully voice acted title, particularly in a game where there are many small decisions that result in slightly different dialogue. The world is filled to the brim with lore and background story, but it’s all hidden within the sacred book, which requires progressing the game and making certain decisions to reveal chapters. The good news is that this content is optional, in case that you don’t like to read or just don’t care.
The bulk of the game when you are not participating in the ritual consists of moving from location to location, watching the story unfold, and getting to know the cast of characters better. These characters and story are wonderfully written, and it was a treat to get to know them. They react to the events of the game, and considering all the choices you can make, and the times at which you make them, it is clear that it took a lot of work to cover all the story possibilities. The player will get many chances to make choices in the game. Some are small, and might just be the difference of which player will get a boost for the next ritual, or what kind of item you get after an event. Some have more dramatic consequences. Never-the-less, the plot remains largely the same, the only difference is in how events happen rather than if they happen. The ending reveals through slides what happens to your companions and the world, a 90’s CRPG trick that I’ve always liked quite a lot.
As one can expect of the developer both the art and the music are amazing. There is a neat trick at the end of the game in a song that I found quite fun and interesting, so I will not spoil it. I will merely point out that it is a very clever use of existing technology in a fun new way. The game is largely carried by its narrative and characters, and while the sports game is fun, it can feel repetitive. I would even say that it can feel like a chore that has to be performed just so you can go on and see the next bit of story. It seems as though the developers felt that way too, since they shortened the “seasons” as you get closer to the end of the game. This is Pyre’s biggest problem. The gameplay is just not fun enough to last the whole game, or support the multiple play through structure that they intended when they made the game. Past successes with Bastion and Transistor have perhaps set the bar for this game unfairly high, but while a good game, Pyre is not as good as either of them. If you are waiting for a traditional strategy RPG, I would recommend steering clear of this title. If you like sports game and want something with a cool fantasy narrative, and amazing art and music, then this might be the game for you.