Pyre’s mash-up of role-playing and bizarre sporting tournament is the kind of title we’ve come to expect from beloved developer Supergiant Games. Like Bastion and Transistor before it, the aesthetic is what immediately captivates, yet it’s the underlying gameplay which keeps you enthralled, offering a deep and unusual take on the normal party-based shenanigans of the adventuring genre.
To put the game into context is tricky, since Pyre takes its cues from the most unlikely of sources. You play an unseen Reader outcast from a land where literacy (amongst many other trivialities) is a crime, and thrust into a purgatorial hellscape by a malevolent ruling class. Rescued by other banished folk, your only way to return to “civilisation” is by performing ancient rites — namely, battling other groups of like-minded people in a 3v3 arena. Yet there is no combat as such, since the action revolves around a strange sport which plays like NBA Jam fused with a polarised version of Ultimate Frisbee.
Each team has a pyre which they must defend, while trying to douse their enemy’s. Doing so requires an orb — the game’s equivalent of a ball — to be thrust into the opposing fire by one of your team. All team members are surrounded by an aura of varying strength which vanishes as soon as they grab the orb, instantly rendering them vulnerable. Only the person with the orb and one member of the opposing side can move at any point so, by passing the orb across the field to your team and taking out the opposition either on or off the ball, a grand strategy emerges as you seek to reduce your opponent’s pyre into nothingness.
You can fling, fly, run, or walk the orb into a pyre, and you’ll end up doing each of these during your playthrough as your eclectic band of party members increases on your travels. Taking out opposing members banishes them from the playing field for a number of seconds, giving you vital moments to get the orb ever closer to your goal. Each companion offers something unique to these rites too, whether it’s the lumbering but powerful smash of Jodariel or the flighty avoidance abilities of Pamitha, and picking the right team of three for each encounter is essential to progress. Earlier meetings are forgiving as they let you become accustomed to the mechanics and the quirks of the battlegrounds, but the difficulty soon edges upwards as your roster widens.
Talismans you find or buy on your travels provide boosts to your stats such as quickness or respawn time, and as your party level up after each match their enlightened states unlock extra abilities to help swing future rites in your favour.
Rounding off the sporting shenanigans are an engaging story and very likeable characters. The humanoid-dog hybrid Rukey is a highlight, as is the imp Ti’zo who manages to endear without speaking a word. Yet each of your party have their own reasons for banishment and desire to return, and as you trundle in your wagon covering the distance between rites, it’s these quieter moments that allow you to get to know your companions. Branching paths can yield artifacts to aid you or penalties to your next battle, while simply chatting to individuals may increase their morale and grant a boon should you pick them in a future rite. In the safety of your wagon, you can take advantage of a practice mode, or even tackle specific character challenges which yield powerful talismans for those involved upon completion.
Pyre is a game of two distinct halves then, thrust together in a way that shouldn’t really work but somehow manages to. Fleshed out further, the disparate genres could easily have been enjoyed as two separate titles, but Supergiant deserves credit for melding them here. That’s not to say this is a flawless experience, however. The difficulty level spikes ruthlessly once the true nature of the rites — and the game’s overall goal — is revealed to the player, and you’ll find yourself hopelessly outmatched in many contests simply because the other team has granted themselves extra health to their pyre, or a bonus to some of their stats. It would be veering into spoiler territory to go into specifics, but your only course of action is often to give yourself a disadvantage further down the line, which in turn makes it absolutely essential that you learn and master the abilities of each character.
This is a lot harder than it sounds. Many of the characters are simply not that useful against certain enemies, but until you have played them on multiple occasions you’re unlikely to have discovered their strengths and weaknesses. And while the story, which is set in a vibrant, varied landscape and set to a fabulous score, offers a deep and personal look at your roster of eight characters and their interactions, it also sees fit to pad out the game lore through a book in your wagon. The matches try to add a little interest through environmental effects and hindrances, but ultimately you’ll be playing the same 3v3 game for the entirety of the game’s twenty or so hours, and that repetition is likely to grate.
Yet Pyre’s character does its utmost to overcome the bare bones of its mechanics, and succeeds more often than not. The choices you make will be tough, and almost Fire Emblem-esque in their finality, if not brutality. The members of your band all offer something different, and their hopes and fears will be shared with you and the rest of the party in touching ways; you’ll truly believe that an outcast girl and a squeaking imp have a genuine connection. And though the oft-mentioned Plan the characters are working towards may not be a total success on your first playthrough, you’ll have enough experience of the game’s nuances to tackle it a second time with determination. Pyre’s road to liberation isn’t easy, but it is well earned.