Three years ago, Supergiant Games asserted itself as one of the premier indie developers of this console generation with the release of Transistor. Now, with their newest game Pyre, I believe they can proudly declare themselves as THE premier indie studio currently producing games. It'll be nearly impossible to write about Pyre without sounding grossly hyperbolic, but I can assure you that every ounce of praise this game receives from me is fully deserved. Pyre tells one of the most well-written and intriguing stories of this decade, includes some of the best art and music of this generation, and has one of the most original gameplay twists we've seen in a very long time. While this is by no means a perfect game, it is, for all intents and purposes, the complete package.
Let's start with the game's superb story, which mostly plays as one of the most well-crafted visual novels ever put to paper. In Pyre, you play as the Reader, a woman who has just been exiled to the Downside. You are quickly picked up by three other exiles and whisked away on a journey to free yourself and your new friends from banishment. In order to do so, you must compete in a series of Rites created by the godlike Eight Scribes.
However, this is simply the tip of the iceberg. It's not long before you're introduced to characters with grand plans for revolution who turn your simple quest for redemption into something much bigger. Thankfully, by virtue of the game's attention to important details like character building and good writing, the story never feels overly pretentious or too artsy and manages to still make itself accessible to a wide audience.
First, I'd say that Pyre's story succeeds mostly because of its characters. Along your journey, your party will fill with a wide array of fresh faces, including a sea-worm, a falcon-lady, and a bird. Moreover, each character has a completely fleshed out backstory which delves into why they were banished, what they left behind in the Commonwealth, and how they've been faring since they were exiled to the Downside. I took every chance I could to learn every intimate detail of their lives, as well as watch them interact with one another. Watching rivalries turn into friendships was touching, and the bond I formed with each of them made the game even more worthwhile for me. It also made it all the more gut-wrenching when I disappointed one of my fellow exiles in a Rite or had to go against their wishes. However, it's virtually impossible to learn everything about all of your mates in your first playthrough, making the game instantly replayable, if not a bit irritating that there weren't more chances to talk with some of the exiles I found particularly interesting.
None of this character development would have been possible if not for Pyre's superb writing. Considering that 95% of the game's story is told without any intelligible voice acting whatsoever makes it even more imperative that the game's writing is engaging. Thankfully, Pyre hits the mark perfectly in this aspect. When I talk about the game's fantastic writing, I don't just mean that it tells a cool story. Each character has a distinct voice, and by the end of the game, I could tell who was speaking in the dialogue box without having to look at the avatar above, simply by observing the syntax of what was being said.
However, Pyre manages to be more than just a visual novel. When you're not making choices and talking with your party members, you'll most likely be participating in the Rites, which is where the gameplay usually comes into play. There are a few exceptions where the game includes some combat not in the form of a Rite, but these are few and far between and feel very out of place in the context of the wider story arc. As for the Rites themselves, while this may sound a bit crazy, Pyre's gameplay actually resembles a game of basketball in which both teams are playing keep-away. This combination of RPG elements and basketball-like gameplay actually melds together much better than you might initially expect.
At the start of every Rite in Pyre, you choose three party members to compete against a team of three exiles who are also trying to win their freedom. Each party member plays very differently from the next, which means you can try a whole range of combinations to keep the experience fresh for each Rite. At the start of each round, an orb spawns in the center of the map, and it's your job to try and transport that orb into the other team's pyre until their pyre runs out of HP.
While this premise seems simple enough, this is just the tip of the iceberg once again. Only one of your exiles can move at a time, and once you pick up the orb, you are unable to banish any other exiles and must dance around the enemies' surrounding auras so that you yourself aren't banished. Each round quickly became a game of cat and mouse as I passed the orb back and forth trying to bait my enemy into letting their guard down so that I can leap into their pyre like an NBA player dunking from half court. Each situation, enemy team, and map led me to try out different strategies, meaning I rarely ever felt like I was playing the same Rite twice and felt immense satisfaction after ever win.
Everything about the gameplay is well thought out, and every choice feels deliberate on the part of the developers. For example, once an exile scores, they cannot participate in the Rite again until the start of the next round. This ensures that you cannot rely on one character to carry you through the whole match, while also creating a kind of tug-of-war between you and your opponent as you flip-flop between having the advantage and disadvantage. Another smart detail is how smaller characters tend to be faster in the Rites, but also score fewer points when they douse the enemy's pyre. These details may seem small, but turn out to be smart ways to keep the game balanced.
Pyre also includes some light RPG mechanics to give the game a sense of progression in case the story didn't do that already for you. At the end of each match, the exiles who participated in the Rite gain XP and can level up to unlock new abilities. However, you can only ever level up to four times, meaning progression is more of a marathon than a sprint. Pyre doesn't beat you over the head with its RPG elements, and for that I am grateful. The game is more about the gameplay and the story, so it makes sense that you wouldn't have to sink hours upon hours into grinding, leveling up, and outfitting your characters for maximum efficiency.
Furthermore, if you find the Rites to be too easy, you have the option to either change the difficulty setting at any time you want, or you can enact disadvantages for your team to help you gain more XP per match. But beware, because, in Pyre, there are no game overs. If you lose a Rite in Pyre, that's it. You don't get to redo the Rite. Instead, that loss will influence the story and may possibly trigger different character interactions, and this becomes even more apparent later on in the game. This mechanic adds to what I wrote earlier about letting down your party members. When you lose, it could have immediate negative effects on those in your party and even bigger effects down the line for Pyre's grander story arc.
However, if all you want to do is play more Rites without the story consequences, the game gives you that option, too. You can set up a match against a CPU or a local multiplayer match outside of the main story and play as any of the characters from the story, even rival exiles. Playing against the CPU is a quick way to mess around in the Rites or practice if you don't feel like progressing the story. The fact that there are no real consequences for losing like there are in the story took away some of the urgency that makes the Rites in the campaign so tense.
The real treat with the versus mode is the local multiplayer. The gameplay is so original and interesting in Pyre, it was easy to convince some of my friends to try it out against me, and while I smoked them initially thanks to my hours of practice playing the story, it didn't take long for them to give me a run for my money. Once the system clicks in your head, you can really start having fun with Pyre, although it would have been a nice addition to the game if there was a quick tutorial mode for new players so that I didn't have to explain all the controls myself. However, I still suspect that Pyre will join the likes of Nidhogg and TowerFall Ascension as one of my go-to local multiplayer games on my PlayStation 4 due to how fun and accessible it is for a wide range of gamers, albeit with a small learning curve.
It would be a disservice to talk about Pyre and not mention it's beautiful art direction and soundtrack. All the landscapes in the game are absolutely gorgeous, and I don't think that's an overstatement at all. All you need to do is look at a couple screenshots from the game to figure that out. The game's soundtrack also features music from composer Darren Korb and vocals from Ashley Lynn Barrett, both of whom worked on past Supergiant games Bastion and Transistor. While great art isn't enough to sell most consumers on alone, when it is combined with so many other great features like it is in Pyre, it gives the game the extra gusto that it needs to really make it memorable and help it stand apart from an ocean of other indies all promising the same kind of experience.
While I can probably go on and on about Pyre, at the end of the day, what I'm going to remember most about my experience was the ways it made me feel while playing it. At times I felt immense joy, and at others, downright gloomy. I went from feeling on top of the world during one Rite to sitting at the edge of my seat in nervousness during another. There aren't a lot of games that can successfully accomplish all this in one go, and most that try end up falling flat on their faces. Pyre has this indescribable charm and attention to detail, though, that somehow, against all odds, helps it succeed. That is what sets it apart from every other game this generation and why I believe it is a must play for anybody looking for something remotely out of the ordinary and willing to give this strange gem a chance.
Pyre is simply a complete package. Everything from story and characters to art and gameplay is superb. While I could use nearly every positive word I know to praise this game, nothing can really describe the roller coaster of emotions I felt playing it. It is an endlessly surprising and satisfying experience that I would recommend to just about anyone.(Review Policy)
- Evocative Story
- Beautiful Art and Soundtrack
- Interesting Characters
- Instantly Replayable
- Fun and Original Gameplay Twist
- Some Padding to Increase Run Time
- Comes Close to Overstaying Its Welcome