Looking at Pyre should signal that you have never played a game like Pyre. Its de facto battle system is a three-on-three, class-based sport. Its accompanying narrative is sprawling, choice-driven fantasy adventure. The former’s competitive battles are loaded with viable options and open strategy while the latter’s fiction cracks open a purgatorial, interpersonal drama ripe with angels, demons, and eccentric wyrms sheathed in armor. Pyre could have been chaos, but field testing its versatile operation pushes it nearer to harmony.
It’s easy to recognize the core of Pyre as some sort of vague, team-based competition. There is a small goal area on each of a rectangular-ish court. Three participants belong to each side. The object is to grab the orb in the center of the court and rush it over to your opponents’ goal. Like most other sports, there is the open availability of passing and harsh rules restricting movement. Pyre is close to basketball or hockey, or at least it looks that way until you start banishing players from the field and/or body slamming a Crone over the deadly aura of a Demon and into the goal.
There is a lot going on in an average match—called a Rite—of Pyre. This, presumably, is why the Pyre’s narrative deploys its rules carefully and slowly. In the beginning it’s easy; pick up a speedy class like a Cur or Wyrm and rush the orb into your opponent’s pyre. Repeat until the opponent’s pyre is vanquished. This works until it doesn’t, as other rules soon become apparent and complimentary mechanics need to be taken into account.
For example, all of Pyre’s nine classes are capable of some sort of defense. Nomads, Crone, Savages, and Harps have varying firepower, and, when not in possession of the orb, can banish an opponent with a well-timed shot. Lumbering classes, like Saps and Demons, are best left nearer your home. Their broad auras coalesce into a veritable barrier, protecting the pyre against feisty opposition. Rites are a team sport — even if you are technically the only person controlling the entire team, one at a time.
While banishing a player damns them to a MOBA-like countdown before they can return to the field, plunging into an opponent’s pyre removes them completely until another team scores. This, along with other restrictions, forces the player to develop proficiency across a range of Pyre’s classes. Rukey (a Cur) and Hedwyn’s (a Nomad) speed make them easy to understand and play. Dealing with Pamitha’s (a Harp) limited flight and Ti’zo’s (an Imp) penchant for self-destruction requires more consideration, but creates value in expanding your potential options.
Each class has unique movement and ability options, but each one is governed by the same four statistics. Presence determines your aura’s radius, Glory defines the amount of damage inflicted upon a pyre, Hope determines how long a party member is banished, and Quickness measures speed. Actions and choices in Pyre’s narrative can boost (or temporarily lower) any of these stats. Additionally, talismans can be found or purchased to affect stats and augment special abilities.
Pyre also has sick-ass slam dunks. Not literally, but the combination of a jump button and a run button, both tied to a stamina meter, create a euphoric sensation of against-all-odds triumph unseen and unfelt since the early days of NBA Jam. Leaping over an opponent’s line of defense and slamming the orb into their pyre demands considerable risk—either your opponent can jump and block it or you could fall short and find yourself murdered—but the reward is pure jubilant satisfaction. Logan Cunningham’s attentive but subdued commentary isn’t as enthusiastic as Tim Kitzrow’s, but you can practically hear boom shakalaka every time it happens.
Like Bastion and Transistor, Pyre is content to lay out a wealth of options then lie back and watch, with fierce delight, at what the player is going to do with them. I think any setup is viable provided you have the skill and practice to pull it off. Defensive minded classes like Demons and Saps, for example, have extremely high Glory, allowing them to reap tremendous rewards with the right amount of patience. Pyre’s narrative restricts your classes to one per team, but the disconnected versus mode isn’t bound by these rules.
Even against AI opponents, anecdotes of improvised and planned triumph are bound to surface. One time, my Wyrm’s line-based banishment protected my pyre when I idiotically lost my Sap. On another Rite, I kept using my Sap’s remote aura minion to temporarily toss the orb aside and inch my way across the field. Passing the orb back and forth between my Savage and my Cur felt like I was outwitting the AI. Of course, there were just as many times where a hasty strategy didn’t work, but such is the process of experimentation. It’s all worth it when your pyre only has single point left and you somehow crank out a massive, improbable comeback.
Pyre’s narrative is organized around an escalating series of Rites. You begin as a rogue cast out of society for the crime of literacy and condemned to the mythical Downside. You’re picked up by the Nightwings, a group of other outcasts composed of Hedwyn, Rukey, and Jodariel, and take up the position of Reader, essentially their manager and couch. Other groups in the Downside fronted by angry, jealous, and garish characters compete against the Nightwings in Rites. Participation in Rites builds to a singular event where one designated member of the winning team gets to leave Downside and return to the Commonwealth. If Pyre were sports (and it kind of is!), a regular season naturally gives way to a championship game.
Between Rites is where Pyre immerses the player in the world and politics of the Downside. Playing out closer to a visual novel than a movement-based adventure, each member of the Nightwings is riddled with insecurities and ambition and the Reader is charged with sorting through their obstacles. While this is happening, you’re all loading in an enigmatic wagon and travelling across gorgeous depictions of the Downside’s eerie phantasmal regions.
There’s quite a bit of lore and world building inside each new area. Geographical hazards, regional inhabitants, and world-encompassing definition are uncovered every time you pass through a new zone. Not unlike traversal in Sunless Sea, every new stop is opportunity to diver deeper inside the fantasy and explore the machinations of Downside’s operation. An exception is this tome you’re given that unloads backstory in non-linear order. I could sometimes see its application to my present situation, but the diversity of its Scribes and irregular arrangement pressed me to give up on it after a few hours.
Downside seems static but is actually teaming with activity and distress. The wagon moves with boisterous animation across backgrounds that exceed that painterly art that made Transistor’s Cloudbank so vivid and memorable. Each area of the Downside is defined by a fallen titan, regional hazard, or grotesque fantasy archetype that makes an attractive (and threatening) world. While the wagon gained a bit of personal mobility later on, I did miss the ability to explore Downside as a physical, traditional character — although I don’t know how that mechanic would fit neatly inside Pyre’s structure.
Pyre starts slowly. So slowly that I suspected I didn’t know if my first championship Rite would be the end of the game. It wasn’t, of course, but the speed at which it moves, and how much of its character progression and world lore you choose to absorb inside the wagon, can greatly disrupt the expected pace. Pyre picks up and moves after three or four hours, but the opening feels like a concession to the complex nature of the Rites and the narrative. Pyre throws a lot at the player, and it’s deeply concerned about their ability to follow along.
The Reader is responsible for who plays in Rites and, ultimately, who leaves the team if a season of Rites is successful. This is always an extremely hard choice to make. Part of it is tied to viability, as playing in Rites earns experience and unlocks special abilities; I never wanted to send my best players away. Pyre is aware of this and assumes you’ll find and build something special in new or existing Nightwings, but it can be a tough hurdle to overcome.
The other part? I genuinely liked the members of my team and I didn’t want to see any of them go. It feels like member of the Nightwings not only has their own backstory, but also specific interpersonal dialogue with other Nightwings. I sent Fae, my Savage, away early in the game and I was left wondering what she would have done, and what she would have had to say, if had I allowed her to stay. Instances like Rukey and Pamitha’s antics over a hat or Jodariel’s relationship with the Tempers’ Demon leader felt invaluable to my perspective on Pyre’s story. It hurt to see them go.
Interestingly, the Nightwings don’t have to go. At least I don’t think they do. In Pyre, loss isn’t failure and the story advances either way. In once instances I was asked to actually throw a match—a member of the Nightwings felt sympathy for an opponent—and I obliged. There is an option to restart a Rite at any point with no penalty, but this seemed to conflict with Pyre’s thesis. Downside felt like a land of eternal consequence, deserved or not, and cheating myself out of its rules felt disingenuous.
While Pyre doesn’t have traditional New Game + mode, it certainly encourages replays. Different squad arrangement and personal choices is a given, but so are external modifiers to create an additional challenges. Before a match, the player can activate certain options like boosting your opponent’s pyre, increasing their basic stats, affecting banishment timing, and a variety of other ways to punish yourself. Activating each one of these boosts your enlightment by 10% each, allowing your roster to reap greater rewards.
A two-player versus mode is also included. Competitive Pyre could either be a spectacular e-sport in the making or a wind up with niche aggregation of highly specialized professionals. I don’t know if it will be the next Rocket League or the next competitive Catherine, but my hope is somewhere in between. Pyre’s versus mode is also local only, which seems like a massive oversight if I weren’t aware Supergiant Games is only composed of twelve people. Maybe one day.
A few interface issues bruise Pyre’s experience. There were two specific occasions where the orb landed outside the field of play and became obtainable by no one, demanding a game reset. Frame drops were semi-common when the screen was consumed with activity. In Rites, the characters are considerably small and outside of Rites the text is kind of hard to read. Pyre feels like it was designed to be played on a computer monitor, or by me pulling my chair a couple feet closer to my 55” display. Few of these complaints affected my overall opinion of the game, but in its current state this makes Pyre feel less polished than its predecessors.
Pyre appears to split the difference between content-driven and system-driven approach to game design. Rites are defined by the versatility and viability of skill and style while Pyre’s story is defined (or feels like it is defined) by personal decisions. It’s the type of marriage between system and story that makes the modern Persona entries feel connected and gratifying, and while Rites are Pyre’s hook the ethereal beauty of the story is its soul. It’s a wonderful, complimentary mixture.
Pyre understands the primal thrill behind executing a dangerous slam dunk and the dueling probabilities of luck and dexterity necessary to make it happen. With Pyre, Supergiant Games’ passion for systems-driven trials of skill and fondness for vibrant, wistful fantasy converge in the Mutant League NBA Jam daydream role-playing game I never knew I always wanted.