I want to like Pyre more than I do. There are so many unique and cool elements to the game that are worth lauding, but every time I sit down to play it, a big part of me would rather be doing something else. And to be honest, I think this might be more a problem with me than with Pyre.
Supergiant Games’ most recent release does what it sets out to do, and it does those things extremely well. Your party members are complex, three-dimensional people that you learn more about over time. Characters I didn’t care so much about in the early hours were ones I eventually wanted to learn more about later on. The “enemies” on other teams are great, as well, with either some element to make you feel bad for them or want to completely crush them. And all this without recorded dialogue.
The music also helps sell this world. There’s an awesome melding of traditional fantasy strings combined with modern punk rock influences. The Thrashers — a villainous team of dog creatures that you play against — have a theme song that I would almost consider metal, but it still totally fits into this universe’s musical themes. The few tracks with vocals are also well done, and there are even some more techno beats in a few of the tracks. I really can’t praise the soundtrack enough.
Visually, the game is beautiful and well realized. There’s a painterly aesthetic that is both simple and complex at the same time. The characters are more static than I’d like, as their hand-drawn models don’t really move while the dialogue text scrolls, but those static faces do well enough at conveying emotion. The movement in the sports rites also looks fluid, and the levels are varied. But the real treats are the environments. You don’t really get a close-up look at anything, but as you ride — or float, or fly — around the world, each new place has a unique and colorful look to it. I’d liken the world design to something like The Banner Saga, though with more whimsy and variation.
I think the biggest area in which Pyre falls short — which is likely the primary reason for my apathetic feelings toward it — is in its delivery of the story. The setup makes sense: You’re along for the ride with a merry band of exile misfits, trying to earn the right to return to your home by competing in the rites — a competition created years ago by the gods. It isn’t all that unique, but the characters make that engaging. The world itself is also interesting, with the deep mythology of the gods and exile world.
The issue is, there’s just so much damn stuff to learn. There are too many names and places and backstories to keep up with, and eventually, it sort of all became white noise. I’m sure for some folks, this is exactly what they’d be looking for from a Supergiant game. Bastion and Transistor both told their stories in a similar fashion, with more focus on ambiguity than a traditional narrative. But for me, that’s something that makes me connect less with the studio’s games and characters. I’m not saying I need something straight-forward, but there’s so much severity and seriousness to Pyre’s tone that it feels like a bit of a slog to read through the books and talk to the characters for an extended period of time.
Thankfully, the gameplay in Pyre is well crafted and has surprising depth in the later game. The basic hook is that it’s a three on three basketball game where only one player on each team can move at a time. You can cast an “aura” to banish an enemy player, allowing them to return after a few seconds. Each of your party members has unique strengths and weakness, and they’re fantastically well balanced. For example, Jodariel is a huge demon woman that moves slowly, but casts a large aura and can leap great distances to stun enemies. On the other hand, Sir Gilman — one of my favorite characters both in and out of the rites — is a worm knight that slithers around the field. He leaves an aura in his wake that he can teleport through. Different characters also do different amounts of damage to the enemy team’s pyre. It might be harder to get Jodariel to score than Sir Gilman, but if you can make it happen, she does around twice his damage.
Throughout the game, you’re competing in these rites to earn the honor of playing in the championship. And if you win the championship, one player from your team gets to return from their exile to the Commonwealth, which is the goal for every team member. Your group is aiming to start a revolution, though the details are never specific enough to make me truly invested.
There’s plenty of strategy in every match. You want to level up specific party members so that they can win the championship and leave for the Commonwealth, but then they’re gone from your team and you lose their more powerful abilities. For the sake of “role-playing,” I elected to send back the folks that most deserved to be sent back — regardless of how it affected my chances of winning future rites.
Losing also doesn’t result in a game over screen; every match has consequences in building toward the championship rite. And if you lose there, a player from the other team gets to go back to the Commonwealth instead. There was actually one instance where I was facing off against a witch-type woman that vowed to resurrect a demon if she earned the ability to return to the Commonwealth. That battle ended in my first loss of the game. It didn’t feel great knowing I was potentially responsible for bringing on the apocalypse.
After your first time through the rites progression, you’re given more freedom to explore the world as you see fit. Your goal is still to compete in the rites and send team members back to the Commonwealth, but you can do it in the order you so choose. Picking one path over another might earn you a special item, but by not taking the second path, you lose out on a buff that could mean a win or loss in the impending rite.
It’s also fun to strategize who you fight and when. Since the championship teams are chosed by their records in comparison to one another, you could knock a particularly difficult team out of qualification by beating them earlier on.
Despite Pyre’s gorgeous visuals, excellent music, interesting characters, and unique battle mode, it just hasn’t hooked me the way that I want it to — which, to be honest, is pretty typical of Supergiant games. But I sure as hell respect what Supergiant was attempting with this one, and I’m honestly bummed that I don’t love it more. Pyre just might squeeze onto my 2017 Game of the Year list. But if it does, it’ll be more for the idea of the game than the game itself.
So, what did you think of Pyre? What kind of genre do you think Supergiant experiments with next? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to check out my other video game reviews!