Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Platform: Windows 10
Cast into exile within Downside for the crimes you’ve committed against the Commonwealth, you’ll take the mantle of a Reader within Pyre. Literacy has been outlawed in the Commonwealth, which gives Readers a valuable advantage over the general populace. As such they are chosen to be team captains, guiding their triumvirate in the gauntlet of battles, known as the Rites. Pyre has two distinct parts that weave together to make a rather enjoyable experience. The first of these is a choose your own adventure style of play which sees you guiding a group of misfits as they travel through exile seeking liberation. The other piece of Pyre is the aforementioned rites. These are a sacred ritual where two teams of three face off, similar to an old arcade sports game, to advance upon and seize the opposing team’s flame. Each assault made against a pyre will weaken it until it is extinguished. Whomever’s light is still lit at the end will be declared the victor. Combined, the two elements that make up Pyre offer a rather unique and entertaining experience.
One of the strengths that is immediately demonstrated by Pyre is its visual aesthetic. The background in each area is chock full of small features, and display a wide variety of colour that is extremely vivid. Despite the bleak framing of the world, each area is eye catching and visual distinct from the previous. Additionally, each character has an impressive painted portrait that is shown whenever they are speaking in dialogue. Again, the attention to detail combined with use of a wide array of colour helps to make each group member distinct, and beautiful. Having visually appealing art to take in while you read through the dialogue really helped to make text delivery more interesting, while simultaneously allowing for player to have time to take it in. The culmination is a compelling visual aesthetic that I won’t soon forget.
In conjunction with the visuals, Pyre also features a strong audio aesthetic. Throughout your journey tonal shifts occur in the over world theme as you enter new areas of Downside. Areas like the Flagging Hands have a more sinister sounding undertone to them compared to the wide open Downside Prairies. Likewise, the theme tune for the various characters you meet along your quest all help to accentuate their personality traits. The erratic, fast paced guitar rift played for Barker aligns with his chaotic and bombastic personality. Meanwhile, the melancholic theme tune of Volfred has an air of mystery to it, mirroring the circumstances in which you meet him. These are just a couple examples of how Pyre leverages music to convey aspects of its world and characters giving it an excellent audio aesthetic.
Pyre goes to extreme lengths to flesh out the world in which the game takes place, provided you have the patience to read through it all. The intertwined histories of both Downside and the Commonwealth are referenced throughout the game, but where the world building really shines is in the codex you’re given from the onset of the game. Every aspect of the history of how the Commonwealth came to be formed, what Downside use to be like, and how the first exiles came to form the rites of liberation are detailed within its pages. As you visit the various landmarks throughout your journey the codex will update providing new insight into the world around you. There is just enough of an explanation to make every facet of the Downside believable, within the context of Pyre, while also leaving enough room for interpretation about minor details to keep players thinking. In doing so, Supergiant created one of the most interesting game worlds I’ve explored this year.
Like the degree to which the world is fleshed out, Pyre also features a cast of interesting characters each with their own unique backstory, motivations, and relationships within the group. I really enjoyed learning about each of them as they interacted both positively, and negatively with others in the group. None of them are without their past transgressions, and the various vices that can be observed in each makes them endearing in their own unique way. My personal favourite among the group was Jodariel. She is an intimidating character due to her physical appearance and doesn’t mince words. In your first several interactions Jodi is short with the Reader, and doesn’t seem to much care for him. She also gets extremely hot headed when disagreed with. However, as time passes she slowly warms up and demonstrates a more compassionate side to her personality. Unlike the other characters, Jodi genuinely seems to care about the well being of others in the group above her own. Many of her suggestions and actions throughout the story put her in harm’s way for the benefit of the group as a whole. I really admired this selflessness and liked how it struck a stark contrast with how Jodi portrays herself. Seeing characters develop over the course of the game, similar to my experience with Jodi, was especially rewarding and really helped to build my investment in each of them. It is because of these reasons that I enjoyed the cast assembled in Pyre.
An aspect of choose your own adventure games that I normally find wanting is engagement, but this is not a problem I encountered with Pyre. At a regular interval throughout the story you’re required to make decisions about what path your traveling party will take. In addition, rites take place following every two to three side events. This could include one of your party members sharing some information about themselves with the Reader, traveling the surrounding landscape to find items to sell, training someone in private, or studying the rules of rites to further your own understanding of them. It’s a small thing to routinely have the player interacting with the game during the less interactive choose your own adventure segments, but it makes a world of difference in terms of keeping the player absorbed and focused. You’re never made to idly sit by and passively take in the story because you’re regularly inserting your agency into it.
The crux of Pyre being so engaging is the game mode from which all of its story and world are built: the liberation rites. As previously stated, rites are a three versus three affair where you try to successfully land an attack against your opponent’s pyre while defending your own. The manner through which you extinguish the opposing fire is by carrying a celestial orb and throwing it into the flame. In this way the rites play a lot like an arcade sports game, especially because the field is reset with the orb being returned to the centre of the arena after each successful dousing of the fire. Additionally, you are only able to control a single character at any given time rendering those not in control immobile. No one is left completely defenceless though, as they are surrounded by a protective aura that banishes those who touch it from the rite for an amount of time. The one exception to this is when your character possesses the celestial orb they are completely unprotected from advancing foes. Having this mechanic in place will see you strategically tossing the orb between your team members in a bid to bait your enemy into charging straight into someone only to have their aura reappear as they pass the orb onto another team mate. You are also able to cast your aura as a projectile, but similar to when you possess the orb, this leaves the character exposed. Striking a balance between the risk of leaving your character susceptible to banishment while also being rewarded with removing your opponents from the rite for a few seconds helps to add tension to each encounter. No one is ever completely safe from being removed from play, and with less heroes to defend your pyre you’re more likely to take a hit. Likewise, outplaying your opponent with critically aimed strikes and orb positioning can lead to very rewarding moments for the player.
Furthermore, each arena has its own unique set of obstacles that must be accounted for while manoeuvering and passing the orb between your heroes. On grounds with a few larger obstacles it can be advantageous to select smaller characters who can easily weave a path through to the opposing team’s pyre. Likewise, on stages with a large volume of smaller obstacles players may benefit from opting to use a larger character to control where and how the enemy can move through the map. Thinking in terms of how to best leverage a rite in your favour takes a bit of getting used to, but once I got the hang of it I found conducting the rites to be my favourite part of the game. Thinking about which characters to use, how best they work with other heroes, as well as, how to leverage the arena’s obstacles adds a compelling layer of strategy to each rite, which led to me enjoying this particular part of Pyre so much.
One of the few missteps made within Pyre comes from the controls of certain characters. While sprinting some of the faster heroes become a bit slippery to control. Certain characters move incredibly fast while dashing, but slide forward whenever you try to stop moving. They also make wider turns when running, similar to what it looks like when a dog or cat runs around a corner. I think having movement work in this way for faster characters was an intentional design choice as having them turn on a dime could potentially lead to balance related problems. Even with that in mind, it was a little annoying having to adjust my inputs to account for something that didn’t affect the majority of the other heroes.
Along with a small subset of the characters feeling slightly off to control, some of the characters feel a lot stronger than others. The Harpy enemy type in particular feels superior compared to the majority of the other types in the game. This comes from their passive abilities making up for the one critical weakness they have: their lack of speed. As a result Harpies not only possess powerful offensive, defensive, and mobility characteristics, but they are also fairly quick moving. This can make taking them on within the rites, especially if there is more than one, a much greater challenge compared to other character types. They can quickly dart around the arena banishing your entire triumvirate with relative ease before flinging the orb into an unopposed pyre. After repeated practice I am now able to more consistently deal with this one particular type of foe, but the amount of time it took for me to get there was far greater than what was needed for everything else in the games. As a result Harpies feel overly powerful compared to everything else in Pyre.
Despite featuring a choose your own adventure style of game with various choices to be made throughout, Pyre does not feature a deep variety in character interactions. In my second time through the game I was skipping the vast majority of dialogue as it was repeating from my previous journey. I had hoped with this style of game that there would be greater diversity in what characters say to one another, or to the player, but much to my dismay that was not the case. What is there still makes for a great single playthrough of the game, but additional treks through might have players running into the same problem I did where most of the dialogue was duplicated.
Pyre is a game I would absolutely recommend to others. It possesses a strong foundation in the form of the liberation rite that I found really enjoyable to play. From there the great aesthetic, world building, and characters combined with an ever present feeling of engagement help to make Pyre something truly special. My gripes with some of the characters feeling slippery, or overpowered don’t detract enough from the experience to outshine any of the positive elements of the game. Furthermore, the lack of variety I found in my second playthrough shouldn’t be an issue for those players who only desire to play through Pyre once. It is for these reasons that I think Pyre is a game people should most definitely check out, especially if anything I’ve written here has you interested.