The initial pitch for Pyre is nonsense, blending together a deep and emotional story with a mashup of fantasy, basketball, football, and action RPGs. It’s hard enough to buy into that it sounds like a fever dream best left on a sweat-soaked pillow, but then you follow up with the critical bit: it’s made by Supergiant Games. They have a knack of making the outlandish—the improbable—feel fresh and credible and, at times, necessary. And that continues with Pyre.
First and foremost, it is new to a shocking degree. Despite working well within the Supergiant Rat Pack of superficial similarities (the perspective, the art, the Logan Cunningham, the Darren Korb), this is unlike any game you’ve ever played before. That bit about sports is no joke. The bulk of the gameplay is an actual made-up fantasy bloodsport called Rites, which might best be described as a MOBA meets Rocket League.
In two teams of three, you attempt to rush from opposite ends of the field to a ball of energy dropped into the middle of the map. Your goal is to take possession of the ball and transport it to your enemy’s pyre, eventually dousing their flame completely. You and your teammates work together to avoid your opponents’ attempts to recover the ball while protecting your own fire.
There are, of course, layers. A whole bunch of them, in fact, fed to you slowly as the game progresses. The game starts out feeling relatively simple—easy, really—but once the full extent of what you have to manage and keep in mind is revealed, a most complex fantasy sport is revealed. Each character has an aura, for instance, that operates mostly like a stamina bar, dictating your ability to sprint. But it’s also used as a passive defense where any enemies that run into your aura are banished from the field for several seconds. Or you can expend your aura to activate certain character abilities.
In that one mechanic, you have an emblematic and fascinating mix of utilities and intent. With a faster character, you can try to sprint all the way to the end and smash the ball into the fire. Or you can position yourself to try to knock out other enemies with a blast of energy, mixing offense with defense. And as you use your abilities, your risk depleting your aura completely, leaving you at the whims of your foes. And once you start adding in the layers of shooting or dunking the ball and playing with the built-in hazards of each map, you have a sport that plays out more like a RTS than a traditional basketball or football.
There’s also the interesting wrinkle of adding talismans to your players. Sure, you can change the difficulty of the game, but you can also tune it to your own play style with these augmenting items. One of my favorites, for example, grants your character the ability to instantly regain your stamina the moment you pick up the ball. It lent a real Team Fortress 2 Scout vibe to the game and completely changed the way I went into the opening rush. Those, combined with the experience-based skill trees, make for a game that is going to be entirely different for each person that plays.
The reason you’re engaging in these Rites is an engrossing one, too. You are a voiceless cipher into the world known as the Reader, a name given to you by a group of fellow exiles you soon find and join after leaving the Commonwealth. In a land where literacy has been banned, your ability to read has made you a rarity, lending you both an ingress and an advantage into the Rites. The Rites themselves are a sacred series of challenges that, if completed by exiles wandering this purgatory land known as the Downside, will grant people their freedom.
The crux of the matter being that as you defeat other exiles in these Rites, you are cleansing your own souls. Some of these exiles have been trying to do so for years, others have forgotten why they fight, and some, such as your own party member Sir Gilman, goes into it for completely different reasons. The game is incredible at building up these strange but lovable characters into tiny little pockets of grand ambition and emotion. It’s basically matches stitched together with visual novellas, but good god is it effective.
It feels a lot like if you replaced the wandering in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine with a sport, and that’s a good thing. As you sit down in between your blood-pumping exercises in sweating through your palms, you and your party learn more and more about each other and the world as well as those around you. It turns the choices you have to make into heart-wrenching (and, occasionally, heartbreaking) moments, sometimes allowing tiny decisions to explode into monumental ones and bigger ones being as unbearably consequential as you’d expect.
Part of the tremendous intrigue the game’s story throws at you is that you can’t fail. Even if you lose a Rite, the story just marches forward. Sometimes this is simply because you lost (the game isn’t overly difficult, but if you don’t play your damnedest, loss is around every single corner), but other times you just might want to do it on purpose. Give up your freedom so another can gain his. Take the victory from one teammate and give it to another. It’s paralyzing at times trying to decide not what’s right or appeasing to your heart but what should be, a choice you’re not often presented in games.
And that there is perhaps the greatest and simplest summary possible of Pyre: it’s not like other games. It’s not like any other game, really. Even if you don’t like visual novels or sports games or MOBAs or action RPGs, it is guaranteed to be something completely and unabashedly new. And for the strange mishmash of things it is, it is great at all of them. There’s a fire here that’s well worth warming up to.
+ Stupidly beautiful art and music
+ A stunning and well-realized world
+ Gameplay that expands and unfolds in deep and complex ways
+ Sharply written characters that play into a painful and wonderful story
– The inability to further explore the world
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Pyre
Release: July 25, 2017
Genre: Action role-playing sports
Developer: Supergiant Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC, Linux
Players: Single-player, multiplayer