Available On: PC, PlayStation 4
If you hear about RPGs and Sports games, you may recall the RPG-like campaign stories injected into otherwise traditional sports, such as The Journey mode in FIFA 17, or the new Longshot mode in upcoming Madden NFL 18.
Pyre, beloved indie studio Supergiant games’ third title, does the opposite. Sports-like gameplay is integral to escaping the intriguing fantasy world that you and your diverse band of outcasts are trapped within. The results are an innovative sports-as-combat battlefield that meshes well with Supergiants’ heavy focus on story-telling, art design, and music, though Pyre ultimately falls short of their previous efforts.
Downside of Dreams
You awaken in a strange world with no memory of who you are (or were). You’ve been exiled, cast into the Downside. Whether the Downside is hell, purgatory, or an elaborate prison is never fully explained. You’re found by the Nightwings, a rag-tag group of exiles with their sights set on freedom through a series of mystical matches called Rites.
The first third of the story features a linear structure as you make your way through the various regions of the Downside to compete in the Rites. The world is portrayed with beautiful interactive paintings as your caravan makes its way from one match location to the next. The story is told like a visual novel, with well-written characters propping up with some limited animation and gibberish voice acting.
During your journey you end up with the typical diverse RPG party that includes some rather unusual and memorable teammates who make up the Nightwings roster. My favorites include Sir Gilman the honorable wyrm-knight, Pamitha the harpy with a vengeful sister, and Rukey the charming anthropomorphic dog.
After you complete your first championship match, the Liberation Rite, Pyre’s structure takes a weird turn. The plot is spelled out to you and you’re left with simply going back over the motions. You return to previous sites, battle previous enemies, and repeat the Liberation Rite several times over. Without spoiling too much, the Liberation Rites also force you to make difficult decisions that limit your tactical options going forward, to a frustrating degree by the end game.
The writing and characters remain fun and interesting throughout, but the world became routine and the story never reaches the heights I was hoping for. Worse, the sports matches hit a nasty difficulty spike that left me stressed and frustrated more often than not. By the end I found myself skimming the dialogue and skipping the world-building Book of Rites all together.
Wyrm-Knights Can’t Jump
While the story is told through visual novel-like scenes and dialogue, the action is entirely composed of the unique sports matches called the Rites. You choose three members of your Nightwings for a 3 on 3 match against an enemy team. Each team has a goal – a burning pyre, and a ball in the middle. The objective is simple: reduce your enemy’s Pyre’s hit points before they do the same to you.
The action takes place in real time. You switch between your three teammates to pass the ball, activate special abilities, and play defense. You can throw the ball into the enemy’s Pyre or dunk it by running someone directly into the Pyre, banishing themselves for the next round.
Each player has a defensive aura that surrounds them and can banish opponents for a limited time. The aura disappears when you’re holding the ball, leaving you vulnerable to attacks. That alone creates a tense dynamic.
Different characters and races have different stats that affect the damage they do, their movement speed, and size of their auras. The tree-people Saps excel at defense, able to throw out an extra aura seedling and shield their allies, while imps, wyrm-knights and curs will be your offensive scorers, able to zip around the battlefield.
The early game does a fine job introducing you to different abilities and tactics, but then you’re left on your own while the AI gets very, very good at multitasking. Practice options are available but I quickly realized I could rarely activate a Titan Star (optional difficulty modifiers) and have any hope of victory.
Uniquely, Pyre forces you to accept defeat rather than a game over screen when you lose a match. The story is built to accept different outcomes and results from matches. The final ending depends on the choices you made and the victories you achieved. It’s a nice ending that focuses on the game’s strengths – its characters. But it takes far too long to get there.
Pyre has been rated E for Everyone by the ESRB. That’s a bit surprising as it includes Fantasy Violence, Tobacco Reference, Mild Language, and Use of Alcohol. There’s very little voice acting and lots of reading required. Pyre explores heavy themes like betrayal, revenge, freedom, purgatory, revolution, and rehabilitation.
As a big fan of Bastion and Transistor I was all set to love Pyre. It presents a unique angle on a party-based RPG, and the art and music were both amazing. The story paled compared to the characters, however, and the Rites wore out their welcome well before the final match. I was disappointed with the latter two-thirds that remixed earlier locations and foes with some new story bits and scenes. An odd design choice that took the seasonal approach to sports a bit too literally. There’s a lot to admire about Pyre but it’s Supergiant Games’ weakest title.