Much like its predecessors Bastion and Transistor, Pyre is a game built upon a highly moral and philosophically thought-provoking narrative – the kind of story which makes you consider your thoughts and actions, not just in the game, but as a human being with emotions and ideals. What surprised me, however, is that Supergiant Games took the gameplay format employed in their first two games and did away with it completely and instead opted for an idea that’s as uncanny as it is interesting. I’m always happy when my expectations are flipped, and Pyre did not disappoint.
Pyre takes place in an exiled land where you take control of a recently awoken, unnamed character who is rescued by a wandering band of fellow exiles. Inducting you as the newest member of their group, your fellow teammates flag you as a “Reader,” whose job it is to navigate the stars and aid your new-found friends in their journey to complete the “Rites.” Basically, by completing the Rites, your soul can be cleansed so that you may once again return to the Commonwealth from where you were exiled.
As the journey progresses, not only do you encounter new group members but you also learn about their backgrounds, motivations and personalities along the way. As you travel, you read from a weighty tome called “The Book of Rites,” which details the plights and stories of the eight gods/leaders who established the Commonwealth before habitation and oversaw the foundation of the land’s creation itself. At the same time, an ongoing challenge emerges with philosophical and moral dilemmas related to your teammates and how you decide to conduct yourself and guide your fellow exiles to enlightenment. For someone like me who thoroughly enjoys uncovering as much information and lore about a new world as I can when playing a new game, I can say Pyre delivers in that regard. In fact, it’s absolutely crucial if you want to get the most out of the universe they’ve created.
For the most part, Pyre is a visual novel type of game with a world map which you traverse by choosing your next location. Again, this is very different to Bastion and Transistor which let you roam around freely, so there is a degree of player control surrendered for most of the game. While different, I found this to be an excellent way to draw more attention to the conversations that occur between the characters as you travel, as well as helping to add to the atmosphere of being on a quest or journey with people who eventually develop into your closest friends. What I liked the most about Pyre, though, is that it’s simple in structure and perfect in execution. From menu navigation to general flow, it’s crafted in a way which is both minimalist and practical.
Graphically, Pyre is also an absolute delight to take in and easily held my interest the entire time with the different character artwork and designs for all the different races and habitats that make up the exiled landscape. The backdrops are gorgeous to look at and continue to build upon the graphic style that made both Bastion and Transistor such a joy to play. While Pyre is mostly a text-based game with indecipherable, unique languages used when a character speaks, the game addresses its core themes and concepts by positioning the dialogue and narrative in a way that it flows as naturally as a novel and never detracts from the story. Pyre also more than makes up for the lack of voiced dialogue by employing a beautiful soundtrack with some genuinely interesting pieces. While I haven’t done so yet, there are some songs which I want to add to my Spotify playlist – I enjoy them that much!
Now for the gameplay, and OH BOY did Pyre flip things on its head! In what I can only describe as a combination of chess and American football, Pyre introduces its unique gameplay through the set-up of “Rites.” In each Rite, you’re able to choose three of your team who will play while defending your “Pyre” (goal) from the enemy team. Furthermore, each team member has distinct abilities which you use for either movement, defence or offence, as well as differently sized auras depending on what size the character is. Auras are used to both defend or attack players who are carrying the orb, which requires attention to positioning and making sure you’re utilising all your characters before an enemy player banishes them.
Honestly, I’ve NEVER played anything in the style of Pyre. It’s a very refreshing and exciting take on the sports game genre, and I must applaud Supergiant Games for their creative flair in placing a sports game within a high fantasy setting. The only criticism I want to level against Pyre is that for a game sitting somewhere in the 12 to 16-hour region, the gameplay does begin to feel a tad repetitive over time. Sure, there are different types of characters you can use with different abilities and whatnot, but the core gameplay experience always remains the same. They did at points try to introduce different styles of gameplay, such as a MOBA-esque type of battle where creeps would continue to funnel through various lanes and try to make it past you to attack your base, but it isn’t quite enough. The experience could have really been elevated had more time been invested into conceiving ways to expand upon the base mechanics.
Pyre may not play like Bastion and Transistor, but it still manages to hold onto the essence of its predecessors in the way that it approaches its players. Most importantly, though, Supergiant Games continues to craft unique and excellent games which require you to stop and consider your very moral fibre and the instinctual nature of why you think the way you do. Pyre never imposes any beliefs on you but allows you the time and space to both ponder and then reflect on the decisions you make and how they’ll impact the fate of both your friends and foes. In an also bitterly ironic sense, the Commonwealth almost represents the bizarre state of our current politics and the nature of the human condition in how we’re quick to classify people based on extraneous details such as their socioeconomic background or the colour of their skin. I feel morally richer for having played Pyre, and that’s a pretty great thing.