Pyre is, I feel comfortable saying, unlike anything I have ever played before.
There are connections to developer Supergiant Games’ past releases, beloved indie gem Bastion and its less-hyped but still greatfollow-up, Transistor. You can see Pyre’s Supergiant lineage in its top-down perspective and lush, animated visual style. You can hear it in the limited but memorable voice-over work by Logan Cunningham and gorgeous music from Darren Korb.
Beyond these surface similarities, however, little else feels familiar. Though Bastion and Transistor had their own quirks, they both easily fit the confines of the action-RPG genre. Pyre is something else entirely. It rests at a crossroads between fantasy adventure, sports game and visual novel. It feels new, in a way I can rarely say about even the best games, and that newness is intoxicating.
Pyre assigns you the role of a nameless, faceless character known only as the Reader. You have been exiled from your home in the Commonwealth, where literacy is banned; now you join a small but growing band of weary travelers known as Nightwings in a dangerous, purgatorial land known as the Downside. However, by performing a series of sacred rites — rites that you, as a Reader, preside over — you and the Nightwings have the possibility of winning your freedom.
It is within these rites that Pyre reveals its most singular mechanics. The rites themselves are a competition between two teams of three, each vying for their chance to return to the Commonwealth with crimes forgiven. The teams are placed on opposite ends of a small map, each with a flame (the titular pyre). A ball of energy appears on the map between the two teams, and your goal is to grab the ball, plunge it into their flame and keep doing so until the enemy team’s pyre has been doused entirely.
There’s a lot more going on here than it appears at first. Operating like a magical form of basketball mixed with a MOBA, the rites reveal their depth slowly, unlocking new abilities and character types from match to match. First you learn that running enemies into your aura banishes them from the field for a brief time. Then you learn how to cast your aura forward, banishing opponents in its path. Then you ,about faster or more powerful characters, about their strengths and weaknesses and about dozens of more minor tweaks on the formula over the course of the game’s first six hours or so.
Beyond the strategic depth added from each small twist, Pyre’s moment-to-moment mechanics and gameplay click well. Movement in the game feels good, from zooming around at high speeds to slamming into the middle of the field as a larger character and knocking everyone back. When I pulled off a great play, bouncing the ball between characters before diving into the enemy’s pyre, it felt incredible. And while matches were never too challenging on Pyre’s default difficulty, I often found myself in tense, satisfying faceoffs where one last goal on either side stood between victory and defeat.
Pyre also offers the ability to tweak the experience to your own liking, beyond just raising or lowering the difficulty level. You can equip talismans on your different players, granting them unique benefits such as the chance of instantly returning to the playing field upon being banished or instantly regaining your stamina whenever you grab the ball. Likewise, as characters spend more time performing rites, they gain experience (in the form of enlightenment), ranking up across matches and unlocking special skills that further differentiate them and open up new options. Most players are going to be employing slightly different tactics to make it through rites by the end of the game.
If there’s one disappointment to Pyre — one I wrestled with throughout my time — it’s that the core of the gameplay mechanics is just the rites. Supergiant Games has built up a gorgeous world full of intriguing backstory and tons of locales, and at times I just wanted to … explore it. Sadly, moving from location to location is an automated process: You choose where to go on a map, and then you watch your wagon move there. The game provides an extremely tiny view of its world, but just enough that I wanted to spend more time there.
Much of the pull of this world is delivered through Pyre’s narrative, which drives the game forward in spite of the repetition of its sports game-style core. Sharply written dialogue is interspersed between rites, illuminating a story that branches in dozens of different ways. That plot is carried on the shoulders of a wonderful cast of characters — party members such as the gruff demon Jodariel, the bitter bog witch Bertrude and my personal favorite, Sir Gilman, a snake with a single large eye who wears a clunky metal helmet and wants nothing more than to be an honorable knight.
These characters are supremely likable, and they’re developed through both the main plot and dozens of optional conversations that you can hold between rites. As you journey from the location of one rite to the next, you’ll be forced to make countless tiny decisions. Some are as simple as which path to take, which can determine whether you find a hidden treasure or gain a stat bonus; other choices are harder and have further-reaching consequences, like whether or not you trust a new party member.
Pyre crosses over from traditional multipath narrative game into truly brilliant with one major design element: You cannot lose the game. If you fail in a rite, your journey simply continues. If one of your opponents gains freedom in place of your own exiles, you simply have to accept that result and its impact on the plot, and keep going. And at times, the game tugs at your heartstrings in ways that might make you want to lose.
Is it worth it to gain freedom for one more of your exiles? Or do you want to hand the victory over to a kindly old man who’s been seeking a way out of the Downside his whole life? Do you want to free Jodariel, or would you rather gain favor with another flighty teammate by allowing her estranged sister to win? The game forces you into numerous rites where you’re struggling not just to determine a winning strategy for the match itself but to decide what the right choice is ethically.
I won’t spoil too much about Pyre’s story and where it goes, but I will say that the numerous branching paths pay off, with an ending that lets you view how each and every major character you met along the way ends up. While I don’t know when I’ll find the time to sink 10 to 15 hours into another playthrough, I absolutely want to — if only to try to get all my favorite characters into better positions by the end, or see what happens if the Nightwings never manage to win a match.