Available On: PlayStation 4, PC
Where To Buy: PSN Store, Steam
Pyre is a difficult game to summarise. Essentially Pyre is a deep, rich tale about outcasts banished to a wasteland for unknown reasons. They are all vying for their freedom and dreaming of returning to society. How do they accomplish this feat? Well… by playing cosmic basketball just like seen in Space Jam. As I write this, it sounds bizarre yet somehow Supergiant Games, the developer behind Bastion and Transistor, miraculously make it work. The result is an engrossing character-driven story where unlikely alliances grow from a common goal.
Protagonists and amnesia are an all to the common narrative tool in games, however, Pyre borrows from this trope but with a twist. You know nothing about yourself or the world around you. You awaken stranded in a harsh desert surrounded by a band of three masked strangers. The conversation is mysterious as they decide your fate and speculate about your arrival. Eventually, the trio, deciding to approach, remove their garbs and reveal their identities. Hedwyn is a charming human male compassionate to your blight whilst Jodariel, on the other hand, is a literal demon. Horns protrude from her skull and this large and imposing female initially bares no pleasantries towards you. Lastly, you meet Rukey, a mustache bearing cur who warmingly refers to you as ‘chum’. The three could not be a more diverse group and learning why they and the other characters you meet have banded together is the centerpiece of Pyre.
Outside of the action, there is no voiced dialogue yet the subtitles are crafted in a unique way which not only offers more information but accommodates to the player. Keywords such as a character name or location can be highlighted to divulge more information. Occasionally thoughts or visual observations such as a character’s demeanor can be conveyed through this technique giving more context towards the current situation. Occasionally phrases can be modified to change the significance of a sentence such as deciding your gender or later in the game to make more powerful and consequential decisions as seen in titles from Telltale Games. The interactivity of the text allows writing to be more compelling and absorbs the player into the conversations.
The reason for your recruitment at the beginning of the game is due to a unique ability you possess. In this barren landscape, literacy is forbidden and long since been forgotten by many yet you have this power. After deciphering a book written by ancient scribes who accomplished the feat of escaping the wasteland, the team learns of rites which must be performed at locations under specific star formations. These rites become more challenging and further understanding of the world grows upon completion of these. This premise is a simple yet plausible one and allows this mismatch of a group to share a common goal. Your team expands in numbers as you encounter them across this land and getting to know each of them is a journey in itself.
The concept of being oblivious to the world around you typically allows the player to embody the protagonist yet in Pyre, the shadowy past of yourself, the wasteland and your companions is a conscious choice by the developers. You may not trust Hedwyn or Jodariel however they feel the exact same way about you. Their motives and ultimately their cause for banishment are details you want to hear about and over the course of Pyre, they may divulge these details. Are they murderers? Did they commit some heinous crime? Knowing nothing about your associates allows you to meet the real person instead of judging them by their crime.
As you traverse the beautifully drawn fruitless lands, the focused objective and incredible musical accompaniment make the daunting journey feel real. Although life is scarce, the world itself is a mixture of color and architecture. Everything not fit for the Commonwealth has been deposited here and as such, plumes of green toxic smoke surround distant mountains and the harsh sun emits shades of orange and pink from the desert floor. The music, just like the environment is unrestrained by logic as a banjo piece could convey the emptiness of the outback whilst upbeat, techno numbers bring other areas to life. The musical score is ever present and small cues such as the arrival from a long trip cause a small yet significant change in the overture once again conveying the sense of an expedition.
The compass leading your bandwagon are star constellations and upon reaching each one, a rival team awaits to engage you in the action segment of Pyre. Rival teams fight one another to progress in the tournament and ultimately, find liberation from this banished land. In this desolate and harsh world, you would expect a ruthless fight between the two factions but instead, Pyre plays out more like the classic title NBA Jam.
Each contest begins with an invigorating melody as stars align and the camera pans down onto the pitch. The current location will impact the stage such as waves crashing into the shoreline in the distance. Essentially the court is the same during each encounter as two hoops, otherwise known as Pyre‘s, sit at each end of the court. A blend of obstacles and hazards can impede the remainder of the stage offering some variety but the typical structure remains. A standard tip-off in basketball is replaced by a celestial orb plunging from the heavens and smashing into a crater in the center of the court.
Each team consists of three players and you must choose between a diverse roster to field for the Nightwings. The contrast between species and personalities are just as essential to these rites as they are the narrative. Jodariel is an intimidating presence on the court, dwarfing all of those around her yet this size advantage negatively effects her agility. Smaller characters such as Rukey lack power but his pace makes him a nimble opponent. Each trait offers benefits and a varied team will lead you to victory in Pyre.
Each contest involves placing the orb into the opposing team’s Pyre and this can be achieved in a number of ways. The attacking team, who have possession of the orb, are restricted by movement and defense. The orb holder is the only team member who can be mobile and by using stamina, can perform sprinting or jumping techniques. Passing the orb to a teammate halts the movement of that character and the new possessor can progress. Positioning the players is essential to break down the opposing team’s defense and damaging their Pyre. The defensive team can unleash individual powers to temporarily eliminate a player from the pitch as the attacking team is vulnerable. Jodariel’s towering form, for example, may restrict her movement but allows her to unleash a wide, encompassing attack. Goals can be scored either by running the orb into the Pyre or thrown from a distance offering more damage but at a risk of interception. The scorer is temporarily eliminated from the next play giving the losing team an advantage.
As your characters level up in Pyre, they will learn new unique abilities which drastically changes their usefulness. Improved health of your Pyre, double jumps, improved regeneration rates; all of the skills available to you are extremely helpful and making a commitment to an ability is a tough choice. Equipment can be won or purchased from a traveling merchant who, just like every character in Pyre, has their own story and relationship with members of the Nightwings.
The gameplay is quick and tense but the rich world of Pyre is not lost in these moments. The commentator acts as a trickster narrator menacingly rolling every ‘R’ sound in his vocabulary. Unlike the typical unbiased commentators of other sports games, expect no pleasantries in Pyre. Sarcastic compliments should turn you against the announcer yet the writing in the entirety in Pyre is so compelling, you cannot help but embrace his dastardly nature.
Opposing teams begin each encounter with a story of their own and interactions between themselves and the Nightwings stress how everyone in this land has the same ambition, freedom. Relationships between members of your team and their opposite numbers often lead to the development of their character. This gives you opportunities to delve further into their history with how you handle the situation impacting your future relationship with them.
Pyre follows this structure throughout the adventure with slight deviations such as variations of the Basketball gameplay which plays out like a tower defense game but this focused structure is what makes Pyre fantastic. There are not enough games that really invest the player into the gaming world. One that comes to mind is Inside and in Pyre, when a final and impactful decision must be made at the finale, you cannot help but question your fate and your companions who are more than just acquaintances after hours spent together.
Verdict: Pyre primarily focuses on storytelling, dialogue and discovery with the fantastic writing not only inviting the player in but absorbing them. The sports gameplay may initially feel out of place but Supergiant Games have cleverly weaved the character-driven piece into the action and allows you to create relationships with a wide variety of characters with vastly different yet fully developed personalities. My only complaint is that I felt like my experience was a definitive one and as such, had no desire to experience other choices I could have made but in the grand scheme of things, Pyre will resonate with me for much longer than another playthrough would take to complete.
- Incredible Writing
- Diverse Cast
- Varied Soundtrack
- Tense Gameplay
- One-Time Playthrough
An Englishman living in Australia. I edit and provide video/written reviews for all of the latest games.