Supergiant’s games are unmistakable. Characterized by immaculate world building, lush colors, exaggerated character models, and hip-but-poignant soundtracks, the studio behind Bastion and Transistor has established a firm aesthetic. Pyre follows through on those style conventions, but switches gears in the gameplay department. The team’s latest is a unique mixture, melding party-based RPGs with classic arcade sports. Pyre’s long run-time and verbose characterization may warn some players away; that would be too bad, because the originality on display in the setting and storytelling is top-notch, and the fantasy-themed sport that forms the bedrock of the action is challenging, layered, and a heck of a lot of fun.
You have been flung from a world of privilege and down into a land of exiles and criminals. The only path to freedom comes through a mystical ceremony called the Rites, in which designated teams of exiles compete to prove their worth. From a place of little standing, you build a team of players with different skills. Some get injured, and need to sit out the next competition. Fans eventually gather to see impressive feats from their favorite players. A manager tracks wins and losses across the league of distinct teams. And your best veteran players may eventually retire, forcing you to field rookies. Everything is couched within the narrative framework of the fantasy world, but the extended sports metaphor is clever and without pretense.
The Rites themselves are thrilling. Beginning with basic characters and progressing to more complex classes and abilities, the original sport is reminiscent of classic games like Ice Hockey or NBA Jam, but with plenty of twists. The learning curve is spot-on, and can be further tweaked through multiple A.I. difficulty settings. Teams of three characters must seize an orb at center-court, and slam or fling it into the opponent’s pyre. Defending players exude a protective aura that banishes opponents. Differing speeds, aura sizes, stamina pools, and other elements give each contestant various advantages. The real-time flow of a match had my heart beating fast, and the narrative ties between the competing characters kept me invested in the outcome.
Pyre is also a game about consequences. Win or lose a match, and the narrative continues and reflects that outcome. I chose freedom for a character longing to return to his beloved, but that meant he would leave my roster forever. I gambled on the outcome of a Rite, and risked that my powerful witch might face a permanent stat penalty if I lost. The story has hundreds of branching paths that are shaped through dialogue choices and match completions, and individual outcomes for the heroes and villains are all expressed to completion by the time the credits roll. Those variations also provide significant replay value.
Pyre’s world is drenched in a deep mythology, and filled with the weight of characters whose relationships and loyalties stretch back prior to your arrival on the scene. From a race of sentient dogs and talking trees to the lingering effects of a long war between harpies and an unjust theocracy, the broad strokes of storytelling draw you in. The intimate connections between the heroes maintain that interest; ancient grudges, impossible romances, and the deepening ties of a chosen family give this roster of sometimes adorable, sometimes menacing individuals a genuine humanity, from a horribly strained sisterly rivalry, to a guilt-ridden army deserter. The price for that deep characterization and world-building is lots of text and slower pacing, extending the length of the game to longer than feels necessary. In addition, a more freeform structure in the later hours is appreciated, but it slows down the narrative momentum.
The included two-player local versus mode is a welcome bonus, but matches are totally separate from the campaign, and don’t provide any bonus other than a chance to build skill. Extensive options let you tweak the match location, chosen characters, available powers, and more. Without any online mode, it’s hard to imagine much potential for an emerging competitive scene. But as a couch-play option for two friends who want to further test their skills, it’s a success.
Pyre’s storytelling ambience, narration, art, and music work in concert. This gives the experience a singular identity, and the mash-up of role-playing and sports gameplay cements that distinctiveness. More showing and less telling could improve the pacing, and the lengthy travel and dialogue sequences have the potential to detract from the thrill of the “fights.” But I’m hesitant to fault that more gradual approach, as Supergiant has once again crafted an unusual and surprising fictional backdrop, and a little extra reading is well worth it for some unchecked originality.