The game that started it all has finally arrived.
A few years ago, there was an advertisement given to me for a game, one with striking visuals of a horned woman, a dog with a moustache and a fellow staring towards the sky on a backdrop of masked figures doing the same. There were talks of sports with RPG mechanics, of characters and their trials and gorgeous music. It had a simple title, unassuming yet distinct, followed with a byline of the studio who were also known for two other titles that I had admittedly only heard of. Friends had said I should play this studio’s games and I was interested in them, but they would keep getting added to the dreaded ‘to do’ list of games that we all seem to have, one where the hope is there but the time nor motivation is not. Fast forward to June of 2020, when a bundle of games Itch.io collected as a way of raising money for Racial Justice and Equality began. It raised over 8 million for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Community Bail Fund. I, however, was given a dilemma; purchase the bundle and snag a bunch of video games while donating to help, or just donate knowing that I would never play most of these games? There was no need to own these games, my library was already full as it was and donating would just be easier. It was on the last day of the bundle, still torn and ready to simply leave the bundle be and just donate, that I saw a twitter ad for the bundle being spread around with a certain 4 letter game on the top.
My decision was immediate, my donation was added to the 8 million, and this adventure into the bundle began soon after.
This is Pyre.
Pyre is a fantasy sports party RPG created by Supergiant, an indie studio known for years for their fantastic narrative and gameplay blends in previous titles such as Bastion and Transistor, with their latest title Hades shooting them into the limelight once again. As stated earlier, I’ve always known about Supergiant as a studio from friends gushing over their older two titles or from Darren Korb’s ‘Build That Wall’ GDC talk (highly recommend). I joined the Hades Beta in mid May, clocking in over 100 hours before it fully launched. Which means that yes, I played a title that came out after one that was stuck in my Wishlist. It happens sometimes. My point is that I was able to gain firsthand knowledge at just how brilliant Supergiant were at their craft, being able to blend their narrative within the gameplay so seamlessly it felt handcrafted for that experience alone.
Yet throughout my years of following Supergiant from a distance, Pyre was an anomaly to me. Upon my discovery of it, I remember asking Bastion and Transistor fans about Pyre eager for confirmation only to be met with mostly ‘never played it’ or the occasionally vague ‘well I’ve heard it’s good’. It would be mentioned as great but never seen on lists with its predecessors, fading from public eye. So it begs the question: what is Pyre? And what the heck is a ‘sports party RPG’?
Pyre is essentially a 3v3 battle arena combining RPG and narrative elements to supplement them. Players are known only as ‘Reader’, an individual exiled from the Commonwealth for their ability to read, for literacy is illegal. After being heavily injured, the Reader is saved from death in the Downside (the exiled location below the Commonwealth) by a trio of masked characters. Upon discovering that the player is a Reader, the trio asks for their assistance in completing ‘the Rites’, a ritual that is said to allow any to return to the Commonwealth. The Reader is needed to chart the stars to find the location for the next Rite, and assist the ritual takers in their actions within the Rite.
The Rites themselves are where the battle arena comes in; a game of sportsball in which a triumvirate attempts to score the Celestial Orb in the enemy’s Pyre. Each member comes equip with an Aura, a force of will that manifests within the Rites as a circle around each member. Touching the enemy’s Aura will causes that fighter to become banished for a short time period, and each member (depending on their race) can manipulate their own Aura in a certain offensive way such as throwing it in a line. Acquiring the Celestial Orb, however, relinquishes that member’s Aura to the orb, making them extremely vulnerable. Their only safety is in their speed dash or their jump, which allows for them to leap over Auras and land in a different location. This of course can also be countered, as enemies can also jump to intercept, but nobody is banished in this attempt and the Orb simply becomes loose.
Scoring a ‘goal’ with the Orb lowers the Pyre’s strength based on the member’s strength, ranging between 15–30. When players score using a throw, the score is changed to be the rating on the strength of the throw instead which scales from 1 to that member’s top score. Why throw the ball then, one might ask; by entering the Pyre to score, that member is banished until another goal is scored. That means players must continue onwards in a 2v3 situation until they score again, but still whomever enters the Pyre is banished. It’s a balance feature, one to keep players from steamrolling through the Rites or allows players to breath easier when the enemy is destroying them as enemy goals return banished members as well. Upon the enemy’s Pyre reaching 0, the Player wins and they can continue towards their goal. Losing, however, doesn’t appear to do much besides lower party morale — until players get to the Liberation Rites, that is (more on that later).
If I had to put my finger on what makes Pyre such a difficult game to explain, it would be because of the Rites. Players can feel the narrative significance within each Rite, the stakes to continue forward toward liberation and the impact that each character has on how the game is played. The narrator berates yet cheers for the reader constantly, while midpoints have a moment when the enemy has a narrative sequence. Every action and reaction involved ties to earlier aspects of the plot from the Aura strengths to how each character runs. Yet performing the rites themselves feels like a juxtaposition of fluidity and rigidity. The ability to pass the ball between players and movement abilities implies a fluid experience akin to real time sports titles, yet players cannot be moved if they are not controlled. There is no AI for them, so positioning before switching is extremely important. The problem this creates is when players have control of the Orb, as switching also passes the orb — leaving the other members of the team open to getting an Aura charge. This inevitably lead me to not really playing as a team on offense, instead focusing on soloing with that character since the others would usually get banished by the enemy’s charged Aura attacks. There were moments in which I was able to do quick passes when I was able to be taken out, or set up cool plays but the feeling of passing never felt as useful as just flying or jumping my way to victory.
Yet even after all of this criticism, all of the awkward moments and clunky running, I kept playing. There’s an alluring strategy in picking the right members for the triumvirate, counter-picking the enemy to make matches easier. Perhaps, however, it was the characters I picked themselves and their individual stories and my desire to see them succeed that kept me playing.
Supergiant doesn’t play around when it comes to narrative-fueled gameplay. Pyre is no exception. Those that join the reader and trio are part of the Nightwings, a Triumvirate that aims to liberate themselves from exile through these Rites, gaining members along the way unintentionally. The original trio of Hedwyn, Jodariel and Rukey answered the call of the Nightwings and are the ones to save the Reader, sharing a special bond as they hope to get everyone back into the Commonwealth and escape. Hedwyn is the one to reach out for the Reader originally, with Jodariel being the protector and much more reserved about adding a heavily injured to their party and Rukey not minding either way. Immediate joins are a ‘Savage Girl’ to whom players must give a name, an Imp who can somehow understand the Rites, a Knight of the wyrms, and a Harpy that is hated by her own kind. All have their own motivations and dreams, and the player can learn about them all if given the time.
In between matches, the Reader gains control of the navigation of the Blackwagon, following the stars to see where their next destination will be. This involves travelling across perilous areas of the Downside, and players must make choices on which route to take dependent on the opinions of the other members who will give input. At every pitstop along the way, players can visit the carriage of the wagon to interact with whomever is currently there, gaining even more choices to learn more about their life, who they are or what they wish to be. These decisions impact how each member views the Reader via later dialogue options, while possibly giving immediate merits in the form of temporary stat gains or losses.
These choices that players will make stick with them throughout their adventure through the Rites, gaining experience — called enlightenment — and growing as a group that wish to return home. It’s these choices, however that betray the Reader and open Pyre up to being the narrative juggernaut that it is. For any reading that wish to not spoil a major plot point of the game, please skip to the end (the hyphen line)
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After trials and tribulations, levelling up and growing with the Nightwings, Players meet the man behind the operation and enter the Rite of Liberation with a gut punching revelation.
The Reader cannot ascend, and only one member of the Triumvirate gets to join the ranks of the Commonwealth.
All others remain in Exile. It can’t just be a random member either — the member must be have enough enlightenment, meaning that the member that ascends is one that players have invested in. Losing the Rite means the enemy team’s captain ascends. This pivots the game completely, forcing players to come to grips that their favourites would be leaving the rest of them behind. Sure, one wants to see their members return but at the same time, not without the rest of them right?
Some may think that the game ends here, but in fact this is just the beginning — after a few years pass while hiding, the Reader sees the stars align once again and the Rites begin again. Players are given the chance to ascend another, to allow them back into the Commonwealth and live free of this exile. This time, however, players are given the full map to fly rather than railroaded, landing near locations to begin the Rites once again and reminiscing on the past few years since the last attempt. The wound of the one that was ascended is still fresh, but perhaps the player can get another to join whomever was sent back.
This is the core of Pyre, the driving force behind it’s genius. This tension of connectivity, of bringing people together and empathizing with them only to have players decide who should return to the surface and leave the rest behind. There are the other Triumvirates that are battling to succeed as well, in the same position that the Nightwings are just attempting to return home. Will players actively throw the Rite of Liberation to keep the band together, ultimately knowing that they will stay exiled to allow another to leave? Or will players attempt to save everyone, knowing that they cannot leave and that eventually, players will run out of members to compete so some will be forced to stay in exile regardless? There is no right answer here, no correct way to end the game or optimal decision; only decisions that players feel are right. Sure, there is the underlying plot of a possible revolution brewing within the Commonwealth, but can one trust that it will succeed and bring those in the Downside back?
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Pyre is an anomaly that I cannot stop talking about, cannot fathom why I enjoy it as I do. It’s gameplay isn’t flawless with its clunkiness, but the heart and feeling that each member of the Nightwings has as they enter the Rite cannot be matched. The story being so integral to how each Rite is taken, what each win means to these exiles as they just wish to return home. The world building is immaculate, with the Reader gaining knowledge of the Rites’ origins through pages of a tome, learning why these Rites even exist in the first place and how they set the standard of the world. The music is what I expect from Darren Korb, a fantastic mix of bass with a motif for each Triumvirate that players face. The art is gorgeously crafted to make each area pop, with the characters all feeling unique and beautiful in their own way.
So, what exactly is Pyre?
To me, it is an experiment; a narrative game that pushes the boundaries farther than many others, one that focuses on connectivity and what it means to win and lose. An experience that tells the story of decisions, where every choice matters to the player and the characters alike. A game that somehow makes me say that a sports game tore my heart in two, regardless of the shortcomings it had.
To me, Pyre is amazing. I have nothing else left to say.