Pyre‘s Rites are an interesting 3v3 pseudo sport.
With just two games since its inception in 2009, Supergiant Games has emphasized quality over quantity in a big way, releasing the excellent Bastion in 2011 and Transistor, still among our favourite games on the PlayStation 4, in 2014. Its newest title is Pyre, a hybrid RPG/sports game that also offers point-and-click elements and a story that changes based on your decisions.
A significant chunk of Pyre is spent clicking through dialogues, selecting routes and other mundane tasks, all of which handle fine — though flying feels largely pointless. When you’re not navigating the world and being introduced to its deep lore you’ll be competing in the Rites, a three-on-three contest to extinguish the other team’s flame.
This is done exclusively in real time, leaving you to switch between your available team members on the fly, controlling one at a time while the other(s) remain stationary. Each character will have some variant of sprinting, jumping and projecting their aura, which is used to temporarily banish enemies, along with a unique ability or two.
Early on it’s all pretty easy, but it ramps up the more times you complete the tour to the point you’ll need to deploy some actual strategy to prevail against tougher opponents. While the controls never seemed to actively get in the way, Pyre doesn’t feel as polished as Transistor, which handled beautifully as part real-time and part turn-based combat — a mix that seems ideally suited here.
When it’s all working well it can feel fast-paced and intense. There are times, however, when the base premise leads to frustration as the A.I. is inherently controlling all of your opponents at once, even though only one can move, and that feels like a bit of a stacked deck. Still, the game rumbles on, win or lose, and we’d rather curse the challenge than breeze through every match.
Pyre is beautifully drawn yet simultaneously limited in its scope. The overworld is a series of colourful terrains that are static and invoke memories of Ralph Bakshi‘s Wizards. The characters are stills as well, emoting through things like vocal inflection. Actual gameplay is confined to small enclosed arenas and is viewed from such a distance that there’s little detail in the presentation.
While the graphics are somewhat limited, the soundtrack is sublime. Rich and interesting tracks are with you throughout your journey, and they really help to effectively push the emotional narrative. The only real vocal performance is the announcer, who has a hammy Vincent Price quality to him, while characters “speak” brief snippets of made-up language accompanied by dialogue text.
Set in a world known as the Commonwealth, Pyre begins with a group of three travelers coming across an injured figure on the road. That figure is you, banished to the Downside (akin to a type of purgatory) for the crime of literacy. That’s right, in this realm the ability to read is forbidden, and it’s for this very rare skill that the travelers have sought you out.
As the “Reader,” your job is to read the stars and guide your companions to the site of the next Rite, a series of competitive trials that are the only way to attain reinstatement to the Commonwealth. While your physical frailty prevents you from actively participating, you control the three-person team during these contests and are given carte blanche to make decisions for the group.
It’s an interesting concept, creating a pseudo sports league in which things like win-loss records are tracked to determine which teams are worthy to compete at the end for a shot at freedom. The caveat to this is that only one member from the winning side can go free, meaning you’ll need to successfully complete the circuit multiple times to get everyone out.
That decision creates a clever wrinkle as only those that have completed “scribe trials” are deemed worthy of ascension, so you can’t trot out the same three people and just select the ones you never use to be sent. It forces you to employ your entire roster and to weigh each character’s strengths and weaknesses deftly lest you end up saddled with an unbalanced group.
Each time around the circuit will increase your opponents’ abilities as well, unlocking new abilities for them to unleash on you. Your squad will be doing the same, of course, as each time a character levels up they’ll unlock new abilities or buffs. A talisman can also be equipped to supplement skills.
There’s a lot to like about Pyre, but it’s not without some hiccups. The pace of the story feels pretty slow at times, and after the initial, more heavily scripted run through the Rites the information that trickles out doesn’t seem as interesting (or as frequent). It goes from providing big picture items to filling in gaps with bits of back story and lore.
Gauging distance during the Rites is the bigger issue, however, particularly when one enemy is airborne via jumping or flying. We lost track of how many times our pyre got hit because we couldn’t accurately read the exact midair location. It’s annoying to adopt the right tactics to thwart a charge only to have a depth perception issue undermine it.
Supergiant deserves credit for trying something completely new compared to its previous two titles, and although it isn’t on the level of Transistor, Pyre‘s interesting story, well-developed characters and solid gameplay make it a quality effort.