Actual fantasy sports and visual novels come together to create a one-of-a-kind experience
Supergiant Games, with their third game since bursting on to the scene in 2011, are proving themselves to have all the best qualities of the greatest artists in any medium. They constantly reinvent themselves and their games, jumping from one genre to another, leaving them better than when they found them, all the while containing a distinct and unmistakable style that obviously connects their disparate games as one impressive body of work. Whether it's the art style, the music and sound, the clever writing and world building, there are aspects of all of their games that no matter what, you can look at and say "that's a Supergiant game", and that's something that can be said only about the best. Pyre is just another entry in a growing list of exceptional games that show you don't have to choose between style and substance.
Part visual novel, part fantasy competition with elements of basketball, rugby, and handball, Pyre is a strange beast. As a Reader - as simple as it sounds, someone who can read - you have been cast down from the Commonwealth into the Downside - a sort of purgatorial wasteland - for crimes that are unclear. There, you are quickly saved by a group of wanderers called the Nightwings, and, as someone who can read the book of the Rites, you are asked to help guide them through these Rites - a series of competitions to earn one's freedom back - in an effort to not only return to the Commonwealth, but to bring revolution and reform to it. That may not sound like the most inspired elevator pitch for a plot, but there's so much more to the game than the base motivation of the characters. Over the ten to twelve hours the core campaign will take, a motley collection of misfits and freaks will join will join up with the Nightwings, each with their own "crime" as the cause for their banishment, and each with their own reasons to want to escape.
What's most amazing about this set-up is the actual legitimacy of the "league" of Triumvirates - groups seeking redemption - taking part in the Rites. The first five-ish hours, about half the game, is fairly linear as you travel the world, see all the locals of the Downside, and meet most of the characters and teams, but when the game's progression opens up, this comes with an actual stat-sheet for the Rites, showing every team's record and place in the standings. Each of the opposing teams you come across contain characters with just as much motivation and characterization as the ones in your own party, and choosing who you wish to play against in the Rites can be just as much a decision based on their play styles as it is on who you wish to interact with again. Also of note, failing a match doesn't mean you have to do it over again, as the game will continue win or lose.
All of this organization and stat-tracking would be meaningless if the actual games themselves weren't fun to take part in, so it's a good thing that the Rites are a blast to play. Two teams of three will attempt to grab the Orb and get it into the other team's Pyre, their goal. This can be done via running it in manually - like dunking - or by throwing it in from afar - like shooting - each with their own benefits and drawbacks. Dunking it is harder to do but more rewarding, while shooting is safer but nets you less damage to the opposing Pyre the farther you are from it. While on the easy side for the most part, the technical and multitasking aspects of the Rites made for some decent and tense challenges at times, helping to prevent the whole thing from growing stale, and as with Bastion, there are enemy buffs and/or debuffs to your own team you can enact before Rites to give yourself more of challenge for greater EXP rewards.
Every character also feels like a bespoke unit, with no two being exactly the same, although there are some similarities. With four basic stats, Quickness (how fast they move), Presence (the size of their defensive and offensive aura), Hope (how long their respawn time is), and Glory (how much damage they do to a Pyre), each character can be used in different ways and in different strategic formations, and each team member has their own different attack, jump, and sprint depending on their size and species. Characters also level up and gain Masteries (i.e. perks) along the way, allowing you to spec each member as you see fit. As well as characters, each field that the Rites can be conducted on has their own terrain, obstacles, and other qualities that make each match feel different.
There are also talismans each character is allowed to equip before a Rite, which can be bought at a store or found in the world, as well as earned from each character's solo challenges that become available as you play. Most of these can be leveled up with "stardust", a consumable resource you can also find at the store or in the world, allowing you to improve the effects of the talismans once you've determined the ones you like.
Outside of the Rites, and early on the Rites are separated by a lot of this, there is much talking and world building to be done. As your group travels around in your cart - the Blackwagon - you choose which paths to take as you move towards your next destination, where there's almost always something happening no matter where you go. Sometimes you'll incur stat penalties, which can seem slightly random, but often times you'll find something valuable, or gain a temporary or even permanent stat boost depending on the road you traveled. Free time can be used to forage for new items or treasure to sell, to study the book and gain small permanent bonuses party-wide, or to mentor one teammate for a large boost in EXP.
Most of the time, however, you are talking to your teammates, and that's where the visual novel aspect of this comes in. There's a lot of reading in Pyre. Like, quite a bit. To help with this, you can use your mouse-like cursor to hover over highlighted words to get further insight into every part of the world, from locations, to people, to history. This along with the book - which has pages unlocked regularly - gives an incredible amount of detail to the lore of the Commonwealth and the Downside, but only if you actually want to dive in. For a mouse style UI in a console game, it actually works surprisingly well, and is very intuitive.
It almost feels like I'm burying the lede here taking so long to mention this, but Pyre is absolutely god damned beautiful, especially in motion. The art style is vibrant and colourful and moves so fluidly that it all just looks real. Each character is so well designed whether they're supposed to evoke brutality, whimsy, or horror, and everything about the visuals looks deliberate and hand-picked. This goes along with the musical score, another thing just like the visual style that always gives away a Supergiant game. Not only does each area have it's own theme, each character has their own piece of music associated with them, moving through multiple different genres that all fit together to still feel like they're from the same soundtrack. The art of Jen Zee and the music of Darren Korb have always been two of the most recognizable facets of Supergiant, and this has never been more true.
I adore Bastion, and quite like Transistor, and while I'm not sure if I'd call it my favorite, Pyre sure is something else. The hybrid of sports game and visual novel is a thing I didn't really know I wanted until I played this, and with a local versus mode (sadly no online) I can at least try and get other people in the room to try and play this competitively to continue enjoying it past the story. More than just a victory on it's own, this really is a triumph for Supergiant Games, a developer of only around a dozen full time members that has now established a catalogue of amazing games, each one wholly different than the last, yet still containing all the special elements that let you know it's one of theirs. Pyre is the most ambitious and risky venture from them yet, and it's a delight experience in just about every way.