Half space basketball, Half visual novel. A game that is strictly better as a visual novel.
Pyre is the 3rd game developed by indie-hit developer, Supergiant Games. Pyre is a strange game and can’t easily be categorized into a specific genre. Supergiant’s previous games: Bastion and Transistor both tread familiar grounds, with the first being an action game and the latter being an action strategy hybrid. Pyre, on the other hand, feels like a mad scientist’s experiment. Pyre is a mix between a sports game with a visual novel. Unfortunately while I admire Supergiant’s attempt to push new boundaries, I was never impressed by the sports part of the game and only pushed through to the end because of its plot and narrative.
You play an unnamed protagonist known as a Reader, who has been exiled to the Downside, a land of miscreants, outsiders and unsavory individuals. Fortunately you are rescued by the Nightwings, one of the 10 triumvirates (teams) in the Downside. In the world of Pyre, literacy is incredibly rare. As a Reader, you have the ability to read the Book of Rites (rule book). You learn that the only way to freedom is to complete the rites (sport games). The Reader decides to aid the Nightwings by finding the rites and competing against other triumvirates. As the story progresses, new members join the Nightwings, characters start forming relationships with each other and you learn more about the nature of the Downside and the Commonwealth, the land that everyone was exiled from.
The best parts of Pyre are its world building and narrative. The game’s setting is high fantasy but doesn’t lean on using the typical J. R. R. Tolkein races of Humans, Elves, Dwarfs and Orcs. There are Curs, Demons, Wyrms and much more, with each race bringing a unique spin in the world of Pyre. It so happens that the Nightwings are the only triumvirate that features a mix of races and it becomes evident fairly quickly that not all members of the Nightwings get along with each other. It is up to you as the Reader to determine what happens to the Nightwings and how to unite them towards a common goal. To help with learning the game’s terminology, Pyre offers a handy tooltip function where you can hover over highlighted words to learn more about them.
The other part of the game, are the rites themselves. The rites are 3v3 matches where players battle to extinguish the opposing team’s Pyre. To extinguish a Pyre, a character must deliver an orb by running/throwing it into the enemy’s Pyre. Each character has a unique set of attacks, traversal moves and skills. Each character can also level up and equip trinkets that vary from buffing specific stats to altering specific skills. Unfortunately, the rites are not very satisfying to play. The computer AI on the default difficulty is not challenging and frequently runs into my character’s aura/attacks as if they were moths to a lightbulb. The AI also seems to be drawn to whoever is holding the orb, so it is easy to outmaneuver the AI once you learn this trick. It is possible to increase the difficulty by enabling the Titan Stars, but they feel like unfair handicaps that buff the opponents stats or make it easier for your Pyre to be extinguished. Even by the end of the game, I never felt like I mastered the gameplay and instead relied on abusing the poor enemy AI with the same strategy I developed early on.
The game starts to become repetitive after you complete the first act. Pyre eventually settles into the same 4-part cycle until the end of the game. First you navigate towards a rite, then mid-way onto the rite you traverse to an area that is relevant to a specific Nightwing member. Third you and the Nightwings face off against an opposing triumvirate in a rite. Lastly, win or lose some story event happens and the whole process repeats itself. This whole cycle of finding and completing the rites are roughly equivalent to seasons in a sports game. Granted, this same repetitive criticism can be leveraged at other games such as RPGs where you visit a quest giver, explore a dungeon and return for a reward. But the pace in Pyre feels too monotonous and predictable.
Pyre as with Bastion and Transistor is visually impressive. The art from Jen Zee is simply amazing, and it’s wonderful to see so many colorful character portraits and environmental art. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the music. The soundtracks from Bastion and Transistor were both amazing, featuring eclectic folk music and electronic music respectfully. The music in Pyre doesn’t have a specific theme and instead feels muted and unpronounced. The background music fits the world and setting but nothing about the music is memorable.
I would have preferred Pyre if it was purely a visual novel or book. The narrative and worldbuilding is fantastic enough that it did not need the extra part where you actually have to participate in the rites. The rites of the game aren't challenging or fun to play and feel more like a time sink and a temporary change of pace to the visual novel part of the game. Pyre is a bold attempt by Supergiant Games. It is beautifully crafted and narratively strong but ultimately feels like an experiment gone too far.