Or: My copy keeps crashing, so here’s what I think so far.
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Format: PC, PS4 (Reviewed)
Released: July 26, 2017
If there’s one thing I’m yet to call the indie darlings at Supergiant Games, its “unoriginal”. They certainly brought the indie scene into a more public light with Bastion, delivering a solid action RPG set in a beautiful world with a neat narration mechanic that adapted to your in-game actions. Then their next release, Transistor, further elaborated that design template by introducing tactical combat and a weird talking USB sword. But now it seems they’ve outdone themselves with their latest release, Pyre: a party-based RPG that I can best describe as “Rocket League meets Oregon Trail”.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to deliver a full review of Pyre any time soon, as my copy seems to enjoy taking a little nap before crashing whenever I reach a specific point around the two-hour mark. Thankfully, however, Pyre already has so many interesting ideas and mechanics packed into its opening hours that I feel like I need to give my first impressions of it, technical issues be damned! Because, while I know saying this sounds like stating that bears shit in the woods and Donald Trump looks like a tangerine toddler, Supergiant Games has once again delivered an experience that looks and sounds as amazing as it feels to play it.
You’re placed into the nameless and faceless shoes of a character only referred to as “The Reader”. After being convicted for the crime of being able to read, you’re thrown into this world’s version of colonial Australia known as the “Downside”, a mystical purgatory inhabited by other criminal exiles. Left to wander its wastelands until death, you’re soon met by a group of strange travellers who request your skills in exchange for a way back home. With such a tantalizing offer, you essentially become the group’s team manager as you help them perform a series of sacred Rites that will see them competing against your fellow exiles for a chance at freedom.
And it’s within these “Rites” that the gameplay of Pyre really shines, offering something that feels familiar, but also unlike anything I’ve ever played before. Playing out as what I can best describe as a fantasy version of football and basketball, the Rites take place on a small field with two teams of three on each side fighting for control of an orb placed in the middle of the field. The objective is to transport the orb to the other team’s goal, or “Pyre”, which will douse its flames in a glorious display fire and sick dunkage, causing it to lose health. Controlling one player at a time, you and your teammates have to sprint, leap and pass until eventually one team’s pyre is completely extinguished.
While that description probably makes Pyre sound like a fairly normal sports game, I can assure you it’s anything but that. Although it certainly does look like a sports game on the surface, the game slowly reveals that it actually has quite a lot of strategy and depth to it. For example, you’ll need to manage each character’s stats and special abilities which affect their overall offensive and defensive roles on your team. One of your starting teammates, Rukey, is incredibly quick-footed, allowing him to snatch up the orb and dunk it into the other team’s pyre with relative ease, making him a perfect offensive player, but rather rubbish when it comes to defence.
And you’ll be keeping these stats in mind since, in an interesting twist, whoever successfully reaches the opponent’s pyre with the orb will be “banished” from the match until the next goal is scored. Meaning that if you manage to score a goal, you’ll have to work with only two team members in the next round, causing you to be constantly thinking about the composition and balance of the team. Will you send off your best heavy-hitter at the cost of defence in the next round? Or will you lose your speedster for the sake of scoring an easy goal? It all serves to create these fun and intense matches that only get more nail-biting when you realise the high-stakes that these Rites carry in the story.
Despite its sporty appearance, Pyre is shaping up to be an emotional tale about struggle, fleeting hope, and dealing with failure. You see, rather than having you face off against faceless or one-note opponents, every team you play against is their own group with unique personalities and motivations for taking part in the Rites. Pyre makes you understand right from the start that every opponent you meet is just like your team, people who have been trapped in this world and are desperate to regain their freedom.
The weight of these Rites becomes a lot heavier as you realise that your opponents want to win just as badly as you do. So even when you win, the ecstatic joy of victory is quickly replaced by guilt as you realise that you may have just dashed the other team’s chances at freedom. And while I haven’t experienced it for myself just yet, I’ve been told that even when you lose a match, the story will continue on as your characters cope with their failures and learn from them.
I’m absolutely in love with this concept, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Pyre does with it as the game goes on. Knowing the kind of stories that Supergiant likes to tell, I’m definitely expecting potential situations where I’m going to be forced to make some gut-wrenching choices between winning Rites for the sake of my team, or throwing matches in order to give someone more deserving a chance at freedom.
The only real problem I have with Pyre at the moment, besides my copy’s previously mentioned habit of shitting itself, is the weakness of gameplay that takes place between each Rite. Presented as a visual novel, these sections serve as nothing more than world and character building as you travel in your rickety wagon across beautiful stain-glass landscapes to the next ritual ground. I do admit that I absolutely adore the writing and dialogue of these sections, especially the neat addition of an in-text glossary to help you understand the many names and terms that you’ll encounter on your journey to freedom. I’m certain that these will yield the same sort of heartbreaking storytelling I expect to see in the Rites, but for now, these moments just feel like a very pretty looking choose-you-own-adventure that simply yields benefits and buffs to help your team in the next battle.
While I obviously can’t give Pyre final rating at the moment, I can say that what I’ve seen so far has me desperately itching to play more. While it’s clearly a step out of their comfort zone, Pyre’s beautiful presentation and delightfully tactical fantasy sports gameplay lives up to the high quality that one can expect from Supergiant Games. And with a story that’s already promising to be an emotional rollercoaster, I can’t wait to give you my final thoughts on it once I’ve finally seen it through to the end. That is, at least, when I finally get my hands on a copy that works.
Writer: Tristan Venables