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Pyre Review: What a (Weirdly) Wonderful World

“Do you feel a kinship with the stars? You owe your everything to them; perhaps, one day, even your freedom.”

Having seen previews of Pyre, I really didn’t know what to make of it at first. A party-based RPG revolving around a sports-like battle system? Following the likes of Bastion and Transistor, developer Supergiant Games set the bar incredibly high for its third game. As someone who played, beat, and loved both of their previous games, I’m inclined to argue that Pyre is their best game yet.

Pyre’s opening minutes find you, an exile cast away for being literate, alone and dying in a mysterious fantasy world called the Downside. You, like everyone else in the Downside, has been banished from the nation known as the Commonwealth, forced to live out the rest of your days in purgatory. Fortunately, you are rescued as a caravan of strangers take you in and nurse you back to health. After deeming you a Reader, the group asks you to return the favour by reading from a book – The Book of Rites.

“As someone who played, beat, and loved both of Supergiant Games’ previous titles, I’m inclined to argue that Pyre is their best game yet.”

You soon find out that, by taking part in an ancient ritual known as the Rites, you can earn your return to the Commonwealth and absolve yourself of your crimes. Each character has their own reasons for wanting to return, and getting to know each of your companions throughout your journey is a rewarding experience in itself. Amidst each individual’s vibrant demeanour is a thoughtful and emotional backstory that I was incredibly motivated to uncover as I became more connected with them and the beautifully engrossing world that surrounds them.

Through these Rites are where Pyre’s bizarre battles take place – combining real-time action elements reminiscent of Transistor with scoring mechanisms reminiscent of a sports game feels like nothing I’ve ever played before. Put simply, both the player and opponent use parties comprised of three members to shuffle a glowing orb across the playing field and dunk it in their opponent’s goal – a burning pyre.

Each pyre has a set amount of health points; when one team’s pyre runs out, their flame is extinguished and their team loses the battle. Different party members feature widely different characteristics – the massive Jodariel, for example, is slow to move and an easy target, but she inflicts more damage to the enemy’s pyre. Rukey Greentail – your moustached dog companion, obviously – swiftly dashes around the battlefield but only deals around half the damage that Jodariel does.

Movement involves jumping and sprinting, to which each character handles differently, and character-specific abilities further diversity their talents makes handling each party member feel distinct. Each team can only move one player at a time, and so I found myself swapping between characters on-the-fly to take advantage of their unique skillsets. Each character can also level up, master different skills, and equip accessories yielding a wide array of benefits, allowing even more customisation to accommodate your playstyle.

Focus solely on scoring, however, and you’re in for a rough time. Each character has an aura that acts as a magical barrier surrounding them, banishing any enemy who steps inside for a short time. Auras can also be cast in the form of a charged magic attack, with each character’s cast operating at least slightly differently. When a character is in possession of the orb, their aura disappears, making them incredibly vulnerable.

These mechanics turn Pyre into a juggling act of offence and defence – banishing their opponents and striking at their pyre while they wait for their party to respawn. To make things even more heated, the party member who carries the orb into the pyre is banished until the next goal is scored, temporarily putting the scoring team on the disadvantage. There are so many elements at work, and Pyre manages to introduce them at a pace that is neither overwhelming nor too focused on holding your hand.

While all of this may sound a bit ridiculous in an RPG – and initially, even I thought it was pretty odd – what’s truly amazing is just how well it meshes, creating a frenetic, addictive, and highly strategic mode of combat. Somehow, it just works. Never did I find myself sticking with the same party – encouraged in part by the game’s narrative, which I won’t spoil here – or feel like one setup was better than another. Mixing and matching party members enthralled me, as it always managed to push me to think of new and interesting strategies.

If things ever felt too easy, the difficulty can also be changed in the menu settings at any time. In addition, similar to the idols and limiters in Bastion and Transistor respectively, the player is provided with an optional risk-reward system in which battles can be made more challenging to yield greater experience upon victory. An added Versus Mode also allows you to challenge a friend or NPC in local multiplayer, which is certainly a welcome addition for those interested in playing with friends or experimenting with different party combinations.

“Simply describing Pyre‘s spectacularly outlandish battle system doesn’t do it justice… Pair that with a wonderful cast of characters, a riveting story, and enthralling music and visuals, and you have nothing short of a compelling game that demands your time and attention.”

When not in battle, narrative progression is akin to a visual novel as characters exchange dialogue and players are tasked with making decisions that can change the course of the narrative. Choices may range from choosing between branching paths to reach a destination to gut-wrenching decisions that impact your party as a whole.

Pyre also manages to personalise your experience further by eliminating the chance at a game-over. Rather, losing a battle means that your journey still continues, albeit on a slightly different path. Despite my urge to restart a Rite when the battle wasn’t going well, I pushed myself to resist that urge and it resulted in a more personal attachment to the story.

It also opens up the game for some incredible replay value, pushing players to return to see how things might have unfolded given a different outcome. Another handy addition is the ability to receive supplementary information about characters and lore-related terminology by moving the cursor over specially highlighted words in dialogue sequences. Pyre’s rich fantasy setting has a great deal of intriguing, yet complex backstory, and having the option to refresh your memory on certain terms makes the lore much easier to digest.

Watch a short gameplay clip of Pyre in the video below:

Complementing the narrative and world’s themes are a beautifully encapsulating musical score and a whimsically vibrant art style, both of which Supergiant is known for. The music, especially, artfully conveys the emotional range of the story through the use of subtle instrumentals and booming, powerful vocal performances during the game’s most climactic moments. Combine these with the weird, yet gorgeous over-the-top colourful environments that make up the world of Pyre and you have a masterfully executed presentation that stylishly expresses tone.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we never see another game quite like Pyre, and that’s perfectly okay. Simply describing its spectacularly outlandish battle system doesn’t do it justice; upon playing it, it doesn’t take long to realise that it works – and that it works incredibly well. Pair that with a wonderful cast of characters, a riveting story, and enthralling music and visuals, and you have nothing short of a compelling game that demands your time and attention. If you are at all curious about Pyre – and you should be – then you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

Pyre is available on PC and PS4. We reviewed the PS4 version.

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