Since its debut in 2011 with Bastion, Supergiant Games has been one of the indie scenes’ most prominent and respected studios.
It’s a team that’s always prided itself in striving for greater, with its latest release Hades largely being considered its best game. It’s hard to argue against that sentiment, but there’s something to be said for the often-overlooked outlier in Supergiant’s gameography: 2017’s Pyre. Its strange melting pot of sports and visual novel gameplay is initially a hard concept to digest, yet its ambition culminates in the studio’s most inspired work yet, without compromising any of the cohesion and quality that its reputation has been built upon.
In Pyre, players control a band of exiles known as the Nightwings, as they traverse through the treacherous Downside, slowly amassing more comrades to participate in Liberation Rites to earn back their access to their homeland in the Commonwealth. These Liberation Rites are presented as being akin to a ritualistic event, only they play out like a sports match, with each team picking three candidates to participate, trying to score points by launching an orb into the other team’s Pyre (a goal, essentially).
What makes Pyre shine is how it incorporates the aftermaths of these sporting events into its narrative. The story can potentially play out with drastic changes from person to person depending on how well the player performs in these events, and who they choose to liberate upon succeeding. The reverberating permanent consequences of the Liberation Rites give each of these matches a palpable sense of growing tension, as there’s only so many Liberation Rites to take part in. When it becomes apparent that there won’t be enough Rites to liberate each member of the Nightwings, the once-optimistic group begins to grow more aware of the dire circumstances, bringing about a gradual tonal shift that makes each subsequent Rite harder to follow through with.
What’s more is that liberating characters leaves an empty spot in the team as well. For as tempting as it’ll be for a player to immediately work on liberating their favourite characters, one has to decide whether they want to prioritise the characters’ personal wellbeing over their own convenience. At several points throughout Pyre, it’s likely that players will be deciding between their own selfish benefits of having an all-star team member stick around, or that member’s own freedom.
Naturally, Pyre‘s cast of characters are all substantially fleshed out throughout the course of the game. There’s ample opportunity to spend quiet moments with the Nightwings’ different members, learning about the circumstances that led them to being exiled in the first place, and their own personal relationships with one another. Not everyone in the Nightwings shares the same ideologies, and the members can at times be seen bickering amongst themselves as tensions rise. It’s in these humanising moments, and the sense of personal agency that each member carries, that makes them feel all the more real.
Competing rival teams also have their own defined characteristics and motives that become apparent throughout the duration of Pyre. While the player is tasked with trying to liberate as many of the Nightwings as possible, there are other equally downtrodden groups of do-gooders who are just as deserving of liberation. Some teams fill the role of simply being one-dimensional antagonists to overcome, and it’s satisfying to see the main gang triumph over them in matches, but winning against certain teams feels less like a victory than it does a necessity.
Perhaps the biggest testament to Pyre’s writing is how the game manages to introduce and invest the player in a history-rich, expansive universe populated by dozens of unique characters within a lean 15-hour run time. There isn’t a throwaway line of dialogue to be found; every sentence of the game’s script has been refined to where each text bubble reveals a new piece of information about the world, or a new facet of a character’s personality. With plenty of big modern releases requiring large time commitments, it’s refreshing to see a game with writing this concise.
For some, Pyre’s gameplay will feel like a concession to see the narrative unfold, but Supergiant went out of its way to try and craft a sports gameplay that can be enjoyed even outside of the story’s context. Each character has their own unique properties and strengths, as well as small skill trees and the ability to equip stat altering items, incentivising strategy in team compositions to counteract specific teams’ abilities. This is less noticeable on the easier difficulties, but the gameplay of Pyre starts to click into place on its hard difficulty.
With the extra challenge, each Rite becomes intensified, and scraping any additional victories from close matches during the late-game is genuinely exhilarating; the excitement of seeing a favourite sports team coming out victorious during an important end-of-season match has been captured more accurately than in any dedicated sports simulation. For those sceptical of diving straight into the higher difficulty, the option to change difficulty at any time means that it’s possible to curate an ideal playing experience, and the ability to add additional challenge modifiers later can allow for further tweaking to personal preference. Pyre’s gameplay can certainly be a point of contention, but there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had for those who are willing to push out of their comfort zone, and dig deeper into what the game has to offer from a mechanical viewpoint.
The blend of Pyre’s reactive story and accurate recreation of the excitement that can be found in professional sports makes it a game that’s truly noteworthy, culminating in an excellent experience that has to be played first-hand to be truly appreciated. For some it might not click, but for those who have found themselves enamoured in any of Supergiant’s other releases, or have been slightly intrigued by anything described in this writing, it’s one that’s well worth a revisit. And dare I say it, it may also be the strongest showcase of Supergiant Game’s creative ingenuity and talent yet.