Supergiant are known for Bastion and Transistor: each hauntingly beautiful tales set in strange fantasy worlds that thrum with the rhythm of fast-paced combat. What Supergiant aren’t known for, and it’s safe to say that nobody is, are visual novel sports games. In fact it would be difficult to pick two gaming genres that are less compatible: the ponderous pace and lore-heavy demands of a visual novel hardly lend themselves to the speed and ruthless strategy of sports games, yet in Pyre these two styles come together to make one ambitious and unforgettable game – one that needs to be experienced firsthand.
The world of Pyre is drenched in lore, from the ancient titans whose fallen bodies litter the vivid expanses of the Downside, to the teams of Triumvirates who uphold the sacred traditions of the Rites. Set to a new soundtrack from Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett, You awaken in a land known as the Downside. Exiled from the Commonwealth, where literacy has been outlawed, you are drawn into the mysterious legend of trials through which exiles may seek their freedom, and win their right to return home.
These ‘Rites’ form the main part of the game, fast-paced trials under the stars where teams of three, or ‘Triumvirates’, compete against a roster of different opponents to douse the flames of the enemy pyre. Your team, the Nightwings, make up a considerable force with the likes of Jodariel: a slow-moving yet awesomely powerful demon who has survived in the Downside long enough to grow her horns, or Rukey Greentail, a ‘cur’ who uses his four paws to run rings around the enemy team and banish opponents from afar, or dive straight into their pyre to score points.
In the Rites, both teams light a blazing pyre which the opposing side must try to snuff out, scoring points and dampening the flames each time they succeed in flinging an orb into its heart. But players must also watch out for the enemy auras: getting too close to them or being caught in an aura-cast spell means banishment from the field and a pyre left defenseless to the enemies’ moves. The rules of the Rites are doused in myths and legends, but the game is immediately intuitive for anyone familiar with the fabled traditions of soccer or basketball.
However, Pyre has more to it than simply reaching the opposition’s goal. A roster of fantastical characters, mastery trees, item buffs, and themed arenas all make Pyre feel like a mini-MOBA, and naturally, each teammate has unique abilities that change how you play and strategize on the pitch. Ti’zo, an adorably fierce imp, is not only able to zip around the playing field, but can also fly clear above his enemies, or self-destruct to take out an entire group of opponents. Meanwhile, Volfred, an ent-like creature known as a Sap, can shield himself from attacks or even place a sapling on the field to block the enemy team and force them through choke-points.
The diverse range of characters make Pyre come alive, and the Rites have all the same exhilarating speed of Supergiant’s usual tactical fast-paced combat systems. The fun of the matches and mastering characters is a big draw for this game. That said, the Rites always left me with the unshakable suspicion that I wasn’t playing them the way the game wanted me to. Pyre’s matches may have a touch of the MOBA about them, but with that comes the awareness that you are a single player controlling three characters against a much faster and unified AI. The game spends a long time telling you that the point of the Rites is to find unity between your players and to harmonize together to win matches, but in reality switching between characters in the heat of a match feels far too slow to ever be worth the risk.
While the AI might be comfortable flitting between players, it’s far wiser for us humans to use a single character to banish enemies and then rush their pyre, leaving your other players on defense rather than risk sending them around the field. It makes me wish Pyre really was a MOBA, or at least had three-player local co-op available because there could be a lot of fun in attempting to play a three-man match of mystical football. However a co-op approach wouldn’t work with the games’ visual novel style storytelling, and this is precisely where the game gets interesting.
When you sit down to play a sports game you get to revel in the thrill of the match, but you’re also faced with hard decisions: balancing team compositions, investing in the worthiest players, and managing spreadsheets of player stats. Pyre revels in those hard decisions, asking you to send away your best players for their own chances of happiness, to let weaker players prove their worth, or even to throw a match in favor of an opponent who deserves victory. Getting caught in Pyre’s narrative hooks makes acting as an impartial team captain impossible. The compassion gets inside you and makes every decision a struggle, without ever offering the relief of options that are morally right or wrong.
Facing off against the Essence, a team of Harps seeking to win their leader’s freedom and return to wage war on the Commonwealth, I was close to victory and finally setting my own hero free when suddenly Pamitha, a Harp on my own team, urged me to throw the match and let her sister return instead. Rushed back into the game and with no time to respond, I quickly lost my focus and began wondering what I ought to do, stalling the match whilst I shied away from scoring. Should I purposefully lose to allow my enemy a chance at freedom? Wouldn’t I be losing the game by showing mercy? And what about my own team, who also deserved to end their exile?
I can’t remember the last time a game challenged me to see not only its heroes but also its enemies as characters worthy of winning. In Pyre every victory is a loss for another team, and although the game lets you know you can lose as many matches as you like, this only makes you feel compelled not to keep replaying a match you didn’t honestly win. Losing is a real possibility, and by not framing it as a ‘fail state’ Pyre makes the Rites feel far more real, and risky, for everyone involved.
Pyre achieves what many games struggle with: truly implementing narrative choices that are difficult to make, ones which are not merely a choice of morally good or bad, and as a double whammy – affect not only the story but the gameplay itself. Pyre accomplishes this to devastating effect, because Pyre asks you to say goodbye to your best players, one by one, from the very beginning.
The Liberation Rite is the final test on your way to returning an exile back to the Commonwealth but the unspoken pain of these rites is that it means saying goodbye to a character forever. And there is no easy choice: how after all do you judge which of your friends most deserves freedom? And what’s more, can you afford to lose them as a player No matter how much time you spend divining the stars, you have little way of foreseeing how your actions will influence the lives of your friends: whether their stories will be happier for leaving the Downside behind, or, after all you’ve been through as a team, they’re better off below.
Losing characters feels painful, yet I found myself again and again opting to anoint some of my best players and closest friends, not because it was tactical, but because no matter how useful they were to me on the team it was the right thing to do. I love how Pyre got inside my head because it completely flies in the face of the usual urge to min-max character stats and exclude any playstyle that’s not ‘optimal’. Pyre is a game which defies its genre, and in the heat of the rites there is nothing I’d rather be doing than playing as a team: fighting for the underdog, for revolution, and for friendship.