For the longest time, Pyre felt like a black sheep in Supergiant Games’ catalog to me. They’ve definitely become a household name with Hades, but they came in strong with early indie hit Bastion. And of course, Transistor’s a well respected middle child in the line-up.
Meanwhile, Pyre feels like the neglected middle child. In fact, it’s readily apparent if you look at Steam user reviews, because it’s the only game of the studio that hasn’t crossed the 10k review mark. I know that this game was made, I know that it exists, but I honestly had no idea what it was about because nobody talks about it. I only played a little bit of Transistor and haven’t touched Hades yet (which is probably sacrilege for a site like this to admit), but I had a good idea on their deals. But Pyre? That’s a mystery to me.
So, I decided to check it out, because you know, it’s way more interesting to look at a relative unknown than something people already talk about.
In Pyre, you are a person banished to the Downside, a place where people are exiled to for crimes against the Commonwealth. You are picked up by the Nightwings, a ragtag group looking to escape the Downside by participating in Rites against other groups. As you were arrested for the crime of literacy, you’re the only one out of the group that can read the Book of Rites and interpret the stars, so you become the Nightwings’ dedicated Reader, guiding them on the path toward freedom – whatever that may entail.
The Nightwings start out in a flimsy wagon with three characters, but the cast steadily grows as you venture on. The characters are pretty likable and they all carry a sense of mystery with them, because they aren’t exactly willing to fork up why they were sentenced to the Downside. In spending time with characters, they’ll open up and you’ll learn about their deal and their relationships with the other characters.
Plenty of chances to talk to characters open up as you travel the game world at stops on the way to the next Rite. You’ll find a point where you can leave the wagon with Hedwyn to search for arbitrary things to sell and talk to him back in the wagon about what he should make everyone for dinner. You’ll sometimes stumble on scenes like big tough demon lady Jodariel acting like a mom to the childlike Moon-Touched (a character whose name you can choose; I chose Fae), showing off a side to her that you may not have known. When going off to play in a Rite against the Dissidents, a team of dog-like curs, your cur Rukey expresses worries because of past dealings with them and in fact will make himself unavailable in the first match against them. There are several scenes like that that wind up creating a gameplay change for the following Rite, like a temporary stat boost or a party member having to tag out, creating a nice integration of story and gameplay.
So, what are these Rites?
As I looked up nothing on the game before buying it, I was completely blindsided by Pyre also being a sports game.
Conducting Rites has you choosing a team of three to go against an enemy team. The players all exude auras that temporarily banish whoever touches it, and those auras can be weaponized in different ways depending on the species of whoever’s wielding it. Sir Gilman and his ilk leave an aura trail and can snap back to the start of the trail to take out people near it, harpies like Pamitha shoot themselves forward alongside their aura, etc.
So, is this a death match type of game?
Nah. We’re playing fucked up football.
Both teams are protecting titular pyres and they must snuff out the flames of the opposite team’s pyre with an orb. Holding the orb however dispels the aura of whoever’s holding it, so your goal is to create a safe passage for your orb holder, since they can’t defend themselves. But, you have to remember that only one character can be active at a time. The enemy team could take the time to banish your unused team members, steal the orb, and immediately pass it to a teammate positioned at the goal for them to dunk it in. They could even toss the orb into the pyre, a risky but beneficial move since dunking the orb into the pyre banishes the dunker for the duration of the entire next round (unless certain passives are present).
The good news of course is that you can do the same thing, too. Go ham with banishing enemies and carefully position everyone to take up defense while your orb bearer tries to score, in case the enemy respawns and takes it back. It sounds easy, but the game AI is actually pretty smart. The more mobile enemy player types will gladly go for a mad dash when you leave a path open; then as you go for the defense, the AI will quickly switch to another teammate to take out your defenseless players as you banish their goal scorer. The more defensive sap enemies, who place aura generating totems instead of shooting them, will place it in ways to control the play area, if they’re not placing it as an inconvenient defense at their pyre. But, as the enemy teams are reflections of your own, you can learn from their tactics to beef up your own play.
As for your own teammates, they offer a bunch of niches that can blend well together that grow as they level up. Hedwyn is rather straightforward to play with, but he can give a stamina boost passive to the whole team, which is always welcome no matter who he’s paired with. Ti’zo – and the imps in general – are highly mobile, and if he can’t slam a goal in, he could just blow himself up to clear a path for the others. Fae in the meantime can grow to be well-suited at throwing, which may enable you to consistently field a team of three throughout the game. There isn’t exactly a wrong way to make a team, just different ways to play.
Pyre’s Rites? I actually think they’re super fun. But also: I can definitely see why no one talks about this game.
If you’re into Pyre solely for the visual novel segments, you may find the Rites to be a turn-off, because while I find it enjoyable, it’s definitely going to be alienating. Usually, games with big visual novel segments have gameplay segments that are just as slow paced, like turn-based RPGs or puzzles, so it’s easy to slot right into those modes. But even if that’s not the case, there’s usually options to make it so that you don’t have to interact with the gameplay as much; later Supergiant game Hades, of course, has the customizable difficulty for people that just want to do all the story stuff.
Pyre does not have the same kinda thing. Plus, as performing the Rites are integral to the story itself and your performance in them influences the story, you’re required to engage with it. RIP to you if you don’t want to play sports.
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s players that want to play the Rites that may not care for all the reading between matches. Either way, there’s segments of players that will not gel with this game because the genre mix is such a mismatch.
More gameplay focused players get the concession of a versus mode completely dedicated to playing the Rites. As for people hooked on the story, their concession is that they don’t necessarily have to be good at playing the Rites to play through the game.
The thing is, the Nightwings hold a special place in the Rites in that they’re the team which all other teams are judged in the Liberation Rite, for lore reasons that you can read. They’ll always have a seat at the table on sending a team member to freedom, so if you’re not good, don’t sweat it.
But that leads into the first big twist of Pyre, the one that I don’t mind spoiling: when you get to a Liberation Rite, only one person goes free at a time.
This presents the strongest dilemma in Pyre: out of the random selection of people deemed worthy to ascend, who do you pick, and do you actually want them to be free? You may like a character to the point that you wish for their freedom, but you may like them too much and force them to stick around so you can learn more about them. Or, from a gameplay perspective, you could deny a team member you’re good with a chance at freedom so that you can keep playing good.
As such, the character I knew the least in my playthrough was Sir Gilman. My choices on who to free in my first Liberation Rite was him, Hedwyn and Jodariel, and I like those two too much to just get rid of them. Am I the asshole? Yeah, probably.
Alternatively: you can actually just throw a Liberation Rite and allow the enemy team captain to be free instead – which is why not being good at playing the Rites isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You may be tempted to do so, because some of the enemy captains are kinda sympathetic. After all, they’re stuck in the same circumstances as the Nightwings. Hell, maybe you can throw purely from a gameplay standpoint because a winning team will stop showing up to fight if you allow them a liberation win. To be honest, I threw my match with the Essence because I kinda hate fighting them; but also, I’m all for winged harpy attack squads on a repressive government, so I was all for letting its representative free.
And of course, as the Nightwings’ sponsor, Volfred, puts it, the gift of freedom is not enough. Are you truly free if you’re just going back to the system that exiled you to begin with? For some characters, they may be better off in the Downside, like Fae, who finds peace in following the Scribes that created the Rites.. However, Volfredis plotting a rebellion against the Commonwealth, and it’s important to get as many Nightwings as possible up there to make a bloodless change, because if not everyone in the Downside can be free, you can at least help make the surface world a truly free world.
No matter what, there will be some characters that will be left unhappy by the end. All you can do is your best.
After the first Liberation Rite, the game world starts to open up. When the game offers multiple teams to play against, you can choose a team to advance their story, or maybe swing the overall standings in favor of a team you want to face in a Liberation Rite. To keep things fresh, the enemy teams also start taking up the same skill tree stuff you do, in a perfect reflection of your own team. You may be thinking, “wouldn’t it be repetitive to go through a bunch of Rites just to get to the next Liberation Rite over and over?” Well, for reasons that’s huge spoilers, you won’t have to worry about tedium.
I think a criticism I have with Pyre is that I feel that there’s some unnecessary systems tacked on. Like, the talismans you can equip characters with, for one thing. They’re helpful modifiers, sure, but most of them wind up feeling unnecessary when each character has their own unique talisman you can earn through challenges that’s way better than any of the generic ones, and it feels like those unique talismans could just be skill tree things, anyway. The talismans and the accompanying shop system just felt kinda There. I’d prefer something fun like scenes that end with increasing the stats of individual party members instead of having to buy stuff from an extraneous shop system to do that.
Also, I hate the shopkeeper. Fuck that guy for lowering my stats that one time.
There’s also an option to enable Titan Stars at some point in the game, which lets you make the next match more difficult in different ways in exchange for more experience. Given that your goal is to free your players from the Downside, you don’t really have to worry about leveling most characters to max or anything. Unless you’re playing the hard mode that requires you to enable them, who cares?
However, even if the gameplay-story mix of Pyre is divisive, you can’t deny that its presentation is pretty good, as is the case with all Supergiant Games stuff. The art’s pretty good and I love all the different character designs. Darren Korb, Supermassive’s resident composer, brings a strong showing as well. He dips into a variety of genres to represent the different teams, like the Pyrehearts having songs that wouldn’t sound out-of-place from a medieval RPG and the Dissidents having a thrasher theme to represent how they’re just a bunch of funny little fucked up guys that like to fight.
Bastion and Transistor have strong narrator voices as part of their identities, and though not as omnipresent as those examples, the Voice generated from the Book of Rites makes for a great announcer whenever you get in a Rite. Combining the role of a game announcer with the sensibilities of a pompous speech giver, the Voice brings a great energy to playing the Rites – especially toward the late game.
Part of what makes the Liberation Rites feel great is the presentation. Your traveling bard friend and the gatekeeper (voiced by Darren Korb himself and other Supergiant voice Ashley Barrett) sing a song together that melds on top of the track playing for the enemy team and it lends a great weight to the experience. Big dramatic moments in games suddenly getting backed by vocals? Always kino. It was great in Bastion, and it’s still great here. The Voice giving a dramatic speech before and after sending off the Rite’s winner is just icing on the cake.
After playing the game, you unlock that hard mode I mentioned earlier. But besides that, the game’s replay value lies in the fact that there’s a lot of dialogue you miss from only doing one playthrough. Relationships with the enemy characters may be different if you’ve freed certain characters or not, relationships between the Nightwings grow depending on how things go, etc. And of course, since not everyone can get a happy ending, you can try to give characters a chance at freedom the next go around.
Though, unlike standard visual novel playthroughs, there is no text skip through old dialogue and you’ll still have to go through Rites, which is another point that more story focused players would hate. I get that it’d be hard to implement with the amount of variables to keep track of, but dang do I wish there was a text skip like that. Maybe a new game plus mode where you can just skip the Rite and choose the outcome of it as a dialogue option? I dunno, but even with Pyre’s relatively short length, I feel that it’d be annoying to replay.
When it comes down to it though, Pyre is a really well-made game that just happens to be a mix of things that may be alienating to some audiences. While I’m primarily more of a story first kinda girl, I’m also a boy that loves it when there’s a good melding of gameplay and story, and Pyre is an excellent mix of Stuff.
If you’re a Supergiant fan and haven’t played Pyre yet, I really recommend checking it out. Look, it’s going to be a while before Hades II drops, you might as well, right? As for anyone else, well, it’s kind of a hard bargain if you only value certain experiences in the games you play. If you’re open to a unique blend though, I’d say that it’s a game worth checking out.