Supergiant Games, a video game development company, was founded in 2009. In 2011, Supergiant put out its first game, Bastion, an isometric action-RPG. In 2014, Supergiant published it’s second game, Transistor, an isometric strategy-action-RPG. Starting in September of 2015, Supergiant (probably) played a lot of NBA 2K16’s MyCareer mode, as directed by renowned filmmaker Spike Lee.
At this time, Supergiant thought to itself, “We are not Spike Lee. But we could do better than this.”
And they did. They made Pyre.
What is Pyre?
Pyre (2017) is a non-isometric sports-RPG, developed and published by Supergiant Games for Windows, Linux, Mac OSX and Playstation 4. Pyre’s gameplay is divided between a meta-game and an actual game. The actual game is a sort of freeze-tag basketball hybrid, played on a court, in which you try to dunk/throw/hurl-yourself-with-a-ball into the enemy’s pyre (i.e.: hoop). When you extinguish the enemy’s pyre (i.e.: score enough points), you win. It’s a lot of fun and stacks well with the metagame, which mostly concerns managing your team and reading a healthy amount of text.
Pyre is fun, affecting, and good to look at.
Pyre is for anyone who likes footnotes but also NBA Jam.
Pyre is a game for people who have always been curious about visual novels, and also think it’d be great if, in basketball, team centers sprouted rams’ horns and point guards wore antigravity boots.
My first hour with Pyre, I wasn’t so hot on it. I feel the need to apologize to someone for this in retrospect.
You play Pyre as you, literally “you” - since this is what the narrative text calls you. You wake up in a deserted wasteland, and three travelers find you. One of them is a hulking, horned woman with a Pre-Raphealite face and terrifying eyes. Another is a talking dog with a Poirot mustache. The third is just a dude who’s super even-keeled and might’ve been a surfer in a world with any sports other than Fire B-Ball. These are your first three friends. They take you along because you are weak and they have varying degrees of pity - they keep you around because you can read. In the world of Pyre, this is a special, special thing. It’s nice to be told that reading is special, because you’re about to do a lot of it.
Pyre throws a lot of lore at you pretty fast, although it’s economic, and uses a clever footnoting system in which certain nouns are highlighted and can be scrolled over to pop up a two-sentence refresher. Pyre’s lore is friendly in this way.
Still, I honestly chafed at the idea of any lore to begin with. These three characters, archetypes for sure, yammering on about a Commonwealth or Rites and Lots of Proper Nouns… Did I really need another fantasy world to get to know? The answer is “Not Really,” but the lore you get up front is all the lore you’ll need. The rest of the metagame, the visual novel half of Pyre, is all about character and charm - and a little bit about loss and longing.
Pretty quickly, you get to your first Rite, Pyre’s lore-word for a sporting match. The mechanics of Pyre’s Rites are very satisfying, although it takes time for the game to reveal its brilliance to you. And it initially moves slower than basketball, its closest corollary. Only your talking dog friend (a “cur” in game lore) can zip around at first.
But all this is intentional. Pyre is very good at teaching you the ropes. Because before long the stacking of mechanics and new abilities will have you leaping those ropes. If Pyre starts slow, rest assured you will be completing feats of daring athleticism soon.
The gameplay is phenomenally slick and varied. The basics of the games within the game are simple NBA Jam, but with a twist. There is a court. There are two pyres on either side. There is a ball. You try to throw the ball in the other team’s pyre. You can play with three characters at once, and only one can be moving at a time, whether defensively or offensively, on either team. This last wrinkle is initially frustrating, but elemental to Pyre and keeps the flow appropriate to the court size.
Characters are broken down into class based on their “race” - hulking, horned demons like Jodariel can scatter enemies with the boom of landing a jump. A wyrm like Sir Gilman can dive and weave across the court as in water. The imp, Ti’Zo, is tiny and not great defensively, but he can valiantly self destruct to momentarily bench three enemies at once (while also momentarily benching himself). Gradually, these abilities stack to a level of both frictive and kinetic but also tactical satisfaction. This is Supergiant’s clearest callback to Transistor which took a similar route: This will always feel good to play as an action game, but it is richly tactical just below its surface.
Best of all, you’re never allowed to get too cozy with one particular triumvirate. The game forces you to remix your players regularly, narrowing the roster through simply “fatigue” or more elemental design decisions. In fact, one of Pyre’s most brilliant strokes is a marriage of narrative and game design that doesn’t make itself apparent until almost a quarter of the way through your playtime. It’s a legitimate twist, and I won’t spoil that here. It’s smart enough to be worth the surprise.
There are still things to complain about: The wagon movement is too Tex Avery to fit the art style of the rest of the game, and at times the intense colors can cause the world to burn out the retina, losing detail. Some written passages in the Book of Rites are obtuse to a fault, even if they’re non-essential. You’ll spend a lot of time wondering why anyone wants to do the single thing everyone is striving so desperately to do: return to the Commonwealth. It seems like a shitty place.
There’s game’s need to give everyone a back story, a reason for their expulsion, a complication and a wrinkle. One of my favorite things about the game is that these aren’t always resolved - there’s just not enough time for everyone’s arc. This will potentially drive some players crazy, but I like it. To my mind, there are still too many moments when Character Development seems shoe-horned.
The biggest criticism you could levy at Pyre is that it loses something in its own addictive loop. The game essentially moves from Rites Match to Exposition/Character Development to Rites Match… ad infinitum, until the game is over. This is a good loop, but it can wear on you in long play sessions. It makes the visual novel sections of Pyre start to feel a little too neat, too structured and expected.
Still, this is a minor complaint, and an easy fix: Pyre is designed for short-term play, a match or two and then a rest. You may be tempted to binge, but don’t.
Pyre is a deceptively deep set of systems wrapped in a wonderful story. It’s themes are incisive and pertinent (just look at how many teams are bastardized versions of their founding Scribe’s beliefs), and it knows how to lean into its strongest selling point: Characters you will love, miss and think on long after they are gone.
Plus, those characters all move real good on the court. ★