"I could easily see this being the type of game some people will adore and obsess over, while others will struggle to finish."
Pyre is the third gorgeous concoction to come out of Supergiant Games, a small studio known for two other hit titles, Bastion and Transistor. This third project maintains the same sense of flair, oozing style in a unique and fascinating world. Unlike its brethren, which relied heavily on one or two core characters and the environment for cues, Pyre world-builds through a tome of text delivered piecemeal and its exceptional cast of characters. I emphasize the lore because that seems to be what Supergiant Games does best, and that remains true here. While it is a beautiful and fun experience, Pyre suffers from issues Bastion and Transistor didn't have, such as pacing and simple gameplay.
Setting aside comparisons to its stellar kin, Pyre is a worthwhile game to play. The overall progression of the game follows a strict pattern that doesn't flow naturally but is delivered as such: talk to allies, read the book, travel briefly, talk to allies, read the book, meet antagonists, play a brief sports match, talk to allies, read the book, and repeat. Now, that might sound like a lot of RPGs, but what's different here is that I never felt like I was doing any one thing for a significant length of time. Some might say that's great, since nothing grows stale; but games that change things up frequently have to add new elements, not just shift to the same previously discovered activities in quick succession. At no point did I feel like I could just read the book for several minutes at a time or have long, engaging conversations with allies. Even the big "battles" lacked significance in that they were over seemingly just as soon as they began. I highlight this first because this is the core system through which Pyre flows, and that's important. The parts are fantastic and engaging — for the most part — but the flow with which everything is managed took me out of the experience throughout this 15–20 hour endeavor.
Where are we traveling and why are we talking to allies so much? In Pyre, you are a Reader who has a rare talent: you can read! In this world, the rulers of the Commonwealth do not like those who read or don't fall in line. People who commit these crimes are banished to the Downside, a sort of hazardous wasteland that exiles want to leave. The way exiles leave is by fulfilling Rites offered by the Eight Scribes, who are deities spoken about in the tome I mentioned earlier. Rites are sport matches that vaguely resemble ultimate frisbee and football. Most of the game involves learning about this world, whether by word of mouth or through the book.
Now, let's talk about the good stuff. Chiefly, I fell in love with the characters. Specifically, I fell in love with the allies. Some of the enemies are one-dimensional and lack depth, but the core crew that players will spend most of their time with are a ragtag, fascinating bunch. Even characters that go against the grain and seem to do their best to create problems are endearing and made me want to know their stories so that I could learn why they were that way. The total number of allies is substantial for a game this size, so for me to enjoy everyone I journeyed with requires exceptional writing. If I didn't look at the artwork during dialogue and just read the text box, I could almost definitely tell you who says each line — that's how unique each character is. More importantly, they aren't unique for the sake of being unique. These are people (or creatures) who have real identities and believable motives.
Unfortunately, part of the game is simply spending time with allies or making decisions that some allies want you to commit to, such as traveling to a preferred destination. This requires no skill or thought, and it oftentimes feels like checking off a box. Every character has a profile that updates once you check enough boxes, which is the kind of illusion of choice I can't really get behind. Again, the writing is phenomenal, but the "game" part of getting to know your friends feels lazy.
The other part of the game is, of course, outfitting your crew for the previously alluded to sport. Basically, battles with other factions involve forming a team of three on an isometric field. The objective is to take the orb in the center and move it into the pyre at the enemy's end of the field while preventing them from doing the same to yours. Of course, the game is souped up with fantasy-like abilities, such as shooting beams at each other and flying across the field. The matches definitely require some degree of skill, but they're oftentimes relatively simple. Like Supergiant Games' previous titles, though, players can choose hurdles to gain bonus experience, such as speeding up the enemies or adding health to their pyre. Sadly, the choices in Pyre are far less interesting than I'm used to, and the rewards aren't really required as the AI is pretty simple.
Regarding control, the only real consideration here is the matches, as the rest of the game is clicking on windows or boxes. In several matches, I had issues with hit detection when I thought the orb was going to land in the fire but didn't or when I was jumping into the pyre with the ball and somehow overshot it. These sorts of grievances shouldn't happen in a frenetic experience like this, but they happened too infrequently for me to gripe much about it. Just know that sometimes an aura will seem like it hit an enemy before theirs hits an ally or the orb may not go where you think it will.
Presentation, on the other hand, is where Supergiant Games excels. Pyre's world is colorful, stylistic, and sparks the imagination. Unlike so many other RPGs, I never feel like I've seen these environments before, but they aren't bizarre either. Something I love about Pyre is that certain details merit explanation, such as why some characters look the way they do or why the world is structured the way it is, but no explanation is given. And that's okay. We're given just enough insight to get us to buy in while simultaneously being allowed to come up with our own answers. This is a challenging balance to accomplish. Conversely, regarding sound, players may be disappointed in that they won't receive the standard Logan Cunningham treatment. He voices several characters, just not in the way one might expect. That said, the music and voices are fantastic, but newcomers should keep an open mind.
I enjoyed my time with Pyre; I'm glad I played it. The world inspires thought and curiosity, and I'm left with something to mentally chew on for a while. I already miss my new friends. Due to the "check box" nature of getting to know characters and building relationships, I have considered giving it another go with vastly different decisions, but I think I got what I needed out of this. I also wish the history wasn't delivered through chronologically discordant segments of text. Initially, the game feels like a lore dump and there's a lot to know if you want to dive in. I had difficulty wrapping my head around the world's history, and it seemed relevant. The sports matches are fun, but lack the depth or intensity I think the developers were trying to accomplish. I could easily see this being the type of game some people will adore and obsess over, while others will struggle to finish. If what I've described piques your curiosity and you're a sucker for well-written characters and inspiring worlds, this is likely worth a go.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.