Video Games

REVIEW: Pyre Delivers and Disappoints

Supergiant Games have had a pretty good run so far. Their first two titles, Bastion and Transistor, were met with critical acclaim and instantly created a community around the studio’s work. In some ways Supergiant had become the poster child for the best of the game industry. A small crew with limited resources created two of the most stylistic and unique games in recent memory. Those two games capitalized on the team’s strengths and although they had differences in the details, the broad strokes were largely the same. Very few people had anything but praise for those two games at the time. Instead, another worrying question emerged: Is Supergiant capable of diverting from their established formula?

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Pyre is the third game from Supergiant and the concern for distinguishing itself from the other two titles seems apparent. The core mechanics of Pyre are a huge departure from not only Supergiant Games, but all of the industry’s current trends. These departures make Pyre an intensely unique experience, but Supergiant’s reliance on its signature touchstones make it difficult to shake the feeling that the game could’ve achieved much more.

Like all of Supergiant’s games, Pyre’s gameplay is tightly intertwined with its story. You play as an outcast of the Commonwealth, a society that has outlawed reading. As a reader, you’ve been banished to a redemptive land called the Downside where various outlaws compete in religious rites to win their way back into high society. These rites take the form of a mystic sport similar to Basketball where the objective is to score a ball into the opponent’s goal. Each side has three teammates but only one person can move at a time. There are various attributes that effect each player’s role in the game. For example, a larger character may have a wider presence to block opponents from advancing, but they’ll also be significantly slower. Alternatively, a quick character may be able to sprint across the field with ease but the amount of points they can score will be less than other characters. There are a few difference dynamics in play and it’s best to see gameplay yourself to get a better grip of how a typical match plays out.

The mechanical depth isn’t merely tweaking the values of traits like quickness (how fast you move), presence (how wide of an area you occupy), or glory (how many points you score). New characters tend to be unique races to the world of the Commonwealth. These party members have backstories that fill in the lore of the world and playstyles that expand on the gameplay’s depth. For example, Pamitha is party member from a race of bird people who have allegiance to a nation historically against the Commonwealth. Her great wings allow her to fly over the map with increased mobility. Another character is a talking tree with revolutionary tendencies. His movement is quite slowly but can teleport short distances and leave saplings for defense around the map. These different races also appears as your opponents in the game. Different teams have varying strengths and weaknesses meaning that there’s rarely a strategy that works for all of them. It also helps that Pyre encourages experimentation with your roster by having characters gain “inspiration” when they sit out a match, which allows them to gain twice as much experience when you use them again.

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As the story progresses, Pyre introduces more elements to keep the gameplay fresh and these elements will be familiar to anyone who’s played another of Supergiant’s games. Each teammate can be equipped with a unique item that alters their stats in some meaningful way. These items can be found in the world, purchased at a store or unlocked through a character-specific challenge. Later in the game the player has the option to make each match more challenging by fighting under specific religious constellations that give buffs to the opposing team or debuffs to your own. These additional elements are fine on their own but they contribute to the feeling that Pyre is more of the same. A good sports game doesn’t necessarily need a new twist every 30 minutes to keep the player’s interest. Instead the cascade of gimmicks act as a distraction. In the later matches I focused more on discovering what team/item composition broke the game instead of improving my skills and strategies.

At some point it becomes apparent that the gameplay was intended to be the focus, as made evident by the overbearing amount of dialogue and storytelling. On its own, the writing and world building of Pyre is fantastic. As opposed to Supergiant’s previous games, the player directly interacts with most characters instead of reading about them in description texts. The various personalities come to life with these one-on-one interactions but there is simply way too many of them. For every ten minutes of gameplay there’s an accompanying 30 minutes of talking to party members or advancing the story by pressing X over and over until your input is needed again. Sometimes you’re given options on how to respond to character inquiries or make decisions for the group, but many of these “choices” seem half-baked since none of these choices have a narrative or mechanical consequence. The strangest example of this is when the game prompts the player as if they’re being tasked with deciding the future of the groups’ journey, but there’s only one option. These moments give the impression that Supergiant planned for worthwhile choices, and perhaps branching paths, but chose not to pursue it.

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Narrative choices would have gone a long way to remedy how boring the game becomes when it starts unloading its story on the player. It’s bad enough that Pyre has a very slow start, but it never gets into a groove of leapfrogging between action and story. Eventually I found myself so overwhelmed with party members wanting to talk to me that I skipped through a lot of the tangential dialogue. In the past, Supergiant has woven a lot of its story in its gameplay. Transistor masterfully tied gameplay experimentation with revealing more of the world by tying each individual ability to a backstory of a specific character. In Transistor the more you used an ability, the more story you got. That’s not the relationship in Pyre. Clicking through character text unlocks even more text via the religious book the party keeps with them at all times. I tried my best to read a few pages of this codex but gave up around page 15 (there’s over 50 in total). Supergiant’s past games have had their own worlds with deep backstories, but it was always optional for the player to explore if they wanted to. In Pyre, everything is front and center.

The biggest crime of the oppressive story is it diminishes your time with playing the game. Pyre is easily the most mechanically dense game from Supergiant, but just as its true potential is revealed the game ends. There is a local versus mode offered in the game, but without any competition or consequence it’s not enough. Had the game included traditional mode available in sports games — such as tournaments, challenges, or online multiplayer — the thirst to play more of the game may have been quenched, but there’s none of that. On the other hand, the narrative is never truly explored either. Pyre’s world has conflicting nations, racial tensions, political plots, unique backstories and complicated relationships but they all have to be condensed into one minute dialogues. It feels like Supergiant finally struck gold and found a concept worthy of spending more time on, but they cut it short. I suppose Supergiant could feel flattered that the biggest critique of their game is that it seemed like it could have been even better, but it also means it’s hard to walk away from the game without feeling disappointed.

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The individual elements of Pyre are fantastic. The clean visual style creates unique vistas for the landscapes of the Downside. Every party member and stage have their own soundtrack that adds a sense of character to the entire world. Political intrigue and individual motives draw the player into the intriguing storyline and the memorable cast give reasons to care about the outcome. Mechanically, this is Supergiant’s best work. Pyre is an easily recommendable game to anyone with an appreciation for video games, but the question that shrouded Pyre’s release is not answered after its completion. Is Supergiant capable of anything else?

4/5

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2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Pyre Delivers and Disappoints

  1. Cohen says:

    Good review! I completely respect your opinion, but I find myself disagreeing in regards to the dialogue and story.

    For me, the story was actually the major hook. I understand it might not be to everyone’s taste, but I adored it. I read every single line of dialogue, because for me they contributed to each character’s personality. The gameplay was really just icing on the cake – a way for the story to move forward, in a dynamic and interesting way.

    But, ultimately, the story was so well-told that I actually gave a damn about my party members, making the choice of who to leave behind all the more difficult to make towards the end. Heck, I even teared up a few times – something that hasn’t happened for a very, very long time in video games I’ve played recently.

    I will say that all of the reading in the Book of Rites was way too much for me. I didn’t read more than the first few pages. I’m sure a few lorehounds will love it, and I’m glad it was included for their sakes, but it was extremely overwhelming. I would have been content with a few pages in each chapter, and the rest of the development time being shifted towards something more hands-on and meaningful – story or gameplay wise.

    In addition to well-written main characters (With an exception or two – after all, for some characters you got VERY little time to spend with them before the game was over) I found myself caring for some of my enemies, as well – namely the Fate. I considered allowing them to win a liberation rite, in fact, but valued my Nightwings’ perfect record too much. I loved the idea of being an unbeatable force, driven by the desire to change things in the Commonwealth.

    If there’s one thing I wish we got to delve into more, it’s the concept of the Scribes. Maybe said book of rites gives more background on them, but personally, I would have liked to understand more WHY the stars are disappearing – are they causing it, or is it something else? If this was explained I may have forgotten/missed it, but I don’t really like that they just remained an unknowable enigma throughout the entire game. All we know about them is what others have told us, and what’s been written. How could would it be to actually encounter them in some form, where they either approve or disapprove of our actions (or something to that affect)?

    Anyway, like I said, good review all around – and I’m glad you liked the game on a whole!

    • Thanks for the insightful response! We’ll have to agree to disagree. I liked the story in general but I think I have a much lower tolerance to sitting through text instead of playing the game. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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