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So, I played... Pyre

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Pyre is the third game from Supergiant Games, the developers that previously released Bastion and Transistor, both games that were well-received and I personally would rate them as some of the best games I’ve played. Let’s see how Pyre compares, shall we?

The story of Pyre takes place in the Downside, a wretched wasteland that acts as a sort of a purgatory where various heretics, lawbreakers and the occasional innocent are cast down as an eternal punishment. However, these exiles have one last chance at redemption: the ritualistic games known as The Rites. Successful completion of The Rites will allow the winners to regain their honour, freedom and even some bonuses on top of that. You begin the game as one of these exiles and you stumble upon a group on a quest to regain their freedom.

I was aware of Pyre’s development for some time but I didn’t pay too much attention to the various announcements and trailers Supergiant Games put out before launch. I am, however, a fan of Supergiant’s previous titles and I honestly loved both Bastion and Transistor. Going into the game I only knew the basic premise and that the game described itself as a party-based RPG. Long story short, I didn’t quite expect what Pyre turned out to be.

From a gameplay perspective Pyre can be roughly divided into two sections: The Rites and the journey from one Rite to another. The meat of the game is in The Rites, so let’s go over how they work first.

The Rites are essentially the game’s combat system, though calling it “combat” isn’t really an accurate description. Rather, The Rites are almost like sports. During The Rites two teams, each consisting of 3 characters, face off against one another. The goal is to grab an orb that starts at the middle of the field and then carry the orb to the opposing team’s pyre (that’s where the game gets its name from) or alternatively throw the orb into the pyre to damage it. When the pyre’s “health” reaches zero you win. Each character that isn’t carrying the orb has an aura around them that they can then use to block the movement of the orb carrier and they can, if they so desire, cast their aura forward as a ranged attack, though the aura will then take a short time to regenerate. Should one of the opposing characters touch the aura, they will be “banished” and will respawn after some time passes. At any given moment, only one of the characters on your team is allowed to move, though you can switch characters at any given moment to move your characters into optimal positions. However, if you are carrying the orb while you switch characters the orb will also follow you to the character that you’ve switched to.

The system allows for quite a bit of strategy and you must also account for the fact that all the characters are different from one another. Some may be slow but have massive auras, allowing them to defend large chunks of the field. Others are faster but they cannot necessarily defend against particularly slippery attackers as well. The characters also do varying amounts of damage to the pyre, so in some situations a slower character can be more advantageous in an offensive role than a faster one.

The characters also have differing abilities and the way they cast their auras also changes from one character to another. Some of the characters simply shoot a beam or a cone in front of them, others may blow themselves up for massive area damage but at the expense of getting banished themselves. Some may also dash right at the enemy. As the characters level up they will also gain various buffs and you can also boost the characters with talismans that also offer all sorts of bonuses. For example, I equipped my particularly tanky defensive character with a talisman that healed up my pyre by a certain amount at the beginning of each round. I also gave some of my quicker characters talismans that allowed them to move even faster.

As you can see, the system allows for a number of strategies, based on your team composition and approach. You can try to banish as many of the opposing team members as possible to get a clear shot at their pyre or you may want to cause mayhem and lure the enemy out of position and then sneak a fast character through a crack in the enemy lines. I personally preferred the latter approach, usually just taking the fastest character available to me and then sprinted past the enemies. This tactic has yielded good results, having won most of the Rites. The game has gotten more difficult over time though, and I have been forced to take a more defensive approach every now and then.

However, the game does occasionally force you to rethink your team composition. Some of the characters react differently towards the various teams (triumvirates, as the game calls them) and they may be either unable or unwilling to fight them. Some of the characters may also refuse to fight alongside certain members of your party. There is also a reward for using different characters: as characters sit on the side and watch The Rites they will gain Inspiration, which speeds up their leveling up. Thus, if a characters sits out a couple of matches and then participates, they will gain a fairly big boost in experience. Luckily, while all of the characters are different, some of them can fill the roles of other characters fairly well, so your play style doesn’t need to change too drastically.

If you are wondering about the difficulty of the game, I can tell you, it is somewhat difficult. In the early Rites you can get by with fairly modest skills and some luck but the further you get the stronger your adversaries become. Having had a long win streak I eventually met my match and suffered a bitter defeat. That particular loss stung pretty bad, particularly since it happened during a Rite where I had a chance at liberation. I do not think that the game was being unfairly difficult though and I probably should have just paid more attention or rethought my team composition. And if you are afraid that you will be too good at the game, don’t worry. In the later stages of the game the game introduces Titan Stars, essentially optional handicaps that allow you to gain experience at a faster rate in exchange for some kind of a penalty. For example, you may start the fight with a diminished pyre health or grant your adversaries some hefty bonuses in terms of movement, damage etc. There also appears to be a difficulty setting in the options menu, though I personally haven’t messed with it so far.

Now that we’ve talked quite extensively about The Rites, let’s go over the other area of gameplay: the journey. Between The Rites you essentially travel around the Downside in a wagon, going through a number of areas. While the journey doesn’t offer a whole lot of real-time action, there are some choices that you need to make that will affect the way your game plays out. What typically happens is that you find yourself at a forking path of some sort where one member of your party recommends one way and another member recommends the other path. Usually both paths offer some kind of a promise of a benefit, for example, one path may be faster than the other but the other path may have valuable trinkets for you to find. Note that the promise of valuables may not always mean that valuables will be found and you may end up taking an unnecessary detour that may even harm your party in some way. I am uncertain if there’s any randomness at play here as I haven’t explored multiple outcomes of the same circumstance, just deciding to stick to my choices.

Along the way you can also have discussions with your various party members. Sometimes t hey will offer you a chance to learn about their past or ask you for advice. You are usually given a couple of choices but the dialog system isn’t particularly complex. It would seem that generally being a nice person gives your characters some buffs. You may also read an old book about The Rites to learn about the lore of the Downside and the Commonwealth from where you were exiled. You can also manage your roster and meet new characters along the way to include into your party. Finding new members doesn’t really seem to be a random occurrence at all and it seems you cannot really leave anyone behind either. You will more or less run into a person and then they will join your party, though you can be unenthusiastic about them joining if you so desire. All in all, the journey mechanic is essentially the game’s way of actually progressing and explaining the story while The Rites themselves are practically pure gameplay.

Initially I wasn’t quite sure what to think about the gameplay of Pyre, as I had initially expected a more traditional style RPG, but over time I’ve started to quite like The Rites. It does take a moment to get used to and particularly the character switching can feel a little bit weird at first but if you stick through the first tutorial-ish encounters you will eventually get the handle of it. Now that I have a bit more experience with the system and I am thinking about strategies instead of just running around the field like a maniac I am definitely enjoying it. Also, I think it’s worth praising Supergiant for not falling back to a safe gameplay formula and instead trying to create something new and unique.

Now that the gameplay is out of the way, how about we talk a little bit about art? And there definitely is plenty of that on display. Just like Bastion and Transistor, Pyre’s art style consists of colourful hand-drawn art assets that are definitely quite nice to look at. While I perhaps liked the landscapes and environments of Transistor more than the fairly abstract lands of Pyre, I definitely don’t think that the art looks bad or inconsistent in Pyre either. On the animation side I’d say Pyre definitely shows some improvement over Supergiant’s previous work and all in all the game looks quite decent. Also, I would be a very silly person not to talk about the other artistic portion of the game: the music. Darren Korb, the composer that created both the Bastion and Transistor soundtracks is back at it again with Pyre and the results are equally, if not more so, stellar as with the previous soundtracks. I am no music critic, but I can tell you that the soundtrack works very well with the game and compliments what is happening on the screen well. I’d say if you enjoyed the music in Transistor or Bastion you are quite likely to enjoy what is on offer here. I absolutely don’t regret paying a bit of extra to get that soundtrack with the game.

One trope that has been a part of Supergiant’s previous work that I haven’t talked about is the narrator. Both Bastion and Transistor had a narrator that described the various locations and commented on your actions along the way. In Pyre there isn’t a narrator like that anymore and you will end up reading dialog from various characters instead. The different people you meet along the way tend to also not speak an understandable language, instead speaking a sort of gibberish that is then translated for you in text. However, the game isn’t completely devoid of a narrator. During The Rites there is a narrator that introduces the teams and also comments on your successes and failures like the narrators of Bastion and Transistor would. The narrator also seems to have some character and they aren’t just a voice that describes what is going on. Occasionally the narrator will practically mock you and they also seem to react differently based on how well you are doing in the game. Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve gone from victory to victory and at one point the narrator announced my victory in the style of “you know who wins”. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the game doesn’t expect you to always win and the store page quite prominently tells you that the story goes on even if you fail repeatedly. How the story will go on I do not know, however.

Finally, let’s talk a bit about the technical side of things. The Linux port of Pyre was handled by Ethan Lee and although the port seems to perform well, it must be pointed out that the launch wasn’t exactly problem free. When the first version of the game was released there was an OpenGL issue, presumably in the game rather than in the Mesa drivers I used to play the game, that made the game crash instantly upon being launched on AMD and Intel hardware (and probably on Nvidia hardware if you use Nouveau). This issue was fairly quickly remedied with a workaround, which also made its way into the launch script of the game. Essentially, the game requires you to override an OpenGL compatibility profile which then makes the game work without issues. Another issue appeared when the first patch landed into the game, which made the game crash on launch not only on Linux but also on Windows. Ethan Lee provided a working Linux patch, which made its way onto Steam within a day from the bug surfacing and as of writing this the game is now in a stable and working condition.

So, in conclusion, Pyre is definitely a very cool game and I have enjoyed it for quite a few hours. It’s also a fairly long game: I have put about 8 hours into it and I believe I have reached the latter half of the game now. If you compare that to Transistor, which took about 4 hours to play through (unless you wanted to punish yourself with the optional penalty system) it’s quite the improvement. The gameplay is unique and has quite a bit of depth and strategy to it. However, the gameplay is probably not suited for those that are looking for a traditional party-based RPG, for this is not one at all. Art-wise Pyre is definitely up to the Supergiant Games standards AKA very nice to look at and listen to. The story and characters aren’t bad at all either and I’ve actually enjoyed getting to know the lore of the Downside and the various characters inhabiting it. The way the various characters also interact with one another has also resulted in quite a few interesting scenarios. A good example was when one of my party members begged me to let my opponents win to grant a certain member of the opposing team a chance at liberty due to their personal history. Sadly I cannot really say that much about the story without spoiling parts of it but if you enjoyed the stories in Bastion and Transistor then I imagine Pyre will be quite up your alley as well. I am personally quite invested in the story and I most definitely intend to see where my choices lead. I imagine, due to the forking-paths nature of the game there are probably a couple of different endings, so multiple playthroughs are likely necessary to see everything.

Some people have said that Pyre is the best game that has come from Supergiant Games and they may very well be right, depending on how much you like the way the Rites work.

Pyre is priced at 20€ / $20 / 15£ and is currently only available on the Steam store.

15 Likes, Who?
FredO 27 July 2017 at 7:12 pm UTC
It's quite different gameplay to what I imagined, but it looks great. Bastion and Transistor were both excellent in their own way, so this looks like another winner. Thanks for the detailed review Samsai.
Kels 27 July 2017 at 7:29 pm UTC
I think I'll be giving this a miss, having watched a couple hours of gameplay. It does look very good, but it's simply not the sort of game I'm personally into. Fun to watch others play though.

I will definitely be getting the soundtrack though. Not only is it Darren Korb, joined once again by the talented Ashley Barrett, who provided vocals for Bastion and Transistor as well, but it's an excellent value at two full hours! I simply can't not get this!
Asu 27 July 2017 at 8:34 pm UTC
they should really make a proper multiplayer game. It's time for them to go big.
A crack at diablo or something.
callcifer 28 July 2017 at 6:57 am UTC
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I liked Bastion. I loved Transistor. But Pyre managed to exceed both, by a pretty decent margin for me. I loved the story, the characters, the music, the immaculate detail of the lore. This was a day 1 buy for me and I couldn't be happier.

Even on the technical side, everything worked perfectly; no crashes at all, excellent multi monitor support (I have a 3 monitor setup and I like playing on the middle one) and most importantly, no problems with mouse capture (sooo many games get this wrong).
Kels 28 July 2017 at 3:54 pm UTC
Asuthey should really make a proper multiplayer game. It's time for them to go big.
A crack at diablo or something.

Torchlight 2 is fun and all, but there needs to be something in the Diablo 3 range for Linux.
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