Look, I’ll be the first person to say that you shouldn’t attach special significance to any particular game developer or publisher. These are at most giant, faceless corporations or at least teams with their own goals; the best you can hope for is that they’ll produce something worthwhile when everything is said and done, and it’s hard to think of many teams that have proven infallible. In the post-crowdfunding world, a degree of suspicion and skepticism is vital if you don’t want to get hoodwinked time and time again.
There’s exceptions to every rule, though, and in my case one of those exceptions is Supergiant Games. In Bastion and Transistor they’ve created games that have come as close as any to making me believe that video games actually can be art; these are beautiful projects that embrace and integrate gameplay rather than eschewing it because it’s difficult. Their latest game, Pyre, is another great example of this, showing once again that fun isn’t necessarily antithetical to artistic merit in an industry that tries so often to convince us otherwise.
In the Commonwealth, reading is forbidden. I assume, then, that you’re not reading this from the comfort of your Commonwealth home. If you are, you might end up like our hero: branded as literate and cast down into the Downside, a bizarre wasteland where the worst of the worst end up exiled. Once you’re in the Downside, you’re there for good; there’s no way out. Well, there could be one way…
The Book of Rites is, well, a book, meaning it’s only accessible to the literate. Those who can peruse the book are known as Readers, and they lead groups of three exiles in a ceremony known as the Rites. Through the Rites, exiles can gain enlightenment and find their way back to the Commonwealth from exile. Not everyone can be enlightened and return at once, though. The Rites are both a path to enlightenment and a competition.
Said competition is, bizarrely, more than somewhat similar to basketball. Two teams of three start on opposing sides of a court, trying to grab a magic Orb and cast it into the opposing team’s burning Pyre. Repeated orbings will result in a team’s Pyre being put out entirely, at which point the dousing team is crowned the victor. Passing, dunks and shots work much like you’d expect in basketball, though Pyre shakes the idea up a little more by surrounding each character with an Aura.
The Aura is both shield and weapon, as it’s generated passively around a player and can also be fired out as a projectile in a given direction; characters struck by an opposing player’s Aura are banished for a period, unable to assist their team. Players in Pyre are differentiated by their race – huge Demons, tiny Curs, flying Harps and so on. Larger races tend to generate larger Auras and compensate for this with slower movement. This introduces dodgeball aspects to the Rites as well, and the matter is further complicated by the fact that a character holding the Orb ceases to generate their Aura, rendering them defenseless. Victory, then, is all about managing offensive and defensive lines of players to cordon off parts of the court with Aura fields and move your vulnerable Orb carrier up to the enemy Pyre; larger races, who sacrifice their larger Auras when carrying the Orb, tend to have more of an impact on the enemy Pyre if you can manage to get their ponderous butts up for a dunk.
Success in the Rites yields enlightenment for your players; those who participated are directly Enlightened, which amounts to experience points earned, and those who sat on the sidelines gain Insight that can be converted into Enlightenment the next time they participate. As a character proceeds further down the path of knowledge, they gain skill points that can be spend on abilities that improve various aspects of their play. This provides an interesting element of character customization and encourages you to mix up your teams.
That’s not the only incentive to mix up your teams, of course, since Pyre isn’t all about b-ball. Between matches you’re also managing your team as their Reader, essentially their coach. You’ll learn about your players and their personalities as they interact with you and with each other; you’ll also make important decisions regarding your journey between the locations where each Rite takes place. It’s got a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure aspect to it, and the choices you make can play into your team’s performance during the Rites. Further, there’s more to what’s going on than meets the eye, and your decisions on who plays and who sits out might matter more than you’d think…
This is a Supergiant game, so of course it looks and sounds lovely. Pyre goes for a comic book style mixed with aesthetics that bring to mind stained glass. During the frantic action on the court, the lovely detail of the game is simplified a bit to make the action easy to follow, which is appreciated. THe developer is known for their artistry with sound and music design, and this continues into Pyre, including their signature vocal tracks and narration – this time you’ve got commentary from the Book itself during the Rites. It’s a treat for both the eyes and ears.
Combine this with the fact that, should you see the game through, Pyre is easily Supergiant’s most lengthy title by far, and you’ve got an easy win. The game should run you around ten to fifteen hours depending on the choices you make and the outcome of the Rites you participate in, which is easily twice the length of Bastion or Transistor. The game’s gorgeous presentation, quality storytelling and unique gameplay concept makes it a must-play.