How important is it for you to play games? Do you do it for fun? Do you do it to relieve stress? Is it an intellectual or artistic engagement for you? Is it how you hang out with your datefriend? Maybe you have to do it because it’s your job?
What if a game was a religious rite, akin perhaps to the Mesoamerican ball game, but where winning is not just key to your freedom, but that of all your companions?
That’s what Pyre, the latest title from indie darling developer Supergiant Games, kinda explores. At its most fundamental, Pyre is a sports game with RPG and RenPy-style visual novel elements. You, the Reader, have been exiled for the high crime of literacy and are doomed to wander a harsh, lawless wasteland for the rest of your life, away from everything and everyone you ever loved, unless you can bring your team to victory in a mystical sport that’s guided by the stars. If you’re unfamiliar with Supergiant’s past successes, this synopsis might sound a bit hokey (possibly why Supergiant has been emphasizing the game’s RPG aspects in all their publicity), but believe me when I say that it works. The game brings challenging, exciting gameplay, an engaging story with characters you root for, and gorgeous art and music to create an immersive play experience.
The heart of Pyre is the sport-like element, known simply as the “Rites.” As with any good sport, the rules are fairly light, but the network of tactical possibilities is dense. Two teams of three each guard their pyre, while fighting to gain possession of a fallen star (no, it’s nothing as coarse and commonplace as a “ball”), and hurl it into the opponent’s pyre, dealing it damage. Reduce the opposing pyre’s health to zero and you win.
The twist is that each player emits an aura which instantly vaporizes opponents that touch it, who then take precious time to regenerate back at their pyre. This turns the game into a fast-paced dodging game, where you have to constantly run away from and leap of the way of opponents. If you’re holding the star, your own aura gets absorbed into it, making you especially vulnerable. You can also gather your aura and catapult it towards an enemy, adding an extra layer of offensive strategy.
I’m not normally one for sports games, but Pyre’s elegant mechanics put me right in the flow state: just the right balance of fun and challenge to keep me hooked. For an advanced gamer, it might be a touch easy, but for me, the constant danger of vaporization, the panicky passing back and forth, the epic leaps into the enemy pyre, it was all a rush of adrenaline. And while you can only have three players at a time, each character in your full roster (and naturally, your opponents too) boasts their own special abilities that you can use to create your own playstyle and strategies.
Unlike much of what we typically refer to as “sports games,” where story elements serve mostly as distractions from actual gameplay, Pyre’s designers have created a fascinating world with conflicts and currents which draw you in. In fact, my play experience felt a little like a novel, building tension through shifting perspectives between each chapter: one moment I was engrossed in quizzing my handsome nomadic companion about his love life (no ulterior motives there, NOPE!), the next I’m controlling that very companion, desperately hurling his aura at a pack of masked ne’er-do-wells who are striving to extinguish my pyre as though their lives depended on it. Which of course, in the game world, it does.
And what a world it is! A strange, wild country where the giant husks of ancient titans defeated by godlike scribes loom over steaming swamps, where waterfalls can flow upwards and the constellations change to guide your way. Pyre is filled with moments where something in the scenery catches your eye and you’re like “Woah, I wonder what the history behind that is!” You can discover some of this history yourself, if you take the time to read the lore entries that pop as the story advances. Or you can simply skip that if it gets too long (spoiler: it does) and bask in awe of it all. Either works, really.
All of this detail is lovingly drawn in luminous colors more reminiscent of a stained glass window than videogames’ usual palette. Supergiant’s commitment to visual aesthetics seems to have remained solid. Pyre is seriously gorgeous, probably one of the most beautiful games I’ve played. The visual art is supported by a lovely soundtrack from Supergiant regular Darren Korb. Nate Ewert-Krocker’s already talked about the excellent music a little bit, but suffice to say, Pyre was one of the only games I played that my non-gamer husband didn’t tell me to immediately mute when he entered the room.
Ultimately, Pyre is a wonderful, trippy delight. Strange, mystical logic that still seems to make sense; a gorgeous, hallucinatory landscape to traverse; music that strikes an emotional chord; and frantic action that matters oh-so-much in the moment. I’d very much recommend plunging into its fire.