Supergiant Games has made its name as one of the most dependable indie teams. Its first two titles Bastion and Transistor are two of the best games released on digital storefronts, and excitement for its third venture Pyre has been high for some time. Most impressive is the fact that all three of the developer's titles are totally unlike the others – but the biggest question is whether or not lighting can strike thrice for some of the most gifted indie devs on the scene. And the answer to that is simply: yes.
The first thing to talk about is what Pyre even is, as it’s actually quite an unusual game when you get down to it. Whereas Bastion was mostly hack-'n’-slash and Transistor was almost turn-based strategy, Pyre is chiefly a visual novel with, er, basketball elements. If that sounds strange, that’s because it is – but it's also what makes the title so enticing.
You play as the Reader, an individual banished to the Downside, a bleak purgatory where the leaders of the Commonwealth send undesirable members of society. You happen upon a group who were also banished to the Downside, collectively known as the Nightwings. They are seeking someone that can decipher and read the Book of Rites to them – reading is outlawed in the Commonwealth, so readers are far less common than one would expect – so that they might leave the Downside.
All of this is what drives the primary narrative of the game; the book reveals that following the shining of the stars will lead you to locations to perform certain Rites that will eventually open a path back into the Commonwealth. This is where the basketball-esque elements of the title factor in. To complete the Rite, your triumvirate (or trio of team members) attempt to douse the other team's Pyre. You do this by collecting an orb and running it straight into the flames at the opposite end of the field the Rites occur on. However, only one person per team can move at a time, and while carrying the orb, you are vulnerable to attack. After completing a certain number of these traditional Rites, the means of returning to the Commonwealth are revealed, and you are now able to select a member of your team to redeem in a Liberation Rite.
There’s a surprising amount of strategy to be had when partaking in the Rites, as each member of your team has different attributes; some are slow but deal damage across large areas, others are insanely fast. When all is said and done, there are eight types of player to pick from, and who you select for your triumvirate is important from match-to-match. If you pick characters ill-suited to your opponent, the difficulty ratchets way up. We found the more nimble characters were a little too good compared to the rest but even they can be countered. As you play, you’ll learn which match-ups make the most sense, and the Rites will become much more manageable once you have a good grasp.
Almost everything else in the game's ten or so hour running time is visual-novel based, and this is the strongest facet of the title. While the Rites themselves are fun – the play-by-play courtesy of Logan Cunningham is a particularly entertaining addition – most of the narrative intrigue stems from the characters themselves. Pyre has assembled a rather sizeable cast to stand alongside you – and against you. The most impressive thing about this is the fact that there isn’t a single character in the whole game that isn’t interesting. Particular standouts include the winged harp Pamitha (torn between loyalty to her old family and her new family) and the so-cute-you-want-to-hug-them Imp Ti’Zo, a creature that's been around for generations and directly ascended from one of the world’s deities.
And of course, we’d be remiss if we neglected mentioning the art direction in this game. Supergiant Games' art has been one of its defining characteristics since its first title, and Pyre is no different; the incredibly detailed and vibrant world it has created is stunning. The character design on the different species living in the Downside is a particular standout, between the uses of colour, as well as just the creature design itself.
The art pairs magnificently with the killer score from Darren Korb. The composer has scored all three of the developer's titles thus far, and frankly each of them represents some our favourite works. In a similar regard to Transistor, the presence of vocal music is intertwined with the plot, as the Liberation Rites are conducted with the oversight of a pair of minstrels, making the atmosphere for those Rites very special.
In fact, the game in general is very special – it’s such a fascinatingly unique concoction of ideas that it really stands out. A couple of small technical hiccups hold it back from perfection maybe, but even these are easy enough to overlook when looking at the whole picture. Framerate stutters are fairly common, especially when navigating menus, and during a couple of the Rites we performed, the framerate dropped so low the game became almost unplayable. The only other issue are the weird difficulty spikes that occur occasionally, but like we mentioned, this is tied to who you select for your triumvirate, more so than an actual problem with the game.
Pyre marks Supergiant Games’ third consecutive masterpiece. A bizarre blend of genres creates an excitingly original title aided by incredible world building and one of the most consistently interesting casts of characters we’ve ever seen assembled. This is all further enhanced by some outstanding artwork. Framerate issues and the odd difficulty spike detract from the overall experience, but can't prevent this outing from achieving excellence.