We all love puns. I think, deep down, we all know and accept this universal truth. And so, it is with this knowledge in mind that I hereby officially name this review of Supergiant Games’ Pyre, “This Game is Lit – A Pyre Review.”
So. Pyre. Let’s go over the basics real quick so we are all caught up to speed. Pyre is the newest RPG-lite game from Supergiant Games, the fine folks that brought us Bastion and Transistor. It is also a game about fantasy basketball. If that sounds like a weird combination, it’s because it is. If I was forced to make the cliched “it’s like this meets this” comparison, Pyre is NBA Jam meets Oregon Trail wrapped up in fantasy trappings and told as a visual novel. And yet, despite how utterly bizarre it is to type out that sentence, Pyre is an excellent experience I would highly recommend.
First off, let’s get this out of the way. The art style is gorgeous, the character animation during combat is superb and fluid, and the soundtrack is insanely good. OK. Glad we can all agree on these points. Time to move on!
The game can basically be broken down into three main components – story > exploration/decision making > combat, after which the cycle begins anew.
The story is told in a visual novel style, featuring a vast collection of colorful and eclectic characters – at first glance, these characters aren’t very fleshed out. They come off as mere archetypes, and you might even find yourself wondering why you should even care. But in typical Supergiant Games fashion, very little is told to you upfront; the plot and character development don’t happen by hitting you over the head with them. Through a brilliant combination of an in game glossary, an ancient tome, and progressively meatier character interactions, the world building builds up steam as you progress until you find yourself invested in the well being of the Nightwings.
And who exactly are the Nightwings? Why, they are you! Or at least, they are the team you lead against a growing list of basketball ritual rivals. You might recognize the main three from almost all of the promo footage:
Meet Hedwyn, Jodariel, and Rukey. Throughout their journey, they will be joined by an ever increasing roster of unique teammates as they battle through the Rites. Now, if it sounds like I am being vague about the story and characters, you’d be right – the discovery of what is really going on in Pyre is part of the experience. Going in blind is the best way to go about it. Just know that my personal favorite characters were a worm obsessed with honor, your mysterious benefactor, and the leader of one of your rival teams who is basically a punk rock dog.
So. We know you get a large cast of diverse characters. We know you play play basketball in something called the Rites. But how does the game *play*? Glad you asked! While the story is told as a visual novel, with static cutouts of the characters talking to each other, the exploration and customization aspects are played out like a next gen Oregon Trail RPG. Picking your path, upgrading your characters, buying and upgrading various talismans, it all initially seems very straightforward. But roughly halfway through the game, a big twist hits you, suddenly making all of your decisions hold a lot more weight. The progression also opens up in a more nonlinear fashion, conveniently right around the same time that the basketball themed battle system truly blossoms.
Ah yes, the battle system. The much vaunted and discussed basketball sim. How is it? Is it more than a gimmick? The answer depends on how long you’ve played. Before the twist, the gameplay is fairly basic and simplistic, and you’ll start to wonder why the game has been lauded. But right when the game kicks into high gear, so does the gameplay and challenge.
At first, each battle plays out the same. Three man teams battle each other to send a magical orb into the other team’s pyre. Each character has an aura that instantly banishes any enemy it comes into contact with – however, how that aura manifests itself is different for each race. Some have large radii, some trail their aura, some can send it out in a burst, there are many types, each of which lends itself to a different situation. The early fights you can prevail simply by running around the enemy or jumping over them. Simple stuff. But soon…soon you will need to learn how to truly master the system.
Each character has their own stats and skills and movement types and upgrades, which all come into play when drafting your team. Throwing the orb, dodging, flying, jumping, passing, stunning, banishing… the battle system becomes deceptively complex. Your opponent’s AI also gets a buff, gaining the same skills and bonuses as you do. On top of that, you gain access to Stars you can activate that add handicaps to your team in exchange for extra experience after you win.
It’s tough to truly get across how refreshing and tense the battles can get. The thrill you get when you manage to banish all three opponents at the same time is only matched by the dismay you feel when you drop the orb only to have it be picked up by the other team and slam dunked in your face. Each match is fast paced and quick, with the requisite Supergiant Games narrator taunting you for your failures and praising you for your well executed tactics.
So, end of day, is Pyre for you? If you like fun, unique games with solid challenge, then yes. If you like your story to be more subtle, then yes. If you love gorgeous art and a stunning soundtrack, then yes. It is an excellent experience, and one that only gets better the further along you get. The art style and soundtrack grab your attention early on, and the world that is slowly built around you keeps you engaged. If you have a PS4 or Steam, you deserve to jump on this game.