Game Review: Pyre (PS4)

While Fantasy Sports Leagues are nothing new, I’m pretty sure that discussions about them don’t involve horned creatures, talking dogs, or earning one’s freedom back via some sort of fantasy based basketball, but maybe they should. Pyre, the latest from Supergiant Games, feels like the twisted offspring of NBA Jam and The Banner Saga as the fast action sports elements of the game are wonderfully married to its gorgeous character and environmental artwork. Pyre is a title that at first glance was something I put off until I kept hearing just how good it was, and boy were they not wrong.

Pyre takes place in the Downside, a gorgeous yet tragic land of exiles, cast down from the glory of the Commonwealth. It is here, as the Reader, that you will rally your companions to earn back their freedom through the Rites, a mystical game of basketball that takes place in swamps, snow capped mountains, and among patches of thorny vines, a far cry from that of hardwood stadiums or neighborhood back alley courts.

Supergiant has packed Pyre with a tremendous amount of back story and lore, so much so that should you seek it out, you will learn of every character’s past, present, and what their motivations are for taking part in the Rites. The game also does a great job at giving each and every character a proper ending, allowing you to know exactly what they are up to when you eventually complete the story, and this is true for every single character you encounter, even the shopkeeper.

You play as the unseen Reader, a character who is recruited by the Nightwings, a team who have entered the Rites to earn back their freedom and it turns out that you can also read their mystical book that explains the history of the Rites. You can also read the stars in the sky which in turn indicates where the Rites will take place. While the Rites are where you can earn back your freedom, there is a catch, and it’s one that plays further into the story despite any victories you may have there.

The Rites themselves, are a 3 on 3 sporting event where you’ll need to grab an Orb and deposit it into the oppositions pyre on their side of the court. You’ll do this by simply running, jumping, or throwing it into their goal. The Orb drops into the middle of the court and you can either race towards it or play defensively and attempt to recover the Orb. In order to recover it or just put the hurt on the opposition, you have Aura attacks that work offensively or defensively. When not handling the Orb, each character has an Aura circle around them that varies in size, and also have attacks that vary in type and purpose. By making contact with either form of your Aura, the opposition will be temporarily banished, unable to return to the match until a cooldown has expired, and this rings true for scoring a goal as well, as the player who scores cannot return immediately to the match. This prevents any team from using a single character to steam roll the other, it’s a design element that creates strategy on how to recover from not just your success but from your failures as well.

Despite the matches being 3 on 3, you can only move one character at a time. You can pass the Orb back and forth as many times as you want, but the restriction placed upon player movement is intentional and one that makes matches more strategic than what Pyre is attempting to borrow from the typical sports genre. You’ll also need to watch out for structures that are built into the level and several of them can be moved around to create defensives. These can also block attacks, but should a character be leveled up and learn a specific skill, they are able to attack through them. The Rites also do not need to be won in order to advance the story, as the game doesn’t really have a failed state and the story will keep going regardless of your victory. However, if you want, you can simply restart a Rite should you be about to lose, thus keeping your perfect record intact.

Characters will earn experience and level up which allows them to learn a few skills that make them a bit more effective in the Rites. This can result in better movement, more effective ways in which their Aura can be used, or causing banishment to last far longer. To further make their efforts more potent you can also equip Talismans that add additional perks like causing more damage to the pyre on a goal or boosting some of their existing stats as well. Each pyre has a base health of 100 and certain characters will range from 15 to 30 damage each time they score a goal and said Talismans can also be used to increase that base health as well. Talismans can also be upgraded to be far more effective and you’ll do this by using items you can procure from the shopkeeper as you earn money from selling other items or by achieving certain tasks during the Rites.

There are also constellations that appear later into the game that unlock ever so often and these will boost the amount of experience you earn as you level up your roster, but at a cost. Each constellation has a side effect like increasing the opposing team’s speed or stamina or allowing banished players to immediately respawn. You can choose to select as many of these as you see fit and adding more and more will increase the percentage of boosted experience you will earn.

The cast of characters you can recruit to your team may be small, but this limited roster is extremely well fleshed out and can make choosing who to include in your three man team a rather tough choice. There are times, however, where you won’t have access to certain characters so you will need to make sure that each character is used to learn how effective they can be. There are also individual trials that each character can access to earn them an item that benefits their stats. Some of these trials are fairly easy while some took me almost an hour to complete and made me frustrated with a few characters for several hours after.

You’ll start your adventure with Hedwyn, Jodariel, and Rukey Greentail; a human, a horned girl, and a talking dog. Hedwyn is your typical balanced character that is useful to learn the in’s and out’s of the game. Jodariel is slow but has a large Aura and a very effective dash that can be leveled up. Rukey is extremely fast and has a jump attack that you can use to jump right in the pyre from fairly far away. I found that despite how effective someone like Jodarial can be defensively, that speed, in the end, is the best stat to utilize.

You’ll soon be joined by a vagabond girl whom you will choose a name for her that rhymes with Gray. In my case, I chose the name Kae. She, like Hedwyn, is fairly good at everything and can work as a replacement when you won’t have access to him. There is Ti’zo the small imp who can dart around the court fairly fast and has a very interesting way to understand his dialogue. Sir Gilman, a wyrm Knight was hands down my favorite character not just to use, but in the story as well. His excitable nature to prove himself is so well handled and the speed at which he can move around on the map can truly make him a life saver. Pamitha Theyn will join your team when you encounter a race of bird people who have quite the history with the Commonwealth, as most characters will, and Pamitha can fly on the court, making her very useful in levels that have a lot going on design wise. There are also two characters that join you in the late game that I won’t be talking about so that to leave a bit of mystery about these very effective late-comers.

Right from the start, you will be a passenger on a mystical wagon that has a history with the Nightwings and it belongs to a mysterious benefactor that has put forth a mission for the current Nightwings roster. The wagon can travel from place to place and eventually you’ll get upgrades to traverse oceans and the ability to just fly from place to place. The wagon also comes with the Minstrel, a man who is acting on behalf of said benefactor, and one that explains much of the lore throughout the game.

The opposing forces that you will do battle with in the Rites usually consist of counterparts to your full roster. You’ll encounter people that resemble dogs to those that are dogs themselves; which were my favorite opponents to interact with. There are also the Crones, Curs, Demons, Saps, and more, giving you a wide variety of fantastic characters to interact with that are wildly different from one another.

Despite the variety of not only its characters and its locations, Pyre is visually consistent in the mood it offers. The levels themselves feel like a mix of H.P. Lovecraft and older animated films like the Lord of the Rings and Fire and Ice, with a bit of Dr. Suess thrown in for good measure. Characters have static images for their cutscenes and wonderful animations when on the court during the Rites. While not all the art is fantastic, as the images during the credits are somewhat lacking, the game never feels unpolished.

Each character has their own music attached to them and this is very apparent when taking on other teams as they each not only have very distinct personalities but drastically different music as well. As for vocals, there is only one character that actually has spoken dialogue as everyone else has a made up language that is used to initiate their written dialogue. This initial burst of nonsense chatter isn’t new to videogames but it does help add to the wonderful personalities that come with such a diverse cast.

Pyre, for the most part, is a single player game that does have some local multiplayer to enjoy with friends but does lack any sort of online matchmaking. You can tackle CPU opponents should you want, but should you look to play with friends, they’ll need to share the couch with you, which isn’t a bad thing, but online battles could have opened this game up to a much wider audience. The best part of the versus mode is that you are able to play with all central characters featured in the game, even those you faced off against during the campaign.

I only had two main issues with the game that do affect my overall score on the title. The individual trials felt as though they highlighted the weaknesses that each character has a bit too harshly, and while I know these trials are meant to make you understand how to overcome such weaknesses, they tainted a few characters for me for several hours. My final issue is mainly the repetitive nature the game takes after the first time you complete a freedom Rite. The narrative then takes an approach that causes the game to feel grindy and much of what occurs after that supposed ‘final’ battle is repeated again and again. While this opens the game up for some of its best storytelling, the rinse-recycle-repeat way in which the game then follows starts to affect the overall gameplay. I wasn’t wishing the game to end or anything, but so much of the way in which the game operates is repeated far too often in the very same manner.

Apart from those flaws, Pyre is a remarkable title that has a very interesting premise and its merging of sports and fantasy is something I don’t think I’ve seen handled in this particular way before. Sure, there are games like Blood Bowl that combine sports and fantasy, but Pyre is a very different beast in its own way. The characters, the locations, and the dialogue are wonderful and nothing feels out of place despite the very different genre’s that are being fused together here. Pyre may speak to you in different ways as you may enter the game wanting its fresh take on the sports genre or its character and lore building that may feed that fantasy need of yours, but regardless, it is a wonderful marriage of solid ideas with some really fun character moments that makes Pyre a real winner.

Pyre was reviewed via a $26.99 digital purchase on the PlayStation store.

All Screenshots were taken on a PlayStation 4 Pro and formatted for this review.

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