Sometimes the first game you play by a developer you’ve never tried before becomes your gateway to other titles they’ve developed. When a particular game resonates with you, it’s natural to be curious whether the folks who made it also made some other stuff you might like. So naturally when I fell in love with Hades a couple of years ago and learned about Supergiant for the first time, I started to get curious about their other titles. Because while I personally had never even heard of Supergiant pre-Hades, quite a few indie game fans were already well aware of the devs and had been following their work for awhile. I quickly learned that there were three other games I could try if I got curious enough: Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre. I was a little hesitant because from what I’d heard from others who had played them, these earlier games were both A.) not as good as Hades and B.) also not like Hades at all.
Fast forward to 2022 and I have recently acquired what one might describe as a “gaming computer.” With it I have unlocked a whole slew of games I didn’t even know I had because I could finally play the video games in all these charity bundles I bought primarily for the tabletop RPGs. One in particular happened to include Pyre, a game I had recently heard covered on a podcast and that I now knew to be like…fantasy soccer? The folks I had listened to seemed to like it so I figured I would finally give an earlier Supergiant hit a go and downloaded it to my computer. In today’s article, I’ll be sharing my first impressions based on playing the game for about 90 minutes, give or take.
Pyre opens at the bottom of a set of cliffs. A rickety wagon makes its way to the center of the road in the distance, a sunset over vast plains lying beyond it. Three masked figures appear to examine a body that you cannot see. As it turns out, the body is yours, and you are not dead but rather exiled. The strangers scoop you up, nurse you back to health, and ask in exchange that you read a strange book they are carrying on their wagon. In this world, you are unique for your possession of the gift of reading, a practice forbidden in the Commonwealth from which you have been exiled. The moment you open the book, the magic begins as you learn about the Rites which can lead exiles to freedom.
The basic premise of the Rites is that you have to carry a celestial orb to a pyre and dunk it inside. This damages the pyre, and done enough times you can get rid of the pyre entirely. The problem comes in the form of another group of exiles who want to do the same thing to your pyre. Exiles emit an aura which temporarily banishes other exiles when they touch it, but whoever has the celestial orb in hand loses the benefit of the aura. You get around this problem by passing the orb around, having allies throw their aura in order to blast your opponents, and using moves like sprinting and jumping to maneuver around the other team. Pyre is sports, and trust me when I say that sports is not a thing I am good at.
There are a few key elements that contribute to the challenge of Pyre. For one, you can only control a single character at one time. This is done by passing the orb when you have it, or when you don’t you can switch somewhat freely. Getting banished while you have the orb causes you to drop it and banishment lasts for a few seconds – a long enough time for the enemy to make some decent moves against you. Additionally, when you manage to score a dunk with the orb, the scoring character vanishes along with it until the next time somebody scores. That means getting points puts you at the disadvantage of facing the opponent two to one. And of course the enemies have all the same tricks you do: the passing, the sprinting, the jumping, the aura blasting, all of it. Being responsible for the actions of all three players on the field while controlling them by yourself and also keeping an eye on the opponent the whole time is a challenging prospect, and even just in the first couple of matches I got a pretty good idea of how hectic and back-and-forth Pyre can get.
Now all that said, the game gives you tools to improve your chances against the opposing teams in the Rites. From the beginning you can choose between multiple difficulty settings (there are four but I’m not positive if the hardest one is unlocked by default), and you can change those settings at any point in time during the game if you need to turn the heat down (or up, I’m not your dad). Additionally, there is no game over state in Pyre; losing a match is incorporated into the story, so you can’t get stuck and fail to progress the game by getting outplayed by the opponents. Finally, there are some RPG mechanisms in play within Pyre that allow you to change between characters, improve their abilities, or give them short-term buffs to give you an edge during the Rites.
Each character has four core stats: Glory (points earned when scoring), Presence (aura size), Quickness (movement speed), and Hope (recovery time when banished). Characters can also have four mastery abilities equipped as well as a talisman. Mastery abilities are earned by approaching enlightenment (AKA leveling up) which you accomplish by participating in and winning matches or through private training with the Reader (AKA gaining experience). Masteries have big effects that make a noticeable difference in the quality of the character; some of the ones I have early game are one that boosts stamina recovery for the party, one that allows a character to sprint twice in a row, and one that allows a character to perform a midair jump to cover more ground. Talismans are items that can be purchased, earned, or given throughout the game and give passive bonuses like boosting a stat or adding a random chance of some sort of benefit.
Most of the meat of Pyre is spent in the Rites. Between them, there are only a couple of small activities you can do, and most of these are quite short. You might have a brief conversation with a character in your party, or get an opportunity to choose between giving them private training to work towards masteries or giving the whole group a lesson that gives them temporary boosts. When traveling between Rites, you’ll get the opportunity to choose between different paths which each have a unique benefit. And the resources you acquire can be sold for money which you can then spend on talismans to improve your characters in the Rites. The game loop is short so you could reasonably get through a match and the followup travel/shopping in a quick session without having to make a commitment to playing all evening.
A couple of other things worth noting: many of the things Supergiant did well in Hades are still on display here. The music is damn good and the character art is evocative with plenty of unique designs. Characters are voiced and while everyone but the narrator of the Rites is speaking a fantasy language, they do a good job of conveying the tone in a way that still feels impactful. The graphics outside of matches are simple but effective, and the matches themselves have a nice look that skillfully conveys the action taking place. From the size of auras to the location of the orb to which character you are currently controlling, everything is clear and easy to follow – which is good for such fast-paced matches once you get past the tutorial stuff.
I’m pretty into Pyre so far and curious about what the game has to bring in terms of the story and characters. While I’m not particularly good at the fast-paced sports gameplay, I still think it’s fun and the fact that my eventual losses will be factored into the story in some way rather than me hitting a roadblock helps me to embrace the chaotic energy of the matches. I’m glad Supergiant included it in the racial justice bundle and I’m glad that I finally decided to give it a try. If you’re like me and found their work through Hades but haven’t tried going backwards yet, this may be a good one for you to check out too!