Last week I shared my early experiences with Pyre, Supergiant’s sports RPG about exiles dunking celestial orbs into pillars of flame to earn their freedom. At the time I had played the game for maybe about 90 minutes. Since then I’ve had more time with Pyre and I’ve reached a crucial turning point in the game. The early hours are a buildup of sorts, an introduction to the core characters and concepts that exist in the world of the game all reaching a climax in your first Liberation Rite. By the time the rite comes to an end, you have a full picture of your long term goals for the game and how you’ll get there as well as a stronger vision of what the core gameplay loop for Pyre will look like outside of the tutorial. What I’ve seen in that time has impressed me even more than my initial impressions, so let’s skip my usual “personal anecdote” nonsense and jump straight into the action to talk about why Pyre is very cool.
At the beginning of Pyre you are given a pretty simple premise. You are the Reader, the one literate person in a group of exiles from a place called the Commonwealth. Because you can read, you can guide them in a tradition called the Rites which allegedly has the power to earn an exile their freedom. You agree to work with the group of exiles who find and rescue you – the Nightwings – in order to assist them in the Rites and attain freedom together. During all of this time the Nightwings are receiving support from an enigmatic figure referred to as Sandalwood. With each competition you get closer to meeting him, and when you finally are united with Sandalwood and stand before the gates for the Liberation Rite, he reveals his true purpose. Sandalwood has bigger goals than simply freedom for a single exile, or even a couple of exiles: he envisions a revolution which overthrows the system which put all of them in exile in the first place. Instead of being complicit pawns in the traditions which allow the Commonwealth to thrive, they will use those traditions as the mechanism for its undoing.
Not only is this a very appealing premise for a game for me personally but it also reveals the core structure of Pyre. The Liberation Rite is the final competition of a “season” of Rites in which two teams face off for the honor of sending a single person to freedom. Each time that person is a member of the Nightwings, one more rebel is planted in the Commonwealth to wait for the appointed day. The likelihood of Sandalwood’s plan succeeding increases, and next season you get an opportunity to send another champion out of exile and strengthen your odds for the real revolution to come. Thus the loop is revealed: compete in standard matches to earn the enlightenment needed to qualify your exiles for the Liberation Rite, win the final match of the season to send a new exile to the Commonwealth to prepare for the revolution, and repeat the cycle until the Plan is complete. While I don’t think it would be accurate to call Pyre a roguelike, this striking example of a tight, focused core loop contributing to a meta narrative over repeated attempts shows that Supergiant knew how to use this story structure effectively well before Hades.
From a gameplay standpoint, much of the variety of the matches against opposing teams (called triumvirates) of exiles comes from the variety of characters who join you along the way. At least for the point in the game that I have reached, each playable character is a different type of creature, and the ways in which they move about the field and utilize their aura (an energy ring which temporarily banishes opponents) vary depending on their species. For example, while most characters can jump, some like the Imp Ti’zo or the Harp Pamitha can fly instead, allowing them to maneuver about the field in a different way. Rukey, a Cur, sprints in a sustained, fast run, while the demon Jodirael lunges forward in short bursts. And while the basic aura burst fires an energy wave forward, some characters use their aura differently, such as Ti’zo causing an explosion in a circular area around him while the Wyrm Sir Gilman zips backwards across his slime trail, banishing anyone in the path of his slash.
This variety in the characters is then further emphasized by the ways in which you can customize them using their masteries as they gain enlightenment. For example, Sir Gilman’s normal slash only sends him backwards, but the right upgrade can allow him to slash forward again too, clearing out enemies around his path while giving him options about where he wants to be positioned when his attack is finished. Pamitha can unlock stamina bonuses for defeating enemies with her aura so that she can stay airborne – and therefore mostly out of danger – for a longer period of time. There’s just enough customization to help the characters feel like your personal version of them, but even before the masteries there is enough variation in their playstyles to form your own preferences around which characters best fit how you approach the game. In my case, I find myself developing a preference for fast, highly mobile characters like Rukey, Ti’zo, and Sir Gilman.
One new mechanic I have unlocked since my last article is the Beyonder’s Orb, which in addition to letting you play practice matches also features solo challenges for the characters. Challenges unlock over time as you play the game and each one is focused on a specific character. Overcoming a particular character’s challenge unlocks their legendary talisman, a particularly good talisman that generally suits the character’s playstyle. Of course, sometimes you might want to use other talismans anyway – it all depends on your strategy. In my case, I don’t use Jodi’s legendary talisman in favor of one that gives her a percentage chance to return instantly from banishment. She has an abysmal hope stat and needs all the help she can get coming back as quickly as possible.
Having gotten a glimpse of what Pyre aspires to accomplish structurally as well as seeing how good the game is at giving me a variety of fun characters to play as, I’m eager to see what the next phase of the game has in store. I’m liking it more than I expected to even after my positive first impressions. I’m excited to bring some more exiles into my crew as I send the ones I have away to support the revolution, and I’m curious how the narrative will conclude once I start approaching the point where victory seems assured. I thought before I had a good idea of what Pyre wanted to do, but it was just getting started – and I couldn’t be happier about where it seems to be headed.