At the crossroads of art, narrative, gameplay, and music sits Supergiant Games. The coalescence of these elements in such a carefully crafted and impeccable way defines each one of their titles. Bastion was their first, a heavy tale of loneliness in the midst of an apocalypse. They followed with Transistor, a love story replete with mystery and fascinating combat. Pyre is their latest, continuing the marvel of having visuals, story, mechanics, and audio complement one another so perfectly that it’s often difficult to tell where one facet of the game ends and the next begins.
You are the Reader, an exile banished to the Downside for being literate, which is a crime in the Commonwealth. Broken and dying, you are saved by an odd caravan of masked individuals. These three characters form the base of the ensemble cast, but there are many more to meet, friends and adversaries alike. Where Bastion and Transistor were decidedly intimate narrations, Pyre expands the scope of Supergiant’s storytelling. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a lot of deep lore in their early games or that Pyre lacks a trusted closeness, but there’s a definite focal shift to telling the broader stories of more characters and their place in this world.
Pyre accomplishes this confidence between characters by removing the focus from a main character. The Reader is you, the player, and the story is seen from your perspective so that you can learn all you can about your companions and adversaries, deciding exactly who and what to take an interest in. When characters bond with the Reader, they are bonding with you. Somehow Supergiant manages to open a portal to the Downside and make you feel like you are there right alongside the likes of Jodariel, Hedwyn, Rukey, and the rest of the exiles living below.
As the Reader, you are to assist your companions in completing the Rites of Flame versus other triumvirates so that your group — the Nightwings — may win their freedom and return to the Commonwealth. The Rites make up the main part of Pyre’s gameplay, consisting of three characters on each team attempting to get a celestial orb and extinguish the other team’s pyre. Auras around each character banish adversaries from the field for a limited amount of time which can leave openings, but if you are carrying the orb, your aura will disappear, leaving you vulnerable. It seems simplistic to revolve an entire game around these small arenas, but there’s a surprising amount of depth once you start getting into the different characters’ abilities, stats, and talismans that create the need for different strategies. Throughout the 10 or more hours that I played Pyre, I never felt like any Rite was the same experience, facing new challenges and learning new strategies along the way.
No part of the gameplay ever feels like a mechanic that is simply there because this is a video game. Every element feels intrinsically tied to something within the lore of the world. There was never a moment of the immersion breaking as a result of something that felt out of place. In between Rites, Pyre takes on the guise of a visual novel, allowing you to get close and familiar with those you have surrounded yourself with. I have to admit that I was skeptical this approach would work, but found myself engrossed in the lore of the world and the stories of these characters. It became personal as they talked to me, trusting me with their secrets and relying on me for their freedom. I was to be the Nightwings’ savior and friend.
What makes this party dynamic even more interesting is how the game can change depending on your decisions and whether or not you succeed in the Rites. Pyre is not a game that you can lose. It forces you to face those losses and accept the consequences for how it impacts the world and your characters. Even victory can be a somber experience, choosing who to send to freedom in the Liberation Rites. While part of me wanted to free my favorite characters and the ones I’d grown the closest to, another part of me realized they would be leaving my group behind. In a bittersweet moment, Jodariel was freed early for me and I never got to learn more about her or allow deeper interaction with the other members of the group. In another instance I failed a Liberation Rite, meaning I watched helplessly as one of my adversaries was sent back to the Commonwealth. And yet, even in my loss, I felt a certain sense of happiness that someone else had gained their freedom.
By the end of Pyre, through all of my decisions and failures, I felt like this was my unique story. I was so drawn into the world through the spectacular visuals, sympathetic soundtrack, and engaging character interactions that each choice I had to make was a difficult one. It wasn’t just that each could potentially cause gameplay changes in how I had to take on the Rites, but that I felt emotionally invested and connected to this group around me. I cared about their stories and their well being. I cared about their pursuits for freedom.
Of course Darren Korb’s soundtrack once again hits the perfect notes, not only sounding beautiful on its own but blending seamlessly within every moment of the gameplay, as if the allure of the world and the characters is pulling the notes from thin air to complement each emotional juncture. It’s a guarantee that Pyre’s soundtrack will be joining my collection the moment it releases.
On top of the journey through the Downside, Supergiant Games has added a versus mode where you can compete against other players or CPU opponents. It’s an addition that doesn’t have to be there to make Pyre an incredible experience, but I certainly welcome the ability to just dive and and play some Rites anytime I want to. I did encounter some frame hiccups in the occasional Rite both in story and versus, which can become a handicap in such a fast paced and tactical game, but it didn’t happen often enough to have a significant impact on my experience.
It feels disingenuous to even try and write words about Pyre, another Supergiant masterpiece. I don’t feel that my prose can even begin to match the resplendent beauty that permeates this journey through the Downside. If only that I could stand there in front of the Scribesgate once more listening to the Lone Minstrel and the Gate Guardian sing the hymn as the Rites commence one last time. For as amazing Pyre was, I’ll just have to find myself exiled once more to find freedom in the flame.
Pyre review code provided by developer. Reviewed on standard PS4. For more information on scoring read our Review Policy.