Dipping a finger into the Supergiant Games backlog is an ever-tempting event horizon that can take you for days at a time. Their central core has always been visual and aural stimuli that differ from the traditional; colors are often sharp and outline unique character designs while the background tunes and main tracks are inexorably connected to whichever mood the game presents. This is a company that has garnered swelling attention at every release on the wave of positive buzz, meanwhile even the detractors just don’t seem to oppose the general existence of their games as other indie thoroughbreds have had to publically endure.
That brings us to Pyre, which is immediately the most unique and deep of the Supergiant library. The isometric 3D action of their previous darlings is toned down and packed into an adventure game through the Underside, an exile’s pandemonium beneath a holy city. Your character is that of The Reader, able to understand the written teachings and accounts of an ancient group of visionaries called The Eight Scribes. As such, you strive to lead on the group and train them in what essentially breaks down into a challenging “sport” called The Rites. The winners select one to rejoin the Commonwealth washed of their sins with a high-ranking position awaiting them – a sweet gig if there ever was one. This is a redemption tale for each character and team in the game, and as you learn more about yours and the other triumvirates, questions begin to arise over who really deserves their freedom as you ascend and meet on the tallest mountain in the Underside.
You’ll see the hollowed vestiges of ancient titans and learn about the various races and their blood feuds over time in a way that feels so calming in its delivery. Playing through, it was increasingly enticing to have text and the short bursts of audible languages be the main way information was given. No one shouted orders or forced me to look at a specific direction for another spoonful of lore. The characters, through top tier writing and matching emotions, simply talk about what’s important to them, which attached me immediately to their emotions and the inherent lore further.
You’ll grab 8 characters in total throughout Pyre, and I’d say all but one were captivating to learn about given the mixture of introduction and mystery around each. They’re all exiles; just like you, something deemed illegal by the Commonwealth brought them down here. That potent premise brings about so many interesting branches and turns, none of which being that surprising but all feeling so natural to their established character. As you first enter the Underside, you’ll meet Hedwyn, Jodariel, and Rukey as they travel – a rogue human, a horned demon, and a cur (dog) – that all, over time and trust, reveal their wishes and regrets that make their stories feel so passionate and engrossing. In no greater way is this realized than with the natural bookend that each ceremonial round of games, as you stand either victorious or defeated, either watching your chosen arise to acclaim and their old lives or fighting back a bitter guilt over letting the team down.
The Rites themselves are a blast to play when the training wheels come off. The slow rise to that point isn’t unwelcome as there are a lot of intricacies to each match and using your characters in tandem, but I’m already dreading that slow rise in repeat playthroughs. In match, you choose three willing participants from your roster and let them go, controlling one at a time in an effort to reduce your enemy’s pyre to zero and gaining some experience in the meantime. The trees have some dud skills that don’t hold a candle to others, but there was never a time when I didn’t want something available on the board. Rukey and Xae (name may vary) can gain some insanely useful jumping abilities for scoring suddenly, and brutes like Jodariel can be a hammer if you can clear the way long enough. As with the characterizations, there’s only one character I had no fun playing as (it’s the same one that wasn’t interesting earlier). For the sake of spoilers this character shall remain nameless, but there’s a distinct lack of mobility and possibility that made their play time feel more forced on my part than it should.
About 70 percent of Pyre deals more in the adventure side of gameplay wherein your choices will affect emotional states, stats, and ultimate fates of nearly every character you meet along the way. The decisions don’t stray you into huge off-shoots so much as they give you options to shape your group’s goal and even The Reader herself. When characters come up on screen with their drawn expressions as they speak, all popping with a hand-drawn look that matches the wildly colorful Underside itself, it’s up to you to give them advice or refuse to participate in their distractions to satisfying, differing results.
The strengths of Supergiant are on display in full with Pyre, but that’s nothing new. What is new, fresh, and welcome is the gameplay being so layered and integrated into the emotional story. Transistor and Bastion did fine in this department for their linear approaches but the matches allow for a drawer full of forks for you to experiment your way through. By the end, you’ll feel the pressure of the match and camaraderie of the journey at your back, and all your friends will be depending upon you to get them all home. No pressure for the win!