The stars align in Supergiant’s epic story.
Watching Pyre’s emotionally gripping story unfold, precisely and enjoyably punctuated by exciting, tactical, real-time battles, is to witness just about everything I look for in a video game executed all but flawlessly. Developer Supergiant’s latest is an experience on par with watching a world-class musician perform a difficult piece with equal parts talent and soul. And speaking of which, the music is superb.
The intricate but easy to follow story casts you as the Reader, an unseen character flung into the center of momentous events that are shaking the foundations of a finely crafted fantasy setting best described as some kind of beautiful cross between Dr. Seuss and H.P. Lovecraft. Like Bastion and Transistor, it’s an imaginary world where the dark and the whimsical mingle like they’ve always belonged together, subverting familiar stereotypes and treating lore nerds to layers and layers of detailed, expertly penned history and legend to uncover.
Interactions take place in a delightfully hand-drawn overworld.
Your task is to put together a kind of mystical sports team to compete in an arcane ritual called The Trials, which are the only way for criminals exiled to a bleak frontier called the Downside to earn a pardon and return to the shining Commonwealth from whence they came. Interactions with the diverse, lovable, many-layered party members and the constellation of memorable opponents and side characters who surround them take place in a delightfully hand-drawn overworld that you navigate via something approaching a visual novel, similar to the style of the campaign of a Fire Emblem game. Choices you make here will uncover elements of your comrades’ pasts, steer your journey down branching courses with meaningful consequences, and ultimately decide both the course of the world above and the one below.
Branching storylines have become common in games, but it’s rare that one integrates momentous, gut-wrenching choices with the other elements of its gameplay as deftly as Pyre does. It’s hard to explain exactly what I mean without spoiling some large parts of the story, but I’ll share an example of how a choice I knew I would one day have to make became the emotional heart of the experience for me – even more so than the main plot.
Rukey Greentail is one of your first companions and quickly became my star orb-runner in The Trials, with his speed and agility forming the cornerstone of my playstyle. The strategies I’d developed all had him at their center. He was my secret weapon. But by chance, while following an optional objective on our travels I overheard Rukey praying to the stars for something he really wanted in his heart of hearts. Something I felt like I would be a monster to deny him. The catch? Granting him his wish would remove him from my roster forever. I struggled with the decision mightily through many Trials, and of all the earthshaking choices I made throughout the last act, the one that left the greatest emotional impression on me had to do with Rukey’s wish.
It’s so masterfully plotted, setting up situations where gameplay considerations must constantly be weighed against tugs at my own heartstrings. And the number of ways each character’s story can go had my head spinning with the possible paths I could follow in my next playthrough. Between all of the fates I could choose for certain characters over Pyre’s 20 hours and a Mass Effect 3-style progress tracker that determines how well your ultimate plan is enacted, the number of possible endings seems expansive.
The Trials feel more than a little like a fantasy world version of NBA Jam.
If the outstanding choice-focused visual novel portion was all Pyre had to offer and conflicts were resolved with simple dice rolls, it would probably still be an amazing game. But instead, we get The Trials: a hectic, highly tactical, real-time battle system that feels more than a little like a fantasy world version of NBA Jam in which the object is to have one of your three characters run or throw an orb into the enemy pyre until their points are depleted. It’s sort of like a combination between football and basketball where the ball carrier is vulnerable to “banishment” – being removed from the match for a short period of time – by coming into contact with an enemy player’s aura (which varies in size based on their stats) or being hit by a special attack. The trick is that while there are three characters on a team, you’re only able to move one at a time. This gives rise to a whole range of tactics based on positioning your inactive teammates to passively defend your pyre by obstructing the other team.
There’s no lack of diversity, visually or mechanically, when it comes to the playing fields. Some have moving obstacles or blocks that can be pushed around to create a makeshift defensive perimeter. Others feature chasms that must be jumped, flown, or teleported across. One even pits you against living mobs that move around semi-randomly to make it difficult to plan your plays with any kind of certainty. Strategies and players that seem useless on a flat field can rise to all-star status depending on the terrain, making knowing when to use them crucial. And each arena has a unique visual personality, from the volcanic, imposing Nest of Triesta to the angelic and stately Fall of Soliam where the campaign’s ultimate challenges, the Liberation Rites, take place.
There’s a MOBA-like range of interactions between opponents.
Each of the eight characters you can recruit in the campaign has highly differing mobility, aura size, respawn time, and special abilities, which makes for a MOBA-like range of interactions between opponents. Small, fast characters like Rukey can outmaneuver an enemy team easily, but typically don’t deal as much damage to the enemy pyre for scoring a goal as their larger, slower counterparts like the bull-horned Jodariel. Some characters can fly over the heads of the enemy, forcing them to make well-timed jumps to prevent a goal. Some can block off areas of the field with deployable aura totems, while others can explode or teleport short distances. The possible team compositions are many, and the tactical considerations add depth and meaningful challenges to each match – especially considering each of the nine other teams competing in The Trials has its own set of unique players and strategies.
Depending on the opponent, arena, and your playstyle, you might plant two defensive characters with large auras on your pyre as living barriers (placing them close together combines their auras) and have a single speedster solely responsible for ball-running – but since a character who just ran a successful dive doesn’t respawn for the next round, this means having to count on the fact that you can out-score the enemy team with a roughly even number of goals, or somehow score with one of your tanks when you’re a man down. Creating an aggressive squad that blitzes down the field by passing the orb back and forth frequently is vulnerable to having it snatched by a flying character who can go on to score behind their backs. The campaign even features a number of handicaps you can unlock at the start of a match that grant you more experience, and make up for the fact that the AI, while it puts up a good fight, just can’t compete with an experienced human player.
Everything about The Trials feels precise, strategic, and exciting. There’s a 1v1 multiplayer mode with the ability to play against bots or other humans that allows all of the compositional diversity of the story campaign and then some. One of my only disappointments with Pyre was discovering that the head-to-head mode is local only, so you can’t challenge your steam or PSN friends across the world to a match. This is a shame, because the mind games and unorthodox strategies you can develop and run into playing against another human bring The Trials to another level of tactical depth and tests of reflexes.
Sneaking in that final goal to win a match by inches when my own pyre only had five health left was the kind of tense moment that made me stand up from my desk and run my hands through my hair, wondering if I could start parading around the room cheering without my roommates calling the cops. These close victories are made even more gripping in the context of the campaign, where the outcome of a match could decide the fate of a character you’ve come to know and love.
It’s all wonderfully united by a common mood.
Behind all of that, Pyre delivers exactly the heartbreakingly beautiful instrumental and vocal backing tracks that Supergiant has become known for. Each song feels even more integrated into the story than in Bastion and Transistor, with each enemy squad you face having its own stylistically distinct but tonally consistent theme. The main theme is twangy and aspirational, whereas one group of enemies that is basically a pack of bloodthirsty talking dogs are heralded by aggressive, ‘80s-style electric guitar rifts. Another cadre of opponents, malevolent witches who worship evil beings hinted at in the lore, bring a spooky, somber, atmospheric motif along with them. Yet it’s all wonderfully united by a common mood that evokes a fallen world trying to be better.
The art, likewise, never ceases to impress. The character designs are imaginative and expressive, from the hulking, curly horned demons to the quirky, goblin shopkeeper who sells trinkets to boost your team’s performance in The Trials. The variety of surreal, dreamlike landscapes you’ll travel through in the Downside look like they were pulled from a children’s book and then tweaked to be just a bit darker, just a bit weirder, to the point of coming across almost foreboding. Likewise, each arena in which The Trials take place has a vibrant and unique character, in addition to varied terrain that must be accounted for in planning your tactics.