by Preston Dozsa
previewed on PC
Unlike anything else
Going into a 30 minute demo for Supergiant Games third game, Pyre, I certainly didn’t know what to expect. The studio behind Bastion and Transistor has a track record of creating games that are unlike anything you have played before, yet feel familiar after spending some time with it. Pyre is no different in that regard, but I never anticipated the gameplay to be that of a cross between basketball and a visual novel.
Gorgeous, magical world
The demo started with your character, known as the Reader, dying in the middle of a harsh desert before being rescued by three individuals (a towering horned woman, a charming rogue and funny little canine creature). They, like you, are exiles: people who have committed crimes and sentenced to wander a bleak, unforgiving land until you die. Your crime was literacy, a rare skill that allows you to read books that could grant you your freedom. And so you travel alongside your companions in a caravan to complete special Rites in order to achieve that goal.
For those who have played Supergiant’s previous games, Pyre continues the studio's tradition of creating gorgeous, magical worlds, with hand painted backgrounds and lush animations adding a great deal of colour and life to the world you traverse. Little details seal the deal, such as the little imps that crawl around your caravan. In conversation, highlightable worlds provide background detail to people, events and places in your journey. It’s a wonderful aesthetic, one that I wish to explore further.
Gameplay can be divided into two segments travelling and Rites. In the first, your caravan travels across a landscape with you deciding which areas to visit and what activities to pursue when you camp for the night. Choosing an area to visit more often than not eliminates the other, opening up new side quests or items that you can recover. At night, you may forage for supplies, study Rites and discover new lore, or mentor your companions and improve their skills in battle.
Battle, or Rites as they are called in game, consists of your trio of companions facing off against another team in a small arena. A ball appears in the center, with two pyres on opposite sides of the playing field. The goal is to extinguish your opponents’ pyre by throwing a character into its flame. It is morbid, but very visually arresting, creating what is likely one of the strangest sports game ever made.
It becomes more complicated once you factor in the various skills at your disposal. Only one character can move at a time, but the ball can be passed back and forth between them at will. Each character generates a circle around them, called an aura, which temporarily removes an enemy from play if it touches them. Carrying the ball removes your aura, leaving you open for attack. Ranged attacks are possible, but only if you do not have the ball. Characters can dash and jump, which depletes a stamina meter that recovers at a slow rate.
All of this means that you have to be aware at all times of where your characters are and what they can do. It is a lot to keep track of, but I picked it up pretty quickly in my brief time with Pyre. Throwing yourself over an opponent to sink the ball into their pyre is exciting, as is trying to figure out how to break open their defenses. Basketball is perhaps the best comparison I can make, but it is also reminiscent of Transistor’s strategic combat.
Whereas previous Supergiant titles focused on a lone individual, Pyre is the first to emphasize teamwork. You need to manage and support your companions in order to complete the Rites, but they need to rely on you in order to escape the land you find yourselves trapped in. It’s an interesting change of pace for the studio, and one that I look forward to seeing more of in the coming months.