Role-playing games and sports video games have more in common than you think. Decades ago, series like Sensible World of Soccer and Tony La Russa Baseball (on PC, not console) filled their career modes with lots of money- and roster-management menus. Modern major-league games and soccer games like FIFA 17 have carried those traditions over, sporting enough card-slotting and story-driven career modes to make them a hat and a wizard robe away from being a full-blown adventure.
But what if a sports game went further with its RPG elements? What if it had a high-stakes, internal-drama story, where relationships between teammates—along with the winners and losers you confront along the way—affected everything from the storytelling to the number-crunching min-max possibilities? I invite the big dogs at EA Sports, 2K Games, and Sony Santa Monica to look at a tremendous example of that experiment: Pyre, out today from Supergiant Games.
Pyre is a departure from the top-down, world-roaming adventures of Supergiant’s previous games Bastion and Transistor. It’s definitely not a Zelda-like quest with gritty narration, but it does see Supergiant continuing its streak of taking an established genre and saying, “we’re gonna build a helluva narrative and aesthetic world in there.”
Mutant league RPG
Pyre is easiest to explain when broken up into two halves: a plot- and dialogue-filled quest, and a new twist on one-on-one arcade sports. The game revolves around a series of team battles that I’ve dubbed “battle lacrosse.” Two teams of three appear on opposite ends of an arena, defending a goal, which is represented by a burning pyre. Each player controls a team and uses button taps to switch between players. The object is to be the first team to score 100 points by picking up an orb and repeatedly dunking it into the pyre.
Before you start playing, it’s best to spend time picking an ideal trio, because squad members affect everything in a match—even the points.
Instead of creating, say, a two- and three-point line like in basketball, Pyre changes the points scored depending on the orb carrier. Quicker characters are balanced, in part, by scoring fewer points per orb drop. This is in addition to some more traditional fantasy-character trade-offs in power and special abilities, so you essentially get equal strategic potential from every hero on your roster. How you succeed with each character can vary wildly, however.
Pyre‘s most unique sports twist is arguably its defend-and-banish system. This works a lot like tackling in physical sports, only with magic. Any character that isn’t holding onto the orb is surrounded by a defensive aura of varying size and shape. The aura sometimes disappears, most commonly when you’re the orb holder. Touching any enemy’s aura results in a brief penalty-box period—anywhere from 3 seconds to 12, depending on your character’s stats—that the other team can exploit. If two defending characters on opposite teams have active auras, the character with the bigger aura can bump the other person for a banish.
Every character gets a simple suite of default moves. You can pass the orb to a teammate, or just switch if you’re defending; shoot a rechargeable laser; jump to leap over boundaries or avoid ground attacks; and dash. There are variations within these moves, too. For example, some characters’ lasers have long or wide straight-line bursts, while others behave completely differently. One character’s “laser” is actually a bull rush, where they move faster and farther but leave their body vulnerable if they miss. Another character’s laser is a deadly, self-destruct explosion—it has a giant, circular blast radius, but the bomber is forced to respawn whether or not it hits a target.
Several risky maneuvers are spread among the character roster, fueling Pyre‘s accessible-yet-deep mechanics. Moves are assigned to just a few buttons—although, most of them can be charged for more power—so basic movement and navigation is a breeze. Yet, the variances and stamina-depleting mechanics behind each move force specific play styles and leave room for last-minute reactions. You can, for example, pair two slow, giant-aura bruisers with a quick flutter-jumping creature, only to find that your “block every route” dream is shattered by your opponent shooting tons of lasers and, thus, banishing your defenders.
There’s even strategy to how you score. Every time a character carries the orb into an opposing pyre, they disappear until the next score on either side (the opposite of NBA Jam‘s “on fire” bonus). However, if a character throws the orb into the pyre, which usually takes longer, they score fewer points but avoid a full-round banishment.
Pyre is a defensively focused game, designed to make every scoring opportunity hard-fought and sportscaster-shoutworthy. This isn’t a game of nil-nil ties—since a winning side needs to score from about five to eight times to win an average match—but good players should expect those score counts to take 8 to 12 minutes.
So much beauty, so much character, so much text
But Pyre isn’t a versus-minded game by default (I’ll get into some fallout about that fact in a bit). The game is clearly built as a vehicle for Supergiant Games’ storytelling talents, because its various character classes are introduced to players via an epic quest.
This single-player adventure stars you as The Reader. You arrive in a strange, colorful world called the Downside. It serves as the limbo-punishment void for this alternate reality, where you encounter other people who have also been banished from society. Your crime is unique: you read books, which is a forbidden practice. The first group you encounter needs your help, conveniently enough. They have a plan to escape the Downside, but someone has to read a legendary tome to find the path home.
Along the way, you run into a number of three-on-three orb battles with others who strive to be free of the same limbo, and some of those battles end with unlikely allies joining your party. These characters differ in battle skills and characteristics, but they’re also rich with personality. Your starting trio of the steadfast leader Hedwyn, long-suffering brute Jodariel, and a conniving, smooth-talking dog named Rukey are already delightful in their own right, but they grow more charming and memorable in the company of so many other strong personalities. There’s a whackadoodle fairy teen, a duty-crazed, armor-clad tadpole, a vain, David Bowie-inspired tree-man, an endlessly giggling advisor-witch… and that’s just the start.
Truly, I haven’t encountered this many likeable RPG characters bouncing off of each other so immediately and memorably in a quest game since Chrono Trigger. And Supergiant’s writing team didn’t slouch in building backstories (let alone backstories for those backstories), told either in lengthy dialogue passages, or the all-important Book Of Rites that you, The Reader, are in command of.
No, it doesn’t work online…
The plot’s momentum reaches an early peak once your squad of unlikely heroes gets a shot at freedom. Be warned: this turning point, which I won’t spoil, disrupts the plot’s speed, tone, and camaraderie to a certain extent. But that’s okay. As a game that splits its time between sport-action sequences and visual-novel text crawls, Pyre needs a tone-shifting shot in the arm at this point, but be prepared to tough it out through a slight deflated feeling as you pivot toward the game’s true, satisfying goal.
(Expect a runthrough of the quest to cross a dozen hours. After that, you may get the urge to play it again for certain reasons.)
The quest’s spoilery pivot makes another Pyre aspect tough to describe, so please accept this vague pledge: when the game tells you that loss and failure are okay, it’s not kidding. Pyre unfolds in interesting ways whether you win matches or lose them, and Supergiant deserves credit for creating a neat solution to the “ugh, I failed, reload save” RPG trope.
If you haven’t noticed in the above galleries, Pyre absolutely drips with style and beauty. I feel comfortable calling it one of the most handsomely drawn video games I’ve seen, complete with personality-loaded character portraits, sensational character animations during battle sequences, and an intricate world art that rivals the density, detail, and life of a Where’s Waldo book. The default 4K rendering certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
The catch is that the game’s quest portion consists almost entirely of static art. Dialogue sequences play out as lengthy text crawls while you hear brief bursts of each character’s foreign-tongue gibberish. The amount of effort put into this gibberish is substantial; you never hear the same “gleff kytyuck slie” phrases uttered twice, and this comes via surprisingly great gibberish acting. You just better strap in for a ’90s-styled blast of text around every corner.
(Should you hate walls of text, or even sports-and-questing combinations, at least pony up for the game’s unbelievable soundtrack, which is even better than the shining soundtracks Supergiant produced for Bastion and Transistor.)
My biggest beef with Pyre is how its two-player mode presents certain options. Players can elect to turn on the game’s two types of character perks before facing off in a friendly skirmish, but one of these, “talismans,” dumps 46 options into pre-match menus. Pyre doesn’t let you filter these down for the sake of specific perk types or more balanced matches. The other perk, a tree-like series of “masteries,” is a simpler one to turn on and sort through, though one of the options for this perk is that each character gets a random and different number of masteries. This imbalances the characters in a crazy way, and I hope Supergiant fixes it.
Additionally, dumping these sorts of perk-related menus, on top of a fully unlocked character roster, onto potential new players seems like the wrong way to go. Not everyone who encounters Pyre will start by playing its lengthy quest portion, which spreads strategy and class lessons between pages of dialogue. Supergiant would be wise to patch in some sort of “just jump in” skirmish mode that lets the game’s tasty, easy to start, hard-to-master appeal shine through.
But that’s a presentation issue for an otherwise unique, gorgeous, and compelling entry in the world of quest-tinged video game sports. The other giant issue being, of course, that this two-player mode has no online version, and Supergiant has not announced plans to change that. This is a frame-perfect game of twitchy reactions, which is hard to recreate online, but if you don’t have a couch playmate, you just have to settle on Pyre‘s brilliantly drawn and wonderfully told interactive story. Not a bad consolation prize.
- A memorable quest through the limbo world of the Downside
- RPG elements neatly merge with an engaging twist on “battle lacrosse”
- Rich variety of classes and strategies lie beneath simple controls
- Looks, sounds, and feels wonderful
- Mid-game pivot makes failure a compelling gameplay option
- No online play. This is a frame-perfect competition game, but you have been warned
- If you don’t like walls of text, you might be annoyed by quests
- You can play Pyre with mouse-and-keyboard, but it clearly was designed for gamepads
- Two-player skirmish mode menus need simplifying to ease newer players in
Verdict: Pyre is a brilliant reinvention of the term “fantasy sports,” with story, visuals, and gameplay to die for. Go buy it.