Sometimes I come across a game that is difficult to describe and sell to others; Pyre is one of those games. I’m not experiencing this difficulty because the game is overly complex or bogged down in backstory or strange mechanics. No, Pyre is difficult to describe because it’s so beautifully, achingly addictive, pretty, aurally pleasing, and just so downright fun that it’s hard to sound like anything but a massive fangirl while trying to objectively review it.
Pyre is the newest, and third overall, title developed by Supergiant Games. You may remember Supergiant from such indie hits as Bastion and Transistor, both which had very unique storylines, fun gameplay, insanely good soundtracks (hey there, Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett) and pretty, pretty art. Based on those factors, Pyre fits snugly into the beautiful little pocket of game development that Supergiant have crafted for themselves. While Bastion was a fantasy hacky-slashy, story-driven, world-rebuilding RPG and Transistor was a sci-fi, hacky-slashy, story-driven strategy RPG, Pyre is…a visual novel football game.
No, no, come back here! I wasn’t done!
Pyre takes place in the Downside, a world where exiles from the Commonwealth are sent when they have broken the law. You play as the Reader, a recent exile who has been sent to the Downside for breaking the law forbidding literacy. You are soon found by the Nightwings, a group of three exiles dressed in matching raiments and masks – the demon woman Jodariel, the four-legged cur Rukey, and the nomad (basically a human) Hedwyn. They invite you into their blackwagon, tend to your injuries, and reveal that they have been told to find an exile who can read by a mysterious person named Sandalwood. They hand the Reader a book to prove that they can read, and upon opening and reading a page or two of the Book of Rites, the exiles are swept away to a battlefield against another group of three exiles in different raiments and masks.
A Voice speaks to the Reader, welcoming them to the cycle of the Rites. Jodariel, Rukey and Hedwyn form a triumvirate known as the Nightwings. They are then pitted against the other triumvirate in a Rite – a game designed to prove who among the exiles is worthy enough to participate in a later Liberation Rite. The Liberation Rite is their only chance to be absolved of their misdeeds and allowed to return home to the Commonwealth. The Nightwings, under the guidance of the Reader (who does not participate in the Rites and instead controls the other party members), must best enough other triumvirates – each with their own names and unique party members – to be considered worthy for liberation. The Reader uses their unique ability to follow the stars, named for the Eight Scribes of legend, to lead their team to victory.
A lot to take in, right? Let’s start from the beginning – the visual novel format. Pyre’s player character, the Reader, is never seen, so you can roleplay the game however you want. A lot of Pyre’s text can be interacted with directly, allowing you to learn more by hovering over red hyperlink-style words that pulsate with new information. You also occasionally have the option to change what you’re saying by clicking on the dialogue directly rather than choosing from the game’s typical multiple-choice answer format. For example, right at the start of the game you are able to choose your gender (male, female, or non-binary) by interacting with a line of dialogue which suggests the gender that your fellow exiles are guessing you identify with. I thought that was a nice little touch right from the get-go. When you are provided with the multiple choice question-answer format, you can always hover over each response option to access an information window detailing a little more about your response before you choose.
A star named for one of the Eight Scribes, indicating the location of the next Rite
When you’re not chatting up the Nightwings, you can basically poke and prod everything in the blackwagon, from the drive-imps that move the wagon to the little trinkets you collect on your journey. Each Nightwing has a special item in the blackwagon which, when hovered over, gives some flavor text explaining what they’re up to even though you can’t see them (characters only appear in the blackwagon when they’re available for discussion). For example, by hovering over Jodariel’s rug it may provide the flavor text “Sparring with Rukey”. In the case of flavor text where another exile is mentioned, finding their special item and hovering over it will provide a reversed version of the other character’s text (e.g. “Sparring with Jodariel).
This is another small touch that I really liked. The flavor text changes extremely frequently and can be worth a few laughs. You can find out so much about the world of Pyre just by poking around and hovering over everything. From the blackwagon, in addition to conversing with your party members, you can also choose to read the Book of Rites. The book, despite being extremely thick, only reveals new pages and chapters at specific times, whether as the result of story progression, exploration, or other events. There are chapters dedicated to the story of the Eight Scribes of legend, other triumvirates, gigantic beasts from the time of the Scribes, and the locations you visit. If you’ve read everything there is to read in the Book, you can check out the character roster, which provides every bit of information about the Nightwings that you could possibly want.
The individual roster pages cover each character’s Rite stats (which I’ll go into later), their masteries (which I’ll also go into later), their basic skills, and lots of information to do with backstory, such as why they were exiled. The latter must be earned through conversation, story progression, and by sometimes pitting Nightwings against characters from other triumvirates with whom they have a history. When you’re not inside the blackwagon, you may be visiting the Slugmarket (accessed by clicking the icon when it appears when your blackwagon is stopped) to buy and sell useful items. When the blackwagon is on the move, you use the point-and-click interface to choose your next destination, whether in the stars or on the ground. You can also take specific paths or detours, each with their own hover-able flavor text indicating what consequences (i.e. temporary stat boosts for the next Rite) you may incur as a result of choosing that path
I believe that if you’re going to make a visual novel style game, you have to have incredibly strong artwork, music, and above all, story, to back it up. Visual novels are fantastic when done right, but it’s glaringly obvious that it was an attempt at an “easy out” for the developer when poorly executed. Thankfully for Pyre, Supergiant is no stranger to absolutely gorgeous artwork and character design. Each Nightwing is bursting with colour and character, and there’s so much variety between the party members. Part of Sandalwood’s instructions to the first three Nightwings was to find an exile to suit every mask and set of raiments in the blackwagon. There are a wide variety of species in Pyre, and naturally a raiment and mask to fit one of each in your blackwagon. Nomads (humans), dog-like curs, demons, wyrms, imps, and more can join your party. You will also meet other triumvirates featuring each of these species, with the special ones (typically leaders of the triumvirate which are important to the story) differing significantly in appearance and manner from the ones you invite to join your party.
During Rites, the characters on both sides are reduced to identical sprites (barring the colors of their raiments indicating which triumvirate they belong to) based on species. For example, the hulking Demons will look the same when on the field regardless of gender or appearance when the raiments aren’t being worn. You would think that the change from beautifully crafted character portraits in the visual novel segments to the comparatively simplistic sprites would be jarring, but it really isn’t. I feel that the simplified appearance of the exiles during Rites makes the game easier to view and control in the heat of battle. The sprites are still lovely to look at and the animation for each movement is super smooth. In fact, I would argue that it’s a nice departure from the static portraits during story segments, as nice as they are.
As for the Downside itself, the world map absolutely bleeds with color and character. Each area is equally fantastical and technicolor, but at the same time incredibly distinct from all the others. On the first playthrough you never know exactly what to expect as you traverse from desert to forest to strange, sickly bogs and other weird and wonderful places. As I said earlier, a visual novel with poor art is always going to stick out like a sore thumb. Luckily for Pyre, it’s drenched in beauty no matter which part of the game you’re playing.
One of the many locations for Rites
While we’re on the subject of the Rites, let’s talk about gameplay outside of the visual novel aspects. While I kept referring to the Rites as “battles,” they’re actually non-violent. A Rite goes like this: the two groups of exiles gather where the next Rite is to take place. Here they lay down their respective triumvirate signs (a circle placed on the ground bearing the sigil of the team) at either end of the field. A flame then grows on each of these signs, which is known as the pyre. The field may also feature small obstacles which can, in some cases, be moved and bumped around, but ultimately require the Reader to guide their triumvirate around them in order to make their way to the other side to douse the opposing team’s pyre. At the start of a Rite, each pyre will have 100HP (while it’s not identified as HP in the actual game, that’s what it is) unless any of the exiles have a skill or piece of equipment which affords their team more or the other team less points at the outset. Readers choose three exiles to form the triumvirate and can assess the skills and equipment of their adversaries before choosing. Rites are played 3-on-3 only, no matter how many team members each side may have in total. When the Rite commences, a celestial orb (basically a glowing white ball) appears in the center of the field.
Players must rush to grab it and transport it to the other team’s pyre. If an exile is not carrying the celestial orb, they are surrounded by an aura. Members of large species like the demons have very large auras, but move incredibly slowly. Very small species like curs and worms can move very, very quickly, but have tiny auras. If an exile from one triumvirate makes contact with an enemy’s aura, they are temporarily banished. When a player is no longer banished, they return to their pyre and are available to control again. Different types of exiles also have different skills they can use during Rites. For example, curs can press and hold a button to shoot their aura in a beam at the enemy. They can also hold another button to consume stamina and run really quickly. And they can jump.
While holding the celestial orb, exiles lose their aura and must rely on their other skills and techniques to make it safely to the pyre without being banished. Curs, for example again, can still use their sprinting and jumping abilities, but their aura cast ability is replaced with the option to throw the orb. Exiles can throw the orb at the pyre, at their enemies, at the ground or at their teammates. Only one exile can be controlled at a time and uncontrolled exiles do not move independently. The Reader can swap control of available exiles at any time. If all three exiles are banished at the same time, the pyre is open for dousing by the enemy team and is completely defenseless. Additionally, if you douse the pyre by jumping into it, that character won’t become available for use until after the pyre is doused once more. Obviously, it can be tempting to make a team of nothing but incredibly quick characters that can zip past everyone, but Supergiant makes sure you play fair by introducing a variety of circumstances where one or more characters may simply be unavailable for some Rites. Honesty, every single one of the Nightwings, regardless of how I felt about them when they first joined the party, is a great asset and can make a great part of just about any team.
At the end of a match, exiles who participated receive Enlightenment, which can be seen in a bar that fills up at the top of their roster page. Enlightenment essentially functions as experience (though it is supposed to be a measure of how much they have learned during their punishment and whether they have become worthy of redemption), and there are five levels for each character to pass through. Obtaining each level of Enlightenment allows the player to select Masteries from two trees on each character’s roster page. One tree will typically focus on one part of a character’s playing style, and the other tree will focus on another. To a point, you can pick and choose from both trees (up to the allotted five times) but you will never be able to get all of the available Masteries (there is a maximum of four for each character). As you progress through the game and become more enlightened, so too do your enemies, who start to obtain Masteries themselves. And, because your enemies always have the same skills and Masteries to choose from if they are from the same species, you may find yourself fighting a mirror image of your demon or wyrm, or one that has specialized in the opposite tree. When it comes to the Liberation Rite, the amount of Enlightenment your characters have determines how worthy they are of being liberated.
But what about that new character I got that I haven’t found a time to use yet? Fear not, spectating Nightwings receive Inspiration on their Enlightenment bar instead. The presence of Inspiration means that the next time they receive Enlightenment, it will increase much quicker than it would have otherwise. With each level up, your characters stats also increase. There are four stats that each character possesses: Quickness, Presence, Glory, and Hope. Quickness, funnily enough, determines how quickly your exile moves. Presence determines the size of their aura, so characters like Jodariel have very high Presence and low Quickness. Glory determines how much damage the individual deals to the opposing pyre, and Hope is responsible for how quickly the player returns from banishment.
Now, in addition to the slot for Masteries on the roster pages, you also have a space for Talismans. Each Nightwing can only equip one Talisman at a time, and they are obtained through story or through visiting the Slugmarket and spending what little money you usually have kicking around. Talismans can be specialised to a specific exile, or they can be general and equipped by anyone. They offer a wide range of buffs and debuffs, including being able to automatically reduce the enemy pyre’s HP at the start of a match. You can also buy special stardust to buff Talismans up to level 20 (although, irritatingly, I saw enemies with level 30 Talismans, which was impossible for me), which improves their effect. Turns out Jodariel can be mid-to-upper range in Quickness across the whole party if you buff an early Quickness-boosting Talisman throughout the game. Talismans are pretty essential to getting the edge on the other teams, especially since, much like with Masteries, they’ll start using Talismans as well.
Is all of this starting to feel a bit too much? Well, fear not, because now and then while you’re out travelling in the blackwagon, you’ll have the opportunity to pursue Vocations. Vocations are split into three choices – scavenging for items that you can sell or equip, reading the Book for permanent team-wide stat boosts, or tutoring another exile. If you tutor an exile, they get a massive boost to Enlightenment, so it’s pretty goddamn useful. I never really bothered with scavenging, and I think that study only pays off if you invest in it early. It’s really hard to look past a sheer experience boost, however, and it didn’t hurt me at all doing that most of the time.
Now that we’ve covered gameplay, let’s take a deep breath and stare lovingly at the soundtrack for Pyre. Anyone who’s a Supergiant fan knew what to expect even before the first song was released alongside the teaser trailer. Almost every one of the tracks has a distinct Darren Korb feel to it, even though all of the tracks are wildly different from that of Bastion or Transistor. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack (which is available right now on Supergiant’s website for a very reasonable $10USD) nonstop since the game came out. Not only is the music wonderful, and the vocal tracks (hello again to Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett) simply sublime, but the further you get into the game the more you realise just how much effort went into the construction of the music. Each triumvirate has its own theme which plays in battle. The Liberation Rites have a specific theme as well – a theme which changes based on which triumvirate you happen to face. There’s also different versions of said theme depending on whether you or the enemy has the advantage. It blew my mind, okay?
Unwinding by spending time on Vocations
As for voice acting, well, there aren’t actually many characters who speak English in the game. All the characters have distinct voices, but speak in a frantic kind of gibberish that’s really endearing. You also start to pick up a few specific words over time, light the word “Nightwings” which is said at the end of every victory, and during many story segments. The story segments aren’t fully “voiced”, but the sound bites don’t get repetitive either. The Voice is the only main character who really gets to have full lines, and I was delighted time and time again by his expressive, hilarious voice acting (you won’t recognize him as Rucks from Bastion, but sure enough). I was also impressed by just how personalized his commentary over the course of the Rites can be. There’s amusing “Ooh!”s and other exclamations of surprise, a thousand snarky comments depending on how he feels about you at the time, and heaps of individualized remarks about specific exiles. This is especially impressive when you consider that you choose a name for one of the characters out of a list of more than 10, and there’s even personalized comments for her!
I can’t praise the beautiful music and voice acting in Pyre enough. Don’t you dare buy the soundtrack until you’ve played the game, but I’ll give you permission to access the soundtrack for free through the safety of Supergiant’s YouTube playlist when you’re hankering to hear specific themes again and again. Oh, but you don’t want to hit up the internet to listen? Luckily for you, eventually a character in your team who plays the lute will give you access to the jukebox…but every single song is played on the lute! That’s yet another set of variations on the soundtrack.
Now, here is where I would love to go into in-depth talk on the storyline and the progression of the story across the life of the game. In truth, even though I would love to gush about it, I really don’t want to spoil anymore than I may have already. I wasn’t lying when I said that Pyre was an addictive game, and that is due, in part, to how gripping the story is. While my boyfriend argues that the pacing of Pyre wasn’t as good as in Bastion, I have to disagree, because I never felt a single dull moment while playing the game. At one point I did fear that the game was going to become very repetitive and boring, but I was proven wrong a thousand times over. To paraphrase a character from Pyre, the cycle of the Rites spins uncontrollably until finally, it falls over and stops. The character development in Pyre is also top notch, and you would hope so with such an enormous cast. You may never find out why Rukey was exiled on your first playthrough, and I’ll make a keen bet that you’ll be back into your second playthrough with the bare minimum of time spent processing what you just experienced. You become very, very attached to the Nightwings and many other characters in Pyre, and decisions which may be really easy for some people may be almost gut-wrenching for you. The more you explore and learn about the Nightwings, the more you start to take their individual circumstances and histories into account, even if it comes down to throwing a match to make someone happy. Pyre‘s voice acting, story, and characters are also just so, so full of humor. Hundreds of times during my playthrough of the game, I was cackling at hilarious quips by the Voice or one of the Nightwings. Even the little hover-over flavor text is full of amusing snark.
To wrap up, here’s a few small notes that didn’t really fit anywhere else: there is no online multiplayer, but I think that’s okay because having any bit of lag in an otherwise fast-paced Rite would be terminally aggravating. Supergiant was kind enough to tell you that you may get spoiled by characters or other mechanics if you choose to try to play multiplayer before completing the story (heed this advice, you don’t want to be spoiled). The couch co-op is extremely fun and just as tense as any of the story battles. You have a full roster of characters to choose from, including enemies and a few extras. You can also alter the starting HP of the pyres, decide whether to use Talismans and Masteries, and choose your stage and tunes for the match.
If you had told me pre-release that Pyre would turn me into a raving, hollering sports fan, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet, here we are. I’ve never reacted so intensely to anything resembling sport before in my life, but Pyre changed all that. Pyre has so thoroughly enchanted me with its visuals, its story, its characters, its music, and its gameplay that immediately upon finishing it, I announced that it may be my game of the year. Why yes, I do say that despite 2017 being the same year that Persona 5 released. It’s been a few days since I finished Pyre and while I’m still not sure that it’s my game of the year for sure, it definitely ranks extremely highly, not just for this year, but out of any of the games I’ve ever played. Upon reflection, I think that it’s better than both Bastion and Transistor. The attention to detail on the tiniest of features and the extreme focus on character development really won me over. If you don’t buy Pyre (and its soundtrack), you’re a damn fool.
You set my heart on fire
Soundtrack - 10/10
Graphics - 10/10
Gameplay - 10/10
Story & Characters - 9/10
I only have one real criticism of Pyre, and that is that the ending feels flatter than a pancake. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, necessarily, and it’s somewhat expected given the story-driven visual novel style, but it felt like there needed to be one last little oomph that never really happened