As my gang of adventurers made their way through the desolate landscape, the ragtag group — comprised of a human, a towering demon, a swamp witch, and an armor-clad wyrm — made camp at a small, moonlit grove. There they spent the night preparing for the challenge ahead. Each member had spent time, in some cases years, toiling away in this wasteland, banished from the comparatively luxurious world above. Now it was time to perform a sacred rite, which, if successful, would send one of my long-suffering crew members back home. It was a big moment. Then, after all the preparations were made, we stepped into the arena and… played a game that looked a lot like a magical version of basketball.
This is Pyre, the third release from Supergiant Games, the studio behind the beloved action role-playing games Bastion and Transistor. On the surface, Pyre looks like a similar style of game, with its vibrant fantasy world, comic book-inspired 2D visuals, and eclectic cast of characters. But actually playing Pyre is something altogether different. It’s a mashup of two very different genres. On one hand, it’s almost like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, as you trek through the wasteland, reading lots of text, and making decisions at key points in the story. And then there are the rites — rituals you perform at specific intervals that have much more in common with NBA Jam than a typical RPG battle. It’s the way these two elements come together that makes Pyre special.
Pyre puts you in the role of an unnamed “reader,” a mysterious character with the ability to parse the ancient texts necessary for the rites. The world of Pyre is divided into two. Above is the Commonwealth, a sprawling country described as a melting pot of various races, species, and magical creatures. It’s also a place with a very strict sense of law. Nestled below — where the game itself takes place — is the wasteland, where criminals and other unwanted residents of the Commonwealth are banished to live in a mystical realm that looks like Jack Kirby’s take on Hellboy. There’s a catch, though: if the banished can successfully complete the rites, they can not only return to the Commonwealth, but be become venerated members of society.
As the reader, it’s your job to lead a group of adventurers through these rituals and, ultimately, back to freedom. Like the world itself, the structure of the game is divided into two distinct parts. Much of your time will be spent questing. First, you read the stars to divine the next location for the rites, and then you ride a beat-up old wagon through the various forests, swamps, and mountains of the wasteland to get there. Along the way, your crew will provide suggestions on which path to take, and you’ll meet new characters who either want to join your team or have some other nefarious idea in mind. People get sick, and sometimes they fight. These sections play out mostly through text, as you’ll read through lots of dialogue and descriptions of what characters are doing or thinking. Some of it is optional; if you really want to dig into Pyre’s lore, you’ll have access to a massive tome to do just that.
The game does a great job of world-building, even if the reams of text can drag on at times. Pyre’s world feels refreshingly unique, blending a pioneer vibe with elements of fantasy and HP Lovecraft, and then dousing them with bright greens, purples, and oranges. It’s very reminiscent of the comic mini-series The Spire. Pyre also has a really great cast of characters. Your team includes everything from a surly demon to an honorable sea serpent knight, with a talking dog and mischievous harpy thrown in for good measure.
As great as the characters and world-building are, the real highlight of Pyre is the rites themselves. The rules are fairly simple: each team has three players, and your goal is to grab the magic orb in the center of the arena and bring it to your opponent’s fire, either by carrying or tossing it. Each time you do this, the fire will dim somewhat, and whoever completely douses the opposing fire wins. The characters all have a stamina gauge that lets them run, jump, and in some cases fly or teleport. You can also attack your opponents, which, if successful, will temporarily banish them from the arena for a few seconds.
The matches move at a rapid pace, lasting just a few minutes each, and there’s a very entertaining back-and-forth to each affair. All it takes is a few shots to significantly deplete your fire, and since some characters are blazingly fast, a match can turn around in a matter of seconds. Scoring in rapid succession is incredibly satisfying. And while the rules of the rites are fairly simple, there’s still a good amount of strategy to worry about. The makeup of your team is very important, as different characters have very different skills and abilities. There are the big, slow ones who are good at defense, and the tiny speedsters who can skirt their way around the enemy. I’ve become particularly partial to my harpy, who — with a well-timed burst of speed — can fly right over unsuspecting opponents and right into the fire. You also have to worry about the arenas themselves, which can wildly differ: some are simple and open, others are rife with steadily growing plants that will try to attack you.
Assembling the right team makes you feel like both a basketball coach and a dungeon master. In addition to their physical qualities and particular skills, characters will also level up and learn new abilities, and you can outfit them with useful talismans. Deciding who will take part in the rites is as much about winning that particular match as it is planning for the future, ensuring you have a well-balanced squad for later battles. Outside of the fairly lengthy campaign, there are also multiple side challenges to take on, as well as a multiplayer mode where you can play some fantasy b-ball with friends.
Pyre is a mishmash of a game. Its world is culled from multiple influences, and the core of the experience feels like two very different titles stuck together. But, as with Supergiant’s past work, it all comes together in a very satisfying way. It’s an adventure where it only feels natural that you’d spend as much time poring over ancient books as you do throwing a magic orb around an arena, and I enjoyed chatting with swamp witches almost as much as I did turning them into powerful warriors. I may not know how to say “boomshakalaka” in harpy, but I know what it feels like to dunk over a massive demon.
Pyre is available July 25th on PS4 and PC.