Full Dark, All Stars
Supergiant Games’ latest spark of inspiration follows up 2011’s Bastion and 2014’s Transistor with Pyre, a game very much unlike both of its predecessors, but still with every bit of the Supergiant charm that those other games had. That means beautifully-detailed art, yes. Clever writing and storytelling, to be sure. An essential Darren Korb soundtrack, but of course. But it also does something new, or rather something better. Of all of Supergiant’s games, it is easily the most difficult to explain. But Pyre is not only the best thing the inspired indie studio has crafted to date, but keeps the edges smooth in ways one could argue those other games have not quite done. Pyre is almost laughably bizarre, but it’s also one of the best games 2017 has produced so far.
In Pyre, players take on a nameless, faceless protagonist known only as the Reader. The Reader wakes up in a desert in the middle of the Downside, a vast and actually quite beautiful purgatory. The Reader is found by three wanderers: the imposing demoness Jodariel, the kind and moral Hedwyn, and the scruffy cur Rukey. Like you, the three are exiles, bound to this place in search of redemption, the eventual goal being admittance back into the seemingly singular civilization known as the Commonwealth. Your identity as the Reader is revealed to the group as you interact with the stars above and a magical tome of history and magic, allowing you to direct your companions in a series of mystic Rites that will gain them a chance at freedom.
It all happens with the characters taking on the name of the Nightwings, a group of exiles long gone, whose ritual masks and robes have somehow fallen into the hands of these new owners. Other than the name Sandalwood, belonging to a mysterious benefactor, it takes a few hours before much becomes known about how the trio got ahold of the Nightwing name, crest and reputation. This means that other exile groups know them, or think that they do at first. The road to salvation is paved with good intentions and bad vibes, all the way through.
More characters join your group one by one over the game’s first few hours, from the moon-touched girl who can’t quite remember her name to the noble Sir Gilman; nine characters in all. They span a variety of races, all connected by the Commonwealth. Most are former residents, but some are part of entire societies not seen fit for the governing body’s reign. More importantly, each character plays differently when engaged in the fantasy super-basketball intensity of the Rites.
The Rites work like this. As the Reader, governing over the match as a whole, you choose three exiles from your party to participate in a given Rite. The battlefield for each Rite contains a titular Pyre flame for each team. Depleting your opponent’s Pyre is the key to victory, obtained by hurling a celestial orb into its fiery depths as many times as it takes. You can only control one character at a time, meaning, as the song from the game’s first trailer sums up nicely: three must move as one, but all are not the same.
Jodariel, for example, is a hulking and slow behemoth of a creature who can’t maneuver through obstacles as easily, but she can deal more damage to the enemy Pyre. Rukey is a fast little bastard, but won’t do as much per strike. Characters can run into the Pyre, leap into it (or over enemies, if their jump is far enough), or throw it in from afar. Some characters have more unique mechanics. Two characters can fly. For the more human-sized Pamitha, it’s in graceful swoops that can carry her over great distances without touching either ground or foe. For the imp Ti’zo, it’s really more like a series of jumps. The whole world is basically Ti’zo’s trampoline. The enlightenment gained along the way unlocks a skill tree with two paths to try, each augmenting its respective character into a more specific kind of asset to the team. Each character’s skill tree is tied to one of the great scribes whose influence is the very heartbeat of the Downside, and the Rites themselves.
And by the stars, does it all work. Pyre’s combat takes some getting used to, but running through battlefields littered with increasing numbers of obstacles never ceases to amaze. The tension in the air is palpable. Characters are encircled by glowing auras that can be deadly to each other, and can also throw those auras out in destructive waves, again behaving differently depending on who you’ve brought into battle. The variety of enemies is unpredictable, too, meaning that familiarity with all of your exiles is vital to success in the Rites.
The Real Pyre was the Friends we Made Along the Way
That success comes more than once, too. The first time you get to the climactic Rite that will grant freedoms from exile, you learn one of the most interesting parts of Pyre, and a huge aspect of what makes the game as diverse in possibilities as it is. Each time you succeed in enough Rites in your travels, you have to face a choice; only one member of your party can be saved, and of those, only one whose enlightenment has reached a high-enough level. These choices can be brutal. The first character I chose to save made sense in the moment, but other characters’ reactions to the departure made me feel horrible about my own choice soon afterwards. If you lose a battle along the way, don’t turn off or restart your game. Things don’t end there. No matter where you stand tall, where you fail, or who leaves your group when, nothing is over. That’s part of the beauty of Pyre’s storytelling.
See, when it’s not being NBA Jam, Pyre is being fantasy Oregon Trail. In your travels with the Nightwings, you will cross verdant fields and mountains, sail a stormy and mystic sea, explore lava-drenched gulches, and more, all with an immaculate stained-glass art style that’s some of the coolest art direction I’ve seen in any 2D game in ages. It’s like Dr. Seuss teamed up with Jeff Smith from the Bone comics.
And all through it, the characters slowly meld into your skin, like milk into coffee or blood into water. Each exile has a backstory, a goal for their freedom, and a level of personality up there with the best of them. I grew quickly attached to everything from Hedwyn’s unshakeable optimism and sense of duty to the spritely translated comments of little Ti’zo. Over the course of Pyre’s 15-hour campaign, you’ll watch these characters grow closer together, and despair at the thought of tearing them apart. As you go, you can choose your own way through sections of the Downside, gaining different assets and bonuses for different characters as you go.
It’s a Great Big Purgatory Out There
There’s also an impressive grandness to the Downside. This is one way in which I think Pyre succeeds for the first time in Supergiant’s lineup. All of their games have had beautifully imaginative worlds, but in both Bastion and Transistor it felt like we only got slices of those worlds big enough to do exactly what those games set out to do. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but it’s great that in Pyre, we see every inch of the world as we traverse it. Every watercolored mountain, desert plain, or skeleton of a huge, ancient dead thing to serve as a battleground all feels like part of the same place. It’s like flipping through an art book, but the art book is your world map.
And it’s that sense of unity throughout the veins of Pyre that qualify it as what just might be a perfect game. The Rites and the depth of strategy within are half the battle. The other half is the journey, with its choices and their consequences all weaving into a narrative fabric of redemption, trust, and personal revolution. That path to freedom is a journey through intense victories and crushing defeats at the hands of characters who have just as much motivation to succeed as you do. You get bits of their reasons, too.
Pyre’s storytelling, fantasy-sports action RPG combat, grand sense of journeymanship and exquisite soundtrack all harmonize into a classical fable of a game that begs replays upon completion. I saved the Moonstruck girl with no name first of all, and saw the effect her absence left on each and every exile thereafter. Next time through, she’s going to stick around until the bitter end. Pyre is a thousand-stranded story. It ends in essentially the same place no matter what, but it hits the mark a lot of choice-based games miss. It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: Playstation 4 (Reviewed), PC; Publisher: Supergiant Games; Developer: Supergiant Games; Players: 1-2 (2-player mode) ; Released: July 25, 2017; ESRB: E; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Pyre purchased by HeyPoorPlayer.