Supergiant Games have a knack for creating weird and wonderful worlds for their games. From the destroyed floating world that builds itself around the Kid in Bastion to the city of Cloudbank being consumed by the Process in Transistor, they’re fascinating creations. The same can be said of the Downside in Pyre, with arresting visuals, a setting that you uncover gradually and an intriguingly original blend of ideas for the battles at the heart of the game.
Where Supergiant’s first two games built themselves around action RPG combat, albeit with a turn-based twist in Transistor, Pyre heads in a dramatically different direction. It’s a real time strategy of sorts, with hints of sports games and capture the flag thrown in to create a fascinatingly different and unique cocktail.
The simple aim is to grab the star orb that drops into the centre of the arena and deliver it to the opposing side’s Pyre. You have a triumvirate under your control, with three characters on either side, each surrounded by an aura that will temporarily vanish anyone who passes into it and can be fired in a direction. However, each character’s aura differs in size, tied to how fast they can move, and the aura of anyone carrying the orb disappears. On top of this, you can only control one character at a time, and must control an orb carrier.
It takes some getting used to, that’s for certain, as you must learn the kinds of positioning best used to defend, the way characters can combine in attack and so on. Your life is made trickier by a character that delivers the orb directly being banished for the next round, as opposed to throwing it which takes longer. Not only that, but further characters emerge which powers of flight, different methods of attack, movement styles and so on.
It’s all introduced to you gradually, giving you something new and interesting to tackle with each battle, but never overwhelming you. You can also train further by battling spectres trapped within a mystical green orb, taking on character specific challenges, and even indulging in the game’s versus mode. While the general difficulty seems balanced toward the lower end of the scale during your first passage, it soon ramps up as the opposing triumvirate level up and learn new abilities. You can increase this further by adding Titan Stars as difficulty modifiers to each battle.
Its almost a nod to the real time strategy genre that Pyre’s characters speak directly to you as the Reader, the member of the growing party that can read books and decipher the location of the next Rite. This ability and the use of it is the reason why you yourself were banished to this purgatorial realm, either to live out your final days here or fight in order to return to the world that is ruled by the Commonwealth.
You never take part in the Rites, but rather guide a group through this mystical world. The overarching plot takes a while to come into focus, as do many of the details surrounding each new found companion. The human Hedwyn, the fast canine Rukey and the hulking and demonic Jodariel create three nicely contrasting core characters, both in temperament and play style, but the full cast is strong in that regard – the Drive Imp Ti’zo is particularly adorable as you highlight his screeches and growls to see an interpretation of his meaning. All of them gradually accrue experience in battle, or inspiration to boost their experience when next used, leading to some simplified RPG character growth, boosting and adding new abilities.
It’s really dependent on you to invest the time to interact with them when given an opportunity and engage in the story. It’s actively encouraged, as you’re often presented with choices, whether it’s to choose the path forward, or a response to a question. There’s no overt branching narrative, making it feel natural and fluid.
It soon becomes clear what your true purpose is as you meet the rather secretive Sandalwood and progress to your first attempt at freeing the characters in your care. It doesn’t end there, whether you win or lose, as the story evolves in a cyclical fashion. You gain the ability to pick and choose your battles, with access to a log book that tracks your performance and that of other teams. Even in failure, the game simply marches on to the next battle, the next challenge on the path to redemption.
One place where there is common ground with Supergiant’s previous games is in its art style. The character art has the same digital painting look as before, the world that you explore even more fantastical and vibrant in its use of colours. The manner in which the wagon moves around the world, though, has a hint of Don Bluth animation, as it magically leaps over obstacles, changes form, wobbles through corners and more. It’s delightful.
The same is true of Darren Korb’s soundtrack. A highlight of both Bastion and Transistor, where it felt inextricably linked with the action and the environments, it perhaps lives a little more in the background on this occasion. That said, his distinctive style, from raw acoustic guitar to heavily processed sounds, is still here to see, and while I didn’t stand and simply soak in it as in Transistor, it’s still an integral part of the game’s style and atmosphere. There’s little to no voice acting in the game, with only a voiced introducing each Rite that has a very dramatic tone and flamboyant style.
Supergiant Games continue to burn brightly as an independent studio, with Pyre being their latest imaginative and fantastical adventure. It casts aside many of the trappings of an action RPG from Bastion and Transistor in favour of something more akin to a real time tactical game, wrapping its fast paced and often fraught battles up in a world and cast of characters that gradually draw you into its cyclical tale.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 Pro