Fire in the Belly
Supergiant games already has a special place in my heart thanks to their previous titles Bastion and Transistor. While their visual and aural styles were quite similar, gameplay between Bastion and Transistor were very different. This is again the case for Pyre, which feels aesthetically familiar, while taking players into a new gameplay and storytelling style. Previous games made the player’s character, goals and story explicitly clear through fantastic narration by Logan Cunningham, but Pyre feels like a smarter game, one built with more strategic gameplay and requiring more insight and thought from players.
The game opens with the player being discovered as a new outcast, exiled from the Commonwealth for some kind of crime. In a society where reading and writing is outlawed, players have that scandalous ability, prompting the characters around you to refer to you as “The Reader”. By reading a sacred book, you learn of the Rites, an ancient religious act that allows those exiled to regain their freedom and return to society. Thus, it is up to your motley band of characters to work together in battle, ascend the ranks and eventually attain freedom. Of course it isn’t that simple.
While the triumvirate must work together in combat, only one character can ascend to freedom at a time. They need to gain a certain amount of enlightenment (the game’s form of XP) before they are eligible, meaning that you have to use the character in the rites in order for them to rank enough to be able to leave and attain their freedom. Of course, once they go free, you can no longer use them in your rites. This leads to a balancing act of keeping certain characters to ensure your success down the line, while also levelling up and growing fond of other characters who will then go free.
Combat itself is rather intriguing. It seemed quite daunting at first, almost playing out like a strange form of basketball, and yet also nothing like it. Two teams of three face off, needing to grab a celestial orb and get it into their opponents’ pyre. This can be done by flinging themselves into the pyre while holding the orb, or throwing the orb from a distance. Each player has a protective aura that can also be cast in a form of offence; once you grab the orb, you lose your aura and become vulnerable. This leads to some high levels of strategy as you need to avoid your opponents’ aura, manoeuvre across the playing field and slowly whittle away at your enemies’ pyre. Each character has unique traits that make combat even more strategic. While one character might be super strong with a huge aura, she moves so slowly that you can’t really rely on her to dunk the orb in the opponent’s pyre. Alternatively, another character is able to spring across the playing field, but can barely do any damage to enemies. As you progress, these characters become stronger and more integral to the team, making their departure that much more bittersweet as you are happy for their freedom but sad for your own more difficult progress through the game.
As beautiful and strategic as Pyre was as a game, I struggled to really feel emotionally connected to it at first. Why was I exiled? What had I done wrong? Who was my character and why was I going on this journey? It all felt so abstract at first, and I barely knew my companions who all seemed too bitter and jaded by the time I met them. And yet, that was where Pyre eventually proved to be a strong and deeply emotional experience for me.
Unlike titles that explicitly lay out your motivations for you, Pyre forces you to decide it for yourself. One character might ask you what you think about something in the world, or how you feel about the Commonwealth that cast you out, or what your hopes and dreams might be. How you answer this shapes your future experiences, and ultimately your view of the world and the game. It’s up to you to support a revolution, to help overthrow the corrupt system (or is it really?). It’s up to you to help your friends or pursue more selfish pursuits. As you progress, you also learn more about your companions, growing closer over time and eventually learning why they were cast out, how they came to be in their current positions and even which other players they are bonding with. Much like life, it takes time to build relationships and find purpose, but once you do, those connections feel even more profound.
When I initially finished Pyre, I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it. While the gameplay was fun and interesting, I wasn’t really thinking about the experience after I finished it… until I woke up singing one of the main themes. The music has been stuck in my head for days, as have some of the central themes. I keep thinking about the need to resist corrupt regimes, to do whatever it takes for your friends, that knowledge comes from striving rather than necessarily succeeding. So many themes and ideas, great writing and incredible moments are stuck in my head. I can’t stop humming the various songs, nor can I stop thinking about the diverse characters and what they signify. I feel compelled to play the game again, to see what would have turned out differently if I’d made different choices. And as usual with Supergiant Games’ titles, I simply must own the OST to listen to as and when I feel the urge.
There were, of course, some issues with the game. The strategy is deep and intelligent, until your characters get to a certain level with the right equipment, at which point most battles feel a bit one sided. Once you hit that point, though, there are many ways to up the difficulty. As usual in games from this developer, players can choose various buffs for their enemies or de-buffs for themselves for each encounter, adding to the difficulty of the battle in exchange for more enlightenment or XP as a payoff. Plus, after a certain point in the game, each battle includes unique challenges that can be completed for extra cash. By that point in the game, though, I had already acquired most of the characters’ unique talismans/equipment, and no longer needed money to buy them from the shop.
Pyre also requires a lot more reading and deep diving than some players might be interested in. Sure, you can just follow the dialogue to get a sense of characters and lore, but if you really want to understand what’s happening in the story and relationships, you’ll need to read the awesome tome of a book to truly grasp what’s going on.
Last Updated: July 24, 2017