Pyre is a sports game about starting a revolution. In a worse game, that would be a joke, but Pyre takes both its sports and its politics seriously and combines them in an unexpectedly compelling way.
This new game is from Supergiant, the small studio behind the lauded Bastion and Transistor games. Their first was mostly a shooter, their second a strategic sci-fi adventure. The third is a religious sports game. Why not?
In Pyre, you control a team of exiles called the Nightwings in the land of Downside, as they participate in a series of religious rites—a snappy, challenging three-on-three variant on basketball using an increasingly wide selection of characters. Early on, you play the rites as sports-based battled between long sections of narrative. Eventually, the game opens up and offers a twist that radically changes how you’ll play. (SPOILER WARNING: For several hours, Pyre hold back a major twist about how it plays. I am spoiling that in this review, since it greatly influenced my take on the game, as it dominates the final two thirds of action and is ultimately Pyre’s most important gameplay system. Review-reader beware!) It turns out the goal of the rites is to give an exile their freedom. After a set number of rites, you’ll perform the Liberation Rite, and either a character from your team or from the opposing team will be able to return to the Commonwealth, the land from which they’ve been banished. Your goal is to send as many character as you can back to the Commonwealth in order to take down the oppressive system that banished them to Downside in the first place. This would be like playing a season of NBA 2K and having to occasionally decide which of your star players to remove from the game. It deeply affects strategy and narrative.
Most of your time in Pyre will be spent performing the rites. These rites feel like a successor to NBA Jam, if the famous arcade basketball game was set on unfolded pages of a giant book. The matches are three-on-three and the goal is to drive a ball into your opponents’ pyre, eventually snuffing it out. On offense, you control whoever is holding the ball. On defense, you can freely swap players and use the halo surrounding your players to temporarily banish any opposing players from the field of play for a short amount of time. Enemy players try to banish your team members as well, but you can avoid their auras by sprinting, jumping, and in the case of some characters, flying over them.
Games go fast, as each side’s players keep running, passing and shooting the ball. It’s common to get into a tense stalemate or a stunning upset, and when you get good at this, it’s a thrill to play. Sometimes, after pulling off a tricky play, I found myself sighing with relief, or shaking out my tensed hands.
The rites have an announcer called the Voice who narrates the action and tells a story around it. He also talks shit. He’ll remind you when you’re falling behind, or when you’re crushing your enemies, or note when you’ve left your pyre wide open. “Pathetic!” It helps that the Voice seems to loathe you, so when you win you’re not only defeating your opponents, but also this guy who can’t stop telling you how much you suck.
As you play rites, the members of your team level up. You can arm them with better items called Talismans and help them learn new abilities called Masteries. Over the course of the game, you’ll also meet a few new characters and expand your roster.
People who liked Bastion or Transistor probably weren’t expecting a sports game next, and even those who are into sports games might not know whether to be excited about one that is mostly meant to be played solo and that embeds its athletics into a complex story full of dialogue and religious intrigue.
So here’s a warning to all of those people and a heads up: this game is very good, but takes a long time to hit its stride.
The first four or so hours of my playthrough were dedicated to the lengthy set up for the plot and characters, and I was only able to play rites after long exposition dumps. While I appreciate the details put into this world, there was a part of me that thought, “come on, let me get to the good shit already.” The good shit does eventually come, it just takes a while to get there.
The game is also overly easy, initially. I breezed through the first four hours with a 9-0 record, but I hit a losing streak I couldn’t shake until I started practicing how to counter certain types of characters and making sure my passing game was on point. As the game goes on, your opponents will also gain Talismans and Masteries, and if you’re not sharp they’ll wreck your shit.
Pyre’s story becomes more interesting the less the game explains and the more they allow you to just get fond of the characters, either through the rites or through learning about their pasts. As I played rites, I got attached to the particular characters that helped me win. Certain characters will also have plot beats trigger by facing the same opponent’s over and over. Rukey Greentail, a wise cracking talking dog, owes someone on the Dissidents a debt and through playing the rites against the Dissidents you can clear it for him.
After the extended opening bits, the flow and point of the game changes to focus on the process of using the rites not just as a battle sport but to free the characters from bondage. Every time I sent a character home, I felt both pride and regret. The characters can feel a bit thin at times—Ti’Zo, a winged imp, never really developed for me beyond “cute mascot character”—but saying goodbye to them is rough, and not just because you know you’ll never see them again. Often your best characters will be up for liberation, either because you feel like they deserve freedom or you know it’s the only way to win the Liberation Rite. When I sent home Rukey I missed the dynamic he brought to the Nightwings, and also I missed him on the court, where I’d used him to dunk on my opponents time and time again.
As Pyre hurtles towards its conclusion, you learn more about the remaining characters in short, segments that resemble text-heavy twine games. Some of their tales of their lives and banishment will be more appealing than others. I adored the character I named Xae. When you meet her, she can’t remember her name except that it rhymes with “gray,” and you’re given a list of options. While it was tempting to name her Bae, I resisted. She’s a bit loopy, remarking that the gods of this world, The Eight Scribes, are speaking to her, but you learn that these tendencies had her cast out from her home as a child. She’s lived off the land ever since, barely surviving. She brought me to victory in the rites time and time again, and I knew I had to free her. For every Xae, you’ll meet a Sir Gilman, a wyrm knight whose obsession with honor I found more tedious than anything else.
Still, as their leader, I wanted nothing more than to free everyone and see the oppressive system of the Commonwealth overturned. Pyre’s narrative structure doesn’t make that possible, and it made me feel like shit. If you lose rites, the game just continues, and you have to figure out how to cope with knowing you might have fucked yourself. At the end of the game, some characters will remain in the Downside. The first time I nominated Xae for liberation I lost the rite. For a brief moment, knowing I’d only have a few more chances to liberate characters, I thought, “Well, guess I’ll just start the game over.” I pressed on instead, realizing that no matter how many times I play Pyre, I’ll always have a moment where I feel like I’ve doomed my plans.
Pyre makes you live with your mistakes. In your effort to change the Commonwealth, you will fuck up by losing rites, failing to liberate characters, or making choices that will temporarily give them worse stats.. It will feel awful. Sometimes, you’ll make a choice that feels wrong, although you know it will give your revolution a better chance. Sometimes, there’s no right choice, but you’ll have to make one regardless. Pyre doesn’t frame political action as being dependent on individual choices, however. While you influence the revolution, these plans were set in motion before you and you’re just here to drive it home. Although you’re in charge of all the decision within the Nightwings, the game makes it clear that the revolution lives or dies on the strength of a community. When you make a rousing speech to your band of exiles near the end of the game, you’re urging them not to believe in you, but to believe in each other, and in the mission. This is reflected in the rites themselves. In your introduction to the rites, you’re told that the three teammates need to act as one, and until you’re able to utilize everyone’s skills in concert, you’ll never really be good at the rites.
In my playthrough the revolution ultimately succeeded, though the final moments of the game reminded me of the Nightwings that were still banished to the Downside forever. Those remaining exiles had fine lives. As their leader, I still felt that I could have served them better. Creating lasting societal change is messy, in our own world and in Pyre. Not everyone will make it, and those sacrifices will sting. You’re not going to get a guidepost on how to feel about the people you leave behind, and I admire Pyre for making you decide for yourself what, if anything was worth it.
For me, I had to leave behind Jodariel, a woman exiled so long that she grew horns and became a demon. She was standoffish and blunt, and it had taken me a long time to warm up to her but by the end of the game we connected. She told me of the orphans she took care of in the Commonwealth, the pointless, eternal war she protested, the length of her exile. I nominated her for liberation, and failed. It was our last rite. The night before, she had told me she wasn’t sure she wanted to be liberated anymore. As I started a second playthrough of Pyre, I knew I would nominate her first, regardless.
Pyre is interesting enough to play multiple times, but it can also be played just as a one-on-one sport. In the game’s versus mode, which pits you against either an AI opponent or against a friend on your couch. In the story, there’s a lot of narrative pressure to do well in the rites. Against another person, I was a bit freer to just enjoy banishing my enemies, or passing the ball down the court, or flying over an aura blast. When I played against Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo in the office, he banished me just as I was about to score on him and I shouted, “you motherfucker.” Pyre is good in many ways. It’s even good enough that it made me call my boss a motherfucker.