Dazzling and mysterious, this ambitious party-based RPG is a masterpiece.
Supergiant Games' Pyre is, like all of their prior games, just sumptuous. But while I loved Bastion and Transistor, thought the art was beautiful and six types of jaw-dropping, Pyre - Pyre is something else. Pyre, with its surreal designs and otherworldly colour palette, made me catch my breath in places, made me ache in the way that you sometimes do when you're in the presence of Good Art. Which sounds pretentious, but hey I stand by it. It is Dante's Inferno by way of Jean Giraud. It's an operatic underworld myth.
And also, this chimera of a game that is part football, part arena-combat, part choose-your-own-adventure, and part - actually, I don't know how else to describe it. The developers call Pyre a 'party-based RPG' but I don't think that description is anywhere near adequate.
Am ambitious exercise in slow worldbuilding, Pyre opens with your character being discovered by a triumvirate of masked figures. They rouse you, ask about your past, bring up nouns that aren't really explained, but you're given a general idea of what is going on, and end up being recruited by their group in record time. They need a Reader to facilitate an escape from this unearthly place, and that's you.
Immediately after that, we segue to the 'combat' sequence.
Well, maybe not combat sequence, per se. The Rites, as they are described in the game, do not involve any amount of traditional violence. It is a competition between two factions, each represented by three champions. The objective here is to quench the other party's pyre, before they can do the same to yours, an affair that may be complicated by various bonuses, some of which are accorded by events and others by talismans you equip. To do so, you're going to need to gain control of a Celestial Orb and toss it into their bonfire.
No big, right?
Here's where it gets interesting, and intense. You can only control one of the characters. When a character has active control of the Celestial Orb, they lose their aura which, according to an incredibly sardonic announcer, is the manifestation of their wrongdoings. Without your aura, you become vulnerable to the opposition's aura, a miasmic glow that will basically knock out anyone who comes into contact with them. Fortunately, you can still sprint, leap, or perform character-specific acrobatics, but there's also a stamina bar to contend with.
More importantly, on top of being vulnerable, the loss of your aura means you cannot weaponise the thing. On top of being a useful force field, it can be sent outwards as a kind of projectile attack, knocking out enemies.
So, all of it comes together in this tight package that requires you to flip rapidly between characters, all the while navigating through topographical hazards as the announcer, who has a line for everything, sneers his way through a running commentary of the game.
It can be an incredibly satisfying experience. When that hail mary that you have planned works out just right, and you can see the enemies rushing to your position, and they miss by the sliver of hair. And it can be frustrating too. At least, to me. But that is because I am completely terrible at the whole shebang.
Moving on, you'll eventually find yourself navigating this bizarre world, moving from locale to locale in pursuit of the next Rite. As the Reader, it is your duty to figure out the route that your caravan will take. Mostly, this involves deciding whether you'd rather use Path A or Path B. Your decision, in turn, will influence your relationships with specific characters and consequently, their performance in battle. It is, as far as I can tell, mostly tangential storytelling. The main narrative, which is beautifully and sparely written, seems to be linear, although there's nothing wrong with that.
What I love about Pyre is how you're never really told what is going on. The storytelling is subtle. It strings a complex world along familiar tentpoles, so you're never completely adrift. But even late into the game, there's always a sense of this place being completely alien.
Despite the grim undertones to the main plot, the cast is a peculiarly cheerful bunch save, perhaps, for the horned Jodariel, who is endlessly dour. I won't spoil anything for you, but I will say that the roster you develop is very much multidimensional, and their banter is alternately hilarious and quietly heartbreaking at times. Long before the end comes, you'll want to help all of them home.
There's a lot to love here. Everywhere you turn, there's something to appreciate. The music, which I've yet to mention, is stunning, and easily the best soundtrack to come out of the Supergiant Games' studios. I don't have a vocabulary to describe the audio, but I will admit to leaving the game to idle for no other reason than to write by the tune I've selected. (Tangentially, Pyre has the coolest jukebox I've seen in any game yet.)
And there are always little things to interact with, little clever things that Supergiant Games has done with the way that information is presented, little choices in their approach to design that impress. Even the skill trees and the way you can assist your coterie of misfits, the inscrutable language used by the general populace. It is a good game.
Have I mentioned it is beautiful?
Because it is beautiful.
This game is beautiful.
Please go get it.
Editor's note: We previously said that Logan Cunningham - Bastion's narrator - wasn't in Pyre, but it turns out he is. It's just that he sounds very, very different! We've since corrected the review.