I’m guessing approximately zero of you are surprised I’ve been looking forward to Pyre. In case you are, let me give you some crucial backstory: Pyre is made by Supergiant Games.
That’s it. That’s the backstory. Supergiant Games has made two games before Pyre, and both Bastion and Transistor (which I reviewed here) were great fun, and masterclass studies of the use of innovative design techniques. I loved both games and still rate them very highly; that I was going to try and dive into Pyre as soon as possible was basically a foregone conclusion. In fact, I’ve gone even further than my usual ‘try to go in as blind as possible’ approach: I’ve pursued an active campaign of non-information against Pyre. All I know so far is that it’s… an RPG? Or a sports game? Or both?
Or maybe neither? I’ve been really thorough about not knowing anything.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium-high.)
(Game source: Bought it myself.)
Pyre starts off with a nice, friendly book burning.
It’s a very pretty book burning, I’ll give it that. My strict avoidance of anything Pyre-related hasn’t completely stopped me from getting impressions, so I know that this bright chromatic art style, made of colourful contrasts and fuzzy delineations, is something I can expect a lot more of. Which is a good thing; I think this looks absolutely stunning, particularly in motion.
Underneath the ‘Settings’ button I find a menu with four categories, one of which is called ‘Options’. I halfway expect to see a ‘Preferences’ button below that, but, no dice. Instead, ‘Options’ seems to describe a slapdash collection of possibility, including screen brightness, cursor speed, all audio options, controller rumble, and game difficulty. Nothing graphics-related: What little there is in this regard is found in the ‘Display’ group. ‘Save Slots’ speaks fairly for itself. And as far as ‘Controls’ goes…
I’m honestly briefly confused at this. The controls screen has buttons for three standard presets. The ‘Mouse Presets’ option seems like the standard here. But, oddly, that preset seems to bind movement to… the arrow keys? WASD isn’t used in that respect, but instead, the W and S keys have particular functions, leaving A and D out in the lurch. I… struggle to understand how this works. All the same, I choose not to mess with it yet. There is a ‘WASD preset’, but honestly? I have no idea how this game works right now. Could be that what I think is a weird setting actually makes a ton of sense. And the great think about control presets is that you can always go back and mess with ’em later.
With nothing else to do except putter around on an About screen, I’m in and out Pyre‘s main menu in under a small handful of minutes, which is a fairly good throughput. I click the New Game button.
The camera opens on a view of a pink-yellow desert-like landscape, framed by two cliffs of dark purple going on black. I start at the top, but the camera slowly pans down — making the whites and bright pinks of the sand give way to reddy oranges and deep pinks — a logo assembles itself out of fire.
The camera stops on a solitary figure in the background, a bundled heap of cloth and uncertain human shape. The foreground is dominated by silhouettes of broken cages, where horned bird figures stoop and watch.
Then, before I can think to try and do anything, a rickety thing rolls across the screen, starting close to the camera and zig-zagging across borders and elevation levels until stopping next to the figure. The best way to describe it is by calling it, like, half of a covered pilgrim wagon, but red, and with horns and a lantern. So like a pilgrim’s budget circus wagon.
Suddenly and with little warning, text appears.
“Your days in the Downside brought slow, lonesome agony,” the text reads. The word ‘Downside’ is marked in red. I mouse over it, to see if I can interact with it in any way; What I get instead is a hypertext-style popup with additional information. This happens to be a system I fell in love with ever since I first saw it in Tyranny, so as far as first impressions go, Pyre is doing an okay job in my book.
Three figures emerge from the wagon. I mean, they don’t actually do that on-screen: The wagon is just there, kinda bouncing around in ambient animations. But the three figures are clearly visible as talking heads in the following text boxes. I almost wish they weren’t: They are strange, for lack of a better word, clad in blue-orange robes and wearing skull-white masks. There’s a masked man, a masked woman wearing a mask with massive horns, and a masked… creature.
The three figures casually talk about finding me, ‘as expected’, and wondering if I’m still alive. The masked man notices that I’m still breathing. This is displayed in the now-familiar red text, but when I mouse over it, the popup is slightly different. The red phrase reads “Looks like she’s breathing”; the popup reads “The masked wanderers presume you are female”, and “interact to change this”.
So I click on the red text, and it changed to “Looks like he’s still breathing”. Click again, and it changes to “Looks like they’re still breathing”. And back to ‘she’ from there. This is… probably the most interesting character gender selection screen I’ve seen in recent memory? It’s up there with Sunless Sea and Fallen London, which is high praise.
I choose to be a dude, and the scene progresses. The woman and the creature are convinced that I’m ‘beyond help’, which, wow, rude. They’re in favour of leaving me to die. The man is adamant that he get an attempt to save me, though. So the woman and the creature go back inside, and the man…
…he just saves me, right there and then. He takes off his mask to reveal a white man with short red-brown hair, and in the span of a single text box, he cures everything that ails me.
Then he invites me into the ‘blackwagon’, which seems like a misnomer.
Inside the wagon, I get to meet the other wanderers, who quickly adjust to the idea that I’m still alive with nary a ‘sorry we were so ready to leave you to die of exposure and starvation’. The woman with the horned mask is called Jodariel, and the reason her mask has horns while Hedwyn’s doesn’t is because she has actual horns. I don’t understand yet what the significance of this is, but I’m sure that…
That must be uncomfortable.
Anyway, the unidentified creature takes his mask off too. It turns out that his name is Rukey! Rukey Greentail. He’s also a dog.
Well. Now that the… introductions are out of the way, the three wanderers turn to an important topic: ‘Can I do it?’ Hedwyn and Jodariel dance around the issue a little uncomfortably; Rukey straight-up asks if I happen to be a Reader. Capital-R.
The choice box again shines some more light. Apparently, the ability to read is illegal in the Commonwealth, and anyone caught being able to read would be eligible for exile into the Downside. So it’s possible I’m a Reader. I get three choices here, but the way they’re phrased, I don’t think the question here is whether or not I am a Reader, but whether or not I’m willing to tell them that I am.
Well, it seems important to Hedwyn that I can read, and he did just save my life. Plus, I’m not sure these other two won’t just dump me back out if I deny, so… Sure, I can read. Here’s my secret, Captain: I’m always reading. I’m reading right now!
The wanderers proceed to gently ask if I could please ‘open one of the books in the back, and tell them what it says’. Again, from Hedwyn and Rukey I get the idea that they’re actually asking; from Jodariel, the implied ‘crack the spine on this book or I’ll crack yours’ is all the stick I really need. There’s a handful of books lying around, but one seems to stand out just a little bit more than the rest…
As I mouse over the book, it hums and rumbles with an energy all its own. I click, and… a larger simulacrum of the book appears on-screen, filling my view, opening itself to a particular page.
Okay, good. Good and cool. I memorize the lines as best I can, which is to say I take a screenshot because technology rules, then close the book and prepa-
Something happens. Before I can talk to the wanderers, my vision blurs and fades. The screen goes black.
And then I talk to God.
Talking to this seemingly-disembodied presence is different from talking to the wanderers in a few key ways. For one, I can actually understand this speech. I haven’t mention this, but the wanderers ‘talk’, in much the same way that Sims can talk, or perhaps more like Undertale characters: They each have their own distinct tone and pitch, but otherwise the audio is mostly garbled. But this voice speaks plain English, which makes me wonder why this one was the only one the game offers subtitles for. Then again, I guess that makes it easer to ‘oblige the Voice which tells you more’.
For two, the Voice is a bit of a jerk. “Dare you tamp with forbidden knowledge,” it sneers, “so soon after your sentence into exile.” If this game was a Young Adult novel, I’m certain the Voice would be the overbearing villainous authority figure. As it stands, though, it has a much more benevolent role…
See, for three, the camera’s been panning down ever since I entered this weird shadow realm, ever since the Voice started sneering and wouldn’t stop. It finally ends on a blown-up image of the book I was reading, now embossed with two colourful circles. The Voice explains that what I am witnessing here is The Rites: The only way that the people exiled to the Downside can regain their freedom and rejoin the Commonwealth. ‘The path to salvation’. I like the sound of that. And now, apparently, I am to learn how to conduct these rites.
Me, and also Hedwyn, Rukey, and Jodariel, who have just appeared as tiny characters on the left side of the book. Next to the aforementioned coloured circle, which has spontaneously caught on fire.
For their part, the three wanderers seem just as confused by all this as I am. Moreso because they apparently can’t see me, which is at least an interesting reversal of power roles. The Voice explains that these three will be the ones to actually act in the rites; I, as ‘the Reader’, will act more as a conductor. Or a ‘player’, if you will. But don’t say that, I just had that wall repaired.
Then, a big glowing ball falls from the sky, and embeds itself into the book’s spine with a thud. And I suddenly remember that, on some level of subconscious knowledge osmosis, I thought to know that Pyre is a sports game.
Patiently, the Voice explains how to play pyreball. I currently control the exile Hedwyn — at some point the game stopped referring to these three as ‘wanderers’ and started using ‘exiles’. I can make him walk towards the mouse cursor by holding down LMB. I walk him to the orb, and he picks it up, which is to say it now gently floats over his head, while he still holds the book he’s been holding. Why is he holding a book?
Pressing Spacebar, I can pass the orb to Jodariel. Doing so shifts my entire control set to Jodariel. And when I pass it to Rukey, I’m Rukey. And so on, and so forth. Only one of the exiles can be active at a time, I learn: ‘the three must act as one’.
Finally, as Rukey, the voice instructs me to carry the Orb into the burning spot — the ‘pyre’ — on the right side of the book-field. Rukey plunges into the pyre, and its burning intensity decreases.
Rukey doesn’t immediately come back from burning to ash. The Voice patiently, but also haughtily, explains that… I mean, basically what it says is, when an exile scores a pyreball goal, they have to sit out the next round. So now instead of Hedwyn, Jodariel, and Rukey against nobody, it’s just Hedwyn and Jodariel versus an empty…
Oh, no, wait. A whole enemy team just spawned in.
Taking pity on me, the Voice introduces a new trick: Auras. All exiles have an aura, a circular coloured area around them. If enemy exiles walk into that aura, they are banished… for a short time, not for the whole round. Aura size seems dependent on exile, with Jodariel’s aura being massive compared to Hedwyn’s. Unfortunately, the enemy team also has a big horned person, which means I can’t hope for one of them to just walk into Jodariel’s aura and poof away. If that guy grabs the orb… Hey, they just grabbed the orb.
I learn two things here. One, grabbing the orb extinguishes the carrier’s aura, making them relatively easy picking. Unless they just walk around my team and go straight for the fire. But that brings me to point two: It turns out exiles can press RMB to charge up and ‘cast’ their aura, briefly losing the protective circle to shoot out a line of coruscating energy.
So, good news: I have the orb again. Bad news: Before I can do anything with it, the game respawns all enemies and sets them in a defensive position around their pyre. I can’t shoot an aura if I have the orb, and I think I can only lose the orb by passing it around — which also passes my control.
But hey, good news again! Exiles can’t just cast their auras, they can also press Shift to sprint! And W to jump! That’s a weird button to jump, but fine, whatever. Point is: Aura touching and evaporation doesn’t count while you’re airborne. I have Hedwyn take a running leap and sail headfirst into the pyre, taking its firey health down even further as my enemies stand there and slowly reconsider their defensive plan.
And with that lesson complete, I fade back out to the real world. I wake up next to the other exiles, also recently awoken, as we all try to parse what the hell just happened. Or rather, they seem to understand just fine: Rather than confusion, they’re mostly super happy that ‘it all worked out’. The Rites are the way to liberation from the Downside, and now, with a Reader on their team, these three finally have a real shot at achieving just that. For themselves, and for me as well? Hopefully? This seems like a decent arrangement.
On Jodariel’s behest I go outside, to look at the stars. There are many stars in the sky, but most shine faintly and far away. A few stars promise lore and interesting star signs, just out of grasp. But one star clearly grabs the attention: A bright yellow star, the Ridge of Gol. I see the star, and I understand: In several days time, the next Rite — the first real Rite — is to be held there.
The other exiles invite me into the wagon. If we are to make it to the Ridge of Gol, and compete in the Rites, and regain our freedom from the downside — we’d best get a bloody move on. And really, what else is there to do for me here? I hop in, and the wagon rattles away from the desaturated desert, and its heap of broken cages. It bounds one dune after another before finally hopping over the last horizon, and disappearing out of sight.
So. A star-steered roaming sports competition, where exiles engage in ancient rites to regain their freedom from nebulous crimes? Ancient mystique, hidden power, and a desolate world ripe for exploration? Yeah, I could be down for all that. Let’s see if the stars are guiding me right on this. Readers, I’ll be just a while; from one Reader to another, I hope to see you all at the turning of the page.