A few hours in
Well. Some things… some things definitely happened.
Sights were seen.
Rites were conducted.
Companions were recruited.
Records were kept.
And an ending was reached.
And now I face the unenviable task of trying to explain to you what makes Pyre good, without spoiling overmuch what makes Pyre good.
It’s not impossible. I believe Pyre can be enjoyed with a reasonable amount of foreknowledge, or even a lot of it; certainly, the game banks lightly on a sort of replayability that practically presumes you know the deal. But all the same, I’d honestly rather not: Especially from early on, Pyre is built in such a way as to slowly reveal itself to you. In terms of gameplay, mastery, and understanding, but particularly in terms of world-building, story, and character relations, Pyre is a game built on the assumption that you know nothing, and created so that it gradually, carefully opens up, mostly at a pace you’re comfortable with. The result is a story of personal discovery and growth, tailored to you as a player and your specific choices and results. And that’s something I’d rather try and not infringe on.
Still, there’s plenty I can say about Pyre. For instance, just what sort of game is it? I’ve heard people describe Pyre ‘part RPG, part sports game, part visual novel’. But while I get the appeal of that…
Well, first, I think it’s reductive and inaccurate to call Pyre ‘part sports game, part RPG’. Because this implies that the two parental genres have meaningfully different influences. But that’s not the case in Pyre: The sports game is the RPG. Everything about Pyre that relates to RPGs as a genre — stats, abilities, levels, experience, character building, the whole nine mechanical yards — all of that is the sports game. ‘Fireball’, or ‘pyreball’, or ‘the Rites’, if you want to be technical. Every game-mechanical decision you make (save for a few) relates to how you play and perform in the Rites. Pyre isn’t really much different from stat-driven sports games like Fifa in that regard: That it has ‘levels’ and ‘special abilities’ and ‘a weird sporting events that runs on fate and celestial fire magic’ shouldn’t muddle these waters.
Similarly, calling Pyre ‘part visual novel’ feels like a jab. It’s true that the individual Rites (the matches) are tied together by stretches of gameplay where you click through text boxes and interact with talking heads, occasionally making dichotomous or trichotomous choices to push the storytelling along. But ‘visual novel’ carries an air of linear finality, of you-the-player reading a story that’s happening to other characters. But that’s not what Pyre is either, for reasons we might get into later. Suffice it to say that, through mechanics and through writing, this story is much more engaging than just reading a book — and yes, the irony of this does not escape me.
What is Pyre? There’s a comparison that I keep coming back to here, and it’s a bad comparison, but I can’t stop thinking about it… Do you remember Final Fantasy X? The framing device for the first half or so of the story of Final Fantasy X was the pilgrimage: Yuna and friends traveling around the world, purposefully visiting particular places here and there before finally bringing it to an end at a predesignated holy site. And then there was also blitzball. Blitzball was in no way tied into the story at large, but all the same, as part of the pilgrimage, you would reach new world locations and new save points, which would lead to new blitzball players to recruit and new teams to challenge. The two elements were essentially disconnected, but lived in a weird state of unintended symbiosis: The blitzball tournament was a remora-style hanger-on to the pilgrimage, to the point where (for me) it sometimes started feeling as an official part of it.
Pyre is these two elements not in unstable symbiosis, but in harmonic fusion. Pyre is an interactive narrative experience game about a sports pilgrimage. The Nightwings (the name of your team, or rather, the team you are a part of) travel around the world with meaningful direction, visiting particular landmarks in an order spelled out by the stars to conduct Rites for a greater purpose. It’s playing hand-egg as a religious act, except it’s also immensely interested in every bit of character interaction that goes on before, during, and after each match.
It’s easiest to describe Pyre by starting at the Rites, which are more than anything else the ‘basis’ on which the game is built. You could theoretically take the Rites as a separate gameplay element and weed everything out — which is exactly what the local multiplayer mode does. Which is not to say that the Rites are separate from everything else in Pyre…
You’ve seen the basis of the Rites gameplay (again, I suggest ‘pyreball’) on the previous page. Two teams of three exiles face off in a match. Each team has a ‘pyre’, a flame in their team’s colour that burns at a certain level of intensity. On the field is a celestial orb: If a player on one team gets the orb into the pyre of the other team, that pyre is reduced in strength. The team that extinguishes the other’s pyre wins the match. Ball, goal, repeat until the number on the enemy flame hits 0; it’s as uncomplicated as that.
Except, of course, it isn’t. For starters, there’s the whole thing where ‘the three must act as one’: On each team, only one exile can be active at a time. Simply wrapping your head around that idea, and all the implications, can take a little while, particularly when it becomes clear that only the active exile can ever hold the orb: If you try to switch away from the orb-holder, they will pass the orb to your new choice. This means that a lot of intuitive strategies become a lot less useful; there’s no such thing as having your bruiser ‘hold onto’ the orb while your swift runner positions themself close to the pyre. It is possible to do strategic movement, it just takes some getting used to.
Complicating the matter is that not all team members are the same. Team members have different stats, which I alluded to earlier: Quickness to determine how fast they move, Presence to determine the size of their aura, Hope to determine how quickly they return from banishment, and Glory to determine how much pyre damage they do on scoring. But more than that, team members are always one of the game’s eight playable races. And different races don’t just have different stat propensities, but actually give different meanings to the game’s three core action verbs: Run, Jump, and Cast. For example, Hedwyn is a Nomad, essentially the closest this game gets to ‘default human’. He casts his aura in a line, consumes stamina from a meter to sprint, and jumps a certain distance. But Jodariel is a Demon, meaning that even if her stats were identical to Hedwyn’s, her aura cast would be wider, but slower. Her jump is less long, but ends in a thud that knocks nearby enemies away, and instead of sprinting, she does a short point-to-point dash. Conversely, Rukey the Cur has a long, thin, fast aura-cast, accelerates while sprinting instead of ‘just’ going faster, and leaps a long distance. And these are very intentionally the starting races! I won’t spoil too much here, but imagine things like: One character needs to wind up a jump, but can jump much faster if the button is released just so. One character doesn’t have an aura, but charges up an aggressive tackle. One character teleports instead of jumping and shields instead of jumping. One character explodes while doing an aura cast. Two characters can fly. And so on, and so forth. There’s a lot of tactical diversity to consider in the Rites. Your team can consist of up to one character from each race, but enemy teams can go nuts. Team of three running dogs, led by a rad barker with a mohawk and piercings whose personal theme song is speed metal?
The Rites are fun. Tough, hard to learn, but fun. There’s even more to them than what I’ve already described, but all the same, they’re not impossible to wrap your head around. You’ll find something that works for you. I found myself gravitating towards a simple strategy of trying to banish one or two enemies, then passing the orb off to a fast runner to dash around the field and jump the remaining enemy’s aura. But there’s more you can do. Again, there’s more layers to this onion. The Rites are fun, and I could totally see people playing the local multiplayer mode in parties after being done with the story.
But the Rites are ever in service to the story, and Pyre‘s narrative experience is its main attraction.
Between Rites matches, Pyre‘s story is characterized by the themes of pilgrimage (or just ‘travel’), liberation, and partnership. You are almost always on the move in Pyre: The moments are rare where your objective is to ‘just sit around’. Particularly in the story’s first act, this travel also serves the dual role of getting you acquainted with the downside: The areas, the landmarks, the customs, and the other triumvirates (‘teams’) that you’re be facing off against. It’s also a convenient excuse for this game to show off its gorgeous visual design, even more than the rites already allow, and allow it to flex some ambient audio muscles competently.
And as the wagon moves, so does the world move, and the characters move, and the relationships move.
I’m… struggling to convey what it is about Pyre that makes the story more than a linear narrative experience. It’s not strictly linear, that’s a good starter: You as a player get a lot of input over which Rites to conduct where and against which teams, as well as deciding which paths to take to get there. There’s more to this, and I’ll revisit it later, but what I think I really want to zoom into instead is…
Pyre‘s story is character-driven as much as it is grand-theme-driven: Sure, this is a story about Liberation and Grand Plans, but it’s also a story about a bunch of nerds living in a mobile home crisscrossing the land. And one part of what makes Pyre so good is that you are one of them. You, the player. You’re one of the Nightwings! In sharp contrast to Bastion and Transistor, where you essentially puppeteer an existing character around the world, in Pyre you are your character. The exiled Reader, fourth member of the Nightwings in chronological order. You exist in the story, and that makes so much of it land so much more effectively. Characters have personal relationships with you, and they might talk to you and confide in you and befriend you. Or they might not. Characters involve you in decisions, and weigh the effect of decisions on you as much as on others. And inversely, you get a say in matters: Not just as the omnipotent decider of affairs (i.e. ‘the player’), but as a character, with all the powers and all the limitations that entails.
My favorite example of this: Somewhat-early on, after your fourth-or-so match, the Nightwings meet a character who (essentially) tries to oust you from the group, leveraging some perceived authority to tell you to leave. You get to respond to this in three ways: Either assert that you’re a part of the group and you’re here to stay, accept the verdict and prepare to leave, or stay quiet and hope your friends intervene. In both latter cases they do, because obviously the story isn’t ending here, but it’s so nice that this is possible! I… was down on the idea of describing Pyre as a role-playing game earlier, but maybe that was more accurate than I gave it credit for: It’s just that it actually means you are playing a role. That of the Reader of the Nightwings. With all the spots and bad decisions that entails.
Simultaneously, this also means you’re not involved in everything. Characters have relationships and personal developments that you’re not even a part of. The vagabond girl befriends the imp, and talks to the wagon. Jodi has a grudge against the harps, but learns to bury that to increase the group’s chances at the rites. At one point, I half-eavesdropped on a conversation between two later characters, wherein they carefully resolved the one’s unrequited attraction to the other, in a way that made sense and felt satisfying for everyone involved — and none of the people involved were me. This, then, is what makes Pyre‘s writing good: It’s a character-driven story in which everyone is a fully-developed character, including you. And everything flows from that character fiction.
This goes for the non-Nightwing characters too, incidentally: All the main characters from the other triumvirates have their own history, hopes, drives, and desires. You can learn about all of these, and in particular situations play on this, or decide about it, or use it. Even the Voice has character development. The fact that Pyre cleverly uses the hypertext mouse-over system to keep track of what information your character knows, and provides this at opportunities you need to know what you know, is just mechanical icing on a narrative cake.
The mouse-over system is great for subdued world building, too. If you keep paying attention to everything the characters bring up, you’ll slowly gain an understanding of not just the Downside, the Triumvirates, and the Rites, but also of the larger world above: The Commonwealth, the races, the history of the Rites, daily life in the Downside, and the history of the ‘Eight Scribes’. If you don’t care about any of that — well, if you don’t care about world building and subdued storytelling you might be playing the wrong game here, but if you’re really only here for pyreball, this stuff is all optional and out-of-the-way. But really, don’t miss out on it. It’s such a clever way to create a living space, with living characters, without resorting to endless info dumps. Everything you need to know directly, you are told in the context of the Rites — because everything you need to know always relates to the Rites. Everything else is, again, icing — though less mechanical this time.
This review is getting long, but as a final piece of praise, I want to bring up how effectively Pyre addressed the issue of the Rites’ variable difficulty. With the unfamiliar gameplay metaphor that lies at the heart of it, and so many teams and enemies to learn, and every other mechanic I haven’t mentioned yet, some matches can be really difficult to beat. Now, you’re free to retry any match over and over with different team compositions, that in and by itself is good. But Pyre goes the extra mile by incorporating losses into the narrative development.
It’s okay to lose a Rite. It’s okay to lose any Rite. Some Rite losses have harsher consequences than others, but the game keeps going regardless of how you perform. No, that’s not even fair: The game incorporates how you perform. The thing is that the Rites aren’t about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ or ‘getting the high score’: The Rites are about gaining enlightenment ‘in the eyes of the Eight Scribes’. You learn from winning, but you can learn even more from losing. Sure, your characters won’t like losing, and in particular matches, it might sting extra — maybe their old rival got the best of them, or maybe you really wanted to take this braggart down. But the story always keeps going. It might go in a direction you’d prefer it not to go, but there’s always a path forward — and always an ending that will for some characters be happy.
If you’re the sort of person who enjoys writing a story through gameplay actions, come good and come bad, Pyre may hold infinite writing potential for you.
It’s not a perfect game, but then, no game is. My single biggest complaint with Pyre is that too much of it can feel like an extended tutorial. New mechanics and ideas are introduced semi-regularly, until fairly late in the game: New races, new powers, new concepts… I was something like fourteen Rites down before Pyre deigned to introduce ‘Titan Stars’, or ‘Bastion‘s optional difficulty modifiers with a different theme. That’s not a good time to introduce these things! But I’m willing to believe this is the result of a ‘fiction-first’ design process. This is a term you might have heard of in particular tabletop games, particularly from the Powered By The Apocalypse school: The idea is that (tabletop) games shouldn’t foremost be driven by rules, but by the fiction of the story you’re telling at the time. Rules should encapsulate the players’ action, but everything should start in a fictional description and end in a fictional effect. From this lens, it’s easy to see why Pyre doesn’t introduce Titan Stars until way late in, or doesn’t introduce some races very late, or doesn’t give you Feats of Strength until your first visit to the Imp Isle: It’s because fictionally, it wouldn’t have made sense yet. I’m still not a big fan: If your story leads to weird mechanical decisions, maybe try to alter the story. But all the same, I love the storytelling as-is, so…
But honestly, my complaints feel small every time I try to write them down. The game mechanics are introduced weirdly. The ‘money’ system and the buying of talismans clashes with the Beyonder trials, and adds a needless layer of complexity. Some rules aren’t really introduced properly, like the idea that throwing the orb into a pyre doesn’t lead to long-term banishment. And some of the mandatory high-stakes battles introduce rules modulations that veer away from ‘interesting challenge adder’ and into ‘unfair bullshit, fuck that guy, now I’m not even going to liberate him if I ever get the chance’.
When contrasted against a game with great character-driven writing, massively interesting slow-burn world building, gorgeous colourful aesthetic, and innovate sports-like gameplay that natively ties into a world-spanning pilgrimage and a quest for personal liberation and societal change that involves you as a character…
Pyre is a really, really well-designed game, is what I’m trying to convey.
I don’t have a particularly funny closer here. I’m sorry, I’ve said everything I wanted to say, and them some. Pyre is a design masterpiece, a show of force when it comes to character-driven storytelling, and a decent sports game to boot. It burns slow, and it can be tricky to master, but it’s worth the price of admission just to submerge yourself into this world, and hang out with the characters. This is where I would put a joke in the format of ‘hang out with the characters, like [character name], and everyone else who’s less interesting’. But all of Pyre‘s characters are good! Even if I have some clear favourites, I love them all, they are all my children. Even the nine hundred year snake woman. Especially her.
Pyre will run you twenty bucks or so on your Steam platform of choice (or PS Network). It is exceptionally well worth the price of admission.
Jarenth got through this whole review without mentioning that Pyre has like three vocal songs! Shame on his household. Glower at him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?