In Defense of Pyre, Supergiant’s Underappreciated Middle Child
Living it up in The Downside
Supergiant Games is one of the gaming industry’s most beloved and dependable indie game studios. Their catalog is filled with titles that have been critically and commercially acclaimed, with nary a misstep to be seen. Headed by former games journalist Greg Kasavin, the studio has released just four games, but they have achieved success most would kill for: 2011’s Bastion, an action RPG; Transistor, another action RPG that released in 2014; Pyre, a party-based pseudo action RPG that hit the market in 2017, and then the massively successful rogue-like Hades, which is now getting a sequel.
Bastion and Transistor were instant classics for their non-traditional structure, rich world-building, and incredible soundtracks and voice-acting. Hades also became a mega-hit with its visuals, story, and action jumping on the bandwagon of the popular rogue-like genre to garner attention for Game of the Year honors. If you were to ask an industry watcher about the studio, those are likely the only three titles that would be mentioned. Pyre is often forgotten, different as it is in structure and mechanics from the other three, despite having critical success and qualities that match its brethren. So today I want to highlight this forgotten gem, in hopes that others will no longer bypass it on the Supergiant Highway between Transistor and Hades. Enjoy!
A Season in Purgatory
The first thing you’ll notice is the art style of Pyre, which has hallmarks of the prior Supergiant titles but also a painterly, anime-like aesthetic that is very unique. Told through on-screen text panels, the game is heavily narrative-based, with branching storylines and outcomes based on the choices you make. That story begins when a wagon of compatriots finds your character in the wastelands of The Downside, a kind of purgatory in the land of The Commonwealth of Sahr. Every line of dialogue is spoken, mostly in a fictional language called Sahrian (created by Kasavin himself), though the story’s narrator speaks in English. After you are nursed back to health, it is revealed that you, and the inhabitants of the wagon which rescued you, are all exiles from The Commonwealth, sent to The Downside for various infractions.
As you recuperate in the wagon, you discover a book that is your jumping-off point for all the lore of the universe and the details of the world itself. It is also how you will learn about the crux of the game, known as the “Rites”, the competition by which exiles can earn their freedom and a chance to return to a life of comparative luxury in the Commonwealth. Revealing to your compatriots that you can interpret the writings in the book, you are dubbed “The Reader” and eventually become the de facto leader of the group. Thus the game begins in earnest.
Upon revealing the importance of the book to your fellow exiles, you are taken to a tutorial on the Rites, led by a contemptuous-sounding narrator that is another in the long line of incredibly talented voice actors employed by the game’s developer. The narrator explains the ins and outs of the Rites and what they mean and acts as the guide through parts of the story. You will meet other teams of exiles as you wander through the Downside, and when you do, you will compete against them in the Rites. The prize is nothing less than the opportunity to earn your freedom and return to The Commonwealth, absolved of all sins and able to live a life of glory.
The Rites are the most unique, and divisive, aspect of the game, as they represent the bulk of the action but technically do not include any actual violence. Rare are the games that utilize a system like this and do it successfully, but I believe this is where the game shines brightest. A cross between soccer and basketball, each team has a Pyre, a flame that must be extinguished by the other team in order to win. Each Pyre has a point value assigned based on the strength of the team, and every time a team manages to put their Orb in the sacred flame, its strength is reduced until nothing is left. The team that extinguishes the other Pyre first is the winner.
Early on in the game, you will have only the three companions who saved you to compete in the Rites, and each has various stats that make them better at a certain tactic in the rites. The larger the combatant, the slower but stronger they are. Smaller means speedier and more elusive. Each player has certain skills that can be upgraded to add to their abilities during the game, such as projecting their aura to banish opponents from the field, flying, or jumping. The opposing team has all of the same basic skills but may have different abilities.
As you defeat each team who opposes you, some of their members may wish to join your crew, and you will also find additional companions in the course of your travels through the game. Thus you will build a roster of players that you will need to choose from for each match of the Rites, choices that affect the progress of the storyline. The RPG elements come into play as each participant gains experience through competing in the Rites, allowing their skills to increase and new abilities to be purchased. Throughout the game, you also have chances to explore the land for expanded knowledge of the lore and benefits for the group.
Free at Last
As you continue your journey through The Downside, you will learn that you must make your way to the most sacred place in the land, where the Rites will be conducted a final time to determine which exile can go free. To stay away from spoilers, just know that you must compete in the final Rite multiple times in a single game to get the true ending. There is also a high degree of replayability due to the various choices you can make and your particular desire to see the conclusion of each character’s storyline will determine how many times you will want to play.
It’s difficult for me to understand why Pyre is the red-headed stepchild of the Supergiant lineup, but that seems to be the truth of it. Because the story is deep and the lore is never forced down your throat but is always there for the taking, it’s hard to find that as the damning aspect. Each character’s arc is well-done and the dialogue, though gibberish to our ears, lends weight to the characters and leaves you caring for them once their story is concluded. There are other games that have pulled off the no-violence style of gameplay, most recently Undertale, to great acclaim so the culprit is likely elsewhere.
My guess is that this hybrid combat system, combining traditional RPG abilities and action with a sporting feel, has left fans of both genres out in the cold. The most acclaimed games from the developer are hack-and-slash action RPGs at heart, and Pyre strays far afield of that formula, apparently to its detriment. It’s a shame that it seems to be the case, as the narrative and gameplay are excellent despite the unique trappings in which they are presented.
It is my hope that gamers will continue to explore the Supergiant back catalog in the years to come and give Pyre a chance as they do. Those able to see past the overly simplified summary of “weird soccer-combat” gameplay will find an immensely replayable game with an intriguing story and mountains of lore to get lost in. It truly does justice to the Supergiant name, and I hope we continue to see the studio take chances with games of this ilk in the future.
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