Landing somewhere at the intersection of religious parable, visual novel, and Tecmo Bowl, Supergiant Games’ latest, Pyre, takes its time revealing itself to be the studio’s deepest story to date. The game invites players into the inhospitable prison realm of the Downside, a dangerous yet visually stunning wasteland populated by castoffs whose crimes range from desertion and betrayal all the way up to the horror that is literacy. Players take on the role of one such bookish criminal and serve as a kind of priest/team manager for a rapidly growing crew of eclectic, brightly drawn characters. They’ve been brought together by the promise of freedom from their purgatorial woes, via participation in an elaborate religious competition known as the Rites. Presided over by a sneering commentator—voiced, expertly as ever, by Bastion and Transistor star Logan Cunningham—these mysterious ceremonies take the form of a fast-paced three-on-three sports battle that plays like a hybrid of basketball and football or, more to the point, Powerball from American Gladiators.
Pitted against rival teams, all outfitted with their own reasons for wanting to kick your ass and claim their prize, each Rite sees you draft a crew of three warriors to stand on a field of battle that’s as much stained-glass-filled church as sports arena. Matches kick off when the ball—sorry, the “Celestial Orb”—falls from the heavens. Both sides are tasked with snatching it away from their opponents and maneuvering it into the enemy Pyre (or “goal”). Defenders can blast their foe with energy or try to trap them in the aura that radiates from their bodies, but every sacrosanct dunk reduces the strength of the flames; put out your enemy’s fire, and you win.
One of the beauties of Pyre is the way it slowly layers on its complexities. The learning curve to the Rites is the biggest example of its knack for gentle introduction. At first, the matches come off as needlessly simplistic, granting you a starter crew that arrives with only the most basic of abilities. Slowly but surely, new systems arise: arenas with new obstacles and opportunities, a host of new species that all move and attack in different ways, and a customization system that allows you to guide your players’ development.
Your characters’ growth is just as key to the game’s plot as it is to their success on the field. As their name implies, the Rites are also a religious pilgrimage, and the primary benefit of participating in them is the slow accrual of Enlightenment (a.k.a. experience points). Managing your team off the field, with various conversations and dialogue choices, then, becomes just as important as their actions in a match. A depressed ball carrier will spend more time “banished” when their enemies attack them, while one you’ve encouraged might pick up an extra burst of speed on the field. Only those players who play and win gain Enlightenment, though, and arriving at the end of your journey with insufficiently opened eyes—either because you kept your dog-man or lumbering demon benched for too many games, or because you just plum lost too many fights—can have powerful consequences on the arc of the game’s story.
But possibly not powerful enough. One of Pyre’s biggest sticking points is the way its inability to offer up a sufficient challenge tampers with one of its fundamental themes. Writer-designer Greg Kasavin has said he wanted Pyre to be a game about surviving losses and playing through defeats, which is why the game always continues, even if you lose an important match. But in dozens of battles on the game’s default difficulty setting, I never accrued a single loss. That’s not meant as a brag, but rather a minor indictment of Pyre’s computerized competitors, which never seemed to push me as hard as I wanted them to.
The addition of customizable difficulty modifiers helps, but the game doesn’t do much to encourage you to turn them on, especially when Enlightenment is already thick on the ground for a consistently winning team. With even moderate skill and character development, Pyre makes it too easy to chart a course of uninterrupted success across the Downside, one that stands bluntly at odds with the game’s narrative of sacrifice and hard-scrabble loss.
That is a shame, because, standing on its own, Pyre might be Kasavin and his team’s best writing to date. Not every character is an unquestionable triumph—there’s an honor-obsessed worm-knight, for instance, who starts grating on the nerves within a few minutes of his introduction—but most of the residents of the Downside are a delight to get to know. That goes for your crew just as much as its opponents, who each have a strongly drawn personality, the better to contrast, say, the foppish Chastity with the rebellious Dissidents or the murder-cultists of the Withdrawn.
That same gentle layering is in place here, too, as the plot gets more and more complex with every trip your team’s ramschackle wagon takes over the next lushly drawn horizon. As soon as you’ve had time to start getting sick of an older plot thread, the game throws out a new one or a new wrinkle in its surprisingly deep backstory or a new sacrifice for you to contemplate. Even when the battles get repetitive, that narrative drive can still provide the propulsion that leads to sleepless “just one more match” nights.
Pyre is a resolutely odd duck of a game, one that can’t quite match the elegance its predecessors brought to bear. It carries those distinctive Supergiant flourishes—three games in, it still sends a shiver down the spine whenever a character suddenly bursts into actual, voiced song—but its two component parts, the conversations and exploration that take place around the Rites and the actual battles themselves, never gel as well as they could.
But if the game is going to feel like two very different experiences that have been somewhat bluntly welded together, at least they’re both great experiences. For all my complaining about the difficulty, or lack thereof, the core battles of the Rites are fast-paced, inventive, and surprisingly deep. (Supergiant was smart to include a local multiplayer mode that emphasizes just how kinetic and nail-biting these fights can get.) In the end, it’s the story that serves as the biggest draw, spinning a legend about the redemptive and purifying power of sports and teamwork that somehow never gets cheesy. For a game about sacrifice to really work, you have to care about what you’re giving up. In Pyre, that usually ends up being your players—their talents on the field and their presence in the wagon—and it’s a testament to Kasavin and his crew that saying goodbye to even one of them is consistently the game’s most heartbreaking and defining choice.