2017 was a great year for indie games. While virtual social media wars raged over microtransactions and loot boxes, many gamers found a safe haven with games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Cuphead, Night in the Woods, and What Remains of Edith Finch to name a few. These games all managed to deliver truly rich, unique, and engaging experiences even without the AAA label and funds to back their production.
But in a year crowded with so many great indie entries into the video game scene, some titles were undoubtedly destined to “fly under the radar” since only so many games can hold the spotlight at once. One such game that I’d like to take the time to talk about is Pyre, a choice-based action RPG developed by Supergiant Games for PC and PS4.
Now, just because you may have never played (or even heard of) Pyre, doesn’t mean that it didn’t do well in 2017. It was incredibly well-reviewed by critics, with sites like Polygon giving it a 9/10 and IGN giving it an astounding 9.7/10. Pyre was also nominated for a number of accolades, including “Best Independent Game” at The Game Awards, the Golden Joystick Awards, and the Game Informer 2017 RPG of the Year Award (which it won) to name just a few.
But my goal in writing this article isn’t just to give you the cold hard facts about Pyre’s performance. It’s not even to do an official review of the game, although I will be covering many of the various aspects of its gameplay, video, audio, etc. Rather, I want to spread awareness of this game because it managed to do something special for me: it refreshed my love of RPGs and reminded me of what they’re capable of as a genre, no matter how small.
First off, Pyre is the first choice-based game I’ve played since Until Dawn that made me truly feel like my choices mattered, both in terms of trying to win the game as well as shaping the overall story and character development. That’s not to say it’s the first and only game to deliver on the promise of choice-based gameplay, it’s just the first one in a long time that I’ve played. I tend to be very picky and wary of choice-based games because they disappoint as often as they delight since many of them fail to make you feel the true weight and consequences of your decisions.
But Pyre makes no such false promises. In this game, you play as a nameless, faceless “Reader” whose gender you can choose before starting your playthrough. Through this Reader’s first-person point of view, you meet and interact with Pyre’s colorful cast of characters. But from the moment you meet the game’s initial trio – Hedwyn, Jodariel, and Rukey (aka. the Nightwings) – you are making choices that shape the journey you and your team will take.
The game is set in a place called the Downside where the characters you meet are struggling to survive. While some of these characters are native to the Downside, most of the people (and creatures) you meet are exiles who want to free themselves and return to the world above, called the Commonwealth. The way they do that is to participate in a series of rites, and these rites are where you find the game’s unique core “combat.”
But Pyre is unlike almost any other action RPG I have ever played because here you won’t find any sort of hack and slash or combo-based combat. The best I can describe it is that the rites are a top-down 3v3 match of a sport-like contest that somehow mixes basketball and chess. With fire.
Essentially, you have a team of three players at a time. Each player can gain experience up to level five and gain a total of four abilities from two skill trees. Each type of character – whether they be human, demon, canine, harpy, bog witch, etc. – also specializes in different areas. Some characters are good at defense, while others excel in speed and stamina. Some characters will have broader, larger attacks, while others may attack using special abilities that are less predictable and therefore harder to avoid. So as you progress through the game, skill management, character growth, and party composition matter.
Participate in enough rites, and you’ll arrive at an ultimate destination where a “liberation rite” takes place. Teams compete with each other in order to earn the right to test themselves against your team – the Nightwings – in this special liberation rite that only occurs when the stars align. Each team will nominate a character to be liberated, and the team that wins this rite will have their nominee freed from the Downside and returned to life in the Commonwealth.
But that means if you win, you’ll have to say goodbye to one of your characters. The moment of these liberation rites is when all of your choices truly shape the course of your experience with the game. Along the way, you’ll have to choose who participates in rites, and who sits out. You’ll get to know each character’s playstyle, and you’ll be stronger with some than with others, thereby helping you to win battles.
But on top of that, there’s an overarching plan (that I won’t be spoiling here) and the characters you nominate in the liberation rites will affect your overall ability to succeed with this plan and, ultimately, win the game.
Then again, I never said you have to win these rites. Pyre has no game over screens. Ever. There are multiple different endings, so you don’t even have to try to “win” the game if you don’t want to. You could choose to lose every single rite you participate in (but where’s the fun in that?). That being said, any rite that you do lose but would like to retry, you can. You can always restart a rite from the game’s pause menu.
So you choose someone from your party to liberate, you can try and retry rites until you get the outcome you want for the game (or you can strategically take the loss if you so choose — which you may just want to do in many different circumstances), but then there’s one more important factor. Each and every one of your characters has their own story. And Pyre’s cast of characters is its truest success. They span a variety of different personalities and traits, and you won’t like all of them.
The diverse cast means that different people will find different characters that they do and don’t like. What Pyre does by letting you as the Reader make all of the important choices for these characters (who are desperately trying to free themselves from dangerous exile) is it helps you bond with whatever characters you take a liking to. Some you’ll like simply because you find them most useful in the rites, others you’ll sympathize with. Still others you’ll think genuinely deserve their freedom and will be able to further your cause on the other side. But then some, you may not want to say goodbye to, even if you feel you should.
Depending on your choices, some characters will be freed, and others won’t be. Their exile in the Downside may never end. But maybe you think it’s best to let your enemy win, as believe it or not, some of your opponents will be sympathetic. Maybe you want to free the characters who have become your friends. Maybe you think two characters should end up together, especially as they form bonds that verge on family ties. Maybe you’ll deny one character freedom because you need them in order to keep winning rites. These battles can be hard, especially since the game has various levels of difficulty and debuffs you can select to challenge yourself with the reward of gaining bonus EXP.
I found that I really and truly cared for them, as sappy as that sounds. There’s no illusion of choice in Pyre – the decisions you make in the game do have a visible impact on your ability to compete in combat, achieve the game’s end goal, and determine what happens to each and every character – including your opponents. So of course, I found myself occasionally putting my battle strategy on the back burner and instead, choosing to sacrifice strategic advantage in favor of helping my friends.
Some of the scenes I found were truly touching, and at times surprising. It’s not often that a game surprises me in a way that has me jaw-dropped, throwing my controller on the floor and pacing around the room repeatedly saying to myself, “What in the world just happened?!”
This game just has charm in spades, and it’s got a little bit of something for everyone. From stoic softies to your traditional rapscallions, there’s all sorts of personalities you’ll come across. Also there’s a surprising number of things to interact with. The game has a gorgeous watercolor backdrop and intricately drawn 2D character designs, but inside your wagon there’s a bottle of mysterious liquid that blurs the screen if you tap it because it’s full of booze. Pyre is just a well-balanced amalgamation of the beautiful and the strange.
On top of that, the soundtrack was very well suited to the various environments and situations (although I will say some of the lyrics were a bit on the nose for the few songs that did have words to accompany the music). Overall, I found it very easy to get lost in the game’s sound. And speaking of sound, the sound design and mixing is what truly shined for me, beyond the game’s soundtrack. Sound effects were particularly well done, and (even though there wasn’t much of it) the voice-acting was also pretty good (trust me, the Narrator certainly achieves his goal which I personally believe is to aggravate and frustrate you to wits end as he heckles and insults you).
But even though I occasionally found myself just staring at the game’s backgrounds and over world map or constantly turning pages in books I’d already read to hear that crisp page-turning sound, Pyre isn’t going to out-compete other games in terms of its graphics and audio. It doesn’t “push the PS4” to its limits or chew through gigs of memory with all of the immense detail programmed into the game, but is that what really matters when it comes to RPGs?
For me, Pyre does what any good RPG should do, and what a lot of developers have lost sight of as hardware gets bigger and better. Rather than putting the technology on display, it puts a premium on story and character. And with multiple endings for each and every character you encounter, there’s a high factor of replayability here – not to mention the local two player versus mode included outside of the campaign.
All in all, Pyre gives you anything but a classic RPG experience. It’s fresh and it’s new; its “combat” system is certainly unlike anything I’ve ever played before. But it goes back to the roots of the genre by emphasizing those two cores elements that make RPGs great: story, and character. Not to mention, the sound, music, and art style were amazing. It’s rare (for me, at least) that an indie title reaches out and reminds me of what RPGs have the potential to be and why I’ve loved them for so many years.
Now, I think you’ve had enough of me rambling on about this game and how the experience affected me. So tell us: have you played Pyre? If so, what did you think of the game? And if you haven’t yet, are you interested in giving it a try?