Pyre PC, PS4
The flame of invention burns bright in Supergiant’s genre-straddling adventure
Supergiant’s artists might have done rather too good a job with Pyre. It is, after all, set in a purgatory from which we’re supposed to want to escape. Yet this vibrantly colourful world, with its exotic sights and strange creatures, keeps giving us reasons to want to stay. And so naturally we’re disappointed when our time here comes to an end. Happily, we’re not at an event with a queue of impatient punters waiting for us to hand over the controller; we can just start the preview build over again, and so we do.
“That’s a good sign!” laughs writer and designer Greg Kasavin, as we discuss his studio’s third game, which seems to mark an appreciable change in direction. Both Bastion and Transistor were action-RPGs viewed from an isometric perspective; though Pyre also has roleplaying elements, it’s more akin to The
Banner Saga in the delivery of its story, which is interspersed with a mystical competition whose closest real-world analogue is probably three-on-three basketball.
It’s quite the departure, we suggest, though Kasavin doesn’t entirely agree. “For us, each of the games we’ve made has felt like a departure,” he says. “In the case of Transistor, even though it was a game in the same genre as Bastion, that game really took us out of our comfort zone in a variety of ways. Some of the decisions we made, like making it an isometric game, were by no means foregone conclusions. We’re always trying to push ourselves to come up with something that feels fresh to us.”
He acknowledges that Supergiant is privileged to be in a position to do that. “I don’t think there are a lot of studios who are even able to go that route, because it’s very difficult in general just for [them] to do well enough to stick together as a team,” he explains. “And then if they’re fortunate enough to be successful, they’re often bound by their successes, right?” Pyre is the product of a team that knows it can afford to take a bit of a creative risk, with the confidence that experience and togetherness brings: 11 of the 12 staff credited on Transistor are still at Supergiant working on Pyre, including all seven people that brought us Bastion.
It’s clearly a close-knit group, then, and the advantages of that are obvious. “It does reduce a lot of communication overhead,” Kasavin says. “We don’t even have a design document at any point. When it’s time to make a big decision, we get everyone in a room and talk through it and that makes things efficient in terms of how much time we get to spend on actual development versus just communicating.” Kasavin also believes it gives each individual a sense of
ownership of and responsibility for a significant aspect of the game. “They know the buck stops with them, and that can be quite empowering and motivating.”
Pyre, too, centres on a group of characters thrust into an unfamiliar situation, forced to rely upon one another’s individual specialities to function effectively as a team and achieve a shared goal. In this instance, it means travelling across a purgatorial world with three other exiles who take you in as the game opens and, upon learning that you have the ability to read (an act prohibited in this world), ask you to translate a tome that guides you towards a Rite, an arcane sporting event that might well be everyone’s salvation. Along the way, you’ll have a choice of destinations at which to rest, and at night you’ll have a choice to make: you can forage for supplies and fuel for the caravan, mentor your fellow exiles and improve their skills ahead of the next match, or study the book further and learn more about the lore of the land.
The Rites themselves are fascinating. This is a slow dance of a sport with disarmingly simple controls, and yet even with just a handful of matches under our belts and a great many abilities locked out, there are signs of significant systemic depth. The idea is to carry a glowing orb into your opponent’s pyre, steadily depleting its energy until it’s eventually destroyed. You’re at your most vulnerable while in possession: anyone who doesn’t have the orb is surrounded by a circular aura, which not only causes the carrier to drop the orb on contact, but briefly removes them from play. This aura can also be fired outwards in a wave to regain possession from a distance – the equivalent of a sliding tackle – though it can also be leapt over. That’s straightforward enough for Rukey, a scrawny canine colleague, who can scamper around the field at speed. But if he’s hard to hit, he only takes one hit point from the opposing pyre. The horned giant Jodariel, meanwhile, moves with a languid gait, but she’ll do three times the damage if she gets there, and her jumps can create space by shunting opponents backwards – assuming she doesn’t touch down within their aura, that is. And there’s more: once a character has scored, so to speak, they’re temporarily banished from the Rite, leaving the teams uneven for a time.
Characters will gain further abilities as they level up after completed matches, and you’ll recruit more on your journey, thus giving you plenty of ways to tinker with the lineup of your competitive squad. But there are no more rules to learn: Supergiant wants to keep the controls simple and the action readable. “Our games in some ways are an extension of the values of ’90s-era console games where you didn’t have as many buttons on your controller as you do today,” Kasavin explains. “We try to have the fewest number of meaningful inputs. [But] depth is also important to us, because we want people to be able to play our games in a performative or an expressive fashion. I’m a big fan of fighting games, for example. In a great fighting game, ten different players can have ten distinct playstyles just as one of the characters on the roster. That’s my own analogy for it, but for sure we want players to keep finding new ways to engage with the mechanics.”
That could yet include a competitive mode. The story may be the focus at the moment, but Kasavin says that Supergiant is keen to explore the evident multiplayer potential of the Rites. “We’ll pursue it if we can find a way to do it that doesn’t come at the expense of the singleplayer,” he says. “We’re still in the process of figuring out if it’s something that we can do as well as it would deserve to be done.”
Whether or not that comes off, Pyre already shows exceptional promise. It’s sharply written and intelligently designed, and for all Kasavin’s talk of evoking the spirit of classic games, what makes it so exciting is how distinctive and new it feels. “First and foremost, we want to make worlds that are set apart and have a transportive quality,” he says. On this early evidence, it’s mission accomplished for a third time.
“We try to have the fewest number of meaningful inputs. But depth is also important”
Writer and designer Greg Kasavin
You can’t miss a Rite, even if you run out of fuel. Should your supply be fully depleted, you’ll have to waste a night dealing with it rather than reading, foraging or mentoring