Pyre PC, PS4
You’ll want to win, since your opponents are often arrogant, nasty or malevolent
Ajourney through purgatory would seem like the ideal time to get off the wagon. In Pyre, however, getting back on it is part of what makes a supposedly hellish trek so pleasurable. It may seem cramped, but we have a variety of trinkets marking our achievements and commemorating the places we’ve stopped along the way. There’s a strange floating object we can bat around, a lute which doubles as a jukebox for Darren Korb’s nimble score, and a large bell – though we haven’t rung that for a while, for reasons we shan’t reveal. It’s a place to take a load off, to chat with our fellow exiles, or to catch up on some light reading. We’re supposed to want to leave this place, but over 15 hours, this ramshackle transport has come to feel like home.
The views aren’t bad either. Jen Zee’s richly evocative art is saturated in vibrant colour, conjuring clearly inhospitable but often strikingly beautiful environments. Jagged icebergs jut from frigid waters, wisps of toxic gas rising from bubbling pools of lurid green as swirling tempests rage and steam hisses from boiling fissures. This is the Downside, a world into which you’ve been cast for crimes committed in the Commonwealth. Three others, similarly cast out, find you and bring you on board, before inviting you to translate the text of a mystical tome that leads you towards a ritual which may yet prove to be your way out.
These are the Rites, essentially an ancient form of three-on-three basketball. Two pyres lie at either end of the arena, and your job is to douse your opponents’ flame by dunking a celestial orb into it. The damage you deal is dependent on the player: the hulking demon Jodariel and the slippery crone Bertrude do more than tiny Wyrm-Knight Sir Gilman and Rukey, a dog with a Terry Thomas moustache. But their bulk means it’s harder for them to get there. Once in possession of the ball, the protective aura that surrounds them dissipates, leaving them vulnerable to attack, either from an opposing player walking into them, or casting their aura outwards in a straight line. You can, however, dodge those attacks by dashing away, or leaping over them – or even by hurling the ball at your opponent and casting your aura as soon as they catch it. But scoring also leaves you disadvantaged, since the player who reached the pyre will be briefly banished from the game, lending it some of basketball’s back-and-forth rhythm.
You’ll be frequently convinced that certain characters or moves are overpowered, not least when combined with unlocked abilities and equippable talismans whose buffs can be further enhanced by purchasing stardust from a travelling vendor. But there’s a counter for just about everything. Extend the flutter time of flying imp Ti’Zo, and he can be tough to deal with – though a well-timed leap is enough to dispossess him. Rukey’s lightning pace, similarly, can quickly take him behind an opponent’s backline. With a souped-up jump, he’s hard
IN ITS RITE PLACE
Supergiant does its best to enforce tactical adjustments by varying the arena environments, and while you’ll mostly end up reverting to reliable fallbacks, the differences are just enough to keep you on your toes. One venue is pocked with mounds of stardust that can protect you from incoming auras; another features sliding stones which you can push around to stay in cover; a third has thick tangles of vines gradually encroach on the play area, giving you less room to outmanoeuvre your opponent. Later, you’ll play on a pitch patrolled by excitable imps, whom you’re encouraged to impress by performing certain feats during a match – like using a specific character to douse the Pyre, or banishing all three opponents at once – which will earn you a larger post-match purse. to stop, but then your opponent can always protect their pyre by placing large units close to the base, and to one another, which in turn expands their auras.
It favours physicality over responsiveness, forcing you to commit to your actions while giving you a stronger sense of each character. Jodariel’s steps are slow and deliberate, and you can almost feel the ground shake when she lands from a jump. Bertrude is ponderous at walking pace, but hold the trigger and she’ll speedily slither along. The momentum of smaller, faster characters can be tricky to arrest, too. Change direction with Rukey and he skids around like an OutRun drift, and you risk grazing an enemy aura if you don’t manage his acceleration carefully. There’s a sense of weight elsewhere, too. In the early stages, the narrative gives you just enough context to make each Rite feel like it matters. The story might continue after a defeat, allowing you to regroup, but you’re losing your opportunity to level up to give yourself a better chance of winning later events. You’ll still be able to pick up some slack on your travels, with forking paths letting you decide, for example, between Rukey collecting on a debt, or following Jodariel’s hunch about rare (and thus highly sellable) flora. And at rest stops, you can mentor an individual teammate, study for small universal team gains, or forage for supplies to trade at the market. But a narrative shift raises the stakes, making a loss harder to take, since the final Rite of a star cycle means one of your number can go free.
It’s a bittersweet moment. There’s a tension between selfishly wanting to keep someone around for their skill in the Rites and the feeling that they’ve earned their right to return to the Commonwealth. But would it be even more selfless to throw the game and let the captain of the opposing team go back? In most cases, you’ll want to win, since your opponents are often arrogant, nasty or downright malevolent, but one or two have nobler aims, or more complex motivations, and seem equally deserving of redemption.
As the cycles continue, these opponents come to feel like proper rivals. And the lightweight difficulty on Normal – we finished with an unblemished record – is less of a problem when you gain the ability to modify the challenge by calling upon the stars to hasten your opponents’ return from banishment, or to reduce your pyre’s flame before the match has even begun. A newly gained ability to travel quickly between Rites doesn’t entirely prevent repetition from setting in, and the loss of favoured allies can leave you stuck with characters whose personalities and attributes make the closing stretch drag a little. Still, if Pyre never quite feels like a classic sporting struggle, your ragtag band of rebels and their delightful mobile home are a heartwarming upside to life on the Downside.
RIGHT Goodness, it’s pretty, and that’s before you’ve seen it in motion. Transitions between areas are particularly lovely, as your wagon handily transforms into a boat to cross treacherous seas.
MAIN Opponents improve after the first time you play them, making the return match more challenging. When their pyre is close to being snuffed out, they gain buffs and may play more aggressively.
BOTTOM Away from the story, you can conduct a Rite against the CPU or another local player. While it loses something for the lack of any real stake in the outcome, it’s a welcome opportunity to play as one of the other captains
ABOVE Ostensibly one of the more ordinary characters, all-rounder Hedwyn is such an affable, generous chap that you’ll be loath to see him go. We selfishly kept him around until our guilt eventually got the better of us