Supergiant Games are back again. Following on from the success stories of Bastion and Transistor, they’ve laid something new at our pedicured/cheesy feet. Pyre is an intriguing mix of visual novel and RPG. Sound different? Just wait until we tell you about the battle sections. If you’re looking for something a bit more original to play around with, Pyre could be just the ticket.
Banished from the Commonwealth to the cruel lands of the Downside, you are found dying by a group of fellow exiles called the Nightwings. In exchange for their help you agree to assist them with a task that could change your life, their lives and the lives of everyone in the Commonwealth. You are a Reader and can guide your ragtag group through a ritual set out in the Book of Rites. Successfully completing the Liberation Rites is your only hope of release from permanent exile, and this ritual relies on the stars shining above you. Can you, Reader, return your friends and yourself to freedom, or is there much more at stake?
Don’t be put off by our earlier mention of the visual novel genre. While VNs can be an acquired taste for some, Pyre’s story is kept light and isn’t bogged down by page after page of narration and chatter. The writing is incredibly tight and you’ll only be flicking through a few pages before you’re back in your wagon and off onto the next part of your journey. Exposition is kept to a glorious minimum and if you want to know more about the lore of the Commonwealth and the Downside you can either consult the Book of Rites in your wagon or you can hover your cursor over highlighted words within the narrative to access a small pop up window that will give you further information on specific topics. It’s optional and a genius way to convey important background without forcing the characters to waffle on about it.
After a little story, you’ll be prompted to consult the stars to decide where you want to go in search of the Rites. When you’ve made a decision your wagon will trundle off on its own. Once in the correct area, you will generally be given a choice of which direction to go. This decision will have consequences that are sometimes positive and sometimes negative. You may get the opportunity to find an important object, a character may be given favour by the Scribes, or perhaps you’ll suffer a setback and your party’s stats will temporarily drop. There will also be moments you can stop to rest and have free time to decide between sourcing more objects or training and mentoring your party. You’ll need your entire party to be strong for the latter parts of the game so it’s important to do whatever you can to ensure every single person is at the top of their game.
One you arrive at a Rite, the fun can really begin. If you’re expecting a big ol’ battle with swords and magic staffs, you couldn’t be more wrong. Once the stars align, they will drop a celestial orb. To win the Rite you must grab the orb and use it to extinguish your opponent’s pyre before they extinguish yours. At the beginning of each game you can choose three party members to participate. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Rukey the talking dog, for example, is very quick on his paws but his lower Glory stats mean that he snuffs out less of the opponent’s pyre than, say, Jodariel who is a lot slower but has a much larger Auror. The idea is to switch between the three chosen characters, pass the orb between them, defend your pyre and repeatedly drop the orb into your enemy’s flames until it is nothing but smoke.
It’s not as easy as I’ve just made it sound, though. If you are carrying the orb you cannot use your Auror to banish your opponents, whereas they can use theirs to banish you. If you seem to be cornered you can throw the orb to someone else and either use that character to leg it to the pyre or switch back, banish the enemy with the Auror you got back when you relinquished the orb, and then have the other character throw the orb back to you now you’ve cleared the way. Yes, it’s pretty much a fairy tale sports game. It’s fast, furious and you need damn good co-ordination and quick thinking. You can change the difficulty level at any time to suit your own comfort level, which is great because the Rites can be tricky, especially in the latter parts of the game when things really heat up and the nature of the Liberation Rite itself starts to handicap you.
The point of the Liberation Rites are to free you from the chains and destitution of the Downside and your aim is to free your fellow Nightwings – but of course, things are not so simple. Whether or not you lose a Rite, the game continues and you must carry on with the consequences until the end. Although Pyre is quite light and relaxing to play, it does have a very melancholy feel to it and there is something a little deeper going on. Your choices, successes and failures will influence the end of the game. You will be asked to question what it means to be free and, if you want to face it, you can question your own sense of compassion. Towards the last quarter of the game my motivations for playing the Rites felt hugely conflicted. Did I even want to win?
If you can’t get enough of battling for possession of a celestial orb and are just dying to snuff out a few more pyres, there is a Versus mode where you can tackle, banish and snuff out pyres until your little heart is content. You can play against the AI or against a friend in local multiplayer. Again, you can adjust the difficulty and you can also choose between a huge number of characters from the story. These battles are Pyre’s shining achievement so it would be rude not to have a go at Versus.
You only have to glimpse a few screenshots to see Pyre’s charm for yourself. Beautiful hand drawn environments and offbeat pop-up characters dominate the bulk of the game, and the Rites themselves are bright and colourful and in keeping with the game’s charismatic and quirky persona. Pyre certainly has many appealing qualities. Despite the importance and trickiness of the Rites, it’s rather a restful game, and that is in part down to the musical score. Folksy guitar tracks accompany every part of your journey and it saves the best until last with a gorgeous final song.
Part visual novel and part RPG, Pyre is an original and fun offering from Supergiant Games. Lovely graphics, gorgeous music and beautifully sombre story aside, Pyre’s Liberation Rites are one of the most original and fun “battle” sequences that we’ve played in a long while.
S J Hollis Rating – 8/10
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