A purgatorial fantasy sport is not the direction I expected Supergiant Games, creators of Bastion and Transistor, to go with their next game. Then again, expectations seem increasingly useless when it comes to a studio such as this. Pyre [official site] is set in a world where literacy is banned and punishable by exile – banishment to a dangerous land called the Downside, cut off from the home realm of the Commonwealth. This underworld is where you find yourself. But you soon make new friends and, to earn your freedom, you start to compete in a quasi-religious tournament of orb-throwing and goal-scoring.
The sport of Pyreball itself has caused me to curse and sigh many times, but I can’t accuse it of being uninventive. That goes double for the story of this band of exile-sinners, told through visual novel-style interjections and dialogue choices. It’s a great story. One I often wish didn’t have fantasy netball clinging to it.
The Spoilerless Part
I’m going to keep this part of the review as free from spoilers as possible. However, because so much of what makes the game interesting and worthy resides in the tale itself (and the demons and dogmen of the world) I’ll also be writing a little about that afterwards. Don’t worry, you’ll see the warning. But first of all, you should know that how I feel about Pyreball is not necessarily how I feel about Pyre.
To explain some things. The ball games themselves are called “rites” and hold a spiritual significance. But it’s also a recognisably sporty tournament. Half of the game sees you pottering about a large-but-limited world map in a wagon, talking to your team members – demons, humans, imps, anthropomorphic dogs – and deciding which route to take according to their sometimes conflicting advice. You often duck into the wagon itself, where characters will reveal their pasts, and where trinkets and useful objects slowly accumulate as you continue your journey. The other half of the game takes place on the field, in locations preordained by the stars. Here’s where you’ll play some holy sports. YEAH. But it doesn’t even matter if you win or lose, the tourney keeps on going.
The ball game itself is three-a-side. Each team starts with a pyre of 100 strength. You need to grab the ball (a “celestial orb”) and dive into your opponents flames with it to reduce the fire’s strength by a certain amount. Repeat this until someone’s fire is snuffed out like a cake candle. How much your foe’s fire wanes depends on the character you scored the “goal” with. A small character might only reduce it by 15 points, a larger character might reduce it by 30. The disadvantage to plunging into the pyre is that this character will now be “banished” until the next goal is scored (by whichever side), leaving the most recent scorer with only two players against three.
But there are other elements to keep in mind. Each player has an “aura” – a circular field around their feet which can “banish” another player that comes in range. Basically, they go in a sin bin for a few seconds, giving the other team more room and freedom to manoeuvre. The size of this aura differs between classes of player. For example, the large-but-slow demon Jodariel has a big aura and the small-but-quick dogman Rukey has a minuscule aura. So if they were to meet on the field as opponents, Jodie could simply walk into Rukedawg to banish him. Provided she can catch him. As I described it on the recent podcast, you’re basically moving Venn diagrams around while playing Weird Netball.
There are a lot of other small rules and elements. Your aura can be fired at opponents, like a wide, slow-moving laser. But its protective effects disappear completely if you are holding the ball, so you’re vulnerable while carrying it. Passing happens instantly, with no chance of dropping the orb or intercepting it. It just magically zooms, imperceptibly fast, from one player to another. And you can “shoot” the ball, by charging up a throw, with a little dotted line arc showing you the intended direction – scoring pyrepoints this way means you won’t be banished after a goal, since you didn’t immolate yourself along with the orb. Some player classes can also fly or hover over the field, but you can knock the ball from their arms by jumping into them. Your aura also disappears for a temporary moment if you jump – meaning you can’t just launch yourself into another player without zapping yourself in their own “grounded” aura, like a rogue chip flinging itself into the deep fryer.
But perhaps the most crucial rule is this: you can only move one player at a time. This is not like Pro Evo or NBA2K17, where uncontrolled players move at the computer’s behest until you possess them like some terrible footballing phantom. Here, you need to move and position each person yourself, keeping an eye on all three characters, while also striving for the goal and watching your opponent’s formation.
I hope all this is enough explanation, because reciting a rule book makes for boring reading. I only want to give you some idea of how it plays, or how it feels to play. Because the truth is, it feels much better in-rulebook than it does in-game.
Much of that is down to controls and our expectations. The default keyboard and mouse scheme is a confusing affront to body memory. Holding the left mouse button moves your highlighted player forward – a control scheme I have long loathed and will never accept as feeling intuitive. The right mouse button throws the ball, spacebar flicks it between players, shift dashes, and the W key jumps. All of this combines in such a way that feels so contrary to years of moving little people around imaginary worlds. Perhaps it just doesn’t match anything in existence but my hands simply rebelled against it. “WHAT,” I hear them scream, as they jump head first into a foe’s aura. “Why are we using the W key, if we aren’t also using the ASD keys?” They stumble around the field, furious. “Why in the name of the holy scribes must we hold a mouse button down to move forward!?” They continue to hold the button in anger, as the demon Jodie tramples onward at the faltering pace of a dying rhino.
Mixing up controls and trying to establish a new kind of “literacy” for a game can be an admirable aim, but here it feels like the developers have gone against WASD convention for no real benefit. The controls don’t feel better, they don’t feel suited to a sports game, or any other game. Nor do they serve to add anything, or subvert your expectations or challenge you, a la Brothers: Tale of Two Sons, for instance. They just throw you off.
Luckily, a controller feels hundreds of times more straightforward and usable. But this only half-solves my problems. The sport itself still feels squiffy, although it’s hard to pinpoint why. The central problem I feel is that you only move one character at a time. The others just stand around in the last place you left them. This gives what should be a sport the feeling of a board game, or a tactics game, where pieces are sacrificed and left behind. Instead of an athletic game, where movement, speed, teamwork and agility should feel key, we have a game of starting and stopping, standing and swapping. The Book of Rites – an ancient lore text that lives in your wagon and describes the tournament – says “all move as one” but that’s not how this feels at all. It’s “one moves as one, and then another one moves as one, and then another one moves as one”.
Other annoying issues are small and more infrequent but nonetheless disruptive to the flow of Pyreball. You can get “caught” on certain bits of the field, especially at the bottom of the screen. The fields-of-play themselves vary, some with obstacles like fire pits or moving stones that block auras and obstruct movement. That variety of environment isn’t a problem in itself – it’s very welcome – but there are inconsistencies and quirks that irritate you mid-play. One field – a rainy shipwreck – sees your players jumping automatically over the holes. Another field – with a giant fiery unicorn corpse – has lava pits the same size and width but with invisible walls around them, no automatic jumping at all (and trust me, it’s better this way). Some fields have scrawls which simply look like lettering painted on the ground, something you’d expect from a heavily and beautifully illustrated game such as this. But these are actually impassable walls.
In other words, the sport Supergiant have made is an inventive and curious thing. It just doesn’t feel good. Much of it also has to do with readability – things will be slow and steady, then something will suddenly occur too fast for you to notice. Aura fields blending together, disappearing, reappearing, players dashing or blinking or throwing things at you while you search the field for the ball, where the hell is the ball? The sense of space on this angled plane is also often disorienting, especially when many players have vertical manoeuvres such as flight, hovering, or extra-long jumps. Sometimes you seem to pass right through the opponents flames. Other times, you land in the goal zone despite seeming like you were still a meter away from it.
Then there’s the existence of an overwhelmingly superior strategy. There is an advantage to having the big horn lady Jodie and other “strong” characters, in that they can boost your pyre’s health, cast bigger auras, chuck wider blasts of energy at opponents, and slam down with disruptive jumps. But I never felt those advantages outweighed the natural advantage of simply being quicker than everyone else, alternating between two fast characters and just diving into the pyre before the enemy even gets near the ball. It feels like there’s an attempt to introduce a tactical dichotomy of speed vs strength in a game where there’s really only one way to play: be faster than your foe. You will mix up your triumvirate of players, yes, but this is for story reasons more than anything else, or out of necessity when some of your players get “banishment sickness”. In the end, I always made fast characters the linchpin of the trio.
Pyreball got less irritating the more I practiced and played. But I struggled until the end to get over that dislike, not of the sport itself, but of the way it felt in my hands, the way it hiccuped and faltered and twitched. When I think of fantasy sports, I think of Rocket League, a game that feels uniformly good every time, win or lose, an arcadey game of predictable and stable mechanics. But Pyreball is a wobbly sport you just play to proceed in an otherwise intriguing storyline, and where RPG elements have been stapled on in a contrived manner (There are stats and numbers behind it all, of course. Your “Glory” stat determines how much a character reduces their opponent’s flame by when they dive in. “Presence” dictates how wide their player-busting aura looms out from under them). It’s a game of fantasy netball that expects you to bump stats, mix up characters and abilities, counter special global effects or obstacles, and equip talismans and stuff for extra boosts. But I found that none of this really matters if you just use the fast dog to score points every single time.
What we have in Pyreball, is an almost-sport. As a contest, it feels like it should be faster, more brutal, more twitchy (which is weirdly how it would definitely feel if there were three human players per team, each controlling a character of their own). But it’s finicky and exploitable. And at its usual pace, it feels like it would have worked better as some kind of a turn-based tactical thing. Given the huge focus on levelling characters up, picking new abilities, buffing them with potions and powering them up with necklaces, it’s a little baffling why this isn’t the route Supergiant took.
As it stands, Pyreball is not a game I’d recommend. As inventive as it sounds in the Book of Rites, and as much thought and detail has gone into the design, it simply doesn’t play well on the field.
But that’s Pyreball, not Pyre. On page two, we’re going to talk about everything else.