Skip to the final paragraph for a non-spoilery conclusion about the sport, the story and the whole package.
The Spoilerful Part
The problem with Pyre is that it’s a clash of lyrics and music. I don’t mean actual music – the music in this world is wonderful, varied and probably worth listening to independently of the game. I mean the story and the mechanical components don’t complement each other very well at all. They are connected in a vital way, as I’ll soon explain, but apart from some critical moments of decision-making, the wordy world of the Downside and the sportsball of the Rites just don’t gel.
Let’s talk about that world. The writing, being Supergiant, is the good sort of fantasy fluff. And it has naming conventions that’d be welcome in any Souls game. The “Bog Star”, “Wyrm Gulf”, “Slugmarket”, the “Hulk of Ores”, the “Nightwings”, “Deathless Tempest”. The lore of this world oscillates between being curious-sounding myth-history delivered by the Book of Rites (that tome sitting in your wagon) and character imparted world-building. You’re always seeking to know more, exploring a purgatorial landscape full of titan bones and diverse creatures, a physical place that can only be escaped meta-physically, via some ancient ritual of skill and valour.
The cast, meanwhile, could easily be dismissed as being a gang of JRPG staples. They are, in more ways than one, a literal bandwagon. There’s the happy-go-lucky girl, cute animal companion, anthropomorphic rogue, brooding strongwoman, mysterious cloaked figure who seems to know more than everyone else yet will never impart his full wisdom. The list goes on. But there is comfort in these tropes for childmen such as I, and the characters here do endear themselves to you in simple but effective ways. One shows fear at a creditor, another paces back and forth with worry for another character’s seasickness, three more sit and reminisce as a group about times long since past. One of them, perhaps the most unjustly treated of the bunch, befriends you with her wry behaviour, before rejecting you out of fear of closeness – and you find yourself thinking that she can’t really be blamed. There is a kinship in this rickety wagon of sportspriests, so much so that I find myself missing some of the characters now that it’s over. And I was even missing some of them during the course of the game, because Pyre’s most intelligent move is that it makes you get rid of your own team.
It works like this: when you finally reach the summit of a high mountain, having played in the tournament against several other “triumvirates” – each of whom have their own characters and motives, all generally well-written and some of whom are even themselves likeable – you discover that only one person is allowed to go free (and only if you win a final match). It’s up to you, as the Reader, to decide who goes and who stays. But you can only pick someone “worthy”. That is, someone who has played enough (levelled up enough) to deserve it. You’ll get the chance to do this “liberation rite” again and again after each new tournament, but only a handful of times. Some of you will not make it out of the Downside.
This is a wonderful idea. Imagine if that guy in XCOM came into your quarters and said “Hello, Commander. Please choose one of your best veteran soldiers to award with a happy life of retirement in a safe haven where they can live with their families and never feel fear or pain again. Oh, by the way, everyone else is stuck in the barracks until they die.”
How do you choose? Do you pick someone who you feel really deserves it, according to their own backstory or attitudes? Or do you elect somebody who deserves it less, just because you consider them less vital to the team and won’t miss them when they’re gone? And then there’s the added problem of friendship. What if you just like having this character around? Setting them free during one of the liberation rites means they won’t be there for the rest of the game’s plot. It’ll just be you, the wooden man and that bloody witch (this bloody witch actually has the best theme music in the game, so it’s not all bad).
But unlike XCOM, the dialogue and the character development make you feel for your team mates in a completely different, arguably mixed way. They are both resources – means of winning matches – but also people. People who’ve mostly been exiled and mistreated for unjust reasons, some of them staying so long in the downside that their figures have become roughened and demonised, growing horns and adopting permanently scowling eyes. You find yourself reluctant to let some of them go free, thumb hovering over the “Anoint” button, still unsure if you can face a Downside without their grumbling or their cooking or their stupid japes. And then there is the other conflict of emotions. What if your opponents also deserve their freedom? The opposing team during the final liberation match also has an appointed one who would go free should they win. What if you actually like your enemy?
Well, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from throwing a game…
That’s another clever thing about the Pyre tournaments. Late in the game, you get access to a book that lists the ranking of each team. It transpires that your team, the Nightwings, are the team against which all others are judged. In other words, you will always play in the final. You’ll always get a chance to free somebody. But it also means that you can manipulate the rankings just by choosing a team and then purposefully losing, giving you some amount of control over exactly who you will face during the liberation rites. So if you really feel like the old dogman from team Fate deserves his freedom because, yes he’s your opponent, but he’s also a kind person and possibly close to death, there’s the chance to grant him that freedom at the expense of your own people.
It’s more complicated than that, of course. There’s a fellow on your team – a tree man who likes to smoke a pipe – who is formulating a plan to overthrow the entire system of illiterate justice on the “other side” by slowly releasing exiles loyal to this cause. The game’s story is clearly steering you towards accomplishing this goal. It forms the central plot and dialogue often displays a little percentage value of how likely “The Plan” is to succeed come the end of the game. You can increase that likelihood with each of your own freed people, but sometimes it remains more poetic, or even sensible, in a realpolitik kind of way, to let your enemies go free instead.
There are also smart parallels between the mythology of this world’s past and the revolution that your group of purgatorial sportsmonks are trying to achieve. Players and the lore scriptures are always referring to the godlike Scribes, “who gave their freedom so we could have ours”. Aside from being a hugely Christian sentiment (“he died for our sins”) it is also a reflection of your own fate. As the game nears its end, you know that some of your team will not be released from their purgatory. But that their actions and efforts in the arenas of the Downside will have resulted in the freedom of not just their fellow players but also the entire Commonwealth, who, if all goes to the wooden man’s plan, will be able to read books and never suffer exile or injustice again.
The Book of Rites is a particularly good depiction of how history may be warped into religion and how it often rhymes. You get the sense that these scribes were not gods or titan-killers. They were just the last bunch of Pyreball players to rebel, and slowly, as time went by, the Commonwealth they established decayed into its former practices of banishment and book-burning. This makes you wonder what the world of Pyre will be like 1000 years after the end of the game. It feels significant that, in the ending I got, the government established by the victorious rebels is called the “Sahrian Union”. There is a cycle at work here, although you never do see the whole circle.
Still, most of what is great about the story concerns individual characters, their motivations, their pasts, their intentions and the way they get along with each other. As with all parties that sally forth, your group of misfits have backstories and motives that slowly reveal themselves. A winged harp may be considered an enemy of the Commonwealth and an untrustworthy intruder, but secretly she harbours a deeper, personal reason for not seeming loyal to your own group of Pyreballahs.
This method of drawing out a story is one of Supergiants’ recognisable methods. It’s also, I’ve found, one of their biggest weaknesses, in the sense that they just can’t help but string things along far past the reader’s patience. There’s a point in Pyre, like in Bastion and Transistor, when you wish they’d just get on with it. The last few hours of this tale are especially heel-dragging, and I found each successive Pyreball match more and more frustrating, not only because of the problems with the sacred-sport I’ve already described, but also because I just wanted the story to reach its increasingly-obvious conclusion.
This tale of revolution, mercy, hope and choices could have been just as powerful and satisfying if it had been 5 or 6 hours shorter, even if that meant stripping out some of the more unnecessary characters, either characters whose stories don’t add much to the overarching tale or the Pyreball players who come later and feel like they’ve only been added to your roster out of necessity.
But the story is still good, is what I’ve been trying to say. And that one visual-novel style decision system of choosing who goes free does impact your upcoming games of Pyreball in a way that feels meaningful, even if it doesn’t technically improve the sport itself. Very late in the game I had to change my style of play to accommodate new characters, giving up on the superfast technique of my doggy pal in order to set the fella free. This didn’t make the sport itself feel any less fiddly and incomplete but it did make me think: “Oh man, I miss Rukey Greentail.”
And that, I think is the goal of Pyre. It wants you to recognise that people are not there necessarily so that you can Win Win Win, that others, even your enemies, sometimes deserve their desires over your own machinations. There are messages woven into the tale about justice, mercy, forgiveness, and liberty in a way that few games even attempt to cover. And I haven’t mentioned once how stunning the whole thing looks – I barely even need to say that. I only wish that the mechanics and feeling of Pyreball lived up to that strong storytelling, because it so often feels like an interruption to a great tale. But even I, who just rambled for thousands of words about how busted and rubbish I think the sport is, can forgive the game its flaws. Many people won’t get past those flaws (and I’m not sure I would have, had I not needed to review it) but those who play until the end will doubtless be moved by the plight of this particular bandwagon.