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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: RPG/Action
Developer: Supergiant Games
Release Date: July 25, 2017


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PS4 Review - 'Pyre'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Aug. 23, 2017 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Pyre is a party-based role-playing game in which you lead a band of exiles through an ancient competition spread across a vast, mystical purgatory.

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Pyre follows the story of The Reader, a player avatar who's been cast out of the Commonwealth for the crime of owning and reading books. He's been sent to the Downside, where he's found by the Nightwings, a band of fellow exiles. All the exiles can compete in a series of challenges called The Rites, and anyone who completes them has a chance to escape from exile and return to the comforts of the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, they are not the only team looking to escape, and the Reader must compete with others.

In terms of RPG design, Pyre is unusual because it's effectively more of a visual novel. You'll follow your wagon's path as you undergo the Rites, and you'll occasionally pause to choose from dialogue or location options, which unlock events. Your first time through the ritual, your hands are held to the point of frustration. I was initially unimpressed and annoyed at the game design decisions, and it was only after finishing the first plot that the game began to shine.

The cast of Pyre is likeable and genuinely interesting. The nature of the game prevents too much character development, but the personalities and desires of the characters clearly shine through in the story and mechanics. A path you choose may unlock an upgrade or cause a character to become unhappy and perform poorly in the next rite. Some characters refuse to work together, and you have to keep that in mind when considering your team composition. It's a wonderful blend of mechanics and story that comes to a head when the plot forces you to permanently give up characters.

The best way to describe combat in Pyre is that it's a cross between soccer and an RPG battle system. Players are divided into groups of three and placed on a battlefield. You can only control one member of the team at a time but can swap between them with the press of a button. Your goal is to grab a ball and bring it to the enemy's pyre. Throwing it into the pyre reduces the pyre's amount of HP, and the victor is the team to first deplete the enemy's pyre.

The combat sounds simple enough at first blush, but there's a lot of complexity to it. Scoring can be done by throwing the ball into the pyre or hurling your character — ball and all — into the pyre. You need to charge up the ball to throw it, and the more you charge, the more damage it does, but that also gives enemies more time to stop you. Hurling yourself into the pyre does a respectable amount of damage, but it also banishes the character, which means they can't return to the battlefield for the next play.

This gets more complex when you consider the variety of characters you have and how their abilities factor into scoring a goal. The largest characters do more overall damage but have a tougher time getting to the goal. The smaller and faster characters are weaker but much more likely to score. Smaller characters also tend to have special abilities like flight, so they can bypass obstacles. Since you can pass the ball with the touch of a button, you can mix and match abilities for greater effect, such as getting a large character into position and then using a small character to ferry to the ball.

Every character has an aura, which is a passive field that extends from the character. Larger characters have a huge aura while smaller characters have smaller auras. Any enemy who passes into an aura will be temporarily banished, instead of for the rest of the turn. Characters can also "shoot" their aura in a few different ways, such as a long blast or an area-of-effect shockwave. These auras need time to charge up but are very effective. You can also make them charge up faster by releasing.

However, any character who grabs the ball instantly loses their aura, protection and ability to shoot their aura. In essence, they are completely helpless, but upgraded characters can modify that. For example, Jodariel can spike the ball to damage enemies. This means the scorer is helpless, and you have to either learn to dodge enemy attacks or swap between characters to maximize your ability to move forward without dying.

Battles also undergo changes as enemy pyre HP falls. Maps may change and get new obstacles, enemies may get buffs, and special events may happen. The games are lightly rigged against you to compensate for your ability to customize or buff your characters. It's fine because the handicaps make the fights more fun, and the game is designed for you to lose battles while it keeps going. Rather than feeling frustrated by a loss, it feels like a natural part of the story.

My only real complaint about the trials is that they're too easy. It's clear the ideal gameplay mechanics involve all three characters constantly moving and combining their abilities to form a super-cool soccer team. Unfortunately for a good chunk of the game, I found it easier to load my favorite character with trinkets to enhance their abilities and charge through the opposition. It's not enough to sour the experience, and there's still a reward for strong combinations over individual excellence.

Pyre is a shockingly lengthy game. The first playthrough goes by quickly, but each subsequent adventure has new twists and turns. It can take a 15-20 hours to reach the "ending" and even then, it's only one of many permutations. The game design means you won't get an optimal ending regardless of what you do. Eventually, you have to make tough decisions and deal with the consequences. This means this title provides good replay value if you like trying to find a good ending. The game does drag a little; it all makes sense thematically, but a little shorter would've also been sweeter.

SuperGiant games makes strikingly beautiful games, and Pyre is no exception. The artwork and visual design are phenomenal. The characters are represented by beautiful hand-drawn artwork and lovingly animated sprites, and the environments are breathtaking. The entire game is a visual treat. I did wish for a wider variety in facial artwork for the cast, and even that is a minor complaint at best. Likewise, the music is phenomenal, and it's easily as good as the soundtracks for Bastion and Transistor. I did feel the vocal songs lacked a little punch compared to the excellent use in the aforementioned games.

Pyre gives SuperGiant games the hat trick on indie excellence. While it lacks the simple perfection of Bastion in favor of a more complex and convoluted set of mechanics, it nonetheless executes everything masterfully. A few nagging complaints here and there don't change the fact that the game is just a delight. The characters, gameplay and story come together wonderfully and are augmented by beautiful visuals and a fantastic soundtrack. When the worst you can say is that the game overstays its welcome a little, you know you have something good on your hands. Fans of SuperGiant's stuff or indie games in general should consider Pyre a must-buy.

Score: 8.5/10

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