Pyre Review: The Fires of Freedom

Games almost always want us to feel like a great deal is at stake. Our hero’s life, or the outcome of a war, or maybe the fate of the universe. But few games succeed at making us feel the weight of those stakes, because we know that if we fail, we just get a Game Over screen, and then another shot. We can keep trying until we get it right. Pyre, the latest release from Supergiant Games, is remarkable for a number of reasons, but the clearest indication of its greatness is in the way that all of its elements come together to make you feel like everything is riding on the outcome of the contests in which you partake.

Pyre takes place in the Downside, the harsh realm to which those who violate the laws or, simply through their existence, the very principles of the Commonwealth, are exiled. You are exiled here for the crime of reading, in a society where knowledge passed through the written word is deemed so great a threat as to be outlawed. Quickly you are found by an unlikely trio of exiles, including the imposing figure Jodariel, one of the most striking female presences I’ve ever encountered in a game. She is the kind of stereotype-defying, utterly original character who, just by existing, helps illuminate the fact that most prominent women in games come from a very narrow range of representations, and that there remains a whole world of possibility out there for compelling leading ladies. In a very welcome touch, you may specify during this encounter whether you, the Reader, are female, male, or non-binary, and characters will then refer to you appropriately throughout the game.

The trio are known as the Nightwings, one of the triumvirates or teams competing in the Downside’s hottest high-stakes sporting event, the Rites. The Rites are the only way out for exiles: succeed in occasional championship matches called Liberation Rites, and earn your freedom, along with a full pardon for all your crimes. Fail, and remain in exile forever.

The Rites are terrifically fun to play; simple enough that you grasp the basics immediately, but complex enough that you find your appreciation for them growing over the course of the campaign, as things become more challenging and you may find yourself pressured to change up your tactics. In short, each team of three seeks to snatch the celestial orb that spawns in the center of the field and carry it or toss it into the opposing team’s pyre, a flame that grows a bit weaker each time it is doused by the orb’s magic. When one team’s flame is extinguished, the contest is over.

It’s not a violent clash but it is a fierce one, and it should be: these people are fighting for their freedom, after all. (Some care more about that than others, but they all have their reasons for wanting to win.) It moves quickly, full of thrilling close calls and rapid shifts between offensive and defensive play as teams wrestle for control of the stone or try to protect their pyres. Each member of the Nightwings has different attributes: Jodariel, for instance, moves slowly, making it more difficult for her to reach the opposing pyre without being intercepted, but the defensive aura she casts out around herself when not carrying the orb is massive. Come into contact with the aura of an opposing player and you’re banished from the field for several seconds, which of course gives your rival team a temporary advantage and perhaps a good opportunity to score.

If Pyre were nothing but the Rites themselves, it would still be an entertaining diversion, a fun, arcade-style video game sport, a kind of fantasy world equivalent to NBA Jam. And indeed, the game’s local versus mode should get a lot of play; it’s great for gathering friends and holding makeshift tournaments to see who among you has the greatest mastery of the Rites. But what elevates Pyre is the story it tells, the characters who populate it, and the fact that, whether you win or lose any given match, the story continues, shaped by your victories and your failures.

Pyre’s first few hours lay the groundwork for what’s to come, as you and the Nightwings make your way across the Downside, competing against the other triumvirates for the first time. Along the way, the ranks of the Nightwings expand as you pick up new members, each of whom bring different skills to bear in the Rites, as well as bringing new energy to the story. Perhaps the most memorable of the bunch is Sir Gilman, the incredibly swift slug-knight who is very small in stature but whose sense of honor is tremendous. He’s as endearing as he is hilarious, and like all of his fellow characters, he’s more complex than he initially appears. Get to know him well enough and he’ll make you consider how the idea of honor itself may be limited, diminished or twisted by being so closely associated with conflict. And it’s not just the Nightwings who have histories, relationships, and motivations: your rivals in the Rites do as well. Many of them are also good people, in their own way, just as deserving of freedom as the Nightwings, which meant I often felt deeply conflicted about beating them, though I never stopped playing to win, for the sake of my friends.

Pyre has a lot on its mind, including what value freedom for some can have in a corrupt system where so many are still oppressed, if that freedom is not used to work for the liberation of others. It’s a story of resistance and rebellion, of struggling for justice and a better world for everyone. For its characters, the personal is often political, but the game’s concerns never feel dry, abstract or heavy-handed; they are rooted in the lived experiences of the characters, and those characters are brought to such vivid, distinctive life by the game’s writing that you naturally grow increasingly attached to them, and invested in their friendships and struggles, as you all make your way around the Downside in the Nightwings’ increasingly cramped and cluttered wagon together.

The fact that you care about these characters so much makes the Rites feel that much more important, and the decisions that you face as the story progresses toward its conclusion increasingly difficult. You eventually have to start making decisions about exactly whose freedom you’re playing for. In my first Liberation Rite, I bid farewell to Jodariel, a painful choice to make because she was my favorite character, and an incredibly valuable member of the Nightwings, but I also felt that she was the most deserving, and perhaps could do the most good upon returning to the Commonwealth. Still, I and my fellow Nightwings missed her when she was gone.

Pyre left me with a feeling of the most real kind of joy; the kind that is tinged with sadness.

It’s not just deliberate choices you make that shape the story, though. You might play your heart out in a Rite only to lose, and still the story moves forward, the consequences of your failure woven into the narrative, and this makes the final few hours of Pyre extremely involving. For a long while, playing on the normal difficulty setting, I dominated the Rites, running circles around my opponents, and I started to consider bumping up the challenge. Then, a new adversary appeared, one whose appearance is a profound surprise to one member of the Nightwings. I felt a bit shaken myself, and went into my contest against him a little anxious, not sure what to expect. I was right to be concerned; he was a formidable opponent, and against him, my Nightwings suffered their first defeat. Suddenly my confidence faltered, and I went into subsequent matches more fearful about their outcome. I later lost a Liberation Rite, failing my fellow Nightwings, seeing one of our rivals earn her return to the Commonwealth while all of us remained behind. The weight of that failure was on my shoulders.

Whatever befalls you, the story adapts. There are other games that do this, of course–perhaps most notably David Cage’s games such as Heavy Rain–but those stories are such a mess of absurd character motivations and ludicrous situations that they completely fall apart in their efforts to advance whether you succeed or fail in any given situation. Pyre, on the other hand, glides forward elegantly regardless of the outcome; you never sense it straining at the seams to accommodate your successes or failures. I had failed in this contest, and that was that. Looking back on it, the arc of my story in Pyre seems so natural — the victories in the first act, the failures in the second, creating a feeling of uncertainty and desperation heading into the third and final — but I know that there are so many other ways it could have gone.

Toward the end, I approached Rites with a real feeling of nervousness, because I felt that so much was at stake, and that I only had one shot at each contest. (In actuality, the game does let you restart a Rite immediately afterwards if you want to, but why the heck would you do that?) I found myself shouting at the screen and shouting at myself, desperate to emerge victorious, terrified of failure.

I won’t tell you about how I fared in the end, or about the particularly difficult final choice I had to make, but I will say that Pyre left me with a feeling of the most real kind of joy; the kind that is tinged with sadness. It does this by being designed in such a way that all of its elements — the characters, the Rites, the art and music — work together, united in vision and purpose. Some of my Nightwings got what they wanted. Some of them didn’t. Some had to carry on living without reconciliations they had long desired. So it goes. But all of them found value in the time they spent together. Some were separated from close friends by the outcomes of the Rites. Some forged friendships that endured into the years beyond. So good is the writing in Pyre that you feel these connections, and you feel like a part of this unforgettable group that once traversed the Downside. In their world, as in this one, not everything works out, and we take what friendship and companionship we can, when and where we can. We ride together. We help each other. The struggle continues.

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