Don’t let its nearly 200-page rulebook fool you: Pyre isn’t some burdensome, overly complicated action RPG. If anything, its sports-like combat favors loose experimentation and quick thinking, not rigid theorycrafting and preplanned plays. The length of its Book of Rites, an illuminated manuscript with sparkling calligraphy and pictures, stems from all of the details that fill it out. The book is a labor of love, not a litany of laws, and the majority of its pages present enjoyable (and entirely optional) elaborations on the various arenas, locations, and competitors. In many ways, this applies to the game itself, which, like Bastion and Transistor before it, crams colorful, technical details into every hand-drawn frame.
Pyre isn’t uncomplicated, but the precision that Supergiant Games brings to the project makes the finished project seem effortless. There are some obvious inspirations behind the choose-your-own-adventure wagoneering; the three-on-three rituals in which players must find a way to plunge a celestial orb into the other team’s pyre (or goal) calls to mind the over-the-top dodgeball of Stikbold! But Pyre uses familiarity only as a touchstone. The remainder of the game is spent ensuring that it feels wholly unique and, more importantly when it comes to gameplay, well-balanced: a fast-moving cur may be able to double- or triple-jump around foes but has a tiny aura with which to block opponents; an equally swift, slithering wyrm can’t jump but can lay down a watery aura trail that he can whip back across at any point.
Pyre is simultaneously a sports game for people who get tired of the repetition of sports games and an RPG for people who get tired of grinding through telegraphed battles. Each of the game’s nine arena-like Celestial Landmarks has its own unique conditions to adapt to, whether that’s deftly leaping across volcanic chasms in the Nest of Triesta or coping with the narrow boundaries of the ship-bound Hulk of Ores. Some of the nine rival Triumvirates may have their own nasty tricks, like the way in which the nature-attuned Chastity can summon up thorny obstacles, while others adopt risky formations, like the way in which the flying harps of the Essence sometimes aggressively begin a round at midfield, already in possession of the orb.
Throw in some random wacky weather conditions, like a destructive meteor shower or pyre-drenching deluge, and it’s reasonable to assume that no two matches are ever going to be the same. Taking on optional moneymaking challenges from the audience (Rites of Glory) or combat handicaps that yield additional experience (Enlightenment) only make things more diverse.
All of these factors neatly tie into the game’s overarching theme, which calls into question rules and tradition. This can occasionally be a little frustrating, as Pyre doesn’t always allow you to play it the way you might; thanks to unpredictable bouts of summoning sickness or moral outrage, your roster may sometimes shift at the last minute. In a particularly clever twist, players are forced to get rid of their most-used characters; those who are redeemed in the rare Liberation rites must leave the party immediately, forcing those who are left behind to make up the difference. There are no Game Over screens (as with sports, the season continues regardless of personal performance), but this means that those looking to influence a specific outcome or see how a particular storyline resolves itself have to be especially careful of their decisions. There’s no scaffolding to keep them on a specific track.
Pyre boldly offers a glimpse of what freedom truly means—a sport in which you may sometimes want to deliberately throw a match, an RPG in which you may selfishly deny closure to a party member because you don’t want to lose their skills. Pyre is remarkably easy and enjoyable to play, but there isn’t an inch of it that’s simple, that isn’t in some way stuffed full of artful reflection on what it means to fundamentally play a game.