Note: This piece was originally published back in 2017 on Two Credits, a now defunct independent games publication.

Exiled into the seemingly endless purgatory known as the Downside until the end of your days, you encounter a group of masked individuals who take you in and nurse you back to health. Your crime? You’re a reader – a practitioner of a pursuit that has been forbidden for centuries by the commonwealth theocracy. The only way to return home is to lead the exiles to victory in the ancient rites to prove you are worthy of living in the glory of the commonwealth.

Pyre describes itself as a party-based RPG, though I think in reality it’s better described as an action/adventure title with a hefty serving of RPG and some elements of sports like football and basketball. The game is heavily story-focused and revolves primarily around exploring the overworld of the Downside and participating in the sportlike ancient rites in order to gain enlightenment and have a chance of returning from exile.

The rites are an ancient ritual in which two triumvirates faceoff (3v3) in an attempt to capture the mystical orb and deliver it to the others’ flaming pyre enough times to extinguish it. The rites somewhat resemble something like basketball or football – the main goal is simply to pass the orb between your 3 participants as necessary in order to get it to the enemy pyre.

The catch is that only one of the participants on each team can move at a time and that the holder of the orb is particularly vulnerable to enemy attack. Every participant in the ancient rite is surrounded by an aura that represents their sins and their reason for being exiled. During the rite, this aura protects them and can be wielded as a weapon against the enemy contestants. While a character possesses the orb their aura is absorbed and they are left largely defenseless. Passing the orb between the characters and making use of each character’s special abilities is essential for successfully completing the rites.

While at a conceptual level the rites sound simple, the truth is that there is a lot more complexity and nuance here than initially meets the eye. There are several “classes” and a wide variety of races, all of which have unique attributes that give them a special edge during the rites – some fly, some are able to run at incredible speed, some are excellent at banishing foes, some even are able to self-destruct in order to clear an area of enemies and open up a path to the enemy pyre. Additionally, each character also has a unique mastery-tree that gives them boosts and special mechanics. Characters can be outfitted with upgradeable talismans that provide passive bonuses to certain stats and abilities. All of this plus the base mechanics of the rite (banishing foes, jumping to dodge enemy attacks, dashing, and the vulnerability of the orb carrier, to name a few things) culminate in an experience that has a very low skill-floor and an incredibly high skill-ceiling. It’s easy to understand what you need to do and what the enemy is trying to do, but very difficult to master.

Even after playing the game for long enough to facilitate writing this review I still feel as though I am immeasurably far from mastering the mechanics of the rites. At first I was concerned because while the rites were stylistic and pretty and colorful, they seemed pretty easy to win. I hoped that the game would crank up the difficulty, and Pyre happily obliged as the game progressed. The rites become a significant challenge later on as the enemy AI ramps up and gets access to talismans and new abilities.

Pyre has proper support for both keyboard/mouse and controller options (the scheme for the controller is even rebindable!) and is definitely playable with either setup, though I found I preferred to use a controller as it felt more fluid to use during the rites. Your mileage of course may vary.

With regards to storyline, Pyre unsurprisingly has a heck of a lot going for it. The world design is absolutely excellent and the narrative is highly compelling. At the beginning, the game is mysterious and the world as a whole appears as an uncharted wilderness. As you progress you’ll start to understand more and more of what is going on. Pyre relishes in giving you little bits and pieces of narrative that don’t necessarily make sense when you get them but become clear in meaning later on as you unlock pages in the book of rites and get to know the characters, their personalities, crimes, and motives. Overall, progressing in the game feels highly satisfying as you are rewarded with more information about the Downside, the commonwealth, and the exiled.

The only thing that really needs to be said about the aesthetic and visual presentation of Pyre is that it’s absolutely gorgeous. While what the world contains may not always be all that pleasant (hello giant skull!), the beautiful and highly colorful depiction of the world and the characters within make for a very pleasant viewing experience that complements the compelling narrative.

Pyre’s sound design is also absolutely excellent. The characters speak in some kind of fictional foreign tongue but it sounds really neat to the ear and actually sounds like language, which is pretty cool. As for the music, let’s be real here – it’s by Darren Korb, and unsurprisingly it is fantastic. It fades in and out with the different events and occurrences that the world has to offer and perfectly supplements the narrative. It instills wonder, excitement, nervousness, mysteriousness, and so many other things. It’s a pleasure to listen to and is without a doubt a perfect example of high-quality music design in a video game.

The culmination of the compelling narrative, the gorgeous world and character design, the smooth beats of the soundtrack, and the easy to pick up but difficult to master rites make for a highly enjoyable and well rounded experience. The best way of describing it, I think, is that the story is good enough that it could be something you read in a book, the music is good enough that it’s great to listen to even on its own, and the gameplay is challenging enough that you remain interested but not so much that you’ll get stuck and have to play something over again. All in all, Pyre is nothing short of a masterpiece. You’re doing yourself a serious disservice if you miss out on this one.

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