Pyre, the much anticipated third title from Supergiant Games is not a game that lets you off without making tough choices. The game is a unique blend of visual novel and sports game set to stunning illuminated visuals and gorgeous music. But it has another selling point — it forces you to make some really painful decisions.
The goal of Pyre is to complete the Liberation Rites, a mystical take on NBA Jam. You and your friends are banished in the Underside away from your home, the Commonwealth. As the lone Reader (literacy being outlawed), you direct your allies in matches. But victories come at a price. Only one member of your team can be freed at a time. Meaning that even while you save your friends, you’re losing them forever. It’s a brilliant paradox: every storyline victory is a gameplay defeat.
Most games are about growth. You gain more skills and options as the campaign continues. Pyre, however, is about the exact opposite. Every character has a unique playstyle and unique set of abilities. But you will have to sacrifice all of that for their liberation. You have nine characters to pick from, but by the end, you’re left with only three — just enough to play one last match.
In a typical RPG, permanently losing a character is a terrible blow. I admit that I’ve personally save-scummed a thousand Fire Emblem Awakening battles to keep Donnel alive. Final Fantasy VII brought a generation of fans to tears when it killed off just one party member. And now Pyre asks you to lose not one or two characters, but 2/3rds of your whole party. The choices are never easy.
But sometimes you need a bit of pain to make the journey meaningful. The losses in Pyre shape the entire story and build your love for these characters.
Characters You Hate to Lose
Pyre’s cast is most of the experience. The game’s story is a road trip that continues no matter who you lose. It even continues if you lose the Rites and fail to Liberate anybody at all. Therefore, the real meat of the experience isn’t any huge event, but with whom you share the journey.
Most of the game is made up of conversations like one with Rukey about whether his mustache is cool. (It is.) There are little potential romances that can form like one between the giant Jodariel and a player on another team, Ignacious. Every character is memorable and lovable.
In Persona 5, you can always take your friends for granted — those friends in Tokyo will be there no matter what. But that’s not the case in the Underside. So, as a result, you appreciate your Pyre friends much more. Supergiant understands that if you want the player to really love something, take it away. Sir Gilman was never my favorite character. His jokes were a bit lame. He was basically a worse version of Rukey in the Rites. Yet when I lost him, I felt his absence deeply.
Limiting Your Options
Pyre makes the decision much harder by limiting your options for liberation. You can only choose the most experienced characters on your team. If you never use Jodariel because you think she’s too slow, she won’t be eligible for Liberation. So every three or four matches you’re purging yourself of your finest veterans. You can choose to strategize. Maybe don’t liberate your favorite, like the Vagabond Girl and so you pick Hedwyn instead?
But can you really keep your favorite character away from freedom? Especially if it’s for your own selfish gameplay needs?
However, no matter what you do, by the last rite, you’ll probably be left with back-benchers or late arrivals. This means you have to use everybody, even the characters you may not like at first. Thankfully, Pyre is really well made and every character is great. They can all be customized to be deadly fantasy-basketball players. The game forces you to appreciate everybody, even the ugly witch.
Loneliness and Loss
While adjustments can be made, you’re still losing party members. You can’t help but notice that as your journey continues, your friends become more and more quiet. Your wagon becomes full of trinkets. What were once were fun extras, by the end, they’re sad mementos of friends long-lost. There is the Vagabond Girl’s bundle of sticks. And there’s the bell that Ruckey hated you ringing.
Few games accomplish a feeling of growing loneliness as well as Pyre does. You do not march triumphantly into the final match. You walk in quietly, knowing your team and your friendships are coming to an end.
Gamers today are terrified of loss. People were angry this week when developers revealed that Hellblade had a file-deleting Game Over. Fire Emblem only really hit its peak popularity once it made permadeath optional. Everybody wants to have unlimited options. But Pyre isn’t going to let us off that easily. It demands we make painful choices and decimate our own ranks. Those limitations make the journey more than just a great sports RPG. It’s a tale of building friendships and then losing them.
You can be selfish and horde your favorites for this journey. But if you truly love your companions, you have to let them go.