This week, Yahtzee reviews Pyre.
You creative auteur types never think of the damage your genre-defying games are going to do! Think of all those innocent shitheads in the early 2000's who bought killer7 because it was tentatively classified as a shooter and then ended up tragically suffering independent thoughts and generally becoming better human beings, and now look! What convenient catch-all umbrella label am I supposed to put on Pyre, Supergiant Games? I suppose there's always "Action-Adventure", but that's as informative as a 19th century sex manual. Oh, you want to think outside the box, do you? Well, maybe sometimes I like being in a box 'cos it's warm in a box and safe and sometimes they contain packets of Cheesy Wotsits.
Anyway, Pyre is a new game from the creators of Bastion and Transistor which, in bold defiance of pattern, is neither isometric nor narrated by a bloke with a voice like melted chocolate dripping off a Darth Vader mask. So here we fucking go: Pyre is best classified as a visual novel, party-based role-playing, three-on-three basketball simulator. Blimey, it's lucky no one buys games from physical shops anymore 'cos this would need a whole new shelf, and the label would be longer than the shelf!
Buckle up while I attempt to explain this: In an oppressive fantasy kingdom, literacy is banned, perhaps the most sensible response to the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey books, you (by which I mean the player character, not the greasy, unpleasant, serial masturbator watching this) are a scholar exiled to the wilderness below the citadelized world who hooks up with a group of fellow exiles that need you to read a book they found that tells them about the secret rituals that have the power to free them from exile. For some reason, it turns out the rituals all involve going up against a similar group and competing to throw a ball into the other team's hole. If it seems like a rather contrived explanation for the three-on-three basketball thing, that's because it bloody well is!
Oh yes, and during your odyssey-cum-basketball tournament, you attract several more party members, each representing one of the sentient fantasy races in a case of what we academics call the traditional "Bioware Bro Buffet".
Most of the game plays out visual novel style, all the action and dialogue in plain text while characters are represented by beautiful hand-painted cardboard cutouts on sticks, and that didn't bode well for me. I don't like visual novels much 'cos call me a ravishing handsome stick-in-the-mud with a great big cock, but I prefer my games to have some, you know, gameplay in them. But nevertheless, I kept playing, reached the first basketball match and went "Never mind! Let's go back to the visual novel stuff! Less gameplay, LESS!"
I wonder what the fucking target audience for this game could be. The overlap between people who like fantasy visual novels and people who like NBA Jam can't be the biggest niche in the world, but I stuck with it and after playing it all the way to the end, I think I'm prepared to say I like Pyre. Obviously I dropped the basketball difficulty to low 'cos obviously who gives a shit, but I should have remembered that Supergiant Games are pretty good at this whole interactive storytelling lark, and scratch my scrawny scrotum if I didn't genuinely didn't want to see what happened to these characters!
We call it the "Bioware Bro Buffet", but between this and Persona 5, Bioware seem to be the worst at it. Again, I liked the Pyre Platter more than the Mass Effect Andromeda Burger King Kids Club, in spite of them only being still images that didn't make any effort to emote or possibly because of.
The turning point for me was when we reached the final climactic basketball match on the peak of Mt. Globetrotter and the game goes "Psych! Only one of your party members gets to return from exile, you have to choose which and everyone pisses off home to rub gravel in their hair until the next basketball tournament- I mean, ritual." The plot then continues with your chosen party member gone, forever, presumably happy but you don't see or play with them again, and that's what makes the difference!
In your Mass Erects and your Flagon Ages, you can be sure that all the losers who latch onto you like needy primary schoolchildren to the playground monitor are going to stinking up your castle, mooching off your fantasy unemployment benefit forever, and there's always gonna be one or two losers who join too late who you never use 'cos you can't be bothered to get them up to speed with everyone else, but with the simple addition of having to pick a party member to lose every now and again turns that on its head. Suddenly I had to level up Joe Scratchbum and Millicent Nosepick because the characters I liked that I spent the most time with and were the most effective on the playing field were the ones I most wanted to set free, at which point they'll be happy but I'll have to push through the rest of the plot with all the fat weaselly lads I picked last.
Things really melancholy up a notch towards the end when you realize basketball season is coming to a close and you're not going to be able to liberate everyone. I've been deliberately hanging on to a couple of good characters to keep the matches expedient and that was going to be an awkward conversation in the shower room. Supergiant games are always effective melancholy through a combination of appealing art and sad music, and there was a very real lump in my throat whenever an old hand disappeared forever into a new glorious existence and I tearfully made my way to the nearest pawn shop to flog all their gear for cash.
On that note, it turns out there's not a lot of depth to three-on-three basketball. Put ball in hole, that's the design document done in four words. So the token RPG elements feel a bit needless. Your characters level up and gain new buffs and equip items that give them new buffs, but the only buffing that really matters on the court is the kind the janitor does to the floor. Yes, this is probably because I turned the difficulty down low, but an extra 25 percent damage Joe Scratchbum does to enemies who have just eaten Mexican food or whatever doesn't add much when all you need to do is run circles round the other dudes for a bit then put ball in hole.
I was into the story, but frankly the actual basketball matches started to feel like an unwanted obligation. I very carefully planned the order I wanted to liberate my chap roster and I didn't want my severely wanting capacity for team sports to mess with it, for you see, losing a match doesn't end the game. One of the NPC players might end up getting liberated instead of yours and changing the entire course of the story is the kind of pressure I don't need resting on my ability to dribble. Maybe there could be some even easier difficulty setting that replaces all the basketball matches with two buttons marked Win and Lose, and I still want there to be drama. Maybe the Win button can have a spider on it.
Still, the fact that the story can keep going regardless of what combination of characters have been booted skywards is a testament to the writing on display, and if the writing is good in a game that's mostly visual novel, then wrap it up, Jose, 'cos I think we're done! Supergiant succeeds in doing the organically branching story thing by focusing more on characters and their interplays than the central driving plot. After all, a good story is nothing but the actions of characters optionally intercut with the odd titty shot.
- Pyre pyre pants on fire: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Next up: a new adaptation of Dante's Inferno where each circle of Hell is represented by a minigolf course
- Every game should, without explanation, feature a talking dog