Dunking is one of only few perfect things in this world. The art of the dunk, long sought after by many basketball players, is elusive yet o so rewarding. A perfect dunk has the rare accomplishment of being both artful and powerful. Players like Vince Carter epitomized the beauty of the dunk, how the balance of both jump height and rotation complexity can form a perfect union (the 2000 dunk contest is a thing of beauty). Vince Carter might not have been the first person on SuperGiant game’s minds, but the essence of dunking is flowing through their action/adventure game Pyre.
Let’s take a quick step back; while Pyre has a lot of dunking that’s not really what the game is about. Pyre takes place in a fantasy setting where outcasts from the main society (known as the “Commonwealth”) compete in sports-like contests to achieve access back into society. These contests are known as “Rites” and are a spiritual ceremony and each team represents a different one of the eight mythical characters (“Scribes”) that saved their land from chaos. Your job as the player is to embody “the Reader,” one who has the ability to read what is known as “The Book of Rites” that provides you with strategy and background on how to win these rites.
If this all sounds a bit dense, it kind of is. Pyre is a game very heavy on story. The Book of Rites acts as a lore book for the universe. To the game’s credit, it slowly deals out these pieces as you progress throughout the various rites. The Book slowly fills up with passages on the locations in the world, opposing teams, backstory on the rites themselves, and much much more. There is a lot of information given in these passages but the games slow pace at which it doles the out makes it easier to digest.
The gameplay in between the rites, which takes up the majority of the game, is similar to something like an adventure game. You will interact with characters in your party, choose what paths your party takes on the way to compete in rites, and eventually pick which rites to compete in. Luckily these passages are engaging as the story and writing are superb. All the characters, both friends and adversaries, have complex backstories about how they ended up outcast (or in the “Downside”) and motivations for gaining access back to the Commonwealth. Most enemies could not be classified as pure evil and even the most hardened competitors have sympathetic reasons for winning.
The rites themselves are really the best part though; this is where the dunking comes in. Each rite is a 3v3 match where your characters must take a ball (“Celestial Orb”) and move it into the opposing team’s “Pyre.” The player can only control one character at a time though, so positioning other characters is crucial. The characters each have auras, outlined fields around them that if an enemy comes in contact with will put them out of play for a duration of time (“Banishment”). These auras can also be shot at opposing players to banish them as well. Each character has different stats which effect speed, aura size, and point values for scoring. This means getting the orb into the pyre requires banishing opposing players or outmaneuvering them. Characters can also throw the orb from a distance, but it takes a charge up time, rewards you with less points, and can be intercepted. This leaves players to mostly rely on literally dunking characters into the pyre. I cannot stress enough how GREAT this feels. Outmaneuvering an opponent with a speedy character or wiping out an entire team with well-placed aura shots, leaves you with a great adrenaline rush. When you are able to dunk your character into the pyre, that’s icing on the cake. Matches (especially as the game progresses) become tense stalemates and one wrong move can leave you wide open. I cannot stress enough how good the rites feel and I never truly felt too powerful over other opponents. If you do though, you can always turn on extra modifiers that increase match difficulty and also give characters more experience.
Winning enough of these rites is the ultimate goal and eventually allows you to pick which characters to send back to the Commonwealth. This happy ending is only for that one character though, and once they are gone they are no longer available for your team. To make matters worse, only characters that have a certain amount of experience are allowed to ascend. This combined with Pyre’s strong writing make it an incredibly difficult choice. The reward is seeing these characters that you have grown close with achieve their freedom. It’s hard not to feel a bit twisted up sending a character back to their life on the other side of the world. After they ascend, other characters in your party also react to their absence making it sting even more.
It should come as no surprise that SuperGiant Games has knocked it out of the park again. Their writing is as strong as ever, as they showed in Bastion and Transistor, but this time they’ve been able to pair it with even better gameplay. And nothing (I mean nothing) feels and looks better than a dunk. Keep on dunking outcasts!