It’s probably best to start this off by explaining that I make a serious attempt to finish every game I start, but always give myself the option of quitting anything purchased with my own money (games I’ve received a key for naturally get a bit more effort because of the expectations behind them, but even they aren’t entirely immune). That this is an option I’ve only exercised a small handful of times out of the 300+ reviews up on this site speaks to the grating nature of the few left unfinished, and Pyre definitely deserves its place in that ignominious pile; while other critics may drool over this game for their own subjective reasons, my experience with it is one of constant irritation over its confused design. Every potential positive is overwhelmed by an accompanying negative, such as how the more elaborate and explained story compared to previous games ends up wasting a ton of time with meaningless trash-tier conversations that accomplish nothing. There are supposedly multiple endings and story branches, and yet the gameplay loop that gets you there is painfully simple and underwhelming, the kind of thing that became almost unbearably repetitive even in the few hours I spent with the game. The combat “rites” that play out like an e-sport are a lot like a short game of NBA Jam, but rules and limitations are sprung on you in the middle of games, and story happenings greatly limit your agency as far as who you choose to use and how their stats end up being impacted by the arbitrary decision of which area to travel through. Pyre is a (Super)giant waste of time, energy, and money featuring gameplay so irrevocably interwoven into trends of its time that history is unlikely to treat it as kindly as Bastion and Transistor.
There’s lots of fluff in the writing
Over and over again there were moments built up to be serious, only for the game to reveal that it was actually kidding about all of that and instead force you to watch to a pointless exchange that drags on for no obvious reason. It’s an annoying waste of time having a conversation build up to something serious and turn out to actually be about mustaches, and since most of the game consists of lots of words that don’t say very much, the whole thing feels padded out. In another case, the story builds up the possibility that a companion has died, only for him to be perfectly fine seconds later and just a little under the weather after some seasickness. Supergiant’s previous games were largely narrated, with bits of lore to be found throughout, and this was a really natural way of communicating things, but Pyre is so devoted to overwhelming you with text of no consequence that it feels like the game is constantly spinning its wheels to pad out its playtime.
This is an annoying e-sport game in disguise
When you’re not being inundated in text of no real consequence (which no doubt was surrounding text that actually mattered to the story, but that was nevertheless dragged down by the aforementioned pointless dreck), the game consists of choosing from 1-3 different routes to get to the next area. It’s like Oregon Trail, only stripped down so far that there’s really nothing interesting about it. Beyond that, there are only “rites,” which play out like the NBA Jam games mentioned before. Basically, there’s a ball that falls from the sky and you have to grab it and get it into your opponent’s flame (hence “Pyre”). You can run and jump and pass to accomplish this goal, and enemies don’t ever seem equipped for the brilliant strategy that is running around them and scoring. Granted, there are a few quirks such as the aura surrounding characters; everyone but the character with the ball gets a circle around them, and touching an opponent character’s aura or getting hit with one of their attacks causes your character to be “banished” from the game for a short period.
Which is annoying, mostly
None of that makes these matches difficult, but it can certainly become annoying incredibly quickly. I had one match where enemies who had the ball would pass it right before I ran into them with my aura, causing theirs to come back and banish me instead. There are also annoying little quirks that you have to figure out in the middle of matches (which are pretty fast-paced and kind of jerky as far as the movement is concerned). The way it goes is that you beat down your opponent, and then they have some dialogue and a special ability that kicks in when they’re on the verge of defeat that makes things really annoying. Sometimes they hunch together and are all fiery for some reason. Sometimes they make a bunch of obstacles. Sometimes the stage is just weird to start off with, like the one in the video above where you jump over the holes automatically. And these matches are full of random discoveries like that. I was constantly like, “oh, I guess they can snatch the ball away from me in midair by jumping,” “oh, I guess this is an obstacle instead of background decoration.” It’s just clunky all around, and the bizarrely-mapped default control schemes for both keyboard and mouse and controller certainly don’t help any. I can’t count the number of times I passed the ball when I meant to jump into the goal.
Oh, and it’s autosave-only
Previous games were also reliant on autosaves, but you could lose at previous games. Pyre’s unique selling point is apparently that the game goes on regardless of how often you lose, which is admittedly interesting, but not being able to keep a manual save around in case something really annoying happens causes the two to clash in a big way; if I had continued playing, I’d have probably tried to get a few of the different endings, and that would mean worrying that a stupid mistake locked a second playthrough into the same events as the first. Developers in general need to learn that it’s not acceptable anymore for a game like this to be autosave-only.
Minigames are awkward and stupid
I forgot to mention it earlier, but gameplay is occasionally broken up by minigames that somehow manage to be even worse than the tedious loop of “choose a path arbitrarily, accept whatever random result occurs, click through tons of pointless dialogue, do 1-2 minutes of e-sport, repeat.” Sometimes you’re defending against waves of enemies despite the e-sport mechanics not being anywhere near solid enough to support something like that. Sometimes you’re popping bubbles and then trying to banish a group of enemies. I’m sure there are plenty of later minigames that similarly boil down to attacking a group of enemies, but I was so disillusioned with the fact that an attack in the minigame above didn’t register (causing me to run into an opponent’s aura and technically lose to an annoying character) that I stopped playing. The whole thing was too irritating to indulge any longer.
Busy graphics, decent music
Part of the awkwardness of the e-sport matches can be blamed on the graphics, which are busy enough that it’s difficult to follow exactly what’s happening and what elements matter; matches are an eruption of colors, and while everything is pretty well animated overall and aesthetically pleasing in general, there’s usually so much going on that it becomes unnecessarily difficult to tell the difference between random background stuff, obstacles, and enemy attacks. That’s still not enough to make the gameplay difficult, and it’s ultimately a minor quibble, but it adds to the annoyance when a match is artificially lengthened after you get hit by something that you didn’t see coming because it blended in with some background elements. As for the music, it’s decent, but it does the same things Bastion and Transistor did without being quite as memorable. I mean, Transistor came out three years ago and yet I can remember many of its tracks even now. I stopped playing Pyre less than 24 hours ago and can’t remember a single melody. I’m going to go ahead and blame that mostly on the fact that I actually finished Bastion and Transistor, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling while playing that this game treads the same ground musically rather than finding something new and interesting to include. It’s produced incredibly well, though.