For as long as I can remember, sports games and role playing games have never gone together.
While no genres are diametrically opposed, the audience for the two split well before the advent of video games. Geeky kids latched on to pen-and-paper RPGs like “Dungeons and Dragons” in the 1970s, while the more athletically gifted proved their prowess on the field. That split audience carried over into video games, with many sports gamers buying nothing but the latest iterations of NFL, NBA and NHL games.
I’m not saying “Prye” can bridge that gap. But for any sports gamer who’s ever been tempted to role play in a medieval fantasy land, this is the one game that might be worth trying.
“Pyre” available for download for the PC and PlayStation 4 for $19.99: Rated “E” for Everyone.
Crafted by Supergiant Games — the same minds behind the sublime top-down action RPGs “Bastion” (2011) and “Transistor” (2014) — “Pyre” is exactly what my prologue implied. A near symmetrical mash-up of role playing and sports.
It’s also one of the best games of the year. I haven’t been this enamored with a pseudo-sports game since “Rocket League” in 2015, which combined soccer with remote-control cars.
“Pyre” is more like a cross between rugby and quidditch from Harry Potter, though you could easily draw comparisons with basketball and soccer. Two teams of three face off on a play field capped at either end with burning pyres that act as goals. There’s one golden orb, and each team tries their best to carry (or slam) that orb into the opposing pyre.
The score counts down rather than up, with each pyre containing a certain number of hitpoints — usually 100. How much is detracted from that number depends on the player. Bigger, more lumbering characters can score over 30, while smaller players who can reach the goal more easily score 15. Once the number reaches zero, the team loses.
Of course, this wouldn’t be an RPG without some magic. Each character has an aura that encircles their feet, and it automatically vanquishes opposing players (for a few seconds) that it touches. Each character can channel that aura and send it across the field as magic attack, which also takes out opposing players. You can’t use magic while carrying the orb, and the team that scores is down a player for the next round.
This is all illustrated through tiny, intricately drawn characters that look like they were pulled from a classic Disney film. Surprisingly enough, the story is as involved as the rules of the game.
The player fills the role of an unnamed exile cast into purgatory, and you soon run into a group of fellow exiles that save you from impending death. One is a fast talking, humanoid dog with a curly mustache, one is a gentle magician and the other is giant lady demon with huge horns.
You’ll spend quite a bit of time listening to the trio converse with each other before stepping onto the field, and that’s the other joy of the game — the compelling characters and tight dialogue.
Identifying with those characters early is important, as more join you in an “Oregon Trail”-like wagon trip across the wastelands. The surreal, color clashing landscapes look like they belong in “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Eventually, your party discovers religious rites that consist of the previously described sporting events, played against other exiles trapped in purgatory. The story develops further from here, and eventually you’ll find certain rites that allow one of your party members to rejoin the organized society above them.
That’s the true genius of “Pyre.” Much like any RPG, characters level up and gain new skills as they play. But only the most skilled players are allowed to rejoin society, and you never see them again. By giving your best players a second lease on life, you’re weakening the rest of the team, and their chances to escape exile.
The game’s story continues whether you win or lose (though there is a handy restart option if you can’t stand losing), and it’s entirely possible to not promote anyone and keep a strong team.
“Pyre” preys on the player’s humanity, and with such vividly drawn characters, it’s hard not to develop favorites. Naturally, you want to see your favorites move on to better things, because there’s no guarantee how many others will get to go. But doing so eliminates your best friends from the game.
I was aware of this concept before playing “Pyre,” and that — as well as the developer’s lineage — is what drew me into the game.
But I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the sporting aspect so much.
It’s a bit overwhelming at first. One player is in charge of three characters, moving one while the other two sit still. You can change between the characters at any time, leading to defensive strategies that go well over my head.
But once I learned to set a character as the goal tender, everything fell into place. What initially looked like a mess of flashing colors quickly took shape as a fast paced sport.
I don’t usually spend the majority of my column explaining how a game works, but “Pyre” is so unlike anything I’ve ever played, I had no choice. Its ingenuity sells itself far better than my praises, anyway.
There’s a lot of indie games as pretty as “Pyre,” but odds are, you’ve played something similar. “Pyre” burns a trail of originality that’s far too rare in gaming, and that alone makes it worth a purchase.
That, and the classy acoustic guitar score that has become a trademark of Supergiant Games.
Four out of Four Stars
Will Smith is a reporter for The Hawk Eye, a GateHouse Media Company in Burlington, Iowa. His column is printed each week in the Sunday edition of The Hawk Eye.