Pyre, Supergiant's third title, is a game of lost hope, redemption and spiritual, aura-blasting basketball meets dodgeball.
The game uses the gorgeous painterly aesthetics and compelling storytelling that Supergiant is so known for to propel a quirky sort of gameplay that doesn't quite seem like a fit initially, but grows on you over time.
The game opens as you, an unseen, unidentified player, are discovered in a sort of wasteland used to dispose of society's unwanted. In the opening conversation of the game, you meet three fellow exiles: a young man, a woman with massive curling horns and a ... well, a talking dog.
After asking you how you want to be referred to (he, she or they) the game plunges into the story. It's a pretty simple one. You can read, something not really allowed in polite society, and your three new friends have books that they believe contain a way out of their purgatory.
You do some reading, and it turns out the books do. All you have to do is get your three friends to participate in an arcane rite which will help raise their enlightenment and, eventually, allow them to escape their exile.
Almost immediately, players take over the direction of the team's caravan. Each night, the caravan sets up camp and players can choose between one of three ways to spend the evening.
You can choose to forage for resources, which you can later sell to replenish your caravan. You can study in private to unlock new pages in the book of rites, which improves your foraging and mentoring skills. Or you can choose to mentor, which raises the experience level of the other characters.
The game's dialog system, which is connected to this life-changing road trip, can have subtle impacts on the game's competitive moments, said Supergiant Games creative director Greg Kasavin.
"We want people to make decisions in a personal way around the characters," he said. "Questions come up, and you can interact in different ways."
There are various moments in the game's story where players can decide which way to react to and interact with the characters.
"Interactions with certain characters can effect their moods and effect the way they play in the rite," Kasavin said.
While Pyre has players journeying around a map, training, conversing, hunting for items, refueling their little wagon, the chief component is those competitive rites.
The game walks you through the rite pretty early on. The first time I tried my hand at one, it sort of felt like playing dodgeball or maybe basketball, or maybe a bit of both.
In the rite, you take control of the three characters you meet when the game opens. You can only control one character at a time on the map. The object of the game is to seize control of an orb and either carry it into or throw it into the opposing side's pyre. Each time the orb enters the pyre its health is lowered. The amount of points taken off the pyre's health is dictated by who throws or runs the orb into it.
Each of your team, and the enemy's team members, have protective auras around them. But when a character holds an orb, the aura dissipates. If you run into an unprotected player with your aura an enemy runs into you while you're carrying the orb, your character is temporarily vanquished. Each character can also shoot out their aura to take down players.
The strength of the aura and your movement speed varies depending on your character. The woman, largest of the bunch, moves the slowest, but also does the most damage to the enemy pyre. The man is a middle of the road character and the dog is the weakest and fastest.
The controls allow you to jump, pass or shoot the orb and cast your aura in a charged shot.
Gameplay feels like basketball as you move between your different characters quickly, passing the orb across the map to avoid enemy characters while edging your way toward the opposing pyre. But it begins to feel more dodgeball-like when you stop to blast enemies with your aura and jump away from their shots.
"You have to coordinate between multiple characters," Kasavin said. "You're very naturally moving between offensive and defensive play. It has a mix of play that is very active, but has a tactical feel to it as well."
Over time, your characters will gain experience, allowing you to upgrade their abilities to, for example, increase the radius of an aura blast.
And, it turns out, a character's mood (or "hope," in game parlance) has a direct impact on the way they play. The lower their hope, the longer it takes for them to recover from being blasted by an opponent. Talk to a character the wrong way during your journey, and you might end up with a mopey player in the rites who isn't much use when you need them.
Kasavin said the idea of basing the game's core mechanic around something akin to a sport came from a desire to change the sort of stakes most games feature.
"We like the idea of a high stakes competition where it isn't just about life and death, that's a very common thing in video games," he said. "You just try and try and try until you win. Death isn't usually much of a setback.
"We like the idea of a game in which you could suffer setbacks, and your characters have to deal with it. If they're defeated, they return to their hangout to talk about it and lick their wounds."
So the team came up with the idea of a mystical competition where the thing at stake isn't your life, but rather your freedom.
"You're risking eternal damnation in hopes of going free," he said. "We found that intriguing to us as an idea."
While the game's core feels a bit like a departure from Supergiant's other titles, the rich art style and compelling cast of characters and story are reminiscent of both Bastion and Transistor.
This time around, though, the team decided to tell their story in a slightly different way. Players directly interact with the other characters instead of controlling a lead character.
"This time, we wanted the player to feel as much as possible like your in this world, interacting directly with these characters," he said. "You are not one of the ones on the screen and they talk to you directly. It's a second-person mode of storytelling."
"We wanted a larger cast of characters that you could get close to this time," Kasavin said. "Our previous games have focused on a specific character in a solitary situation."
The game's story spills out over the course of what amounts to a road trip. The player and three main characters bond, tell stories and get into what Kasavin calls "high stakes situations."
While Pyre's story is a central part of the game, the gameplay, which features three characters taking on three characters in competitive matches, seems like a perfect fit for a multiplayer title.
That's not something lost on the Supergiant team.
"We are pretty interested in multiplayer," Kasavin said. "But our focus is very much on the solo campaign, the experience of it. The multiplayer is something we're looking into, though."
Kasavin added that while the idea of perhaps adding multiplayer to the game intrigues the team, they want to ensure that the solo campaign lives up to their standards first. And then, they need to be sure they could, if they still wanted to, deliver the sort of multiplayer experience that would meet their standards.
"A bad multiplayer experience is worse then none," he said. "We're investigating what it would take to do that properly, but we regard the effort it would take with a great deal of respect."