The Downside, a vast, expansive collection of arid deserts, untamed seas, murky bogs, and treacherous mountains, is the final destination for those exiled from the Commonwealth. For those sent down the river, there is seemingly no return from this state-approved Hell populated by roving bands of brigands and malcontents trying to scrape out an existence.

However, there are rumors that there is, indeed, a way for an exile to earn one’s freedom, to be welcomed back into the Commonwealth with one’s honor and glory restored. As the tales go, by participating in mysterious rituals, one can earn favor with the Scribes, the deities that watch over both the Commonwealth and the Downside. And this is where you come in, in today’s piece of the Big Steaming Pile, 2017’s Pyre, by Supergiant Games.

Pyre casts you in the role of a faceless, unseen exile who has arrived in the Downside with no memory of your previous life, aside from your ability to read, which may, in fact, be the cause of your exile, as literacy is forbidden in the Commonwealth. You’re picked up in a wagon by three fellow exiles, Hedwyn the nomad, Jodariel the demon, and Rukey Greentail, a cur, and taken into the group, who is traversing the Downside in hopes of participating in the Rites, a ceremony of sorts that according to legend, rewards the victors with their freedom. Whether these stories are true or not, they’re your only hope for escape, and everyone in the Downside knows it, so you and your triumvirate set off to compete in the Rites.

What are the Rites, you ask? Um…well, it’s basically 3-on-3 basketball. Y’see, the objective of the Rites is to douse your enemies’ titular Pyre, which effectively serves as a basket. You can knock hit points off of the Pyre by either tossing the Orb into it, or having the Orb carrier jump headlong into it, effectively dunking it. If you try to toss it in, the amount of damage dealt is determined by how long you stay set before releasing the Orb; hold it longer and the shot will go further and be worth more points. Carrying the ball directly into the Pyre is worth a set amount of points every time, but much like real basketball, it’s not always easy to get the biscuit to the basket.

Flanking around the defense!

On the defensive side of the coin, each player not carrying the Orb is surrounded by a colorful glow called an Aura. Contacting an opposing player with an Aura banishes them, temporarily removing them from play and giving your team a sort of power play opportunity. Defenders can also intercept shot attempts, leap up to block Orb carriers trying to jump or fly over an Aura, and make their Aura area larger by overlapping theirs with the Aura of another teammate.

Of course, there are some other quirks in the gameplay that spice things up a bit. Characters have different special abilities, such as the ability to fly temporarily to evade opponents’ Auras or, while on defense, charge their Auras up and launch them like a projectile at enemies. Some playing fields have different features, like gaps in the floor that players can fall into or obstacles that can be moved around when bumped into. As I said above, scoring by jumping into the Pyre is the most effective way to whittle it down, but if you score that way, the player that takes the leap has to sit out until the next score, as opposed to a few seconds. Also, it should be noted that you don’t have to worry about your AI teammates here, because only one player on each team is allowed to move at a time, and while that sounds incredibly clunky, it actually adds another layer of strategy; do you try to grab the Orb with a speedy player and skirt around the defense, or do you bring in a slower player with a much larger Aura to try to knock a couple opponents out of the play first? On defense, do you try to hound the ball carrier aggressively or do you focus more on defending the area around your own Pyre? The gameplay here allows for a myriad of strategic options and still manages to keep things fast-paced and free-flowing, and unlike Quidditch, here, the rules actually make sense.

Your band of travelers improve over time, as well. After performing the Rites, your team gains Enlightenment points, the equivalent here of experience points. As they level up, they can upgrade their abilities and unlock new powers. Your players are also graded on four attributes: Quickness, which is self-explanatory, Glory, which dictates how many points they knock off the opponents’ Pyre if the leap in, Presence, which decides how large one’s Aura is, and Hope, which determines how long a player has to sit out if they’re banished. Along the way, you can also upgrade your stats with the assistance of Talismans, which you can scavenge during your travels, buy from a traveling merchant, or earn through some rather difficult trials later on in the game.

For a game that basically revolves around modified basketball, I’m happy to report that the game’s story is surprisingly compelling. As your troupe travels through the Downside, you’ll fill in the blanks in each character’s backstory, finding out why and how the were sent down, what they’re hoping to accomplish if they should get a second chance, and what their lives were like back in the Commonwealth. By the end, I was quite invested in the characters after interacting with them and seeing them interact with each other, to the point where I was decidedly motivated to see their journey through to the end. You’ll also encounter friendly travelers along the way, and maybe even bring them onto the team if you so choose, adding their unique set of talents to your side. I should point out that at no point in the game can you achieve a Game Over; whether you win or lose in the Rites, the game keeps plugging along, so there are a great many outcomes achievable, and no two players are likely to have the exact same experience over the course of the game, which definitely adds to the replay value. Speaking of which, for those who just want some casual action, there is a Versus Mode, where you can play some pickup games against the CPU or online opposition.

Anarchist dogs? Anarchist dogs.

It also helps that Pyre looks and sounds absolutely magnificent. The locales you pass through in the Downside, the backgrounds, the playing fields on which you conduct the Rites, even the static screen inside your caravan explode with color, the character models look like they could’ve been designed by any high-end anime studio, and the animation of the action during the Rites themselves are lovingly detailed and beautifully rendered. That said, the whole thing can be rather taxing on your graphics card, but if your rig can knock it around, you’re going to be treated to one of the best-looking games I’ve seen in quite a while. The soundtrack is also quite a joy, down to the hymns that are sung during Liberation Rites that feature actual lyrics. You do have a commentator of sorts during the Rites, who has more than a little Alan Rickman in him, and his gradual change in demeanor towards you over the course of the game provides a sprinkle of welcome humor.

It’s not every day that I can describe a game as “White Men Can’t Jump as written by Patrick Rothfuss”, but Pyre‘s quirky premise, outstanding visuals, and emotional story combine to form one of the most enjoyable experiences we’ve had here at the Pile. The gameplay is rock solid, taking a familiar concept and adding enough features to make it seem fresh, the ability to keep moving forward whether you win or lose leads to a potentially endless tree of branching paths to choose from, and the inclusion of a casual Versus Mode and four difficulty levels for the Campaign Mode add some quality replay value. I highly recommend Pyre, whether you like basketball but dislike fantasy or dig fantasy and don’t give a wit about sportsball, there’s something for you here, and the ride is certainly an enjoyable one.

Current Price – $19.99

Is It Worth It? – If you are at all interested by anything I wrote above, yes. This will exceed your expectations.