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Pyre is a strange, intoxicating blend of Oregon Trail and Final Fantasy's Blitzball

Pyre is weird as hell. Supergiant Games is, of course, no stranger to making weird games. Like Bastion and Transistor before it, Pyre is breathtakingly beautiful, set in a unique, densely-packed world, and its game design plays off of familiar concepts but twists them just enough to subvert your expectations. What makes Pyre so strange is how it combines all those elements to create something unlike anything the studio has done before.

Pyre is a competitive three-on-three sports game set in a desolate fantasy wasteland. 

Let that sink in for a bit while I back up and explain its origins. With Pyre, Supergiant wanted to shake things up a bit, so the team decided to focus on something that had been lacking from its previous games. Greg Kasavin, writer and designer at Supergiant, explains: "We really like creating the settings and characters for our games, but our previous games, Bastion and Transistor, are these rather solitary experiences, where you play as a specific character in a world that is either ruined, or about to be ruined...but this time around, we thought 'What would a game from us look like if it could have more characters to interact with in it?'" That desire to make a more populated tale shows almost immediately, as Kasavin points out that the brief demo I played "probably has more characters...than in all of Bastion or Transistor."

Ok, so you want to make a game about multiple people, all working toward a common goal, and crafting it around a sporting event is a good fit for that theme. But this is Supergiant we're talking about - a studio known for making universes that are densely packed with their own internal logic and lore. And Pyre's world is fascinating.

The demo opens in the middle of the desert. You are stranded, and on the verge of dehydration. All hope seems lost, until a caravan carrying three masked individuals stumbles upon you, and offers to help - but only if you offer to read this magical tome they've got in their wagon. Reading is outlawed in this world, and you've been exiled to this purgatory, doomed to wander for the rest of your days. Your crew has been exiled to the wastes as well (each for different and mysterious reasons), and this book holds the key to you and your new-found friends' salvation. The only thing is that you're one of the few people around who can even understand the words inside it.

So you flip through the pages of the book, learning its secrets, and absorbing its knowledge. But right now, you only have access to the first chapter. In order to fill in the rest of the book's pages, you have to seek out specific places in the world and perform the Rites, which is where the sports game comes in. You're not the only crew trying to escape - there are bands all over the wastes who are attempting to make it out just like you, and you have to compete against them in a three-on-three match of fantasyland basketball. 

Each match starts with an orb in the center, and your goal is to grab it and dunk it into the opponent's goal. You can only move one teammate at a time, though, and the size of the character determines how nimble they are - smaller characters are good for attacking the goal, are much faster and can dash much farther, while larger characters are better for defense, but are slow and lumber across the field - but the bigger the character is, the more damage you do to the opponent's goal. When you don't have the ball, your character has this circular aura that surrounds them, and when you knock into an aura-less player, they are briefly removed from the game, and the orb goes flying if they were carrying it. The bigger the character, the bigger the aura. You can also shoot out a huge blast of energy, which will disintegrate anyone it hits.

It's deeply strange, but it not only works thematically within this world, it's actually a ton of fun to play. I only got to dive into a couple matches in my brief hands-on time, but there's a surprising amount of depth here, as you need to juggle the individual strengths and weaknesses of each of your teammates, while doing your best to avoid your opponents. There are hints of progression as well, as your teammates level up and gain new skills as they compete in more games - I mean Rites - but I only saw a fraction of the potential layers of strategy and customization at play here. 

There isn't any plan to add multiplayer at the moment, though, as obvious as its inclusion may seem. Supergiant's focus is on the single-player experience first and foremost, though Kasavin didn't quite rule it out. "I personally think that bad multiplayer is worse than no multiplayer at all," Kasavin tells me. "If you're just struggling to get in a game, going 'ah, dammit', it's worse than that option not even being there. So that's its own set of challenges that we have to look into, and what it means for the experience as a whole. "

Pyre isn't just a weird sports game. As you travel along toward the location of these Rites, you'll make decisions that will impact the path you take to get there. Certain characters might have connections in a town you pass, or may know the lay of the land on a different road, and choosing one path over the other will grant you different rewards or story beats, so you'll need to weigh those options at each fork. Each night, when you stop to camp, you can decide to study the book a little more, forage for supplies, or train your team and give them a small experience boost - but you can only choose to do one each night. You can even chat with members of your caravan, and if you choose the right dialog options, they'll get temporary stat bonuses for future Rites.

Don't expect this sort of Oregon Trail-like travel and resource management to be too involved, though. It's more there as a way to give you some agency over your story and keep you on your toes than a way for Supergiant to crush your soul at every turn. "I think we want to strike a balance," says Kasavin, "where there is resource management - you do have fuel, for example, which you need to keep going - but if you run out of fuel, it doesn't mean that everyone just starves and dies. It's more like, you suffer certain setbacks, and it means that certain things you wish you could have done in that week-long period, or something like that, you will no longer be able to do." 

It's hard to say how all of these different pieces will fit together after only 30 minutes of play, but Pyre has the potential to be Supergiant's deepest, richest, and downright strangest game yet. Look for it in 2017 on PC and PlayStation 4.

David Roberts lives in Everett, WA with his wife and two kids. He once had to sell his full copy of EarthBound (complete with box and guide) to some dude in Austria for rent money. And no, he doesn't have an amiibo 'problem', thank you very much.