Reigns - Brutal Backlog

February 1, 2018
Also on PC, iOS
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Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best games will stand up to scrutiny today.

Mobile gaming somewhat passed me by among the deluge of console and PC titles filling my library, but I somehow still manage to fit in ongoing games of Words With Friends years after installing it. Even with the shift to ad-filled titles laden with microtransactions, it always surprises me to find out how much I enjoy pocket-sized play whenever I do get around to hitting an app store. With Reigns: Her Majesty enjoying a decent reception, I thought it only fair to go back to the 2016 original before tackling the latest.

Not the best decision.

Twenty Minutes In

I honestly had no idea what to expect from Reigns. I’m still not sure. The best way to describe it is like a text adventure crossed with Tinder. Taking the role of a king, your job appears to be surviving as long as possible by making decisions which affect four key stats: popularity with the church, the people, the army, and the amount of wealth you have. If you hit either the maximum or the minimum of any of these stats, it’s pretty much game over for your king, and a new one takes their place from the year of the previous ruler’s death.

The decisions vary from typical martial governance (“shall we attack the South, my Lord?”) to quandaries over the allocation of food, health and protection of your citizens. Alongside these are funny curveballs which may alter your stats in ways you may not be expecting; if your executioner offers you a hug, would you accept it?

28 years. I'll take it.

A simple interface displays cards with portraits of the people you’re talking to, negating the need for any complex animation — presumably to put the story (as it were) and gameplay at the forefront. Ambient choral music fits in with the medieval setting, while the nonsensical voice overs of the characters adds to the game’s often daft flavour.

One Hour In

While on the surface Reigns appears to be a fairly shallow game aimed at the mobile market, a surprising amount of depth can be found if you stick with it. There are a number of recurring threads which pop up from time to time as the decades pass and your rulers rise and fall. The main one seems to be an ongoing battle with the Devil, which I suspect may persist through the course of the game.

Palace size isn't everything.

The bulk of the humour comes from the bizarre circumstances in which you die, as well as some of the wonderful results of your decisions. There are numerous death endings available for you to find, and the conversation strands and goals the game sets often lead to achievements you may not be expecting. Often, a new achievement such as recruiting a new character will result in extra cards being added to the deck, and means that your next monarch is likely to have new decisions to make and storylines to follow. It’s a clever way of preventing the game from going stale, though I’m not entirely convinced that the longevity will be sufficient to keep me playing past a few hours.

Six Hours In

Somehow, Reigns keeps bringing me back. I’ve finished one playthrough over a millennia and a half without successfully completing the main storyline, and yet I feel like it’s charmed me enough to give it another crack. I also enjoyed the neat little minigames that are thrown into the mix, such as navigating a dungeon, or duelling with your enemies. If you get to the end of the timeline, you have the option to reset and try again and all of your achievements are saved (though, not the titles bestowed upon you for performing certain acts as a king).

Despite this, it still has a few flaws. Some of the choices you make have the opposite effect than you were expecting. While it is obvious that paying for things will affect your money negatively, or failing to maintain your city’s hygiene standards will cause your people to revolt, answering statements which are ambiguous feels a little unfair when it isn’t clear how they will affect your stats. The duelling element borrows heavily from the insult combat of Monkey Island but without explicitly showing you why the moves you make will succeed or fail.

Rex knows what he's doing.

Furthermore, the repetitive nature of the game left me swiping impatiently to try and get to a card I had made an incorrect decision on with a previous king, just to see if the alternative action would lead to a new plotline. Wading through multitudes of the same cards won’t take you that long, but it feels a little laborious, especially if the payoff isn’t worth the effort.

Final Verdict

Reigns has a unique blend of humour and game mechanics which are perfectly suited to mobile play. It’s also available on PC, though it feels like the portable market is where it will be most at home. There is potential here for expansion into more elaborate storytelling, which I hope that the sequel will address; there is plenty to enjoy, and it is accessible enough to dip in and out of, but once you’ve played through it a couple of times, you’ll have seen pretty much everything it has to offer. That said, for those few hours, Reigns is definitely worth swiping right for.

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Worth playing? YES - it's still enjoyable today.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.