Most mobile games fall into a tired, repetitive TRAP when it comes to ‘narrative’.
Stories tend to feel tacked on at the eleventh hour as some kind of me-too marketing decision — Is our gemstone puzzlers or bullet-hell shooter crying out for a 3-act structure? Or distributors force a mobile edition to ape its console big brother with lilliputian screen real estate — Can iPhone Final Fantasy make kids go blind faster than rampant masturbation? Discuss.
REIGNS doesn’t get caught in these traps. No…it transcends the genre to deliver an addictive, smart, and (too often) bloody-cool narrative game that breaks free of conventional game-on-the-go prisons for nothing short of a triumph on mobile.
Nerial/Devolver Digital released the game mid-August, but I only started playing it a week or so ago. I’m not ashamed to admit that it’s owned some serious acreage — HUGE tracts of land! — in my mental real estate. Truth be told, I haven’t felt such an intense pull to play a narrative-heavy title on my phone, let alone pay for the privilege, in what feels like lifetimes.
This statement is more than a little ironic — because ‘lifetimes’ are at the heart of what makes the game so great.
So, before the Devil dishes his punishment for my pathetical string of sovereigns, I’m gonna hit you with 7 royal reasons why you should choose to don the (accursed?) crown:
1. SIMPLICITY RULES WITH AN IRON (SWIPING) FIST
It all feels deceptively basic at first play.
You’re a young ruler in ancient times, instructed by the ghost of a dead King to serve the people well, and to someday break a mystical curse. Due to dark forces above your pay grade you are forced to remember all of your face-palms, sweet-souled naivete, and selfish politicking in every lifetime…
Because you’re gonna die. A lot.
You play by swiping left and right on ‘cards’ that serve as conversations and events during your reign. Often these are yes-or-no questions. Approvals and Rejections. Likes and Dislikes. And these binary choices will have affect the levels of your four essential ‘resources’ of the Kingdom: the Church, the People, the Army, and the Treasury.
Each swipe is a choice or a reaction. Each choice affects the flow of a scene. And each scene comprises a year of your rule — as glorious, politically messy, or socially embarrassing as you choose make it.
Which is probably why people are calling REIGNS a Choose Your Own Adventure meets Tinder meets Game of Thrones.
But there’s more. Much, much more…
2.RAISE THE CONTROL FREAK BANNERS
That whole resource thing I mentioned? It’s not as simple as trying to max them all out — then you’d just end up in gameplay and narrative grind. Instead, you’re advised (wisely so) to find balance in the distribution of power. Like the swipes that affect character and event dynamics, your overall strategy must take into account a binary logic. Because you really can have too much of a good thing:
THE CHURCH — If you kiss too much holy ass, the cardinals and bishops will rally the pious to reject the Crown, erase you from the history books, and maybe burn you on a cross for good measure. But if the Church’s power drops too low? Then filthy pagans could storm the castle, overthrow the kingdom, and leave you feeding pigeons in the streets.
THE PEOPLE — It’s crucial to consider the needs of the common man. But if you give the masses too much power, will they even need a king anymore? Conversely, neglect the populace for too long and you’ll receive swift and fatal justice from the 99%. Let them eat cake, indeed…
THE ARMY — You don’t need to look that far back in history to know what happens when a nation’s military gets too big for its armoured britches — the term ‘bloody coup’ exists for a reason, son. But if your forces are spread too thin, your generals low in morale or your defences have fallen into disrepair? Expect ambitious ‘neighbours’ to fill that power vacuum…starting with your head.
THE $$$ — Money makes the world go ‘round. Always has. And you’ll quickly learn over a string of reigns that cheddar is the evil grease that keeps a kingdom’s gears turning. Drain your reserves and it’s only a matter of time before merchants and bankers give you a grisly heave-ho. But everything in this game has its opposite, so what fate awaits the King that swims in his treasury like Scrooge McDuck..?
3.TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES
If you were limited to topping high scores based on calculations of how many years you ruled, your choice tree, and your kingdom’s overall ‘stats’ at the time death? Then it would be a fun little game. This worked for 80 Days, which I enjoyed quite a bit — quest around the world, manage your money and inventory, engage with some fine writing, get a juicy ending, then try again with different choices.
But once you’ve lived a few lives and moved a ways down the royal timeline? Past the Dark Ages, and the first eras of Expansion, into the zealous grip of plunder and Plague? You see that many of the choices from previous incarnations had a lasting effect. They ripple into the future. Some successes, failures, and seemingly banal chats from a previous rule end up playing out over many lifetimes.
For me, it was a quietly jarring epiphany on the first afternoon of play. But that realization became thunderous once the clock chimed 4AM.
That’s when I knew what I had to do. The same thing this game’s designers had done…
Play the long game.
4. OLDSCHOOL? TRY ‘MEDIEVAL SCHOOL’!
It’s easier to sink hours (alright…days) into story-driven games that possess slick and compelling presentation styles.
80 DAYS had crisp, high-contrast art, period orchestral music, and a florid observational writing ‘voice’ that made me feel like I was at the heart of a new Jules Verne adventure.
Superbrothers: SWORD AND SWORCERY was a nostalgia-gasm with charming 8-bit character design, muted colour palette, chip-tune score, and fourth-wall breaking dialogue.
LIMBO hypnotized me with its unique play of light and shadow, haunting sound design, dreamy animation, and a wordless narrative that somehow conveyed more blunt-force ’story’ than many turn-based RPGs I’ve played
REIGNS continues along this vector of audio-visual ‘throwback’ on handhelds that can work so damn well — but only when the components are balanced and work in creative harmony with game design. Its flat-shaded and minimalist 2D art style could just as easily have been an exercise in ‘fantasy tries too hard’, a la MAGIC: The Gathering cards. In another team’s hands the restrained music, FX, and Banjo Kazooie-esque gibberish-speak might’ve been cheesy Ren-Fair lutes, Peter Jackson-y screeches and clangs, and a pair of non-union voice actors crash-and-burning as they attempt to create an entire ‘cast’.
And the story itself? The thing I feared would end up a thin, repetitive, passionless, same-voice-for-every-character mess like so pretenders to the throne..?
5. CHARACTER IS DEAD. LOVE LIVE CHARACTER!
Plot and setting and conflict are all necessary things, but not so unique when you examine them at the alchemical level. You’re somewhere. You want something. People/Time/Supernatural forces are against you.
‘Rule a medieval Kingdom and break an ancient curse through the power of your choices. Know when to be swift or wise or ruthless before conspirators, tragedies, and the darkest of forces end your REIGNS…forever!’
I didn’t read the actual logline/razor for the app, so this is my own swing at a summary…but you get the picture. Interesting? Sure! But for my money — which, I must remind you, I rarely plunk down for narrative games — a good ‘story experience’ lives or dies with its characters.
This game does so much with so little in crafting unique and engaging NPCs that I found myself looking forward to encountering many of them again in future lives. The ‘cast’ is more than ample, featuring (from the top of my oft-beheaded shoulders):
– royal aids and social whisperers
– mercenaries and military glory-hounds
– greedy merchants and shady lenders
– guilt-tripping and manipulative clergy
– insistent lovers of both sexes (and…species?)
– dignitaries, diplomats, and foreign foes
– a witch, a nun, and more than a few princesses
– spies and traitors and bureaucrats, oh my!
– a dog, a bird…and enterprising dragon?
– Prophets, Fools, and things in jars…
– Impossible things. Unnatural things. The Worst Thing.
Most mobile RPG-style games can be hobbled by screen space, voiceover budgets, or sprawling pages of text that feel better suited to an interactive novel. The designers of REIGNS made the brilliant choice of using their decision trees and branching conversations to keep dialogue brisk, compelling, and seriously clever. Key speeches are often layered with clues, foreshadowing, and smirk-worthy quips that only reveal themselves upon multiple reads/reigns. There are even special situations when in-game achievements are met (IE: live with the effects of Old Age for a time to impress a character and learn vital information) that offer additional choices, reactions, and narrative outcomes.
6. GOTTA CATCH ‘EM ALL
REIGNS ain’t Pokemon. And it’s not trying to be. But I’d still call it a completionist’s wet dream.
With all the characters to uncover, items to find, achievements to unlock, and scenarios to experience?
With over a thousand+ years of cryptic conspiracies, kinky courtship, and a cursed crown?
With so many gruesomely hilarious deaths, you’ll be having Dragon’s Lair flashbacks hunting them all?
With three (3) game ENDINGS that promise varying states of reactionary profanity?
Let’s just say I’m willing to bet you’ll play through more than once.
Just try to resist using a walkthrough 😉
7. THE ETERNAL STRUGGLE
This last kudo is hard to quantify. I want to avoid spoilers, but I also think it’s important to spotlight something about REIGNS that I believe lifts it into rarified air.
Do you remember when you saw The Matrix? Or watched an arc of The Last Airbender? Binged on both seasons of Rick & Morty? Saw the finales of The Prisoner, or Twin Peaks?
There’s something deeper going on with all of these stories.
Something that pokes at the nature of life and death and time.
That views self-serving choices as a kind of ‘imprisonment’.
A TRAP within a binary system, made of our own cursed Egos…
Which we can only escape with selflessness and compassion.
Maybe, after hundreds of lives atop hundreds of thrones, I’m searching for meaning.
Maybe I’m just trying to justify all those sleepless, swipe-riddled nights.
Maybe I’m just tripping balls on some of those sweet in-game mushrooms. (you’ll see…)
Maybe it doesn’t matter…as long as I enjoyed my REIGNS.