Mobile app stores can be a little dizzying, what with the constant onslaught of new apps. But every now and then a new mobile game comes along that catches your eye. And even more rarely, such a game proves to be a truly unique and engaging experience once you test it out. Such is the case with Reigns, the latest of the “magnificently handcrafted games” from Devolver Digital.
Recently released and featured at the time of this writing under the iOS app store’s “New Games We Love” category, Reigns is essentially a choose your own adventure. The game’s description invites you to “sit on the throne as a benevolent (or malevolent) medieval monarch” and “swipe your royal fingers… to impose your will upon the kingdom.” And that’s about what the gameplay boils down to. As soon as you open it up, you become the king, and subjects come to you with various questions and reports on the state of your kingdom. It is then your task to swipe left or right (yes, think Tinder) in order to respond in one way or another.
The game has a 4.5/5 star rating in the app store, has been tabbed as an Editor’s Choice, and has been called “brilliant” by glowing reviews from iDigital Times. Let’s take a look at what makes this game so extraordinary.
One thing, even if it’s a bit dull to say, is that the visuals are immensely satisfying. It’s dull because pretty much every game from Monument Valley to Crossy Road these days gets praised for “stunning visuals” and “rich atmosphere.” Whether developers opt for beauty and three-dimensional realism, detailed fantasy imagery, or blocky, old school pixels, there are users and critics who will praise how games look. But given all of that, Reigns strikes a very satisfying balance somewhere in between impressive and old-fashioned visuals. There’s not a whole lot to the artwork of this game, but what you see looks unique and appropriately comical. Your subjects are presented almost like face cards, drawn in a blocky and geometric style but infused with a bright and diverse range of color that keeps things interesting. It’s absolutely perfect for what this game strives to be.
Another, perhaps more subtle detail that makes Reigns a lot of fun is that you get a real sense of being within a castle or kingdom despite the fact that this isn’t an action or adventure game. Given the sprawling nature of modern gaming, medieval settings and castles are shockingly underrepresented. Sure there’s a castle tossed into an open world game here and there, but few games take the romantic approach with knights, peasants, jesters, high walls, and banners. The closest parallel to Reigns in this regard might actually be one of Gala’s online bingo rooms, that’s simply called, “Castle.” That game presents castle imagery that’s almost storybook-like in nature and makes for an amusing and fun environment in which to play bingo. But it remains surprisingly hard to find similar imagery elsewhere. Reigns doesn’t necessarily show you much of the castle, at least not at first, but the characters and issues surrounding you make you feel like you’re right in the middle of a throne room.
Getting beyond visuals and setting, the way this game works is also a thrill. As mentioned, it’s effectively Tinder swiping between two choices over and over again. As you do so, you can actually visualize how your decisions impact four different aspects of your kingdom: the church, the people, the army, and the treasury. All four are represented by little symbols at the top of your screen (a cross, a stick figure, a sword, and a dollar sign). When you lean to the right or left to answer a question, you can see which of these areas will be affected by the decision, but not if the effect will be good or bad. Then, once you fully swipe right or left, you’ll see a meter inside the affected icons either turn red and decrease or turn green and increase. When any one icon is drained completely, your “reign” has failed. You’ll be given an amusing message about your death (usually beheaded by marauders or overrun by the nobility or something of the like), and you’ll start over as the next king in the royal line.
It’s a very simple execution, and yet the depth of this game is remarkable. It really feels like there are infinite branches along which your story can travel. And, while you’ll see some of the same dilemmas many times over, you’ll frequently encounter new ones as well. Along the way, you’ll be asked to achieve specific goals (such as fathering an heir, or discovering a witch), and as you achieve them you’ll stack your deck with “new cards,” which basically means more scenarios.
A few things could be improved. For instance, it would be nice if you could name your own kings (it gives you a name each time you die and restart), and there could always be even more options. There’s also a dueling system that comes into play occasionally (swipe left or right to defend or attack), and that could be refined a little bit. But overall, Reigns is a pretty wonderful experience, and an original one in a mobile market saturated with imitation and repetition.