Review: Reigns: Three Kingdoms
On some level, Reigns is a concept that you are either on board with or not. It’s a pretty simple game in concept, at least; you are presented with an ongoing slew of decisions, and for each one you either swipe left or swipe right. There’s more to it than that, but it’s at once a satire on the way that video games reduce player choice into reliable but often almost farcical binaries, a testament to how politics are too often viewed through a similarly frivolous lens, and just an engaging break-sized gameplay experience.
Reigns: Three Kingdoms is kind of a natural development from that insofar as it takes the basic game mechanics (which have been iterated upon a few times now) and transplants them to the Three Kingdoms era. When the game arrives on PC and Switch, should you swipe left or swipe right to picking it up?
A Romance of a Setting
The basic premise of the game is pretty straightforward. At the start of the game, you meet up with an assistant in roughly the present day who says that she’s sending you into some sort of simulation… and before you can question much about this Assassin’s Creed-esque framing device, you’re thrown back into China’s historical Three Kingdoms period starting around 184 CE. This is something that a reasonable number of Western audiences have at least a reasonable chance of being familiar with, seeing as how it has served as a setting for numerous films, series, and most notably video games. If you’ve played Dynasty Warriors or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms video games, among others, you know this setting.
Of course, you don’t really get a grand sweep of what the heck is going on here – instead, you’re sent back to take the role of a person involved in the history but not really in control, subjected to the whims of history. And no sooner do you start gaining assets and taking charge of the situation than you can find yourself overtaken by other events. In-story, you’re slowly starting to understand things and learn from your prior decisions, but each time you’re reset into a new incarnation as a relation to your prior self.
The setting is, however, absolutely delightful. There’s a reason why so much media has focused on this era over the years, and it’s because it is an ideal stretch of time for interesting characters and unusual scenarios to unfold. It’s hard to build much emotional investment in this particular telling, but that’s kind of the point to start with; you are a not wholly willing tourist trying to make your way through a confusing period.
I explained the core mechanics pretty flatly at the start, but let’s just reiterate. A portrait will pop up with a small set of text, and you either swipe right or swipe left. Broadly, swiping right is approving and left is disapproving, but whether or not these are good or bad things can vary wildly. Sometimes it’s the difference between making a summary judgment or hearing someone out.
As you make decisions, there are four gauges tracked across the top bar, which are analogous with your resources, your popular support, your martial state, and your manners. These are important, as you want to maintain a balance. Going too far in any direction will put you en route for death and collapse. Of course, you can’t always be sure of how a given decision will affect those gauges, but that’s sort of the point to begin with.
There’s also a combat system, which is where the game gets a bit more complex. You have a deck of supporters built up from unlocked cards, most of which have some special ability. Both sides are represented in the form of four cards centered around a single node at the heart. Swinging left or right will cause you to attack the front-facing card on the other side with the character swinging into position, and if there’s no card there you instead attack the supplies at the center; successfully depleting the supplies in the middle is defeat. It’s a functional and quick combat system that feels moderately strategic, albeit periodically frustrating.
All in all, it’s a pretty straightforward exercise of making decisions, seeing how they play out, and then continuing onward. Since the time between failure and your next round is measured in less than a minute, the whole thing is almost tailor-made to produce an addictive sort of “one more round” response each time. Whether or not you are super engaged at the idea of going for just one more round is another story, though; indeed, one of the problems that I found was that it’s a game that’s easy to keep going while it’s happening, but not terribly engaging each time it ends. Like… you don’t have an urgent drive saying “gosh, I need to see what happens with another run” or even have some kind of grand strategy for your next approach. It feels oddly noisy in that regard. A lot happens, and quickly, but you lose much sense of having a distinct goal.
As this is part of a game series that’s been running for seven years, the game has a distinct visual style with two-tone blocks of color and a clean layout. To the game’s credit, it definitely does not attempt to wildly alter its presentation in the hopes of having a more Chinese feel; it trusts that its architecture, music, and portraits will do that job for it. This was also the right decision. The character portraits and their expressions are charming, and there’s a whole lot of personality even in the little mouthless and noseless heads you face.
The UI is also relatively easy to understand, although the combat setup definitely feels a little more awkward than it needs to be; kind of forgivable when you consider that it requires a fair bit of additional information, yes, but still noteworthy.
As for music and sound, they’re relatively subdued, which is fitting for a game that seems all but tailor-made for mobile ports and play. It’s enough to establish the mood and it works, but it’s nothing to write home about.
What it Says, What it Looks Like
At the end of the day, Reigns: Three Kingdoms is kinda exactly what the title suggests. It is Reigns but set during the aforementioned historical period. Satirical jabs mostly aside, in terms of actual play, it feels a bit like the strategy game equivalent of a Hot Pocket. If you want to have what is a strategic gameplay experience but do not want to spend the time necessary to come up with a deep and involved strategy or build or whatever, this will let you get that over. Have fun.
That may sound dismissive – it kind of is dismissive – but it’s not altogether a bad thing. It doesn’t really hit me for a lot of my interests, and I definitely found myself feeling a bit like “well, why fire it up again” after my play sessions, but it’s also a nice lightweight game for playing when you want some lightweight strategy fun. And it’s set during an interesting stretch of history, to boot. If that’s your cup of tea, it’s well worth it.
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Devolver Digital.