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Reigns: Game of Thrones - MojoPlays Dies in Westeros

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Kurt Hvorup
The successful mobile series "Reigns" is gets a Game of Thrones facelift, and Reigns: Game of Thrones come to the PC. Join MojoPlays for our video review of Reigns: Game of Thrones.
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Transcript
No question, there was a definite novelty and intrigue to the original “Reigns” back in 2016. Its interface elements taking obvious cues from Tinder, its RPG-lite decision-making system, its focus on kingdom management disguising a rather neat supernatural twist – all interesting, all handled well. With the launch of “Reigns: Game of Thrones”, though, we are now three instalments deep into this emerging series. And while there’s still competency displayed in the design and writing, is it enough to ward off the growing sense that the game’s core premise might have only truly worked once?

As in the first game, this latest “Reigns” title tasks players with overseeing the long-term wellbeing and activities of a medieval kingdom. Attention needs to be paid to a quartet of ever-shifting values – the military, the church, the people, and the throne’s own status – which grow or shrink in power based on one’s choices. No one group can be allowed to suffer or take complete control, requiring careful balance so as not to invoke any number of brutal ends for your monarch. Said monarch will almost certainly die, though, sending you back to square one as a new heir to the throne. Beyond that, much of the base mechanics of “Reigns” are still intact, complemented by some minor additions.

The biggest change to gameplay here is in adding the choice of king or queen. This game bearing the license to the “Song of Ice and Fire” franchise means players can opt to select one of several lead characters as opposed to simply playing a randomly generated leader. Coupled with the branching paths and random events that are baked into the “Reigns” formula, this makes for an initially compelling series of runs. There’s something innately satisfying about, say, watching Arya Stark carve her way to dominance or ordering the capture of the various Lannisters. Characters can also unlock various bonuses exclusive to them – Daenerys, for instance, has her dragons to aid in combat and frighten people into submission.

A handful of new minigames have also been included, focused on the handling of large-scale battles or barroom brawls. While amusing enough as one-off situations, it never feels entirely clear how one goes about winning in these cases. One has to interpret the text provided as best they can and select from various actions available, hoping that the end result is favourable. Very rarely is that the case.

Alas, a greater issue lies in wait for those who push forth. Early on, the repetition of running the kingdom, getting killed and restarting doesn’t immediately prove annoying. The rhythm of play starts off resembling that of a roguelike, where death is constant and progress is hard-won over countless attempts. But then it keeps... on... happening, with attempts at changing up interactions with one’s advisors and altering one’s play-style leading to similar outcomes. It slowly begins to sap the experience of any pleasure or engagement beyond teeth-clenched determination to keep going, even with the odd clever line and revealing character moment providing brief respite.

There’s also the matter of how the game makes use of “Game of Thrones” lore and world-building – namely, that it expects the audience to go in with a fairly thorough understanding of both. Still-living characters speak of significant developments, of long-awaited plot reveals that series fans will be the most inclined to appreciate. If your interest in the series is more casual or non-existent, though, then the steady stream of references and detail-laden banter may very well come off as overly exclusionary to outsiders. “Reigns” seems to expect so much of its audience without considering that a given player might want to be eased into its particular setting, as opposed to its sink-or-swim approach to understanding of continuity.

What’s worse, the explanation of why the player keeps switching back and forth between different “Game of Thrones” characters is a decently clever detail that gets undermined by continued play. Its use of Melisandre plays into the character’s rather enigmatic presence in the franchise, with the nature of her quest necessitating almost cyclical scenarios. Unfortunately, the handling of this subplot is so cryptic and infuriatingly obtuse that it’s hard to imagine players not throwing up their hands in confusion and admitting defeat. No matter how many times we tried to make a choice that would further our understanding of the overall plot, the game’s sudden swerves into unwinnable situations kept us at bay.

What this all amounts to is a very muddled and conflicting experience, rather than an out-and-out disaster or a bona-fide success. Like we said upfront, “Reigns: Game of Thrones” is clearly backed up by real talent and a desire to provide its audience with quite the enthralling adventure. That intent, noble as it is, can’t really stop the game from being a tiresome and frustrating drag whose moments of brilliance are undercut by misguided design.
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