I came upon a link to Reigns 2 quite by accident over Twitter, on the very day it was released. I’d never heard of it before, not the game to which it’s a sequel. It was a fortuitous discovery for me, because Reigns: Her Majesty is exactly the sort of game I liked. I downloaded it the same day and was enthralled for hours. Though the game has a learning curve I was determined to get ahead of it, especially since it comes with many, many unlockable achievements.
The basic premise of the game is that you play from the point of view of a newlywed royal consort, who is called to act as helpmeet to a bumbling but mostly harmless monarch. Successful ruling requires appeasing many factions with incompatible desires, which appear in the form of four metrics for faith, popularity, power and wealth. Failure is lethal, and even being too successful is its own kind of deadly. I’ve found, for example, that by far the most common mode of death in the game is being crushed by the love of adoring crowds.
Not that death is an ultimate failure, because after your first queen’s death you continue to play her successor in the lineage. As time passes and your queens keep dying you will gradually uncover a deeper and more mysterious conspiracy which connects the queens to each other, and to the equally mysterious figure of the Lady of the Wood. Remarkably, the game is very motivating when it comes to unlocking every possible cause of death your queen can succumb to. This last might be the best way to communicate its distinct, darkly absurd tone of humor.
Reigns 2 is built as a digital card game, with some bells and whistles added. Successfully completing goals adds new cards to your virtual deck, which opens up new possibilities for interactions with characters new or familiar. A long and circuitous route will lead you eventually to what seems, on the face of it, to be the ultimate goal of the game. After your tenth death, you will meet the figure of the All-Mother, an ancient and mysterious goddess whose worship is considered heretical by the modern church. The All-Mother will attempt to convince you to become her champion, spending your various lifetimes hunting for clues on how to achieve this end.
The All-Mother’s quest to become the Eternal Queen is a disruption, signaled dramatically by the deliberate breakdown of the game’s interface. At this point it’s worth warning that the game is not suitable for anyone who’s likely to have a reaction to flickering images. Even players who aren’t likely to have a serious reaction might find the flashing, jumpy images irritating to look at. Following the “main quest” brings a few more opportunities at such disruptions, such as the character of the Witch, who communicates her meta-commentary on the game in a discordantly modern style of slang.
Conversely, if you delay completing the main quest indefinitely, you will have some opportunities to unlock lots of optional goals. These have wildly varying tones, from matchmaking on behalf of your lady-in-waiting to murdering your husband the King and reigning indefinitely as a widow queen. Different styles of play will appeal to different players. If you’re tactical-minded, you might exploit the game’s fluidity by making self-contradictory decisions, the better to balance the metrics and reign as long as possible. If you lean more towards role-playing, your queens’ lives are likely to be notably shorter, but damn if they don’t make an excellent story.
In the not-so-background of the game is a running commentary on the role of women in positions of power. Reigns‘ world draws a little on European history, and a great deal on several decades of epic fantasy tropes. Backstabbing and revenge are both plentiful, if yo’re looking for them. The Queen is valued oftentimes for her looks, and explicitly called upon more than once to provide a male heir. The main thread of the plot leans on the conflict between the modern church, as exemplified by the character of the Cardinal, and the religion of the All-Mother, which is preserved in secret by her loyal Acolyte. A few references to fairy tales sneak in, in the form of a cursed mirror that haunts your Queen until she battles her darker nature.
Reigns 2 provided me many hours of amusement, trying to unlock as many as possible of its tiny, hiding secrets from their dusty little corners. As I was playing the game when it was brand new, my early experiences were a little damaged by some persistent bugs, but not enough to cause me to give up on the game. Given a sufficient interval and some bug fixes, it’s become a very playable game. I still find that some of the elements of the gameplay are poorly balanced, but that generally becomes apparent only if you make for the distant, post-main quest goals. After a thousand years or so, the game can become more tedious than rewarding, even if there are goals yet remaining to be achieved. I do thinks some small tweaks would improve it, in this respect, but on the whole it seems a small enough complaint for a game that provides hours of fun for a very reasonable price.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.