Reigns: Three Kingdoms Review

8/10

Reigns: Three Kingdoms is a worthy successor to the Reigns throne. As a mobile game it can feel awkward on a PC, but it has a nice minimalist style and offers some solid storytelling and world building.

The original Reigns game was released in 2016, and since then, developer Nerial has released four more entries in the series. Reigns: Three Kingdoms is the latest iteration on the now-familiar formula, taking you into the final days of the Han Dynasty to swipe your way through a variety of political, ethical, and personal choices. The result is a worthwhile diversion – an enjoyable experience for a game of this size (a few hours) and price point (a few dollars).

Reigns: Three Kingdoms was originally a mobile exclusive and is now making its way to PC and Nintendo Switch. Playing the game on my PC, the mobile-first approach was obvious. The central mechanic of swiping left or right to make decisions felt a little clumsy with a mouse. More than once I went to look at my options and swiped too far, accidentally making a decision without being able to read it first. The game’s minimalist UI was also clearly designed for mobile devices, and although it still looked great even on a large widescreen monitor, I found myself frequently trying to hover over icons in hopes of a tooltip or some other explanation of what I was looking at.

With that being said, as I got deeper into the game, I realized that figuring out those four meters at the top of the screen was a big part of the gameplay, so having the UI explain them to me would have robbed me of the chance to solve the puzzle for myself. Ultimately, there are two ways you can go about playing this game: you can attempt to min-max your decisions to keep the four meters in balance, thus extending your current reign as long as possible, or you can make decisions in a true RPG fashion, picking the choice that seems most interesting or pragmatic or moral, or the one that you think will move the story in the right direction. The latter approach is the more rewarding one, but there will be times when you see the little dot above one of the meters and think, oh no, if I choose this option here it will probably end my current reign – do I want to take that chance?

reigns three kingdoms cat or dog
The little dots indicate which meters will be affected by your current choice

Roughly speaking, the four meters seem to be linked to your supplies (the grain symbol), the happiness of the common people (the stick figure), your military might (the sword), and your personal honor (the stick). When you pause on a choice by swiping partway left or right, you’ll see a little dot above any meters that will be affected by that choice, although you’ll usually have to guess what that effect will be. For example, if you’re giving away supplies, you can probably assume that the grain meter will go down. Other choices, such as the cat or dog one in the picture above, are harder to decipher.

If any of the meters become completely full or completely empty, your current incarnation will be killed. If the common people are not happy with your policies, they’ll rebel. If your personal honor dips too low, you’ll commit suicide.

Death is not the end, however. You will be reincarnated into a relative of your previous self such as a distant cousin, a spouse, or an illegitimate child. You’ll continue the game as this new persona, with no real interruption to your progress. The game explains this process with an Assassin’s Creed-style meta story in which you’re repeatedly sent back in time via a high-tech simulator. Occasionally you also run into a character from your own time period who gives you a cryptic clue or two as to how to stop the cycle and return to your own life.

Breaking up the endless stream of decisions is a new card battle mini-game, which also gives the franchise its first multiplayer mode. You draft a hand of four cards from a deck that you build over time as you acquire new allies. The mini-game is as minimalist as the rest of the game, and while I enjoyed it the first few times, I was eventually happy to find that it’s completely optional. You can change your Battle Options in the game settings to Easy or Auto-Win, or you can just have your lieutenant lead the charge when a battle happens, skipping the mini-game entirely.

Mechanics aside, the narrative is the main selling point in every Reigns game, and the writing in Three Kingdoms is exceptional. With only a few sentences for each scenario, the game somehow manages to do quite a lot of world building. In the few hours I played, I became deeply immersed in the setting, even as someone with little knowledge of Chinese history. I discussed philosophy with Buddhists and Taoists, met important historical figures, and attempted to solve the everyday problems of the people of the era.

I imagine that anyone who is more familiar with the source material – the novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” by Luo Guanzhong – will find even more to appreciate in this installment of the franchise. As for myself, I’ve been inspired to at least go find a good documentary on the subject.

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Luxrah
Luxrah

I love RPGs, sandboxes, survival, and sim games. Anything that lets me build and decorate or just has a really good story. I've spent hundreds of hours in Bethesda games and even more time modding them. I also play a lot of World of Warcraft.

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