Reigns: Three Kingdoms, by developer Nerial and publisher Devolver Digital, feels like an experiment. This is an odd thing to say for a game that is fourth in its series, but there’s nothing wrong with breaking the formula. In smaller-scale indie titles like this, I think a great source of appeal can be their freedom to try something new, or appeal to a more specific audience. While it doesn’t quite stick its intended landing for me, I think there is a lot of fun to be had with Reigns: Three Kingdoms.
The immediate premise of Reigns: Three Kingdoms is an intriguing one, no doubt. In the highly advanced Synaptic Testing Lab, your character is participating in a test of new time travel technology. The core loop is a rogue-like of sorts, where you’re sent back to the end of Han Dynasty China to take up the lives of various people in the military. Through binary choices of swiping left or right, you can build up your power and reputation to make a name for yourself in the war. But you must be careful to keep certain factors in balance. Four meters at the top of the screen must stay in balance; too high, or too low, and your delicate power will be overthrown by those you once led. The meters represent supplies, reputation, military power, and wealth—or at least, I’m pretty sure they do. This is carried over from the previous Reigns games, so it’s never explicitly communicated, and oftentimes I had difficulty discerning whether the decision I made would increase or decrease the affected stat. On one hand, it gives every little decision weight because any mistake can become life-or-death rather quickly, but on the other hand the tension comes from uncertainty in gameplay, not actual investment in the question posed.
Building on the core swiping gameplay from the story, the combat system feels like it’s always verging on something interesting. At any given point during the match, you have 3 choices: swipe right, swipe left, or end your turn. Your and the enemy’s cards are both set up in circles, and the one that moves to the front automatically attacks. The goal is not to remove all their cards, but rather to deplete the resources protected by said cards. Restricting options can force interesting choices, and perhaps this is more subjective than anything else, but I feel like the options here are too few, especially in the larger context of the game. The focus is mostly on the story, so battles rarely happened more than once in a life, which left much to be desired in terms of deck-building or developing a playstyle of any kind. But in turn, this ensured that your hand remained varied from battle to battle, lending encounters a puzzle element. It was rewarding to search for the “solution” to a fight, even if sometimes it felt like there weren’t enough resources to reach a victory.
Reigns: Three Kingdoms is, at its core, a light-hearted but ultimately positive experience. Everything about its design, from the zany time travel premise to quests that present themselves at random, comes together to form a simple, yet entertaining way to pass the time. Parts of it are certainly frustrating, and its communication to the player is often unclear, but in spite of its flaws, I never found myself upset with the short excursions into Han Dynasty China. Despite taking place in an era of war, Reigns: Three Kingdoms shows that there’s a lot of fun to be had there.
Reigns: Three Kingdoms is available for PC via Steam for $2.99.
Related: Reviews by John D’Auria
Video games are my personal favorite art medium by far. I love how many ways an interactive story can be told, and I can't stop myself from getting hooked on a good puzzle. I'm a student majoring in game design and music, so I hope to make creative work a part of my life going forward.