There's Playing & Then There's Winning -- A Reigns: Game of Thrones Review
Season after season, the Game of Thrones opening theme just gets longer and longer, and the franchise just keeps getting bigger and bigger. The HBO show may be winding down soon as the cast finishes filming its final season, but there's no end in sight for George R. R. Martin's fantasy behemoth.
Current news has him back-burnering the sixth book in favor of releasing a Targaryen prequel instead, fodder for another upcoming HBO GoT spinoff show.
On the gaming front, the landscape is similarly explosive. There have been a few small games (e.g. in-browser and mobile games) and a few major releases (most that fared rather badly, like Atlus' 2014 Game of Thrones), including the much-talked-about cancellation of Telltale Games' Game of Thrones: Season 2.
In nearly all of these cases, the system in place seems to be akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Telltale Games' take on GoT may have been the only piece of spaghetti that's really managed to stick -- its distinctive choose-your-own-adventure story-telling model may have lost its momentum after so many IPs, but every game has somehow managed to retain the charm of its source material.
I mention the above because first and foremost, Nerial's Reigns: Game of Thrones attempts to walk in similar shoes, putting the choices of the mighty into the player's hands.
And somehow, even when these very familiar HBO TV show characters have been reduced to flat-featured, expressionless cartoons jabbering in a close approximation to Simlish, they somehow remain the people we've learned to know and love.
Who is destined to sit the Iron Throne?
No one is. That's the point.
Forging the wrong alliances, trusting the wrong people, and making the wrong choices will doom even the strongest Dragon Queen to exile, never to set foot in King's Landing ever again -- and leaving new bodies ample access to that paper shredder of a metal chair.
Following in the path of the first Reigns and its sequel Reigns: Her Majesty, Reigns: Game of Thrones is at heart very similar to a Twine game with a royal adviser/strategy twist.
The super-simple mechanic of swiping left or right to decide who lives or dies allows the standing ruler to decide whether to commit to a course of action or not, always striving to balance the church, the people, the military, and the wealth of their kingdom.
In this sense, the "Tinder meets Telltale game" format of the Reigns game style fits perfectly with the wheeling and dealing of Game of Thrones' rampantly ambitious political houses -- a constant carousel of new, familiar, and old faces in the struggle to hang onto the reins of power. (Already sounds like a familiar story, doesn't it?)
The first person who manages to sit on the throne may not be the one who stays there, and the first face that you know and recognize may not necessarily be the one who holds onto the throne for any length of time.
Does the format work?
I asked myself this constantly while I played through.
Was it enjoyable? Absolutely.
Was the music a beautiful, perfectly playable soundtrack? Well, the titular GoT theme definitely made the budget cut, and the rest of the music holds up to that high bar.
Were the characters really them? Not just names and familiar faces on cards, but sounded, acted like them?
Well... yes and no.
Where the experience begins to unravel a little is that this particular world and this kind of game setup perfectly gears the players up for role-playing. You aren't just taking part in the action as in, say, the Lord of the Rings games; you are actively making the decisions that will make or break these people.
If you are playing as Tyrion and are faced with the decision to either send men to the Wall to back up Jon Snow's desperate fight against the White Walkers or to keep them at hand to buttress the Gold Cloaks' inability to control the seething crowds of King's Landing (they still don't like the Imp very much, even in Reigns, alas), you want to make those decisions as Tyrion.
If you are advising the movements of the army as Jaime Lannister, you want to be the one ordering them on in the face of poor odds, not tell everyone to sit back and let 'em eat cake.
(Note: For the sake of journalistic transparency, you don't actually get to tell everyone to eat cake as Jaime Lannister. But you get the point.)
However, allowing yourself to role-play and make these characters act like themselves doesn't really do you any favors in progressing very far, much less allowing you to win.
And there's the rub. What's the fun of a game you either can't play as a Game of Thrones game -- or you can't win if you do play it as a Game of Thrones game?
Do I have to have watched Game of Thrones?
Also asked in this vein: do I have to have read the "Song of Ice & Fire" series in order to play this game properly?
After all, there's a give and take here. None of the characters will be familiar to you. The names "Daenerys Targaeryen, Dragon Queen" and "Tyrion Lannister, Hand of the King" will float along your consciousness with about as much meaning or significance to you as the Captain of the Gold Cloaks will.
Will it be playable? Absolutely. You could arguably play it better than the average GoT fanatic because the role-play element won't be nearly so prominent. You'd probably still enjoy making Daenerys bellow "DRACARYS" at her snoozing dragon, but you likely won't insist on making her help out Jon Snow because who the heck is this guy sitting around on a wall anyway?
But would it be worth it if you approached this game with no prior Game of Thrones knowledge whatsoever?
Sure, it's a fun game with an easy premise and no small amount of strategy involved. It's an excellent little time waster, regardless of whether you feel any personal connection with the characters you're playing.
But why would you? You could just as easily play the original Reigns instead, which is slightly cheaper on both Android and Steam PC platforms, with far less branding.
Repeat after me
Even for the most intrepid fans, be warned: there is a fair amount of repetition here; there are tons of branching story lines and the game employs a "collect 'em all" kind of approach. This is where I feel like the format lends itself better on mobile, where reading text and swiping around between decisions is just easier to do when you're on the go.
(Note: I played this on PC. I still liked it.)
You will also start to feel like many of your decisions are almost arbitrary. There were a few times where I just simply tried out how long I could last if I just only swiped left or right to see how long I could keep it up for, which turned out to be quite a long time.
But it's worth it, right?
Yes. Yes it is. Who cares what winning is in a story-based strategy game? It is not deep enough to tug at your heartstrings like the Telltale games were crafted to do, and then crush your feelings into dust over the consequences of your decisions.
No, Reigns: Game of Thrones lets you move onto the next character who has a chance at holding onto power. After all, maybe this time, they'll fare better.
[Note: A copy of Reigns: Game of Thrones was provided by the publisher for this review.]