God, Give Me Puzzles: A Review of Reus

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For the past few days Reus has confused me. On the surface a gorgeous God Game, Reus doesn’t play like one. It draws you in with one set of ideas, then gives you something different. It’s damn attractive, but it’s like ordering a coffee at your local watering hole and getting a pint of incredibly dark beer. That might not be terrible at six in the evening, but it would suck at sunrise.

In short: Reus plays like a puzzle game. It lets you play a sandbox mode, but that’s about as appealing as playing Tetris forever, without a fail state, letting the blocks pile up. You control godlike figures, but Reus is in no way a god game. Rather: the gods are your interface, the world is your board, and the assholes who inhabit it are the Tetris pieces.

Reus offers a very simple concept: control gods, and build a two-dimensional world on a dying planet. Over the game you’ll create ecosystems (swamps, forests, and deserts) where you’ll provide resources for villages to spring up around. Maybe you’ll make a desert, and a flock of chickens, and some peppermint, and up will come a village!

Maybe they’ll offer you some of their special peppermint chicken. If so, please turn them down. Those flavors don’t go together.

So far, so God Game. The thing is, Reus is more Black and White than Populous, and it’s more Tetris than any of those. Each village you create has a certain number of spaces. Each space can house a resource that provides one (or more) of Reus‘ many stats: food, technology, wealth, and natura. Each village will build a structure that requires a combination of the first three resources, and perhaps some other things. Maybe a village needs another village to have fifty wealth in addition to having a hundred themselves.

But it gets deeper. Every resource you plop down influences other resources. Those chicken might eat the peppermint, and they might provide more food because of it. But wait! The chickens also range around your village, and they like to sunbathe on the agate you places next to the peppermint’s other side, and that makes it produce more science.

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It gets complicated fast. And we haven’t even gotten to the fact that you can’t have your villages grow too quickly, or else they’ll get greedy and burn other villages down, forcing you to throw rocks at them. Unfortunately, Reus also untangles fast.

Reus’ central problem is one of luck. Luck isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in a god game. It fails, however, in a puzzle game, and when it removes control from the player. For instance: your desert village will randomly decide which structure to produce, hence which resources it needs. It will pick three times. On the second and third stages, you’re usually forced to tear down half your infrastructure to build different things, to produce the proper synergies.

That’s the rub: there are proper synergies. Resources interact in strict, mechanical ways—stoats next to rocks produce an extra wealth, tomatoes produce science depending on how much food they produce—and once you find the right combinations there’s not a lot of reason to experiment. Moreover, the game doesn’t tell you these synergies when you place resources, so you’re stuck in this awful middle ground: “I think poison frogs do this next to berries—fuck! They do it next to rocks. That doesn’t work. Burn it down.”

Then there’s the timing. All your skills have cooldown timers, a la an MMO, and this would suck regardless of the fact that each level is timed. Mess up a combo and you’re waiting thirty seconds to make it work right, as the ocean giant’s chicken skill cools down. And each level gives you only a certain amount of time to succeed in reaching the game’s many goals—thirty minutes is the minimum—so you’re stuck waiting it out, watching success slip away.

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And that brings us to Reus‘ biggest problem. I love myself some long real time strategy. I love long, intense puzzle games. Reus offers long, casual puzzle sessions, minimum thirty minutes, where you can fuck up in the first five minutes and there’s no way to salvage your world. You’re stuck playing catch up to the goals the game offers, and while you can make a good effort, it’s never going to be as good as actually doing things right the first time. It’s not like making a mistake in something like Lumines: there, you can recover. Here, with a static endpoint, you’re running up against a wall, and it won’t budge.

Reus‘ sticking point comes down to its time limit. I can get past the lack of tool-tips, the staid combos, but I can’t get past the fact that if I make a mistake (even if I plan for the wrong random structure) in the first five minutes of a game I’m completely hosed. I get the idea—make a bite-sized God Game—but instead it’s a really long puzzle game where mistakes early cost you the game.

Now, I’ve been perhaps unreasonably harsh with Reus, and this is mostly because it does a lot of good things. It’s gorgeous, for one. For another, the war mechanic—where villages that grow too fast will attack neighbors—works so wonderfully. It encourages you to multi-task, to slowly bring your combinations into existence instead of just dropping everything at once. I like how your giants level up. These things work well, and they’re clever ways to make me engage the game in the right way.

I like a whole lot of Reus, but I can’t get past that frustrating win condition. There’s so much good, but in the end I can’t think of anything else but the fact that this is a nebulous puzzle game in God Game clothing, one which doesn’t let you make up for your mistakes. Reus is a game where you’ll spend thirty minutes playing it and at the end feel like you’ve utterly wasted that time because you’ve achieved nothing: you didn’t learn anything, you didn’t unlock anything, you just made a small mistake, thought you could get around it, and couldn’t.

It’s a major problem. Reus is a game worth considering, but you should be mindful of what it is, and further realize that it’s got a serious problem for each clever tendril of design.