My 10-Hour Tale – Reus

Before writing this review, I shot and edited a short gameplay video with no voiceover to put on YouTube as an experiment. Immediately after uploading, it was flagged for content ID on the game’s soundtrack, despite Abbey Games insisting that the game could be streamed, recorded, and even monetized for Let’s Plays. So that kinda sucks. Maybe I’ll attempt an update once I do more research and practice my editing skills. I’d love to do video reviews along with the written blogs.

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Release Date: May 2013

System: Windows (Steam, GOG.com)

Okay, okay, after my Backstage Tale about god games, you probably think I have a purposely narrow view of what a god game should be. I really only have my personal definition of a god game (you know, ‘miracles’, a dividing line between minion behavior and player direct control, and perhaps a bit of terraforming) because I wish to see other games of this genre succeed.

Expanding on the subject, there’s something intriguing between having world-changing powers but no control over your subjects. You could see it as giving mortals ‘free will’. A natural conflict between the player and pre-defined NPC behavior arises immediately. This lack of player control can become immediately frustrating, as I illustrated in my previous article about the game Black and White and its giant creatures. Even with proper AI programming, minions are nearly guaranteed to annoy the player if given too much independence. Perhaps the most difficult comment any god game designer could hear a player make is: “I could get this done a lot faster if I could just control them.”

Of course, games can be fun with a lack of control. Just ask anyone who’s played on a slot machine. There’s that issue of balance again: on one side, you win or lose by complete chance (or RNG), and on the other, it’s simply a strategy game where the player controls everything. So, what’s the middle ground?

Meet Reus.

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Just a bunch of giants on a barren world, full of potential. Nothing big.

Just Me and My Fellow Giants

Developed by Abbey Games, Reus is a two-dimensional god sim/strategy/puzzle game where the player isn’t a god exactly. Instead, the player controls four giants with god-like powers: a forest ent-like giant, a rock giant, an ocean crab giant, and a fungal ‘spore’ giant. These giants all have abilities to create different biomes across a circular worldspace: oceans with the crab giant, deserts and mountains with the rock giant, forests with the forest giant, and swamps with the fungal giant. Once the biomes are in place, the giants can lay down resources like plants, minerals, and animals that vary between biomes. With enough resources planted down, humans will settle into villages and towns, claiming the resources you lay down. You have no control over the behavior of these humans, including how they’ll react to neighbors and even towards the giants themselves. Initially, the goal of the game is to complete the different eras, helping the humans grow their settlements. Besides the eras, there are 30, 60, and 120-minute games where you can complete challenges ranging from simple to remarkably difficult.

There are three basic types of resources: food, wealth, and tech. Food can come from elderberries (which your father smelt of), mackerel, and pears. Wealth can come from beaver (their hides, I assume), agate, and quartz. Tech can come from peppermint, ginger, and dandelions. This is just a few of the many types of resources your giants can lay down: there are over 100 different types, all with their own bonuses or ‘symbioses’ (for example, chickens produce more food if placed next to a blueberry plant). In order to ‘transmute’ a resource into a more advanced one (such as changing tech-based agate into more versatile salt), your giants can use ‘aspects’ which also act as a resource boost (to change agate into salt, you need to have your rock giant use ‘seismic aspect’.

On top of this, every resource can be granted multiple aspects, and even more so if those aspects are ‘potent’, ‘greater’, or ‘sublime’. The forest giant can use an ability called ‘fertility boost’ to increase the chance of higher quality aspects. This also happens in locations that have a higher ‘natura’ rating. Most plants grant ‘natura’ naturally.

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A tiny bayou town living under the shadow of a giant rock and the living embodiment of hay fever.

This is all to help your villages complete special projects that, when completed, will grant your giants human ambassadors which will upgrade your giant’s powers based on which biome the ambassador comes from. These unique projects grant big resource boosts, like granaries providing food, toolshops providing wealth and tech, etc. These projects themselves can be upgraded multiple times, each with more complex resource and situation requirements than the last.

But wait, there’s more! Your giants can provide a lot of resources very quickly, but if you give a village too much too quickly and not include resources that also provide a resource called ‘awe’, your villagers will soon grow discontent in their prosperity and attack nearby settlements and even your giants. That’s right, your giants are vulnerable creatures. Each has a life bar and can ‘die’ at the hands of tiny Kratos-like warriors. If you lose a giant, they return to sleep in the earth to recover and you will no longer have access to their powers for the remainder of the era. With multiple villages established, you’ll be herding cats to make sure villages don’t kill each other or your giants before you can help them all complete their projects for the essential ambassador upgrades.

Bummer. Good thing the rock titan can cause an earthquake that will topple the largest villages and towns into oblivion if they get too uppity. You can use the crab giant to sink a village into the ocean. If desperate, the fungal giant can lob giant balls of swamp goo at attacking armies.

Too Fine a Balance?

This is where Reus attempts to draw the fine line between chance and control, with ‘attempts’ being the keyword. While you can’t directly control what your villages do to your giants or to each other, you can use ‘awe’ to calm them, remove ‘awe’ to provoke them, or invoke the ‘clean slate’ protocol by quaking or sinking them. (Some high-end project upgrades like the level 3 Historic Point require that village to destroy the closest nearby village, for example, so some war is useful.)

On paper, this seems simple. Unfortunately, since you have no say on what your villages end up building for their projects, and since many of the challenges hinge on the creation of certain projects, and since it’s pretty RNG which other villages your villagers make peace or war with, Reus seems to fall off the balancing wire into a game of chance once you’re on the hunt for challenge completions. Increasing your giants’ ability to control the environment (and, accordingly, the humans) takes a lot of practice and memorization.

I’ve gotten lucky with resource symbiosis once or twice where I created a good enough amount of ‘awe’ to stop a war. But it didn’t happen often, and I couldn’t tell you which resources I used to accomplish it. It seems like resources with useful amounts of awe are few and far between, or are reserved for higher-level transmutations. And those higher-level transmutations are entirely dependant on upgrading your giants with the right projects from the right villages in the right biomes with the right resources that don’t go to war with each other or end up hating your giants.

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It’s kinda hard to tell, but there are tiny soldiers on that mountain, and they’re throwing spears at the swamp village. Look at Rocky’s face. Rocky isn’t mad, just disappointed.

A Puzzle of Many Colors

This is another game I often come back to because it’s so easy to pick up and play. But it’s hard to master. Maybe not hard, but time-consuming. If you don’t know your end goal, you’ll waste a lot of valuable time making, upgrading, smashing, and remaking resources until the right symbioses happen. Worse, even if you do know your end goal, there’s a chance your aspects won’t be potent enough for upgrades, which leads to more resource remaking.

The game falls into a pit I affectionately call Blind Crafting Syndrome: even if you’ve crafted it before, unless you’ve memorized the recipe, the game won’t give you a clue on how to repeat it. While enjoyable with no prior knowledge, Reus is frustrating to return to after time away. Reus doesn’t quite have a crafting system like Minecraft or My Time at Portia, but there are so many different combinations and requirements of resources and aspects and biomes that it requires an immense amount of trial and error to complete the higher-level challenges. If Reus had some type of planning tool you could use before laying down a resource, or even an in-game encyclopedia, it would help immensely.

Your giants are incredibly pondering and slow creatures as well (I guess they should be). Managing an entire world, even a small or medium-sized one, takes a lot of travel time and planning. All the time while playing, I would have a sinking feeling that I was doing something out of order or inefficiently, but I didn’t want to have to look up online someone else’s ‘correct’ answer. Maybe it’s my anxiety of time limits and incredible challenges, but all the time-wasting trial and error (mostly error) dulled the game for me. This game should be casual and relaxing. But it’s not. Yes, there is an endless mode, and I could practice my Reus skills. But you can’t complete challenges in ‘alt’ mode. No, I would probably head to the Reus wiki or the Steam guides for help to figure out a game plan for finishing a particular challenge in the timed game.

I would, that is, if I had an intense desire to continue to play.

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Give a forest village some chickens, they’ll ask for some blueberries. Give a forest village some blueberries, they’ll want some pear trees… Etc.

Reus is another indie game that looks simple, colorful, and inviting at the beginning but by the endgame becomes a very challenging strategy/puzzle game. A bit too much into the puzzle genre for me. In fact, to me, it feels a lot like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. I get why people enjoy putting them together, and I’ll find joy in locking a few pieces together here and there (hence why I’ve played Reus on and off through the years since its release). But I don’t have the patience to put the whole thing together.

While not wholly applicable, this one, in particular, came to mind.

Review Score: 7.7/10

Backstage Tales – God Games: Imposters in the Pantheon

How does one program a God?

Yikes, religion on the internet!

Ha, funny. I’m talking about god games, simulators that give you power over a worldspace or the creatures and elements within it, typically on a massive scale. It could include such features as mass terraforming, devastating ‘miracles’ that can be seen as good or bad depending on the target, development of said powers from simple to overwhelming, and maybe even helping supplicants and acolytes grow to the top of the pack.

“A Mighty God Was He (or She)…”

I have very fond memories of Populous: The Beginning, one of the first god games I ever enjoyed. You start off with a shaman, the head honcho of the tribe through which miracles and spells are cast, and you wander the solar system gathering followers to increase your power and influence. If people won’t join you (as they follow other gods and their shaman can unleash the same powers as you can), it’s up to you to convert or destroy them. No peaceful coexistence in this universe. Your powers in this game ranged from summoning hordes of stinging insects to directing tornadoes to incinerating entire villages in fiery volcanoes. I’ll never forget that at the end of the game, you finally have enough power as a god to do the spell casting yourself without a range limit, and the resulting destruction of your enemies is incredibly satisfying.

You know, I never understood how the ‘swamp’ spell meant instant death to anyone who walked through it. Invisible crocodiles? Fast-acting trench-foot? Psh, I dunno, but man, it made for an effective deterrent.

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What a quaint village. Would be a shame if something… happened to it while the shaman is away.

I then played a game later in my childhood called Black and White, a game made by one of my favorite now-defunct studios, Lionhead Studios. Admittedly, I really couldn’t get into this game. At all. Why in the world would an all-powerful god put so much time and effort into training a giant creature who, for all intents and purposes, does nothing but annoy your villagers, cause property damage, and poop everywhere? I’m sure they can be trained to not do that, as I have seen insisted on many a website touting the game as a masterpiece. I never got very far in the game because I couldn’t figure out what to do with the leashes and my creature would inevitably go off and cause trouble, getting itself killed in the process (despite me nailing its super-extendo-leash to a tree near my village).

Interesting that this game is yet to make a debut on GOG.com or anywhere digitally. Sad day. (Not that I would buy it again. I distinctly remember having terrible troubles with it on my first PC… A trend that future Lionhead Studios games would follow.)

So What Changed?

So, getting both good and bad as a kid, why do I believe that god games like Populous still haven’t tapped an incredibly deep well of potential?

It’s because of how broad of a subject ‘god games’ have become these days.

If you search on Steam under the tag ‘god games’, you’re going to see a lot of different types of games, from RTS (like War for the Overworld) to sandbox games (Like Universe Sandbox) and even casual pixel games (like The Sandbox). Spore and its expansions are on this list, and while I could make a joke about a ‘god game’ featuring evolution, I’ll skip it. They even have the gall to put in the glorified screensaver that is Mountain, and the philosophical Everything. Games that I would consider to truly be ‘god games’ (complete with the spiritual and mystical aspect, the miracles, and the followers) are often not well received, with the good ones showing up few and far between (good examples are Reus, which I plan on reviewing soon, and From Dust, which is an excellent game despite belonging to Ubisoft and their terrible Uplay system). I don’t like this broad idea that if the game gives you complete control over your own little population or worldspace, it’s automatically a ‘god game’. If so, that makes Civilization or Endless Space 2 ‘god games’. It makes Planetary Annihilation a ‘god game’. It makes The Sims a ‘god game’.

These aren’t ‘god games’. Strategy, yes, but not ‘god games’.

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In From Dust, you play as a god. Ergo, this is a ‘god game’.

A Simulated Example

But this doesn’t mean ‘god games’ have to always be large-scale fire-and-brimstone destruction-fests. Let’s shrink the concept of the all-powerful ‘god game’. Imagine if The Sims were still all about the home-building and decorating, but you had no control over your sims in the slightest. What if they lived their own lives based on a list of their likes and dislikes, developed relationships with other sims all by themselves, and developed their skills without any input from you? Sounds boring? (As boring as Mountain? I digress.) Well, what if, as some malevolent or benevolent spirit or ‘god’, you could become the sim’s conscience? What if you could ‘train’ your sims to take a unique path through their lives, being the angel (or devil) on their shoulder as they live day-to-day?

What if they could ignore you if you gave them a command that didn’t match their ‘code of ethics’? This could be for good or evil, as simple as influencing a child sim to disobey their parents or as complicated as attempting to persuade a burglar sim to give back his hard-earned loot. What if, through your subtle influence, you earned enough ‘god points’ to start influencing your sims in more supernatural ways, such as through dreams, through strange ‘coincidences’… or perhaps through frightening ‘bumps’ in the night? These could give major bonuses towards future life goals, and grant convictions, changes of habit, or even phobias. What if your sim came into a choice that happened because of your influence that could change their course forever, maybe even other sims’ life courses, and they didn’t have the ‘attributes’ necessary to make the ‘correct’ choice, for good or ill?

What if you could drive your sim to become a shining beacon of humanity? Or drive them into an insane asylum after hearing self-destructive voices?

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Yes, a wholesome modern family, with a spirit from the netherworld influencing their every thought and choice. Doesn’t sound too far from the original game, to be honest.

Okay, maybe only I’m intrigued by this new Sims game. Maybe this sounds too similar to the actual game. Maybe it would give a programmer an aneurysm. But you have to admit, it’s an interesting idea that giving the player less control over their subjects can simultaneously give them more in terms of results variation. This could lead to the possibility of more replayability because of unexpected and entertaining results. This isn’t even talking about actual religious doctrine, although I suppose it could be seen that way. I see it as more of a balance between total player control (which is fun for a moment but doesn’t last long) and a complete uncontrollable game of chance (which is fun until you don’t win). And it’s all about maintaining the fun factor.

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My, aren’t you rotund.

A Line of Separation

In my opinion, ‘god games’ put a fine line of separation between the player and his subjects. In Populous, if you lose your shaman, you couldn’t cast miracles until she respawned. In From Dust, you don’t have a mystical ‘hand of god’ to save your subjects from floods of water and fire; you can issue simple commands, but you have to bend the elements to protect your followers and wait for them to brave the treacherous wilds themselves to reach relics and settlement beacons which strengthen your miracles. I think this is where Black and White went wrong for me: it put one too many lines in between the player and the population in the form of an annoying giant mascot. A good ‘god game’ will balance the influence the player has with the characters onscreen, not too separated that the player feels like they have absolutely no control, but enough that it doesn’t become ‘The Sims’ where the player can control everything. You can ‘simulate’ being a god, but not every strategy game is a ‘god game’.

Does that shrink the genre into obscurity? Maybe it does. But I think people want a ‘god game’ with this philosophy in mind, one with some element of choice and ethical dilemmas, but one with a fine line of separation that makes the game rewarding and challenging. Breaking my own rules, you can see how excited audiences were for the very recent release of Frostpunk, a game where you have to make life-or-death decisions for a population living in a steampunk arctic hell. I’m surprised that isn’t a ‘god game’, according to Steam. (I want to review it as well, it looks ridiculously difficult.) I would love a ‘god game’ that limited your influence over a small isolated community to small ‘miracles’ that grew more powerful as faith in you increased. One where morality could go either way.

And yeah, I’m going to say it: maybe someday we’ll get a god game that isn’t hyped to hell by Peter Molyneux. *cough* Godus. *cough* Spore. *cough* *sneeze violently*

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I’m ashamed of how much game time I have in Godus. Like all ‘Molyneux Specials’, I didn’t know it by its reputation before I bought it.

I want to see another really good god game like Populous appear again. A more complex From Dust with enemy tribes and tough decisions to make, maybe. Different belief systems and powers related to them. A few of the other games under the ‘god games’ tag in Steam look intriguing enough to make me want to take a look, so maybe in the future, you’ll see a god game review where I adjust my perceptions of the genre. Until then, I’ll take any suggestions on how I can change my viewpoint, as I feel disappointed in my love for this very specific niche itch I can’t scratch.