In Reus, little mistakes can have major consequences. That’s its problem.
It’s a beautiful 2D god game about fostering life on a barren world. You start with a water god: having him create vast oceans, wetting the land enough so that your forest and swamp gods can begin seeding life. Soon, settlers arrive, who’ll build towns. They’ll have needs: resources to build a granary or tool shop. Satisfy that, and you’ll receive an ambassador; a villager who’ll perch on your giants shoulders granting more powers.
It sounds simple. But Reus is interconnected in such a way that leaves you beholden to easy mistakes.
With only a few minutes before the game timer ran out and my minor deities returned to their slumber, I raised a mountain. That dried an ocean. That devastated a swamp and forest. With it, died the two towns that relied on them. I’d killed a civilization while trying to get an achievement.
At first fulfilling the game’s requests is simple. Plant a few bushes or have your stone god place a few minerals. But the requests quickly outstrip the available resources. You need to begin upgrading everything; turning basic blueberry bushes into bountiful strawberries and apple trees.
Even that’s not enough. You have to master Reus’ symbioses, too.
Each resource is able to boost its output by being placed next to a specific other. Take the blueberry bush: on it’s own it produces only five food. But if it’s placed next to strawberries the blueberries will produce an extra ten food. A sizeable boost. The strawberries receive a boost, too. Lovely. That’s symbiosis at its simplest.
It’s rarely at its simplest.
Turn the strawberries into a cherry tree and they’ll double their output but the blueberries, now no longer next to any strawberries, lose their symbiosis boost. And the cherry tree? Its symbiosis boost is dependent on being next to minerals, preferably gold because that sees an extra 20 food. Place gold next to it and you have to take into account its own symbiosis – gold only receives a production boost if its next to a mineral.
Often placing the wrong resource can quarter the production of a whole town’s ecosystem. Soon you’re swapping different resources in and out to eke the biggest bounty of produce you can. Theoretically, you’re edging closer to the requirements of the town’s project. Instead, I found myself fudging things up and getting further away from my goal. My mountain blunder from earlier was the final result of a symbiotic drama: for my swamp town to construct a geologist they needed a mountain range within their borders. I was trying to help, honest.
This is where the limitations of Reus’ UI appear. It’s deliberately, obtusely clean. The interface might not clutter your view of the gorgeous 2D world, but it doesn’t provide vital information. It doesn’t tell you what plant you’re about to, umm, plant… nor what its symbioses are till after it’s in the soil.
When upgrading you just don’t know what it needs to sit next to, nor how exactly it will benefit from the ecosystem it’s in till after you’ve made the decision. Reus desperately needs that information: you’d need to have a wiki page open or sit with a crib sheet next to you to keep on top of all the interrelations. At that point you’re spending more time looking at data charts than the gorgeous artwork.
Make no mistake, Reus is gorgeous.
Scroll all the way out and the world you’re playing on is presented to you like a halved orange, it’s seeds replaced by a molten core. Each of the four biomes is delineated by lush colour changes. Zoom in close and finer details will rise into focus: flocks of birds, cabbage patches, cheerful villagers. It’s glorious to play on a high resolution, big screen.
But as you play, the artwork loses the power to impress
Say you do master the symbioses: you find more problems.
The powers your gods unlock from town ambassadors are called aspects. They buff the resources produced by a plant and determine what you can upgrade it into; the leaf aspect lets you turn blueberries into strawberries, and the fruit aspect turns them into apples. Each time you cast an aspect there is a 25% chance it will have a potent effect – essentially doubling the bonus resources. Later upgrades require potent aspects. But, because you can’t undo a cast, if you cast a lesser aspect you simply can’t upgrade that plant. You have to pull it out and start again from the blueberry bush.
You are playing against a timer, you don’t want to be spending three or four minutes replanting a resource. That’s not you playing the game badly, you’re being punished for an invisible dice roll.
And, because only your giants can place resources, if your forest giant is stood planting and replanting bushes for one town, you have to let all the others go wanting. You’re forever moving your giants from one town to another, micromanaging their needs, and fighting with the chance that you won’t cast the aspect you need.
Times like this beg the question, doesn’t an almighty deity have better things to do than planting blueberry bushes for lazy townspeople?
It’s not just the dice you’ll be fighting with but your followers themselves. Growing a town too fast makes its population greedy. They build armies and attack their neighbours. Even, sometimes, attack your giants.
At this point it is wise to placate them with an earthquake or several.
This greed mechanic is a clever complication of the core game, one which forces you to reign in your towns’ development, but it’s a complication which undermines any reward of overcoming the learning curve of the symbioses. When you lean how to create a bountiful ecoysystem, you’re punished for implementing your theory, unless you deliberately slow yourself down.
Again, this is all while playing against a level timer.
You begin to feel the different parts of the game pulling against one another: one part wants you to master the numbers game and create a perfectly organised system that generates the most resources possible; while another wants you to play sedately, gradually developing a vibrant, peaceful world.
It’s a fundamental conflict. The reward for playing slowly doesn’t counter the punishment for playing quickly. While rapid expansion creates greedy, aggressive townspeople, gradual development doesn’t create altruistic, friendly people; peaceful towns don’t communicate with one another, trade, or peaceably interact. Your reward for slow growth is non-conflict and that’s not as satisfying as towns that talk to one another.
Reus becomes a game about micromanaging many pockets of civilization at a jarringly reined in pace, and there isn’t a sense of reward for your efforts. The different mechanics of the game – symbioses, aspects, and greed – conflict, creating a feeling that you’re are tinkering with a world, but never fully in control of it.