Editor's Note: After the publication of this review, Maiyannah and the CEO of Frogdice (developers of this game) had a rather public row over the addition of Steam Refunds, since that person disagreed with their addition. While this came after the review, in the interests and spirit of full disclosure, we note it here.
ReignMaker is a hybrid city management/match-3 game with tower defence elements developed and published by FrogDice, Inc. I suppose this is the part where I hand in my "hardcore gamer" card of something, because while I'd be the first to bemoan the many derivative casual games utterly clogging up the App Store or Google Play, I actually don't mind and indeed can quite enjoy a decent casual game. So I suppose it seems prudent to mention here that if you're someone turned off by those more casual kind of games, you need not read much further; while ReignMaker mixes it up a decent bit and builds on the formula of match-3 games, it is at it's heart one, albeit one with a city-building meta-game.
The Match-3 gameplay at the heart of ReignMaker
is well-designed and solid, with an interesting addition as well
There are essentially two game modes to ReignMaker: a city-building game of light complexity that serves as the meta to a core mashup of match-3 with a sort of tower defense-esque element. The object of the match-3 segment of the game is to arrange the rows in such a way as to "fire" projectiles of various magics at enemies that advance in lanes arranged to key and tie into the match-3 grid's rows. So if an enemy is advancing in the second-to-last lane, you would want to make a horizontal match in that row, or a vertical match that includes a piece in that row. Each of the pieces corresponds to a different magical "element" of sorts, and provides different visual effects, and if you improve them through the metal, other effects unique to them as well.
Having the element of having to match to specific rows to prevent the attacks certainly adds an element of pressure and skill to a usually fairly easy game mechanic, and I rather appreciated that. It's certainly an addition that keeps you on your toes, though it does make the difficulty increase somewhat exponentially as you go through progressive overland map "locations" that provide the game's progression. To it's credit, I didn't feel it was an unduly harsh difficulty curve, though that can be a somewhat subjective preference I suppose, and I can't really speak to what a more dedicated match-3 game player may feel with the game. I never felt it was unfairly difficult however, and to me, that is the key thing.
One thing I think is assuredly worth noting is unlike some match-3 gameplay, the various tiles are differentiated by more than colour, but by shape as well, which is of note to players with colour deficiency disorders as it means that it's still quite playable for them, whereas some match-3 games that do not do that become unplayable for people with that condition.
The city-building meta is also a good add,
but I feel it could have been capitalised on a bit more
I think, perhaps, in thinking that, I'm probably a little spoiled by the quite inventive meta-game that Age of Empires online offered, as ReignMakers is by no means bad, it's merely simplistic. You're offered a variety of buildings you can build, and they essentially provide the upgrades meta-game. To give an example, there's a armory location you can build, that then provides a variety of weapon items you can research, and then produce at the blacksmith, as items to use during the match-3 for various effects.
There's a very small amount of actual city building, but it's threadbare and kept likely intentionally quite simple, as you have some production buildings that basically serve to draw in more villagers, who then produce resources at a steady rate, in traditional browser-game style. They have a storage limit, so you can't game it by just leaving the game open, which is probably a good thing, but I suspect may frustrate some. If you're wondering what I mean by storage limit, the resources are stored in the building and then you go to the building's dialog box to collect into your central resource pool. It helps pick up the slack somewhat if you're struggling at any point with the match-3 play, which I feel is great, as it offers a way for the player to overcome the difficulty and thereby control it if they feel that tower defense aspect that ReignMaker adds makes it too difficult for you. It's very shrewd a decision, to add that, I feel.
The other element that the story meta offers is occasional policy decisions to make, Fable 3-style, that affect the development of the village and help give it a certain feeling of "flavour" as the various threads and the like develop and give that village something of a feeling of personality. No doubt that is the point and it is rather effective in doing so, though again it's kept fairly low key.
You know, I'm not quite decided on the simplicity of mechanics here; it's a difficult balance that ReignMaker strikes, and part of the reason I appreciated it so well is that it does so well in balancing the various mechanics against each other, none of the core mechanics feeling vastly more important than the other, so the problem of course with wanting certain ones more fleshed-out would meddle with that balance. For my part, the less-complex nature of those mechanics didn't bother me too much. So what did bother me about ReignMaker? Well..
The production values in ReignMaker aren't the greatest
That's not to say the game looks bad in my opinion, but neither does it look terribly game. It uses a sort of exaggerated, cartoonish 3D that puts me in mind of the XBLIG section, and I'm just going to say it - a lot of games do it and I don't think any of them have really done that style in a way that really appeals to me. Yet, again I must concede that is a personal preference, and it's well-presented in that particular style, for what it is worth.
The one thing of the production values that I feel more confident in saying is just bad is the music, and I'm sorry FrogDice, I know you're indie and I certainly don't expect the same sort of sweeping orchestral soundtrack that a AAA game might utilise, the soundtrack on offer here is generic and rather repetitive. It just starts to drone and grate after a while, and it found myself doing without it.
There is a lot of character and personality to ReignMaker
And that right there is why I feel a bit bad ragging on the soundtrack above there. This is a game where a lot of effort went into the game and it's backstory. It's a project of passion, and it shows through in the character of the writing, from the achievements to those edicts, to the background lore, and also in the solid programming and design of the game, whatever I might think of the art style myself.
The game presents the lore with the same sort of codex section that's more common in full-on RPGs, but many Tower Defense games also include, detailing the bestiary of the land with colour and flavour both. I quite enjoyed reading through it and I note that because you're talking to the same person who usually blazes through RPGs never reading such things, no matter how often the Nameless One nagged me telling me he'd updated it.
By the by, I quite enjoyed ReignMaker, even in spite of misgivings with the art style and music, and my one big criticism here has to be the price point, at 16.99 CAD I unfortunately can't say I think it's worth that much. But see it on a sale for 5 or 10 CAD? I'd say you'd get that much out of it; I certainly would feel like I did.