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Reus reminds me a lot of SimCity Societies in that it’s about fitting together distinct imaginative pieces into a functioning whole. In the case of SimCity Societies, the pieces are buildings, of course. Each building has unique properties, feeding into and feeding off the city in different ways. But in Reus, the pieces are plants, animals, and minerals. And not the usual wheat, deer, and iron. Reus is full of weirdly specific things like dandelions, stoats, and topaz, each with very different characteristics, each interacting with other bits in sometimes intuitive, sometimes strange, sometimes surprising, and almost always delightful ways. You could have guessed that foxes like having chickens around. But did you know that gold is less valuable as there are more gold mines on the planet? Did you know that aloe vera’s medicinal power gives you extra technology for nearby animals? Or that some banks really groove on chili peppers? Or that the prized prey variant of the market pays considerably more for dangerous predators?

After the jump, the ecology of Reus is nothing if not unique

God games have a checkered recent past. What do Spore, From Dust, and Black & White have in common, aside from being god games? They’re not very good. So it might be damning with faint praise to call Reus one of the best god games since, well, Populous. Or maybe Majesty.

Reus understands that a god game isn’t just about shoving stuff around and then watching other stuff happen. From Dust, for instance, took from Populous the idea that moving dirt around was sufficiently divine. But the difference between From Dust and Populous is the difference between a dump truck and a deity. Even gods need gameplay, and Reus’ gameplay is all about fitting together myriad pieces of a wildly imaginative ecology in the pursuit of a more prosperous planet.

The catch? People.

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Most god games suppose people are a resource. For instance, the idea behind Molyneux’s god games is that gods want people to worship them, whether out of fear or adoration. But Reus is more accurately about a planet, and the planet wants prosperity, and prosperity takes something more than plants, animals, and minerals. Prosperity takes the crafting hand of humankind, which can be unpredictable, warlike, greedy, and treacherous. You don’t usually lose a game of Reus. But when you do, it’s because humanity has betrayed you.

In Reus, natural resources create cities. Nomads create cities near plants, animals, and minerals. Eventually, a city will propose a project. These are advanced buildings that need certain resources to power them, and that then provide huge bonuses that feed into the planet’s prosperity. Early on, the projects are simple. A granary needs 20 food, and it will give me a bonus for plants in its radius.

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So here’s where the giants that are my means for interacting with the world come into play. The lumbering beasts, under my direct control, plant plants and maybe throw in a chicken patch for its synergy with blueberries. The granary pops up and with it the city offers an ambassador to the giants. The ambassador rides on the giant’s shoulder and unlocks a new power.

I’ll need these new and more powerful powers, because cities will eventually propose advanced projects that might require completely retooling the town, piling up bonuses, and making the most of Reus weirdly delightful upgrades and synergies. So now a town wants an observatory? Which requires how much technology? Is that even possible?

So I get down to planting herbs, which give technology, next to quartz mines, which also give technology. The two get bonuses when they’re next to each other. And more importantly, certain buffs — giants can apply buffs — let me upgrade them into phosphorus mines surrounded by peppermint fields. It’s now a crazy exponentially better font of technology. Of course, I also have to make a token amount of food and wealth, and as the deadline for the observatory nears, I nearly blow it by not having enough food. A few quick schools of mackerel on the far coast save the day.

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Ideally, the observatory would give me a colossal technology boost for having nearby coffee and tea. But I haven’t unlocked those resources yet. Reus has a long-term unlockable scheme whereby I have to accomplish achievements to unlock certain resources and projects. I just got hemp, aluminum, plums, musk deer, and iron for my next game.

For instance, I’m trying to meet the goal of getting a prosperous settlement using only animals and minerals. Basically, the people of Lushrock (Reus is kind enough to name my settlements for me) are the opposite of vegetarians. As Lushrock grows, it wants a school first. Easy enough. A little food, a little tech, done. All in the course of growing a settlement. Furthermore, every project has several variants. This school is the God of the Hunt variant, which earns Lushrock extra food for every animal within its borders. Perfect for people who don’t want any plants anyway!

Projects go through several stages. The next stage for Lushrock is a proposed Sacrificial Altar. I like the sound of that! Even if one of the requirements is destroying another settlement. This Sacrificial Altar demands the destruction of Earthvalley. A quick earthquake from my stone giant satisfies that requirement easily enough.

The Sacrificial Altar with the Animal Warrior variant gives a huge food and wealth bonus for the presence of certain specific animals. For my purposes, the foxes are the most feasible. A stoat will morph into a fox with the application of a predator buff. But to unlock the predator buff, my swamp giant needs a desert ambassador. So here I am, helping a new desert settlement build its toolshop so it’ll give me an ambassador to let my swamp giant upgrade my stoats to power my sacrificial altar with foxes, at which point I will nearly double Lushrock’s food level and boost its wealth by 50%.

Does it sound complicated? It eventually is. It takes a while to get here, and there are plenty of lower level achievements to chase. Once you get to the harder challenges, Reus can be a little bit brutal. Among the cool secondary systems is the concept of greed. If a city is allowed to grow too fast too soon — and if you don’t balance this growth with a resource called awe to keep the people in line or another resource called danger to keep them occupied — it can get warlike against other settlements. Basically, it can tear down what you’ve helped create. Sometimes you want this. For instance, I’ve been trying to do a challenge for one of my cities to earn six war badges (a city gets a badge every time it survives a war). It’s easy enough to favor one big prosperous cities while letting smaller war fodder sprout up around the planet. But when a city gets too powerful, it can turn on you. Twice I’ve had my giants hunted down and killed. Basically, the people got so powerful they kicked me out of the game.

Not that these giants can’t fight back. It’s trivially easy to kill people and trash their cities. But there goes my hard-earned prosperity.

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As the game goes on, as you climb the crazily complicated chain of cause and effect and synergy, Reus can run away from you. This is mostly an interface issue. There’s a lot of complicated information associated with any given resource, and most of it is readily available. What’s not available is the complicated information about the resources preceding and following. How did I get to these yaks? What are the specific differences between turning this agate mine into a salt mine or a topaz mine? I need the details to play the game as it’s intended to be played. Namely, with precision. But that’s not easy to see in Reus. I’m reminded a bit of trying to keep all the rulers straight in a Crusder Kings II game. Paradox put some serious elbow grease into the interface solution for that game and it very nearly works. Reus, which gives you the option to open a wiki in a browser, can’t really keep up with its own complexity. Either take notes or be a savant.

So now Lushrock wants a circus. I have no idea how I’m going to make that work. These little people and their unrealistic expectations. Sigh. In the end, I didn’t get them their circus. But I did finish enough of the achievements to unlock coffee, gold, and cherries for all my future games. Those things are way better than a circus.

4 stars
PC