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With how much EA is known for whoring out its Sims franchise with expansion packs and re-releases, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume The Sims Medieval is just The Sims 3: Castles Edition. But if you make that assumption, you’re going to miss out on a game that’s surprisingly different in a lot of ways.
The Sims Medieval is more about going on quests and bettering your kingdom than it is about making families and living out their lives, day in and day out. In that sense, The Sims Medieval adds what many gamers thought was always missing from the franchise: structure and purpose. However, it comes at the cost of some of the freedom that many would say makes The Sims, well, The Sims.
After Patrick Stewart introduces you to the game’s fantasy setting as only Patrick Stewart can, you select a Kingdom Ambition. This is essentially the overarching goal you’ll be working toward as you play. To start, you only have a very basic Ambition to choose from – placing buildings – but as you complete kingdom playthroughs you’ll unlock new goals, such as making your kingdom as financially successful as you can. You’ll then make a Sim – just one. This will be your first hero, which in a way is like a party member in any RPG. You choose a hero to fulfill certain professions as you play, such as a blacksmith, a wizard or a bard. To start with, your first hero is your monarch, ruler of your new kingdom.
Upon first glance, The Sims Medieval seems very much like The Sims 3. Creating a Sim is almost exactly the same, as is the basic UI at the bottom of the screen. But look a little closer and you’ll start to see some big changes. For example, rather than requiring the player to keep track of a million and one needs for your Sim – from keeping them clean to making sure they don’t cry themselves to sleep every night – The Sims Medieval only makes you keep track of how tired or how hungry your hero Sim is, which is a gigantic relief considering everything else you need to accomplish.
You do need to worry about “focus” though, which is a new stat that determines how well your Sim can perform on the task at hand. Things like being tired, injured or lonely may lead to an unfocused Sim who’s more inclined to make mistakes and perform actions slowly, while buffs from eating a good meal, being blessed or getting their first kiss will make a Sim feel like he or she is ready to conquer the world.
You’ll also notice pretty quickly that you don’t have nearly as much control over the camera. You are more or less locked into a position of viewing a building – be it your castle or a tavern – from straight on, like a simple dollhouse with the front wall taken away. At first, this seems like a big and somewhat bizarre step back in terms of player freedom, but in all honesty this view lets you see everything you need when playing the game.
The game progresses through the choosing and completing of quests. You’ll be able to choose from different quests at different times, and they all play differently depending on which hero (or group of heroes) you choose as the main character of said quest. For example, a quest your monarch hero undertakes may involve a lot of diplomacy and talking to other characters, letting you make choices about how to treat neighboring kingdoms or citizens of your own kingdom. The blacksmith, on the other hand, is more likely to be tasked with the production of armor and weapons, or the mining of resources.
When choosing which quests to go on and which characters to tackle them, you have to keep in mind what each choice will do to the health and happiness of your kingdom. There are stats to track for things like the kingdom’s security, culture and well-being, all of which you want to balance in order to keep your people happy. While on quests, you can only control the characters that are active as “primary” and “secondary” heroes. This brings a lot of focus to the gameplay, as you’re often only controlling one or two Sims at a time (though the others are definitely still there and available for interaction), but limits a lot of the sandbox nature you find in previous Sims titles.
There are surprising amounts of RPG elements associated with these quests, too. We mentioned mining for resources, which play a direct role in crafting items such as weapons and potions. Your hero Sims will also level up as they accomplish tasks, getting better at their professions and becoming capable of doing more things. You make and equip gear that has actual stats associated with it, which can affect how your Sim does in battle or while forging new items.
Quests bring an element of fantasy storytelling into the Sims universe, and a lot of it is actually fun to experience. Some of it even affects your kingdom in very drastic ways – such as forcing you to kill your monarch for good. The game doesn’t use this as an excuse to take itself too seriously, though: it’s still full of comedic animation and over-the-top situations, which is a good thing.
After completing a ton of quests on your way to fulfilling whatever ambition you chose at the start, which can take quite a chunk of time, the game essentially ends. Like any good sandbox experience, you can keep playing, but the story is done and you don’t have to worry about quests anymore. To take on a new ambition, you have to start a new game with a whole new kingdom and set of characters. It’s nice to have options for such replayability, but the downside is that you’ll be doing a lot of the same quests over again, and they’re just not as fun on return visits.
There are other aspects of the game, such as responsibilities and religion, which also change things up quite a bit. No matter your preconceptions, this is a surprisingly different Sims experience. It’s extremely refreshing. At the same time, though, some people will miss a lot of the freedom from The Sims 3. It was actually a pretty big disappointment to learn that we couldn’t sit down and build an awesome castle from scratch (how are we supposed to make our Hogwarts replica now?). You can still buy and place items like furniture and decorations in pretty much the exact same fashion as before, but your options are extremely limited.
Making The Sims 3 again in a fantasy setting would likely have been easy, fun and still have sold like crazy, so good on EA for taking a drastically different approach. If you’re of the mind that The Sims has been stale since the original game, this may bring you back. It feels like a Sims product while at the same time feels like something completely fresh and original. But if you don’t like having goals or being too limited in your virtual sandbox, then who are you kidding? You’re probably still playing The Sims 3. Stick with that and let the rest of us enjoy the breath of fresh air that The Sims Medieval brings.
Mar 29, 2011