The Sims Medieval is the newest game in the Sims franchise. The marketing for this game would have you believe it is just an expansion pack for Sims 3, but don't be fooled. It may use the same engine, but it is very much its own game. Role playing elements such as leveling up and completing quests have been built in alongside the relationship building and basic human needs of life simulation. The game also begins with Patrick Stewart calling you a god, so it has that going for it.
You are “the Watcher”, the all-seeing deity that has the power to control the actions of virtual people as they live out their virtual lives. Like real people, they have basic needs, but unlike previous Sims titles you only have to deal with two: hunger and energy. Basically, you make sure they eat and make sure they sleep. This means that no longer do you have to send your sim to the bathroom periodically, nor will they refuse to do what you ask because they haven’t sat in a comfy chair in the last ten minutes.
It is here where Sims Medieval begins to show itself as a spin-off instead of an expansion or re-skin. First, you don't have the ability to take control of just any sim in the world. Instead, you have a set of "Hero Sims" with very specific roles that they fill when trying to complete active quests. This may seem limiting at first, but it has always been my play style to focus on a single sim at a time anyway. In fact, a big part of success in the game comes from managing the focus of your hero sims.
To explain, replacing all the other (non-life threatening) status bars is a single focus meter unique to each of your hero sims. Controlling this meter is the heart and soul of the game. Sure, you don’t have to make your sim bathe in the morning, but a quick dip in the tub will “refresh” that sim, giving a nice focus buff for a few of their hours. Likewise, eating better food and having a full night’s sleep will aid in your sim’s focus for the rest of the day. See, focus is a measure of how easily a sim will be able to handle the quests you send him/her on. Just like a typical RPG hero will be more successful if you properly level them up before tackling a dungeon, having your sim do tasks that boosts their focus meter is a wise use of your time.
For those that haven’t played the franchise since the first one, Sims 3 introduced a personality feature that is utilized very well inMedieval. Each hero sim will have two boons and one bane to their personality. Boons are things your sim favors (like intellectuality) and they will get a larger boost to their focus for doing things of this nature (like reading). A bane is naturally something that gives your sim a character flaw that you must work to compensate for. You will find that the single bane will determine how you play that hero sim. For example, if they are a “gluttonous” sim, they need to eat twice as often as a regular one. Ones that are “puny” will have a much more difficult time in battles and get drunk very easily. Handling the pros and cons of your sims is essential to fulfilling the ambitions of your kingdom.
The ambitions are broad, over-arching goals that range from simply making your kingdom larger to seizing power in all of the neighboring territories. You have a selection of quests to choose from. How you approach them, which hero sims you get involved, and how successful they are all works towards adding to your ambition's goal. This works well, as it gives you a choice while also giving you direction. These quests really help in shaping the story you create for your sims. These tasks, combined with their hero type and personality traits, go a long way to making them feel like real people. You can romance other sims, get married, have kids, run around causing trouble in the kingdom, and even die.
The one feature that fans of this franchise will miss is the ability to buy property and construct buildings from scratch. You get a pre-built castle and eventually unlock other buildings, but the walls are all locked. You can customize the patterns on the floors and indoor walls and arrange the furniture in your buildings, though all items have a specific medieval flavor to them. Maybe future expansions will break this rule, but for the moment you can't put a television or lava lamp in your knight’s quarters. While it would have been interesting to build a replica of Castle Hyrule, I’m sure the novelty would have worn thin for most players.
It is quite possible to “win” the game, another relative first for the franchise. Once you have completed your kingdom’s ambition, you've essentially won the game. You can no longer send your sims on quests, so it starts to play like Sims games of old. You can always start over with a new kingdom and play it differently. This is my preferred method, as the quests near the end of the game get rather complex and are very satisfying to complete. Of course, with the ability to win also comes the ability to fail. You can run out of quest points before your ambition is met. Your hero sim can also be killed or die from starvation. One form of death happens when you ignore a quest for too long. While you are not pressured to tackle quests immediately, if you just plain ignore them then eventually your sim will be sentenced to the stocks. In the stocks they will humiliate your sim and then place it before the Pit of Judgment, where you do battle with a monster that you can’t really defeat, so you die. Cue the return of the Sims Grim Reaper. Like all current games, the threat of failure is typically eradicated with intelligent saving and reloading. However, being able to fail adds a welcome challenge to the main gameplay. Previously, the biggest threat your sims faced was dying in a fire… that you started… on purpose. Because that’s what you do without structure.
Like I stated earlier, the game uses the same graphics engine as Sims 3, so it looks just as good. Unfortunately, this means it is still using the same slightly awkward camera system as well. It can be annoying to manipulate the camera as it has a tendency to get stuck on the many pieces of furniture and items in the buildings. Thankfully, the option to just have the camera center on a target sim and follow them is easy to use and will become your friend.
Just like previous games in the franchise, you can get lost in customizing the look of each sim. Instead of making whole families you are only focusing on one hero class at a time, which for some reason makes you want them just that much better looking. Hair styles, face shapes, eye color, etc., are all standard character customizing fare, along with the ability to tweak the color schemes of your very detailed costumes with ease. The animations are very well done, with a touch of over-the-top body language that helps compensate for the inability to truly understand their localizer-friendly “simlish”. Speaking of simlish, it has been recorded with an accent that resembles the stereotypical Olde English that does help them fit into the setting. They have intelligently made enough unique voice tracks and variations within them so that you never feel like all the sims sound exactly alike. The music (as with most simulations) is just a soothing background tone-setter. It won’t put a skip in your step but it won’t start to drive you mad either.
At launch, the title is priced at the normal $50 price point for PC titles. You can find it on disk or through EA’s own digital store for download. Steam fans will have to wait the standard grace period before EA will allow it on the service. Not surprisingly, you will be able to get a long play time out of this Sims title. Ten different hero classes to choose from, four different overarching kingdom ambitions, and thousands of different personality possibilities means that even ignoring the character customization you will be able to play this game over and over again. You can almost smell the expansions coming around the corner to expand the series as well. Though it would be interesting if future expansions added different genres (e.g. westerns, steam punk, feudal Japan, etc.), instead of just giving you different furniture to put in your castle. A fan can dream.
Overall, it is a nice kick in the pants for the franchise. There is an enchanting element to the setting with beautifully animated characters and immersive questing. It will appeal to anybody who has played the Sims but found they wanted a clearer goal to work towards. It’s a little bit RPG, a little bit time-management life-simulator. And it’s a whole lot of fun.