Review: Sims Medieval
What would it take to make me enjoy a Sims game at this point? Sims games have never really had compelling goals and no real way to fail. You are simply given a sandbox and told to create. This works to a point, but eventually everything just feels like "going through the motions". Why was I trying so hard to make money? To buy the best car in the game? What would that really get me? The more questions I asked myself about the goals I created, the more everything felt hollow to me. It was with this previously established mindset that I approached The Sims: Medieval. I had mistakenly thought that it would be a simple extension of The Sims 3, but with a focus on the Middle Ages. Boy, was I wrong. Much to my surprise, this game is actually a game!
But first, let's establish the basics. The Sims Medieval takes the Sims 3 engine and puts it to use in a quasi-RPG gameplay mechanic. Unlike other Sims games, the point is not a family/social simulator but rather, a kingdom simulator. You create hero sims, not (entirely) to live vicariously through, but rather as part of a team of leaders that will take your kingdom from empty grass field to bustling city. This is accomplished through the completion of quests (there is no real "sandbox mode"). As your Knight, Monarch, Blacksmith, Wizard, etc. complete quests, your resources to establish infrastructure and ability to forge foreign alliances grows. All of this is in service to the higher "ambition" upon which your kingdom was founded (such as imperial expansion, maxing out your kingdom's wealth, and many others).
Each sim you create is a master of his or her domain. The knight, for example, serves as a captain of all the guards in the kingdom and many of his quests involve serving as that leader. The blacksmith is the sole provider of metal-works for the castle and thus, many of her quests would involve filling armor orders and crafting legendary weapons. To make every sim more unique, the old traits system returns from Sims 3, whereby you choose two main personality quirks and one fatal flaw. Some of the more enjoyable traits are things like "Whale ate my parents" and "Hopeful Orphan", whereby you periodically get sad about the loss of your parents and have to do things such as "yell at the sea" to get all of your negative trauma out. Likewise, the fatal flaws range from fun (Drunkard, Compulsive Gambler and Weak Constitution) to downright debilitating (if you want a real challenge, try out Hubris). There are enough traits to keep the different sims from getting too repetitive, but after two or three kingdoms, your characters will all start to blur together.
The quests themselves also run the gamut from fun and surprising (any time your Monarch gets to play a tyrant is always a blast) to silly (Fur protests? In the Middle Ages? Come now, no one had time to give a shit about such worthless "causes" in the Medieval era) to the frustrating (how can I possibly win the Kingball tournament when I'm still suffering from a grievous wound I got during the fencing tournament?!). And the nifty thing about these quests is that, while they do repeat on multiple playthroughs, most have a completely different way of handling the circumstances depending on which hero you choose to tackle them. Sometimes even within the same quest/hero combination, the branching story itself will take you in opposite directions (Do I use the Monarch's authority to force my will upon the quest objectives, or do I use a more persuasive tact?). All of this adds up to an amazing amount of variety in your kingdom's story, and really allows you to roleplay a bit. While there is no morality scale in the game, it's clear that some kingdoms accomplish their goals more brutally than others.
Tone is another area where Sims Medieval departs from previous entries. This game was clearly aimed at young adults and older, as the booze flows freely and murder abounds. Whereas in Sims 3, only the creative evil of the player could willfully kill a sim (who hasn't locked a sim in a dungeon and watched them starve to death?!), in Medieval, there are actual menu options for different kinds of murder. The monarch can sentence someone to death by throwing them into the pit, whereupon they are eaten by the Sims version of the Rancor. There are also duels to the death that can be performed on all but quest-essential sims. Developer Maxis rightfully realized that a true game has to have meaningful consequences to be taken seriously and unlike previous Sims, a small chance of random electrocution wasn't going to cut it this time around.
Even competing religions are introduced as thinly disguised versions of Catholicism and Protestantism. This is the first Sims game where you can recreate North Ireland! And they don't even bother with the lame, politically correct Assassin's Creed "We all have different and equally valid faiths" disclaimer. Good for them. I appreciate the change in tone and hope Maxis continues to cater to an audience older than twelve year olds. Even the ubiquitous humor is aimed more at the adult nerd crowd (I couldn't resist playing the quest "IT'S A TRAP!" as soon as it popped up in the list).
On the flip side, polish is, surprisingly, one area where the game hiccups. Numerous quests can bug out on you for seemingly no reason or for reasons that a beta tester should have caught. And unlike previous Sims games where bugs were mild annoyances with little consequence, quest-breaking bugs in Medieval can have a devastating effect on your kingdom's advancement, sometimes even thwarting your entire ambition goal. Lots of times, these bugs are solved by saving, quitting out and reloading, so rarely is all progress lost, thankfully.
Another somewhat large problem comes in on the design side. While having a limited amount of quest opportunities per kingdom definitely puts a nice amount of pressure on the player to make good decisions, it's also sad that once your ambition is fulfilled, you have to say goodbye to everything you created and move on to a blank slate. You are given the opportunity to continue on in a semi-sandbox mode, but you can no longer try out different quests or level up your sims further, making it more of a hollow limbo-mode. Moving on to a new kingdom wouldn't be so bad, except that the game only came with one predefined plot of land to develop, thus leaving you with a bunch of carbon-copy kingdoms. What this means is that Sims Medieval is not a game to power through. Instead, the best way to enjoy it would be to play one kingdom over the course of a week, beat it, then pick the game up a few weeks later and play through the next ambition. There needs to be time in between kingdoms to cleanse the pallet.
Taken as a piece, The Sims Medieval is a shocker of a good game. It's not going to be an instant classic or probably even hugely popular like the other Sims games have been, but since it has such a tighter focus and more defined goals, it makes for a clearly better gaming experience. No longer am I going through the motions for some nebulous, soul-draining reasons. I know exactly why my spy is brewing up those nightshade poisons. Why, for King and Country, of course.