Developer: The Sims Studio / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Played on: PC / Price: $49.99/ ESRB: Teen (Crude Humor, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol, Violence)
Nope, it’s not a Renaissance faire expansion, although I don’t blame you for thinking so considering The Sims franchise has seen three core releases along with 30, count ‘em, 30 expansions and “stuff packs” since 2000. In fact, The Sims Medieval is in some ways such a departure from its series namesake that it’s surprising the game flies under The Sims banner at all. While Medieval bears a sharp resemblance to its relatives, the likeness is often only skin deep. Whereas The Sims have always scratched an itch for closet dollhouse, babysitting, and fetish enthusiasts, Medieval drops much of its inheritance wholesale in exchange for shiny new RPG gameplay, a choose-your-own fairytale presentation and, of course, chamber pots and the plague.
Despite being built on the same engine, the differences between The Sims 3 and Medieval are apparent from square one: the Sim. Gone is the tedious management of your Sim’s every whim and discomfort via [those? this is referencing the Sims 3 mechanic, right?] six status bars, five traits, and a list of favorites that make you feel like an emotional catering service. Instead, Medieval reduces all that into “focus,” “hunger,” and “energy” bars, two traits, and one fatal flaw. It’s a reflection not of an overall simplification of gameplay (you actually feel more busy throughout the day than in previous games), but rather a repositioning of focus.
Medieval puts the ambitions of the kingdom before the ambitions of the Sim. Specifically, the ambition to start with this:
…and end up with this:
So the role of the Sim has changed dramatically. When the game begins, you start by selecting an ambition for your kingdom such as building and populating your realm or generating great wealth. Unfortunately, only one ambition is open from the start, and it could take 80 or more hours to unlock all 12.
Once you’ve selected a kingdom ambition, it’s time to create your first hero Sim, the Monarch. It is the ambition of the Monarch, and that of every Sim below him or her to fulfill the ambitions of the kingdom—Sim desires are always secondary. With a Sim, you select a quest that will improve the kingdom’s aspects (Well-Being, Security, Culture, and Knowledge) and provide resources to construct new buildings such as a wizard’s tower or tavern, which in turn unlock new hero Sims for you to control and complete more quests towards your ambition.
In one quest, the Monarch is acting out of character: hiking taxes and indiscriminately executing people. You know, King stuff. So I choose my physician to perform an assassination. While I complete various tasks such as inconspicuously interrogating the king, I also have to manage two professional obligations per day such as crafting a tonic for a patient in my clinic, and making sure my Sim has eaten and is well rested. Like other Sims games, I can make my Sim use the restroom and Woohoo every Sim in town. Unlike other Sims games, I don’t have to. Such actions provide positive or negative buffs to my focus on the mission at hand. If my focus is high, I do better, if my focus starts to drop, I don’t do as well. Because there’s less to manage at the Sim level, there’s less to make your Sim unhappy, meaning you get to spend more time having fun around town and completing quests, rather than staying home to make sure your Sim isn’t distraught over a smudge on the mirror.
For gamers that found previous Sims games too tedious, the new system is well tuned to provide a sense of regular progress; however, it’s not perfect. Even though you’re running around the kingdom to prepare knights for an invasion or discovering the fountain of youth, the game isn’t designed for visceral action. Most endeavors amount to little more than the “walk to” command, “train with dummy” command, then fast-forwarding until the training progress bar reaches the end. Luckily, Medieval breaks up that familiar humdrum too, with “choose your own adventure”-like options that pop up occasionally during actions. After swallowing a locket, for example, I had the option to either eat a lot in order to vomit up the locket, or wait to extract the item from the chamber pot. While that scenario was mostly for humor, other decisions can result in the permanent death of your Sim, adding an enjoyable weight to your choices.
Another gripe, and quite a major one in light of other Sims games, is the lack of building customization. When you purchase a new building with resource points from a quest, the entire structure is prefabricated and you can only alter its contents and internal appearance. Building a home of your own, much less knocking down a wall, is out of the question. Even worse, when it comes to decorating you home, the Dark Ages provide little variety, and the only new objects I ever bought for my Sims were a washbasin, a larder, and perhaps a two-person bed for requisite Woohooing.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is clearly the attitude the developers took to Medieval’s interface. In most situations, the UI is nearly identical to that of The Sims 3, meaning information is generally well placed and conveys many details through simple icons. One addition I must praise is how much easier it is to quickly bounce the camera around the world. In addition to the standard “find Sim” and “world view” buttons, there’s also a quick list that lets you instantly snap to key locations around the kingdom.
Medieval is by no means a system crusher, but it’s no slouch either. The stylized art style convincingly conveys emotion in your Sims’ faces and objects generally look the way they should. Overall, it’s a good show, and I only encountered minor texture pop-in issues or screen tearing while snapping the camera to the other end of the world with time at maximum fast-forward.
I’ve long taken issue with The Sims’ music selection. That zesty-salsa-elevator-electro-pop on loop is just too much for me to handle, and I often resort to my own musical selection. Medieval’s music, however, is mellow enough to be unobtrusive, yet has just enough flute and lute combo to suggest you’re meddling in the Middle Ages. Ambient sounds of the realm, such as a bard reciting poetry and knights sparring in the distance are a nice touch. God help you if you purchase a music box, though. Sims love it and will pile up to listen to that thing twang for hours, but the 30-second sound loop is enough to make your ears bleed.
Sims purists will likely wretch at this latest entry, as it guts nearly everything that makes a Sims game a Sims game—the Sims don’t even have to pee for Pete’s sake! But if you’re actually playing games to make things pee rather than slay beasts and bed maidens, you’re clearly doing it wrong. This is a great start for a Sims branch that will surely get at least one expansion, and to be honest, it’s already my favorite branch on the tree.