The Sims Medieval Review
After more than a decade and 100 million copies sold, there's no arguing The Sims is one of the most popular game franchises in history. What could be argued is whether or not The Sims have worn out their welcome. Having done everything in the last ten years from an MMO to player-created content, creator Maxis' hopes for invigorating its aging franchise are now pinned on new RPG-centric Sims title, The Sims Medieval—and by Merlin's beard, they've done it.
Some of us got tired of The Sims schtick years ago. After all, there are only so many hours you can sit and watch a Sim read a book or woohoo with everything in sight. In The Sims Medieval, the open-ended blahs are driven away by a purposeful new Kingdom system which, while keeping you in the role of a creepy God-like voyeur called the Watcher, gives you new motivation to control the Sims' world. After an intro story sequence that explains how over millennia you watched Sim-kind destroy itself and subsequently determined that “people are dumb”, you vow to help the pathetic humanoid puppets rebuild their society by establishing a new kingdom and appointing a new monarch. There's a lot of new stuff (especially for players new to The Sims) to absorb in The Sims Medieval but don’t worry, there's an extensive (and I do mean extensive) tutorial that explains it all.
The first step is choosing an “ambition”, although at first the only ambition available to you is “New Beginnings”, which entails building and populating your kingdom. Once your ambition is chosen, you choose a preset monarch or custom create one of your own and he or she then represents your very first hero. Heroes are the cornerstone of The Sims Medieval; there are ten total and each one is attached to a specific building. Of course, the monarch is attached to the castle and there can do all those good monarch-y things like passing edicts, holding court, writing laws and sending people to the stocks. As a holdover from previous Sims games, heroes still have to eat and sleep and depending on the three traits you choose for them (actually, two traits and one fatal flaw), they also have to guzzle alcohol, gamble, chit-chat or hit on everything that moves in order to stay healthy and happy. Keeping healthy, well-balanced heroes may not be of much interest to you personally, but with The Sims Medieval’s new quest-based gameplay, it's a veritable must.
Quests are bought with quest points; you start out with a set number of these and level your heroes by purchasing quests and sending them out to perform them. An onscreen success gauge monitors your hero's progress during the quest and this rating is determined not only by how quickly they perform the quest tasks but how well they keep up with their daily responsibilities. A monarch for instance, might have to find the time to hear three petitions and write a treaty of ongoing peace in and around her quest tasks; if these responsibilities are shirked, she gets an automatic debuff that affects her focus, thus making quest task completion more difficult. Other debuffs can be earned by failing to eat or sleep, by losing a fist fight, (or in my randy queen's case, by failing to woohoo often enough.) Fortunately, these negative effects can be countered by doing things your hero enjoys as well as taking care of responsibilities and doing crazy things like say, bathing. Maintaining a high success level may seem like sort of a hassle but it's important since it directly affects the quality of your quest rewards.
The most important of these rewards are Resource Points which are essential for unlocking more heroes. On the map, each building shows an RP requirement which must be fulfilled before the building can be placed; once placed, you can create a hero to inhabit that building. In addition to Monarch, there are Wizards, Spies, Blacksmiths, Physicians, Knights, Bards, Merchants and Priests (two kinds) and all of them have unique abilities and activities. Quests become more interesting the more heroes you have, because often you're given the option of choosing which hero to send on a given quest and as the game progresses, you'll often have to select a primary and secondary hero and juggle the activities of both. As heroes level, they gain more and greater abilities—although these upgrades are automatic and can't be chosen—as well as more money to furnish their homes. In Furnish mode, you can trick your heroes' homes out with the latest in Medieval décor, from cobbled floors and fancy tapestries to crystal balls and surgeon's leeching tables. You can also use the money to buy them better gear at the village shop, so they better perform their individual jobs.
In addition to the new Quest system, The Sims Medieval throws crafting and combat into the mix, with uneven effects. For instance, Wizards can craft magical potions, Physicians can craft medicines and salves and Spies can craft poisons. All heroes can cook if they have the ingredients and the right equipment to do so, and all of them can collect some form of resource, be it ore or herbs. These activities generally work well and are fun to do but combat, unfortunately, does not fare as well. While wizards can cast spells and knights can swing swords, the combat system as a whole is pretty clunky and leaves you feeling like you ultimately don't have much control over it. Further, you'll sometimes be unable to steer your hero away from a fight and have to watch helplessly as he gets his ass handed to him and limps away pathetically wrapped in bandages.
Another problematic issue is the heroes' seeming insistence on ignoring commands, which sometimes forces you to execute commands repeatedly. Further, the game is marred by occasional instability and a couple of egregious gameplay bugs that have yet to be patched. I personally experienced three freezes during fifteen hours or so of play, the worst of which happened after having played a long time with no save. The game has no auto-save feature, so if you're forgetful like I am and the game crashes, woe unto you. In addition to the crashes, a bug I encountered multiple times (and confirmed on the Maxis forums) was that certain quest-specific interaction options will sometimes fail to appear on NPCs. What the community discovered is if you save, quit out and restart the game, these options will mysteriously reappear and while it's great to have a workaround, it's still annoying having to use it. And last, the worst, least-forgivable bug of all occurred during an extremely long Physician quest wherein the good doctor discovered a cure for the plague and had to help the people by medicating the town well. Clicking on the well revealed two options: “Add antidote to well” and “Medicate well”. Since the quest text said “medicate”, I (and countless others I saw online) chose Medicate, only to totally hose ourselves. It turns out, the right answer was “Add antidote” and if you chose unwisely, you have to start the entire quest over again because there's no way to re-make the meds. Wah Wah WAH.
While these issues definitely don't argue in favor of The Sims Medieval, the good news is that with patching, bugs can be fixed and the game succeeds in offering a wealth of entertainment that does speak well for it. You’ll enjoy the same random NPC interactions and goofy humor of other Sims games, this time with a Monty Python and the Holy Grail kind of twist. The context really makes for some unexpected fun; who knew how delightful it could be to leech someone, to watch a group of Sims caper madly whenever a Bard starts yodeling or to throw some hapless schmuck into the Pit? These things are a lot of fun to do and each hero offers you different, wonderfully loopy options. Above and beyond hero-specific activities, as your Watcher status grows and your kingdom gains greater renown, you’ll unlock more territories, more ambitions and more quests not to mention the larger diplomatic game of negotiating trade and political relations among rival countries.
It's hard to believe, but by doing something as simple as giving players something specific to work toward, Maxis has taken gameplay that had become as stale as three day old pumpernickel and made it surprisingly fresh. Even with the bugs, by adding some simple RPG and tactical elements to the franchise's existing strengths, The Sims Medieval has achieved a formula that's got the power not only to interest a score of new players but to bring back many a burned-out former fan.