22 April 2011

Syn I shal bigynne the game

Well. You knew I was going to have to buy this, didn't you?

The Sims Medieval

The development of The Sims Medieval was under my radar, for no particular reason other than I had simply not been paying attention. I like The Sims in a general sense, though I think I prefer Sims 2 to Sims 3, and that is probably why I wasn't paying attention.

But one day last week, the Viking informed me that I needed to look up this mediaeval Sims thing, because he'd seen an ad 'with that guy from Scrubs ...'

(The Viking loves Scrubs).

Zach Braff? I said.

No, no, the other one. You know, what's his name.

Turk? I said, forgetting the actor's name entirely.

Yeah, Turk! He was all dressed up and doing this 'I'm a spy!' thing.

The Viking then pantomimed a few kung fu/ninja/assassin moves.

Ooookay then.

A trip to the intarwebs revealed the splashy EA web site, the commercials (and outtakes therefrom) featuring Donald Faison, and all the buying options.

Direct download? Sure! The EA store takes PayPal? Even better!

About two hours later (after downloading, installing, and patching), what do we have?

What we have is a sandbox game built on the Sims 3 engine with an RPG quest system grafted onto it. The opening cinematic establishes the player's role as that of 'The Watcher,' the guiding spirit of the land.

As The Watcher, you have the power to recruit heroes who will take on the various challenges facing your kingdom. Your first hero is the Monarch, and as you play unlock additional heroes, including a Knight, Blacksmith, Wizard, and, yes, a Spy.

You have the option of choosing premade characters for your heroes, or creating your own. The character creator is identical to the one in Sims 3, so you get sliders for weight and musculature, an assortment of hairstyles (with and without hats), ability to choose facial features, eye colour, and outfits. You also have the ability to customise colours.

You choose three character traits for your Sim, one of which is a Fatal Flaw. These affect how your Sim approaches in-game events and interacts with NPC Sims.

The aging mechanic and most of the green bars that Sims 3 requires you to fill are not present, so a lot of the tedium of keeping a Sim happy is reduced. There are hunger and sleep bars, meaning your Sim must eat and sleep on a regular basis, but there is no requirement to keep a Sim bathed or entertained. Because there is no aging, you don’t have to worry about your Sim dropping dead of old age before the quests are done, though they may die from other causes. Sims can marry and have children, but the children do not progress into adulthood.

Your Sims do receive buffs from taking baths and eating better foods than gruel. Similarly they receive debuffs from hunger, bad meals, and other discomforts. Buffs and debuffs affect the amount of focus your Sim has, which in turn affects performance on both daily activities and quests. Poor performance on quests earns you a trip to the stocks (and another debuff) so keeping your Sim happy is a good idea.

Hero Sims receive daily responsibilities that need to be met. Part of the game is balancing these with the quest tasks. Some responsibilities are easily achieved -- your blacksmith needs to mine ore anyway, for example -- but others are harder to pull off. There is a debuff for shirking responsibilities, so it's important to keep up with them.

And then there are the quests, which are where the game stops looking like Sims 3 in medieval clothing and starts acting like an RPG.  There is potential for disaster in trying to fuse two distinct game genres, but EA has pulled it off successfully.  Quests in The Sims Medieval are full-blown storylines rather than tasks of the 'go forth and slay goblins until you have collected 40 of their ears' type.  As you perform tasks necessary to advance the story, your characters gain experience and money, which makes them more powerful:  higher levels bring new abilities, and you can buy better equipment at the village shop.  In short, standard RPG mechanics apply to the hero Sims.  At the same time, the storyline structure breaks the questing down into series of tasks that fit into the daily routine of the hero Sims, so the open-ended gameplay that fans of The Sims enjoy is largely preserved.

The quest selection process itself is engaging.  From the kingdom level, you can choose from among a variety of available quests.  Once you select a quest, you may choose different approaches to the problem, which hero will carry out the quest, and which secondary characters may be involved. Not all options are available for all quests, but you can check out all the options before you commit to any given quest.

The tone of the quests (and indeed most of the game) is distinctly silly. If you are looking for a 'dark fantasy' RPG with flawed heroes and Serious Discussions about moral and ethical choices, this is probably not your game. Personally, I appreciate the silliness. Not that I don't like the more serious RPGs, too; I loved Dragon Age: Origins with a fierce and burning passion, but ... well, there was just no ending available in DA:O that wasn't a bummer in some way. A reversion to happy endings, or at least the potential for them, is a nice change of pace.

The money question: how mediaeval is it? About as mediaeval as any three Robin Hood movies you can name, which is to say, not very. EA has done a good job stripping out the various modern tech that piled up in Sims 3 (e.g., cell phones) and either replacing it with something low-tech (e.g., messenger pigeons) or simply eliminating it. The physician has to gather herbs and collect leeches to treat the sick. There are two religious sects; one is clearly modelled on the pomp of the 'high church' and the other equally clearly modelled on the monastic and mendicant orders. The aesthetic is attractively pre-industrial; EA's FAQs state that they deliberately attempted a more painterly style for the game graphics. Some of the clothes and hairstyles are derived from actual mediaeval or Renaissance artwork, too.

And some of them are clearly derived from fantasy art and/or a Renaissance festival. This doesn't bother me particularly, but it's also not, strictly speaking, mediaeval.  In addition to the fashion statements, it's also possible to run your kingdom for quite a while without building churches, there's no scandal attached to sinful behaviour (children out of wedlock?  No big deal), and everything is much cleaner than the real Middle Ages actually were.  On the other hand, The Sims Medieval is probably demonstrably more historically accurate than Dante's Inferno in almost every respect.  (Dante's Inferno was ably reviewed last year at Got Medieval).

Plus, The Sims Medieval has dire chinchillas.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Dire chinchillas.  Top that, Dante.

Geoffrey Chaucer

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