The ads and marketing for The Sims Medieval have presented it as an RPG fantasy derivative of its best-selling franchise, but the game is actually more akin to Peter Molyneux's Populous or the more recent WiiWare game My Life as a King. Which is really a shame because, if you're like me, playing as the god of a fantasy kingdom will likely sound a lot more fun than wearing period dresses and prancing about with that guy from Scrubs.
"You are the Watcher," says Patrick Stewart in the opening cinematic of The Sims Medieval, establishing you as the ultimate power in the universe. You are god, and the Sims that populate the countryside pay homage to you, praying that you will lead them out of misery. The Sims series has always been considered a derivative of god games but this latest installment is the first to actually deify the player. When the priests of your kingdom reflect on the Watcher, they raise their hands and look directly at you, the player. I loved the weird meta-ness of it all, that you the player are a part of the fictional world which you are controlling with mouse clicks and keystrokes.
None of that would matter if The Sims Medieval didn't deliver something fun to do with those clicks, which, thankfully, it does. If you're familiar with how to give commands in The Sims, you won't need much of a tutorial here. Your Sim interacts with the environment and other Sims by clicking a series of radial menus, and you still must manage each Sim's mood as dictated by its idiosyncrasies, but merely inhabiting the simulation is no longer the point. You have simple stories and quests that you must complete, or your Sim will eventually die. Dedicated Sims players may miss the open-ended-ness, but I found the structure satisfying.
That's not to say you don't get to make choices or personalize your experience. The game begins by casting your monarch. Is he a fat, gluttonous pig? A beautiful but sensitive Queen? Similar to The Sims 3, each Sim under your control has two traits and one flaw and these determine how it goes about its business. The first king I created was dedicated but licentious, meaning he might have more responsibilities and suffers a lack of focus if he hasn't kissed another Sim in a while. Distilling a person's personality into three characteristics is usually pretty tough, but the system provided enough variety to make most Sims feel unique.
The Sims Medieval further refines the eight status bars (comfort, bladder, etc.) in standard Sims play to just hunger and energy, but these are really only important in how they impact each Sim's focus bar. Sims gain focus by eating, sleeping and following your traits. They lose focus by neglecting daily responsibilities - two random tasks that your Sim should complete every day - or through bad things happening like losing a friend or being mauled by a bear. The whole challenge (if you can call it that) of the game is to keep the Sims focus up as it accomplishes tasks. The simplified focus system works well considering the gameplay shift to mini stories through quests.
Each quest stars one of your hero Sims. You start out playing the aforementioned monarch, and your first quest involves hiring advisors and inviting foreign dignitaries to your castle, establishing the court of your kingdom. Another instructed me to travel to the village shop to purchase a new sword and equip it from the inventory. The tasks are generally entertaining and written well with the trademark humor of The Sims. Finishing a quest nets you resource points which you use to build structures in your kingdom, some of which can attract new Sims. The smithy needs a blacksmith, the tavern unlocks the bard, and the wizard's tower, well, you get the idea. You can then go on different quests with the new sims, leveling them up and earning more resource points. The circle of life continues. (Cue baby Simba.)