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.)

But there is death, too. If you ignore a quest for too long, your Sim will get arrested and put in the stocks where other Sims will laugh and throw tomatoes at him. Once that happens, your Sim’s focus is pretty much shot and they will get thrown in the Pit of Judgement to fight it out with the monster there. An amusing animation plays, and the Grim Reaper arrives to take the Sim’s body, leaving his worldly possessions for the next Hero you recruit. But, if you’re like me, you’ll just reload an early save game. Of course, The Sims Medieval makes it annoyingly hard to load a game, and there is no quick save option. Perfectionists beware.

Even though each of the ten professions has a unique mechanic, the game starts to feel a little samey after only a hours. Yes, it’s interesting to reap inspiration from your surroundings with a bard – the inspiration tiles going into the inventory – and then using those to write an awful play called “Three Little Ladies and a Pizza Place.” And, sure, I got a laugh placing leeches on patient’s faces as the doctor, but, in general, most of the game involves talking to this person or entering that cave and waiting for status bars to fill up.

Controlling the camera is a pain in the ass. Your kingdom grows around a fixed point called the Watcher’s Eye and you can pan and tilt this far-out bird’s eye view or zoom into various buildings. But there’s no middle ground. Following your Sim as he or she walks around is great, but they will often get obstructed, forcing you to wrestle with the camera to even see what’s happening. Most of my camera complaints would have been alleviated if The Sims Studio just allowed you full 360 degree control, but instead we’re left with a hybrid control scheme that doesn’t satisfy anyone.

If you are so inclined, and I know a lot of people are, you can furnish each Sim’s building with beds, window dressings and professional accoutrements to your heart’s content. But good luck if you want to knock down walls. You’re stuck with the basic floor plan of each building, diagonal walls, warts and all. The lack of control didn’t bother me personally as I never mucked around with furnishing much in The Sims, but if you wanted to design your perfect castle, you might want to look elsewhere or wait for the inevitable expansion pack.

As you progress, minor strategic elements start to emerge by encouraging replay through a system called ambitions. The starting ambition, New Beginnings, teaches you the basics of constructing buildings and managing Sims. You are then encouraged to try new ambitions in a new kingdom, starting from a single monarch once again, to accomplish a specific goal like annexing as much territory or training efficient workers. Here’s where balancing which quests you take and carefully spending resource point rewards finally becomes important, but it takes a long time to get to the challenge for more advanced players. There’s also an achievement book that functions as a kind of ledger to show off how good a player you are.

The Sims Medieval seems custom made for a player that loves managing resources and time efficiently, but was chagrined by the directionless of The Sims. Using RPG elements like inventories and quests to tell funny stories with light fantasy elements and shape the life of your kingdom is a great way to introduce structure to tried-and-true gameplay. It’s not a perfect game by any means, but The Sims Medieval does enough right to keep sucking time from my life into managing an imaginary one.

Bottom Line: EA wagered that adding fun new game elements to its blockbuster franchise would work, and The Sims Medieval succeeds sufficiently to start its own branching franchise. Expect an expansion pack or ten.

Recommendation: If you like The Sims, you’ll likely dig them in medieval form. The Sims Medieval is also worth picking up if you love the fairytale world of King’s Quest or were frustrated with the lack of story in generic Sims. But if you’re into hardcore action RPGs, I’d steer clear.

[rating=4]

This review is based on the PC version of the game.

What our review scores mean.

Game: The Sims Medieval
Genre: Simulation
Developer: The Sims Studio
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: March 22, 2011
Platform: PC, Mac
Available from: Amazon (PC/MAC)

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