When you open the box for The Sims Medieval, the most conspicuous thing that you'll find is a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for Medieval Times Dinner Theater. It is very rare that a coupon is able to set the tone for a game, but this one perfectly sets the tone for The Sims Medieval. Do not come in expecting serious, dramatic, hard medievalism. Instead, come in as if you're going to a Renaissance Faire but with the signature Sims feel. Some things should never change, and The Sims Medieval steadfastly refuses to place realism above fun and humor. This works almost entirely to its benefit and provides a stand-alone entry that allows casual fans to enjoy many ridiculous Sims elements, with the evolved controls and general polish of The Sims 3.
Like the latest mainline of the Sims series, Medieval is actively story-based. The story, as explained in an opening cut scene narrated by Patrick Stewart, casts the player as a Watcher, who is an overgod of sorts. People came and begin to worship you as a god. Unfortunately, you have run into an epiphany: "People ... are dumb." They manage to quickly bring their civilization to ruins. You decide that you must start nudging people to take better paths, such as not grabbing cheese from the mouth of a dragon or doing a better job at preserving interpersonal relationships. You soon realize that, too, is insufficient for you only have so much time in a day. Fortunately, an oh-so-handy king (or queen) and allies are approaching. Guide them, and you may be able to build a great kingdom or a glorious governmental failure. It's your choice.
Medieval is split into scenarios, each of which consists of a series of quests in a predefined environment. The quests are mostly centered on your royal, who is always the first sim you create. While you can choose a few defaults, the game neither rewards nor punishes your taking the time to build them in detail, and it even lets you tweak the appearance after the game starts. As you complete quests, you gain reward points that can be used to build major buildings, such as blacksmiths. An unusual element is that each major building has just one Sim that you control, for the Watcher only bothers with the heroes. This comes at a massive loss in precision and automates more of the game than many fans may be comfortable with, but it makes it much easier to prevent your Sims from doing anything stupid.
The control of individual Sims has also been streamlined. The needs have been reduced to Hunger and Energy, while one meter represents general productivity. This is important because the productivity of any Sim that you can control is indicative of the productivity of every sim around them. A productive king is a productive kingdom. The stack of commands remains fairly varied and appropriately context-sensitive, but misclicks are usually rewarded with things going hilariously wrong. Those taking the game seriously are encouraged to save early and often, before they, say, accidentally send a foreign ambassador to the stocks.
Fortunately, hero Sims often think about what they should be doing. Unless you've set them to do so automatically, though, they won't act without your orders. This can be a good thing because they often choose a bad path or forget about subtle-but-important things, such as needed resources. Conveniently, the game maintains its avoidance of getting into the nitty-gritty; woodcutting is not a minigame, and combat does not require specification of maneuvers. However, this comes across a major side effect when combined with the largely automated populace: You often spend significant amounts of time living up to your title of Watcher.
The primary thing that saves Medieval's gameplay, aside from its bevy of plots and ever-expanding array of options is the same thing that always saves The Sims: its distinctive brand of humor. It's designed to let the player sit back and witness the ridiculous, and there's always surprising attention to detail. The Simlish language is adapted to an Old English tone, and descriptions are often filled to the brim with "WTF" moments, so it's rewarding to simply poke around the interface, and this encourages observation as a central tenet of gameplay. The result, while more passive than many Sims games, captures the essence well: Create people, throw them in pit and witness the madness.
The sense of humor is represented favorably in the presentation. Graphically, Medieval looks like what you'd expect: It's the Sims 3 engine dipped in Medieval elements. The animation is nothing to gawk over, but there's plenty to giggle about, and it's not distracting once it has ceased to be humorous. The game places a few unusual limitations on the graphics — the insides of buildings are only viewable from a fourth-wall-free angle, for example — but generally, the environmental limits are about as noticeable as they are in the main series: They're present but don't get in the way.
Unexpectedly, the game's audio may be one of its strongest points. From Stewart's introduction to an array of enjoyable music that goes out of its way to avoid being conspicuous, this is an excellent example of how to use sound to paint or supplement a picture. In particular, this is enhanced by the game's ever-strong use of Simlish to communicate the emotions of characters with surprising detail.
The game has a few minor quibbles. While its system requirements are excellently suited to even modest laptops, Medieval uses exactly one form of security: a good, old-fashioned disc check. Second, the game implements the online-locked DLC, so gamers on the go may not be able to get at shiny bonus items, which currently remain the only DLC in the game. Third, and most significantly, is the fact that this game is not for all Sims fans. As mentioned above, it's significantly streamlined and partially meant to be watched and enjoyed. You will not be managing the Sims in detail, nor will you create entire kingdoms of your real-life buddies, celebrities, etc. More than anything else, this breaks the game for some of the hardcore fans, but more casual fans shouldn't find it too troubling.
Overall, The Sims Medieval does exactly what it was meant to do: Be a more casual, standalone Sims to pull more casual fans into the series. It's a fine first taste of Will Wright's highest-selling work, and the lack of expansion plans mean that it feels full and complete right out the gate. The hardcore, however, need not apply.
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