Version tested: PC
Here's the best thing I have to say about The Sims Medieval, and it's coming at you right this second like a fat child scudding down a water slide. The Sims Medieval is like nothing else I've ever played. It's not even like The Sims.
The Sims Medieval is best described as an interactive soap opera, set in a strictly candy-coated interpretation of the Middle Ages. As the game begins you're given charge of a handsome king or pretty queen of your own design, a small castle, and a whole lot of empty land. Yet while this is a Sims game, Medieval does not then set you free, allowing you to simply climb a sturdy ladder of self-improvement or create a self-important fat dude who'll make womanising laps of the neighbourhood.
Rather, your time with Medieval is structured around "Quests" which, if we're running with the soap opera analogy, could be compared to individual episodes. Once you've picked your quest, be it finding a lost boy or dealing with a growing populace of subterranean crab people, you pick a Hero (to start with the choice is limited to your monarch) and only then does the game begin following them in the traditional and much-loved Sims style. As usual, you don't have direct control, but you can click on any person or object to set your little computer person off and interacting with them or it in a manner of your choice.
How your character's quest enters into this is more than a little bizarre, because the game prompts you with what to do every step of the way. Down there towards the bottom of the screen will be a chunky icon saying "Go ask Harris the Stranger about these disappearances!" Or something.
So you click on Harris the Stranger and select the options that reads "Ask about disappearances". This complete, the icon will tell you to do something else, and so on. Any given Quest is only ever a series of simple instructions – fight her, take this, give it to him, take it back, read it, talk to him, go home, put this guy in the stocks, go to bed, eat an apple until finally you get a CONGRATULATIONS, Quest Complete! It's as if the adventure game genre had sex with a to-do list.
The actual game is in making sure that your Sim is simply in a good mood as they run all these errands, which is referred to as their "Focus". For instance, if you eat a good meal, win a duel and successfully complete your hero's two daily tasks (the Blacksmith might have to repair a sword and mine some ore, while your King or Queen could be expected to hold court and perform the excellently non-specific "Write New Laws"), these collected buffs will have your Hero Sim so blissfully focused that they'll soar through the various tasks of the Quest like some feudal Kriss Akabusi. Miserable Heroes will, conversely, botch everything they touch.
Medieval is The Sims reimagined as something much more mercenary. Relationships and furniture were real currency in The Sims, and that's not the case here. While you can happily ignore a quest and simply live out your chosen hero's life, you're doing so without any sense of progression or purpose. What you really want is the XP that levels up your Heroes and the RP that lets you add new buildings to your adorable realm. These bring new Heroes of their own: a church brings a priest, the tavern a bard, the wizard's tower a wizard, and so on, and then each of these new Heroes can partake in quests and be levelled up even further.
Back when I was playing The Sims 3, I would think about what kind of day my stinky bachelor had gone through before deciding which of the three meals in his repertoire he would cook. I am saying that actual thought would go into deciding what imaginary meal my imaginary man would eat. But it's not just that I don't care what my Sims eat in Medieval – I don't care if they eat at all. I'm trying to min/max my way through each day, driving my poor little Heroes through the night in an effort to finish each Quest as fast as possible.
Yet despite this, there is something wonderful about seeing your community come together on a larger scale. Whoever you're actually controlling, all other Heroes and members of your realm go about their daily lives, so a mission where you get your fire-and-brimstone Jacobean priest to give a terrifying sermon might see your realm's Knight and his son cowering in the front row. It really surprised me; as callously as I was playing the game, I grew to love the community I was building, which fast becomes a rich and colourful place.
Almost as rich and colourful, in fact, as the minute-to-minute game is empty and frustrating. To say that there's no challenge isn't quite fair, it's just that all of the challenge is in the wrong place. Since your (invisible) percentage chance of completing a task is only ever a matter of how focused your Hero is, you spend most of your time wrestling with this sad variant of risk/reward where the only thing at risk is your own free time. Do you go and fight the dragon and probably fail, leaving you with even less focus than you started with, or do you go to bed, do your duties as a knight, go into town, buy some boar meat, cook a good meal and then fight the dragon?
Other sources of difficulty include the interface – or more specifically how you're constantly trying to tug your character away from their irritating yet commendable programme of drinking, vomiting, laughing and getting mugged – and also the camera, which tries to swirl majestically around the realm but typically leaves anything you want to interact with out of shot.
But thinking of my town, and my terrible playwright who can't hold his liquor, and my queen whose parents were eaten by whales (she finds it soothing to go to the beach and screech in defiance at the sea), I do want to forgive this game.
Gradually assembling this whole town of pantomime personalities and then seeing each of them grow – or at least level up – as a character is a wonderful idea. Hollow as the game itself might be, the exterior has more than enough charm to tease you onward. If EA can just pull the core concept out of the dark ages, what comes next should be worth everyone's time.
7 / 10