Version tested: Wii
It's funny to think that back when Nintendo announced its WiiWare line-up, the 1500-point (GBP 10.50 / EUR 15) price tag for Square's peculiar role-playing city-builder was the cause of much outrage and hand-wringing. Once you're actually playing the thing, you soon realise it's a small price to pay for a game that could easily have been released on disc at three times that amount without anyone crying foul. My Life as a King is not without flaws, but between this and LostWinds perhaps we'd do better to consider WiiWare a console alternative to Steam rather than a rival to Xbox Live Arcade or PSN.
The game takes place in Final Fantasy's spin-off Crystal Chronicles world, where a poisonous gas - known as the miasma - has covered everything, unleashing hordes of monsters in the process. As My Life as a King starts, the miasma has lifted and our trio of heroes are returning to their abandoned home town. As well as the boy king under your control, there's also Chime, his teleporting mentor, and Sir Hugh Yurg, a Liltie warrior knight. In the centre of town is a giant blue crystal, which imbues the king with the power of Architek - the ability to conjure buildings out of thin air. Doing so uses up the crystal's supply of elementite, a resource that can only be found beyond the city walls. After some lengthy story scenes, which will charm Final Fantasy fans and annoy the pants off everyone else, you're finally allowed to get down to business.
As the king, you're not allowed to go questing, so instead you must build houses and then hire adventurers from the families that live in them. The game is chopped up into daily chunks, and each day allows you to issue behests - or kingly instructions - to your adventurers. Sending them off to explore new areas of the map, or to defeat the boss monsters they discover along the way, is a major component of this and your best way to restock your supply of elementite and unlock new building types.
Progress soon settles into a pleasant cycle of exploring the surrounding terrain with your adventurers, while using the spoils of their quests to expand your town, increasing your population and therefore your potential pool of adventurers. Shops can be added to sell food, weapons, armour and potions, while specialised structures like the mage academies and gaming and training halls allow your heroes-by-proxy to change jobs, rounding out the available skill-base to include the obligatory thieves, black mages and white mages. You can make cash donations to increase the quality of a shop's stock, or to add new skills to the trainable options.
For all this backstage fiddling, the adventurers pretty much look after themselves - they'll spend their wages on the items they choose, head into the wild for more EXP points without your approval and even spend the day in bed if they feel overworked. Yes, the adventurers can be a headstrong bunch. You can't order them about directly, only post your requests and hope that you've managed your resources in such a way that the right adventurers are available to undertake the task. Each new quest appears on the town notice board (you can add more later, so you can have more than one quest on the go at a time) and interested adventurers queue up for the job. You can then handpick the best ones for the job, suggest the less able need some more experience or just send everyone out and bite the bullet when they all come back looking for a day's wages.
Once you unlock the tavern, you can start putting your adventurers into balanced parties, while there are numerous other factors that you can directly - and indirectly - influence to maintain their fighting form. Characters that live close to specific buildings will grow up absorbing the relevant attributes, for instance. An adventurer who lives near the white mage academy, therefore, will be more suited to life as a white mage. Town morale can give them a boost, which you can increase by throwing holidays, making sure everyone has the right amenities and simply by wandering around your domain talking to people. While the game is never overwhelming, there's undeniably a lot of variables to tinker with. Thankfully, it never descends into hellish micro-management, and the prospect of keeping your citizens happy is more of an occasionally fun distraction than a constant chore.
The construction elements are simple enough, and make early comparisons to Sim City seem rather misleading [curses - Misleading Ed]. This is more like Animal Crossing or, if you want a more RPG-flavoured comparison, the rather wonderful Dark Cloud and Dark Chronicle games on the PS2. There are specific blocks in your town boundaries where buildings can be placed, and each structure fits into a basic square or oblong footprint. There's no fumbling about with complex 3D placement tools - just choose where the building is going, choose which way it will face, and it magically forms in front of your eyes. Characters appear with their homes, and go on to form their own friendships and relationships with their neighbours. It's obviously not as complex a social construct as The Sims, but it adds yet another layer of detail to be savoured. For those who remember Bullfrog's Powermonger, with its tiny NPC families that could be followed through rudimentary daily routines, this is the modern evolution of that idea.
In terms of map area, the town actually seems rather small when you first arrive, but as the streets fill up and the skyline rises it becomes clear that there's actually just the right amount of space to play with. You're never hampered by lack of room, but it still develops into a reasonably bustling conurbation with satisfying speed and getting around never takes too long. Should you need to move things around, structures can be demolished and rebuilt, with evicted families bunking in your castle until a new home is ready. Visually the game is lovely, very much at the cuter end of the Final Fantasy graphical spectrum, although it does come with a slightly irritating thin black border and sudden movements can cause an ugly deinterlaced effect on the characters.
Where the game starts to lose points is in the lack of variety. While it's all rather cosy and refreshing to be sending others out to do all the questing and levelling up, as the game rolls onwards claustrophobia does set in. Most of the things you can do are for the benefit of your adventurers, making your kingly duties a rather thankless task. Each day, Chime gives you a report on what your adventurers got up to the day before. You can break this down into fine details, examining each encounter they had, the exact number of hits they landed and the number of health points lost. Click on certain events and they'll even offer up a scripted comment on their escapades. But this level of detail loses its charm as the game goes on, and the simple pleasure of roaming your kingdom chatting with people and waiting for the heroes to return starts to wear a little thin.
One game day lasts for about five or six minutes in real time, so the game is paced rather cleverly to delay this weariness setting in. It autosaves at night, but you don't get your daily report until the morning. Therefore, there's always a reason to play one more day, to try that new building type, to explore that new location or to train up that new adventurer. Thanks to this one-more-go rhythm my first play lasted for about seven hours straight, with no breaks, and that may have been too much in one sitting.
The repetition becomes more apparent when you've worked through 70 days in a row, while the frustration at the action elements being so indirect starts to grow. While the twist on the central RPG concept is commendable, in the long term it doesn't offer enough variety of things to do within the town to compensate for not letting you leave. Maybe if you could actually enter the buildings properly, play some games with the people inside, explore a few subplots. Or do more to personalise your character, and the castle he lives in. Anything, really, to keep long play sessions from slipping perilously close to mindless resource-grinding with a pretty interface.
But then it wouldn't be a 1500-point download, it'd be a full-blown Wii game, and it's probably to Square's credit that such thoughts even crossed my mind. Enjoyed in short delicious bursts, My Life as a King is one of the most impressive downloads offered on a current-generation console. It can't help but slip into routine sooner or later simply by virtue of its offbeat concept, but that shouldn't detract from a game that is overwhelmingly charming, addictive and fresh.
8 / 10