The Sims Medieval brings some irony to this popular series of life simulations. Whereas the proper Sims games make the mundane aspects of everyday life interesting, this Renaissance faire spin-off takes interesting concepts and makes them mundane. It's initially entertaining, fueled by the peculiar charms that have always made these games so delightful. But eventually, the pleasures of calling the local bard a lack-witted cur are undercut by the sensation that you're just treading water and never really getting anywhere. Of course, you could say this about those previous Sims games, but their joy came from your ability to make a life as worthy as you liked. Just as your little digital people built relationships with each other, so you built relationships with them, and the stories you played out in the game were born of your own imagination. In The Sims Medieval, you don't play out your own stories--you play out someone else's. And you do so over and over again in a weird computer-game version of Groundhog Day. The first 10 hours or so are pleasant ones, and some worthwhile ideas work out rather well. But in the end, The Sims Medieval lacks imagination--and it lacks the tools to let you flex your own.
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The game begins by letting you create a sim called a hero; in this case, your hero is a monarch in charge of a kingdom. Your king (or queen) doesn't have an enormous selection of outfits to choose from, but this is more like Ye Olde Sims, so you wouldn't expect a plethora of sunglasses and tank tops. Luckily, the create-a-style feature from The Sims 3 returns, which lets you customize those garments using various patterns and colors. So, at least initially, you get a taste of that dollhouse appeal you expect coming into the game. You gussy up your monarch, give him or her a couple of traits (fun loving, vain, and so forth) and a fatal flaw (perhaps gluttony or hubris). Then you head to your castle, where you might expect to find raucous adventures or, at least, a chance to exercise your decorating skills.
As it turns out, you find both, but not in ways you might have expected. Your first tasks are to collect flowers, write laws, and defeat a giant bear--an eclectic array of activities for the kingdom's ruler, to be sure, though this introduction is expanded upon in due time. After the multi-hour tutorial (during which, incidentally, you cannot save your game), you are whisked to a kingdom view, where you get the chance to add a new structure to your land and possibly a new hero to create along with it. Some structures, such as the lighthouse, don't come with a new sim. But if you build a wizard's tower, you get to create a wizard to live within it. If you go for the barracks, you get to design a knight to enjoy it. Each of these heroes can interact with various objects, and each other, in typical Sims fashion. Sidle up to locals and get to know them. (Or spit in their faces, if you fancy your sim one of those aforementioned curs.) Head to the fireplace and whip up some vegetable stew or bear meat soup. Head to the docks or to a local stream and see if you can catch a few fish. You can also use a chamber pot, take a bath, or enjoy the tunes from a music box, but you don't need to give the usual basic needs too much concern: The only such needs you're required to meet are hunger and energy.
Religious conversions in The Sims Medieval are a quick and easy process, just as they are in real life.
Different heroes get entirely different sets of skills outside of these basics, however. Take the Peteran priest. She can convert locals to the Peteran faith, deliver sermons, pray, and evangelize out in front of the church. Your doctor collects leeches from streams, gathers herbs and flowers, and treats citizens in a creepy-looking contraption. Some of these new elements are fun to play with and exude the usual Sims silliness and tongue-in-cheek melodrama. The bard, for example, writes poems and recites them to others. To make him do so, you have him talk to other sims for inspiration, visit the docks and ponder the night sky, or just hang around the forest. Once he has a variety of subjects to write about, you send him to his desk and choose what subjects to write about, and he puts pen to paper. Or perhaps you'd rather he write a play. In this case, you follow a similar procedure, but once the play is complete, you recruit an actor, and the bard and his protege act out this comedy or tragedy on the stage at the local tavern. It's a joy to watch this little play come to life, with the sims hamming it up like community theater thespians taking on Macbeth.
These are neat twists on the Sims formula, and at first, they're different enough and entertaining enough to inspire the benefit of your doubt. Each campaign (called an ambition) is divided into a series of quests, which you choose from a list after you complete the latest one. Quests have you controlling one or two sims, using these skills to find out, for example, what disease might be affecting the populace or where you might find a proper suitor for the queen. When taking on a quest, you might be given multiple ways to approach it. An evil witch has returned. Do you marry her, rob her of her power, or kill her off for good? Only certain sims (or pairs of sims) can carry out certain paths, so the king takes the marriage path, whereas the wizard (or the physician, or the priest) takes the power-robbing path. From here, you control one or two heroes and perform individual tasks that lead to quest completion. This means having the blacksmith forge weapons, the merchant trade in faraway lands you never get to see, and the bard write a play so magnificent that the local critic declares it a perfect work of art. As they write, study, and pray, your heroes level up, opening up new possibilities. (Make armor faster! Fight more effectively!)