How do you ruin a sandbox game? Take away all freedom of choice.
The Sims always has been a classic sandbox game. The addictive allure of the game is that there were no rules. You could play nurturingly, guiding your Sims through a career ladder doing everything you can to make them successful and reaping the rewards, or you could play as a complete bastard, walling off the front door, letting the fridge empty and the toilets overflow, and watching the occupants slowly go crazy and die. There was always something to do–some little detail to be taken care of–but ultimately the way you played the game was up to you.
The Sims Medieval changes all of that. You'll do exactly what the game wants you to do when it wants you to do it. You have some limited choice in the matter, but deviating too much from preplanned events will give you a Debuff, which lowers your Sim’s Focus, which in turn makes it harder to accomplish tasks. If your Focus is too low, which can happen quite frequently, some tasks we will be grayed out. This in turn can snowball: you're slightly low in energy. . .therefore the option to complete a daily task is grayed out. . .not completing that task causes you to miss a daily Responsibility. . .this in turn makes you unhappy and unable to function the next day. . .leading to even more grayed out tasks. I'm not trying to suggest that your actions shouldn’t have consequences or if you decide not to eat for entire day that you shouldn’t be behind the curve, but it is very un-Sims like to require you to drink potion X or duel villager Y at a precise time or suffer those same consequences.
"It's not really a Sims game at all."
At the heart of the matter, that's really the problem with The Sims Medieval. It's not really a Sims game at all. Where the option of running a Kingdom as a benevolent ruler bringing contemporarily unheard-of freedom to the masses or as complete bastard trying to mount every villager in a way that would make Caligula blush; or growing up as an orphan peasant child to become a gentry Knight; or just trying to raise a plain-vanilla Sims family living under a thatched roof and shoeing horses for a living leads to imagined possibilities that only the Sims franchise could live up to. Instead, we get a pedestrian RPG which while sometimes fun, doesn't deliver on the promise of previous Sims titles.
Sure the quests are fun, even if some are frustrating. The trademark Sims humor is still intact. It’s just that this game will not appeal to fans of the genre. You have a few minutes every game day to do the usual Sims things–build relationships, take a bath, use a chamber pot–but the entire interface and scope of actions feels dumbed down to accommodate the overbearing quest system. Your Sims really only have two needs, energy and food, and those can usually be taken care of easily enough. Where relationships in previous Sims game took some time to build, you can go from being a complete stranger to madly in love with another Sim in a matter of game hours. You will not have the opportunity to raise a family, as you can play only as one hero at a time. So if you wanted to play as a blacksmith family whose first son rises to become king one day, you're out of luck. A little bit quirky humor and the addition of a couple of interesting things to do don’t make up for the overall feeling that there's just something missing about this game.
So that’s what is missing, here’s what has been added: a kingdom to build, quests to follow, and fantasy professions to follow. The implementation of each of these is flawed. To begin with you build a kingdom in a similar fashion to the throne room in Civilization III: as you complete tasks the game allows you additional buildings which are placed at predetermined points in your kingdom and unlock different heroes to play. You have no freedom to place anything, and no real choice on what you place. You get to pick which building which determines which quest you can play but since this has no tangible impact on the way the story unfolds, it really isn't a choice after all. The quest system, at first, is interesting. You choose the quest, and you choose a path on which to complete that quest. The path selects which one of your heroes will play the quest and then you get a set of tasks to follow tailored to that specific hero to complete. When the quest is completed, you get a cash reward, some building points and sometimes a special ability for the hero that completed the quest. The special ability however is useless because it would affect sandbox play and sandbox play in The Sims Medieval is extremely limited. So while it may be interesting to steal souls from the villagers to unlock a genie from a bottle, for my gaming dollar it would be much more interesting to see how wooing the wife of a neighboring ruler would affect diplomacy. The quests are fun and addictive in their own right but nowhere near as addictive as other Sims games. Professions are on their face interesting, but are quickly boiled down to a vehicle to complete more quests. There’s not much reason to research professions other than to complete quests and there’s not much reason to complete the quests other than the game forces you to. Each major implementation introduces a flaw that contributes to this title’s hollow feeling.
There's also a noticeable lack of polish to The Sims Medieval. To begin with the, camera is absolutely horrible. It gets caught, doesn't automatically rotate, is defaulted into a ridiculous pan-and-zoom mode, and is generally kludgy to use. It also gets stuck outside of buildings after your Sims enter, requiring a few extra mouse clicks to re-center it on the active Sim and get inside the building. It doesn’t handle the environment well either: if your Sim is walking in an area obscured by a lot of trees, chances are the Sim will get lost and you will not be able to successfully navigate the camera to find your Sim again. Along with the difficult camera controls, the interface feels little rushed. Text replaces icons on the options menu. The mouse doesn't always know when it's over a villager. Buildings can only be viewed from one angle, making decoration very tough. The tutorial sometimes spends a lot of time pointing out the obvious, but then completely glosses over more obscure points. Some quests are bugged and some feel incomplete. For example, as part of one of the early quests, your Sim will fade out, there'll be a couple of Bronx cheers, and seemingly nothing will happen; this is how The Sims Medieval simulates a bear hunt. A bad camera and rough-around-the-edges interface quirks lend to the overall feeling that this was unfinished.
"…after two dozen hours The Sims Medieval is probably heading for the shelf when any other Sims title is just getting rolling."
Gameplay is pedestrian, ultimately annoying and not as replayable as a Sims title should be. Sometimes the quests can be frustrating as the game is unclear what it wants you to do. Since missing a deadline can send your Sim into a Focus tailspin that will make the game very difficult play for the near future, having an unclear task creates stress. It’s not as if it’s a problem-solving issue–where the player can get some satisfaction from knowing they’ve untangled a tough puzzle–it’s equivocacy. On its face, having quests with several options originally sounds like a great way to make The Sims Medieval re-playable, but the reality is whichever Hero completes the quest the results are about the same. Because of this overwhelming sameness, after two dozen hours The Sims Medieval is probably heading for the shelf when any other Sims title is just getting rolling.
I once read a movie review that said the worst thing a bad movie can do is remind the viewer of a better movie, such as showing a scene of the characters watching Citizen Kane. EA would be well served by that advice as there seems to be more than a couple of rip-offs from World of Warcraft in The Sims Medieval. Mining nodes are rocks cropping up from the ground and they sparkle to let you know that they’re harvestable; the Scrying furniture in the wizard's tower has a disembodied arm that grabs at your face; you are required to spend annoying amounts of time that the game doesn’t give you farming materials to make things for no reason other than the game wants you to make them. So, similar to movies, the worst thing a game designer can do is to remind the player of better game in the middle of theirs.
There was some fear the gaming community, knowing EA bought Maxis and EA's track record of margin maximization and soulless cookie-cutter titles, would end up ripping the soul out of Maxis. With poorly received titles like SimCity Societies and now The Sims Medieval, with their odd design decisions and their rushed-out-the-door feel, it really seems that fear has been realized. This game may be worth playing through, but certainly not at full price. And that’s a shame because it could have been outstanding in the hands of a developer that understood the potential.