Why does everyone want to role-play the Middle Ages? By all accounts it was a horrible place, rife with famine, plague, war, and religious turmoil. Yet millions of people visit Renaissance Fairs, watch The Tudors, and play games like Civilization and Total War so they can get a flavor of the Middle Ages. If a game allows me to build castles and dress characters in medieval clothing, that’s invariably what I choose to do. With this in mind, I was thrilled at the prospect of The Sims Medieval, even though I had my suspicions that it would just be a re-skinned version of The Sims 3.
As it turns out, The Sims Medieval is not a re-skinned Sims 3. Indeed, it’s not really a Sims game as I understand them. Instead of a directionless sandbox, The Sims Medieval is a quest-based, structured experience with a beginning, a middle, an end, and even a clearly defined role for the player to occupy: God.
I was a little unnerved by this sitting down for my review - part of what makes the Sims fun is not having something I'm "supposed" to do - but a Patrick Stewart voiceover in the opening cinematic convinced me that the game would share the same lighthearted sense of fun. As this benevolent Watcher character, I could control various Hero Sims – Monarch, Knight, Spy, Wizard, Physician, Blacksmith, Bard, and so on – to guide the kingdom toward one of the Ambition goals selected from the main menu.
Each character is playable just as I expect a Sim to be: I can make them eat and sleep to satisfy basic needs and prod them into falling in love or starting fights with other Sim characters. But in addition to this traditional gameplay, The Sims Medieval also requires the player to complete specific tasks that each Hero has to fulfill as part of their role in medieval society.
The Monarch, for example, might be called on to hunt boar in the forest and hear petitions from the throne before I can send him to the Village Shoppe to pick up cheese for a beer-making quest. The Bard might have to speak to three other Sims for inspiration to write a new poem before I can force her to seduce an Alewife.
This proved to be a little frustrating at first. I shirked jobs so I could rush through quests faster and create more free time to seduce Alewives. But the second time my Spy wound up in the stocks, I adjusted my gameplay habits to comply what Sims Medieval expects from its players. As I say, this isn’t The Sims 3, and once I realized that I started to have more fun. There was still scope I to deviate once in a while and make a baby, so for a 10 hour stretch I was pretty happy with the game.
After 18 hours of play, however, the structure of the gameplay began to chafe once again. I was on my third kingdom Ambition playthrough and all the quests I encountered were the same. Granted, many have different branches to explore, but fundamental experience is the same. Towards the end of a playthrough The Sims Medieval abandons quests altogether, but rather than offer the freedom I desired it only served to highlight how restrictive the gameplay can be – nobody grows, ages, or dies of natural causes, and you can still only control one Sim at a time.
The bottom line is that, for a longstanding fan of the franchise, The Sims Medieval is a slight disappointment. The setting works brilliantly and there’s nothing seriously wrong with the gameplay, but it’s difficult to accept so much structure from a series that rose to prominence based on the absence of the same.
Nevertheless, I'm not getting out my pitchfork just yet. The Sims Medieval has qualities that kept me coming back for 20 hours, and very few single-player modes can make such a claim. Expansions will inevitably offer more fun in the future – horses, please – but this is still a beautiful game with fun and interesting ideas, even if doesn’t satisfy the Sims fan within.
Next page: Our expert verdict