I'm not sure why everyone wants to roleplay the Middle Ages. By all accounts it was a horrible place filled with famine, plague, war and religious turmoil. But I, like millions of other people who go to Renaissance Festivals and watched The Tudors, am so fascinated by the Middle Ages, I play games like Civilization and Total War just so I can experience it. I also inflict the period on any simulation games that let you build castles and dress characters in medieval-style clothing (yay, snoods).
So, you'd think, after years of faux Henry VIIIs and diagonal walls that just don't make for a convincing tower with battlements, I'd be thrilled with The Sims Medieval, even if it was just a re-skinned Sims 3.
As it turns out, The Sims Medieval is not a re-skinned Sims 3. It's almost not even a Sims game as I understand them. Instead of a directionless sandbox (or dollhouse), 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 be lighthearted and fun the way so many Sims games are. As this benevolent Watcher character, I could control various Hero Sims (Monarch, Knight, Spy, Wizard, Physician, Blacksmith, Bard, Merchant, two Priests) 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 around them. But in addition to this traditional gameplay, The Sims Medieval also wants me to fulfill specific tasks to complete quests and "jobs" 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 for part of the day 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 at their Scribe table before I can free-play with her a bit by seducing an Alewife.
I was a little frustrated at first, I found myself shirking jobs so that I could rush through quests faster and hopefully have more free time to make my Sim do random stuff (like seducing that Alewife). But the second time my Spy wound up in the stocks, I cracked open the in-game tutorial Lessons and adjusted my gameplay habits to do what Sims Medieval wants instead of what the Sims 3 allows. After that, it got a little more fun and I could still deviate once in a while to make babies, so for a 10 hour stretch, I was pretty happy with the game.
At the 18 hour mark, though, I started to chafe against the structured gameplay. I was on my third kingdom Ambition playthrough and all the quests I encountered were the same. The quests have branching opportunities so that you can play it differently two or three times, but the end results are more or less the same.
I also resented the overly-strict camera. Watcher view is crazy-far back, and building perspective defaults to a front-facing cutaway view that makes it hard to decorate rooms. And even when the game abandoned the quests during the end game portions of a playthrough, I wasn't happy, because now there was nothing to do and I could still only control one Sim at a time and nobody every grew, aged or died of natural causes. And, as it turns out, the Sims Medieval doesn't let you build your own castles.
There are other flaws I could whine about (e.g. a few glitches that forced me to quit quests, the camera getting stuck once or twice), but the bottom line is that The Sims Medieval let me down and I'm whining about it. I wanted what it gave me, the stereotype of the Middle Ages, but I didn't want all this structure and all these restrictions. As it turns out, I wanted a re-skinned Sims 3.
As let down as I am, though, I'm not ready to get out my pitchfork. Some things in this game kept me coming back for 20 hours, like the amusing writing, the Physician mini-games, small touches, like my Queen breastfeeding her child (pretty sure this is a first in video game history), the gorgeous graphics, and it may be that expansions will bring more fun things in the future (horses, please). The Sims Medieval is a beautiful game with fun and interesting ideas, but it doesn't live up to my fantasy of the Middle Ages and it doesn't completely satisfy the Sims fan in me.