The long-suffering Sims have found themselves in no shortage of absurd situations in their time – an incident in the Sims 2 involving a telescope, an alien baby and a disgruntled spouse springs to mind – but though the series stretches the boundaries of plausibility, it usually stops short of pure fantasy. The Sims Medieval frees them from pleasant American suburbia and puts them in castles and wizard's towers instead, a move which also frees the designers from the established rhythm of life simulation, allowing them to play with elements of turn-based strategy and good, old-fashioned adventure.
The Sims Medieval, simply described, is a mixture of life sim and kingdom-building strategy game. Starting by creating a monarch, you take specific Hero Sims on short, story-driven quests rather than micromanage entire families and communities. You then build new structures for the kingdom with the resource points that they earn. With buildings come new controllable Heroes: barracks house a Knight, the clinic a Physician, churches have Priests.
Each of the game’s ten professions comes with its own unique responsibilities. For instance, physicians must collect leeches and diagnose hapless patients, and it is the monarch's job to oversee relations with neighbouring kingdoms, proposing edicts and socialising with foreign emissaries – but you're free to ignore all of that and hit on the manservants instead, sending them to the stocks if they reject your advances.
The mix of quest goals and classic Sims-style improvised chaos is a unexpectedly comfortable. To facilitate the storytelling, Sims' basic needs are simpler – you need only worry about their energy and rumbling bellies – but their personalities are still strong, defined by two Traits and one Fatal Flaw that define the way that they engage with their peers and quests. A Knight with the Whale Ate My Parents trait will have to pass an afternoon shouting in rage at the sea or embark on a whale-hunting expedition from time to time to satiate their deeply ingrained lust for revenge, whereas Licentious Monarchs spend so much of their lives trying to get laid that it's difficult to get them to concentrate on their tasks at hand. These Sims are a less high maintenance bunch than their forebears, but the range of inventive, entertaining traits and Hero professions makes them no less fun.
The overall result is warm, naturally funny and brimming with personality. Not all of the quests are as entertaining as the one in which the Monarch suggests trading places with the jester for a day and must contend with an unexpected mutiny, or the one in which the physician spends a few days dealing with the romantic problems of everyone in the Kingdom, but the compulsion loop of experience and resource points keeps you powering through the less inspired ones.
The main problem with The Sims Medieval is one it shares with its main-series parentage: if you let it, life too easily dissolves into a passionless series of clicks and short-term objectives. It's the humour and the slow-burning attachment that you develop to your individual Hero Sims that really defines the game, rather than its setting and structure.
It doesn’t help that the structure is serviced by an interface that’s uncharacteristically unclear for a Sims game. The Sims Studio does not have much experience with inventories and equipment screens, and it shows. Sims' items and weapons are all displayed in the same menus as furniture and relationships, when what they really need is a separate screen. And although an in-game tips book helpfully explains how all the disparate aspects of the game work, the quest hints still have an unfortunate habit of telling you what to do, but not how to do it, leaving you stuck on an inconsequential detail.
But the synthesis of all The Sims Medieval's many personalities and inspirations creates something genuinely unique and compulsively entertaining. It's a funny and sweet time sink, and something that any Sims fan can wholeheartedly enjoy.