Review: Free Realms

Free Realms is Sony’s engaging new teen-friendly MMO, and as Zoso so wisely sums up, “It’s free and it has realms.” I’ll go into that more later but in practice Sony claim that you can access about 60% of the game without paying.

The game itself is bright, friendly, and doesn’t have heavy hardware requirements. There’s plenty to do and see, it’s very easy to get started, and Sony are keen to impress on parents how safe an environment it is for kids. Free Realms is also exceptionally polished for a newly released MMO, and the pretty avatars have a good variety of quests, mini-games, and different environments to explore.

It is a super game for casual players, or even just players who like casual games. Whether or not it has the kid appeal that Sony are hoping for remains to be seen.

So we begin

One thing that the team have gotten very right is how quick it is to get into the game. You sign up on the website and can create your character before you even load the game up.  You can choose between a human or a small winged pixie, and although the range of customisation options isn’t huge, it is  easy to create a pretty avatar of your own. It’s also nice to see a choice of dark-skinned options for characters. I loved the character design, they’re nicely drawn and appealing.

For naming, you have the choice between using the semi-random name generator (it’s random but you can tweak it) or submitting your own custom name to be approved later. If you go with the latter, you will then get to generate a semi-random name to use while the approval process is going through. They were approving the names very quickly when I tried and it’s an innovation I wish more MMOs would use, particularly on RP servers.

Then you select the ‘play’ button and after a few minutes wait for the initial download, you pick your server and you’re in. The game continues to download segments while you play, which is why the initial download is so fast. I love this system of content delivery. You get straight into things without having to either buy a box or wait several hours for a massive download and it’s been working very smoothly indeed.

The starting tutorial is laboriously slow and non-optional, and holds your hand while you move around and try out a couple of careers. But that’s me speaking as an MMO vet, and it’s a small enough price to pay so that kids and people who are newer to the genre can have a quiet environment in which to find their feet.

Free as in bird

One of the endearing things about Free Realms is that there are so many choices about what to do. And no penalties for making ‘incorrect’ choices. If you aren’t in a mood to do quests you won’t regret it two months later. If you get bored of mining and decide to go have a beach party with some friends, it doesn’t matter.

It can feel very confusing when you are first thrown into the world proper. It’s so bright and so shiny and there are lots of icons all over the place beckoning you to go and investigate, and no railroaded directions on what to do next.

What you SHOULD do next is go and play. Try things out. Lose the mindset that says “what’s the optimal thing for me to do next” because there probably isn’t one.

To me this takes the notion of a theme park game up a whole notch. I have seen real life theme parks that were less theme parkish than Free Realms. you only have to look at the (beautifully colourful and interactive) map to see how the different attractions are laid out. Want to play chess or do some demolition derby? It’s easy to mouse over the map until you find the nearest chess table or driving minigame.

There are quests around also if you’re stuck for things to do. And you only have to talk to any of the local trainers to be introduced to one of the many in game careers.

A look at the careers and minigames

There are several careers in which characters can progress and endearingly, you can switch between them whenever you want. Each one is distinguished by it’s own minigame, and as you play the minigame you can go up in levels (I’m not really sure why this matters, but for those who like to see numbers ticking up the option is there):

  • Kart Drivers play a racing game
  • Demolition Derby has a Mario Kart minigame
  • Cooks have a set of minigames where for each recipe, you get to chop, smash, slice, fry, and stir your way to victory.
  • Mining and harvesting share a bejewelled-alike pattern matching game.
  • Brawlers have a more standard MMO experience, where you select hotbuttons to use your different attacks on mobs.
  • Card Duelists have a fully featured card playing minigame which is based on a Magic: The Gathering style of collectible card game. There’s some decent depth to the game, it’s beautifully implemented, and good fun to play.
  • Pet Trainers can train their pets in a Nintendogs type of setup. Note that you do have to shell out real cash to acquire a permanent pet, but you can pick up temporary ones for free in game to practice your training skill.
  • There’s a post office career too that I haven’t tried yet.
  • And there are other careers that are only accessible if you choose to pay the 5$ pcm subscription (medic, wizard, fighter, blacksmith, archer).

Of the ones I tried, the card duelling and the harvesting bejewelled game were the real winners for me. I thought the car steered like a slug in the demolition derby, and the brawler just wasn’t interesting (I have a WoW account if I want to play that kind of game, after all).

You will notice though that there’s nothing here that’s very novel. All the mini-games are based on tried and tested games. You can also play chess, draughts or several versions of tower defence (which is one of my favourite casual games so no complaints from me), none of which have careers attached.

Despite being aimed at kids, the mini-games themselves offer a good level of challenge. Bejewelled is bejewelled. The game comprehensively beat me at chess (but to be fair, so do 9 year olds). The cooking minigame required fast reactions if you wanted to get the best scores.

Mini-games as a way of life

Most things that you do in FR will take you into a minigame of some sort. If you see a mob and want to fight, you have to walk up and click on it to get into the fighting minigame, for example. And it did make me think about how dull MMO playing often is. The ‘minigame’ of farming mobs is simply a lot less interesting than bejewelled. Although the FR minigames are way more fun than typical MMO solo fights or crafting, they aren’t visceral in the same way.

One thing I did note is that despite the bright cartoony graphics, I don’t find the game at all cute. I think this is down to lack of personality but I can’t really put my finger on anything in particular.

So where are all the people?

I found it surprisingly difficult to add people to my friends list. You can do this either by seeing them in game or by being on the same server at the same time and typing their name into the friends window.  Since you pick your server when you log in (another subtle but smart innovation) it means you need to prearrange with your friends to be online so that you can friend them. It doesn’t really feel like a safety measure because random people try to friend you when you wander past anyway (you do get to option of whether to allow them to be your friend or not though). There are also no guilds.

As far as playing with others goes, you can certainly play against other people in some of the minigames. The card duellist, car racing, and demolition derby in particular. Keen spent more time playing the MMO-type side of the game in beta and had fun grouping up with friends to go kill stuff (he liked the dungeons, which I haven’t seen yet).

So there are options to play with and against other people. But the minigames I liked were just as good solo. I’m hoping at some point  to try some of the group content but given the total lack of a looking for groups function and the difficulty of adding people to the friends list, I’m at a loss to figure out how. Can’t see me getting the other half to try this one.

Show me the money?

If you do decide to give Sony your money (and they’re reasonably shameless about asking for it), you have two options:

  1. Pay the $5 pcm subscription for access to all the careers and sub-locked quests. I think there is also a level cap for regular careers if you aren’t a subscriber but I hadn’t hit it yet. Since you don’t need a particular level to play the minigames I’m not sure how much this matters.
  2. Pay for tokens which can be used to buy items in game such as a permanent pet, clothing, and booster packs for the card game.

I think a lot of people will take them up on the monthly sub, it’s cheap and does unlock a fair amount of content. But the main money maker is likely to be the card booster packs.

Collectible Card Games (CCG) have the ring of gambling about them. You pay your money and get your booster pack and if you are lucky you’ll get powerful or rare cards. If not, then you won’t. CCG in an MMO where there’s pressure to keep up with lots of other players sounds like the sort of environment where if you don’t pay, you might as well not turn up. It’s like being in constant tournament mode.

I’m not sure if they have some kind of ranking system which will match you against people who have spent similar amounts (I’m betting not, because that would negate the idea of spending more to be better than others) but I wouldn’t want to be the parent of a keen and competitive card duellist.

Good Points

  • It’s pretty and has low hardware requirements
  • Quick to set up and get started
  • Very polished implementation. Fun minigames.
  • Lots of choices of things to do in game. Very easy to switch from one activity to another.
  • Lovely map.

Bad points

  • Friends list is awkward.
  • It’s not actually free to play, although a lot is. Adjust expectations accordingly.
  • A little unfocussed. Is it trying to be fun for kids or fun for adults?
  • Poor customisation options. Maybe because it’s trying to be simple for kids but you have very limited options to rearrange the UI, remap the keyboard, etc.

It’s harsh to complain about what isn’t there in a new MMO. After all, this is just the beginning (and a very polished beginning it is). But Sony do have plans for the game:

There are some things that we actually have talked about, but they just didn’t make it in time for launch. We do still have soccer coming. I know Smed has been talking about that a lot. I can’t give any exact dates for any of these because we’re in player feedback mode right now. So we really want to make sure that the game is solid, we’ve nailed all the bugs and that we’re paying attention in the forums and paying attention to what people are talking about. So that’s our first priority right now, which is making changes and pleasing the customers that we already have.
We do still plan to let you have a garage and let you customize your car, which was always something we’ve talked about. Also some new jobs that we have in the works, but that’s all I can talk about that’s in the pipe. It’s not close as in next month, but it’s definitely something you’ll see sooner rather than later.

Hopefully one of the new jobs in the works will be the rock star which is hinted at enticingly in one of the pictures in the loading screen that shows a female character with a guitar.

I can’t help being disappointed that there’s so little educational content in a game aimed at kids. Even a couple of minigames involving words and numbers (Scrabble and Sudoku?), a world map (Risk?) or a little more reference to real world mining and extracting techniques in the mining minigame would have gone a long way.

When Sony talked earlier about the lack of directed quests making more room for kids to create their own stories, I was also expecting more … storytelling tools. A fashion designer maybe, or collaborative drawing package, but no. What they actually meant is that there is no story. There’s no lore, no background to the world, no reason to do any of the quests besides ‘NPC x has lost her chickens, go find them.’ One of the other things that makes the card duellist stand out is that the introductory quests actually do have a story.

So the game is great as far as it goes. The mini-games are fun and challenging. I hope it’s successful and finds its audience. I’m sure I’ll be hanging out in Free Realms (my character is called Linnet Lightfoot) also for the odd game of penguin defence or to do some mining. I may even try the subscription or succumb to the temptation to get the permanent pet (I can’t stand Nintendogs is the stupid thing, just one of the  cats looks exactly like my cat and … yes I know, it’s very lame but still tempted). But if this is the future of MMOs then I’ll bow out after this generation of games.

You see, I like my stories.

Other Reviews

Syp explains why he wasn’t all that impressed

Dusty@ Of Course I’ll Play it tries the game with his own kids

Jennifer’s first impressions are mixed

Tipa has a technicolour review with lots of pictures.

Tobold really liked the card game, if only Sony would let him give them his money