Infendo goes hands-on with MySims Kingdom

Our unofficial Sims Week ends today with a hands-on preview of MySims Kingdom. In case you missed them, we posted an in-depth preview of SimAnimals on Sunday, and we followed up Wednesday with one of the first SimCity Creator reviews to hit the Web.

For some, the term “sequel” carries a negative connotation. Another dose of the same content, a product with no innovation, milking the established rather than creating something new; originality sticklers often paint sequels with this unfortunate shade of contempt.

None of those presuppositions apply to MySims Kingdom.

Perhaps wary of those cynical daggers, Electronic Arts is adamant that MySims Kingdom is “not a sequel” to last year’s MySims, the charming Wii and DS title that introduced Nintendo fans to a new Sims spin-off franchise designed specifically with them in mind.

The truth falls in between. Rhetoric aside, MySims Kingdom most certainly is a sequel to MySims; it keeps the namesake, brings back most of the characters and maintains the same art style.

Surprisingly, that is where the similarities end.

The cynosure of the original MySims was building quaint homes and designing their interiors, but MySims Kingdom embraces a decidedly different gameplay focus. They are so different, in fact, that their commonalities are relegated to simply look, name and feel.

MySims Kingdom takes players on a journey across eleven different islands. You start the game as a lowly pig herder, but you’ll eventually become a “wandolier,” a wand-bearing magician able to construct and build. Yet this time, your ability to create is focused mostly on solving puzzles and progressing the game’s story.

This puzzles-first ethos was clear during our hands-on time. We were presented with challenges that required some sort of puzzle-solving before we could progress. A path to another section of the island, for example, was blocked by a thick stone door. Observation highlighted a broken gear system to the door’s right; explore the island, find the materials required to build gears, solve the puzzle and continue.

You’ll encounter this simple puzzle early in the game, but each island is filled with similar dilemmas that depend on your ability to build and design for solutions. Other puzzles we were confronted with include building bridges, creating a system of watering pipes for a garden and designing an open-air living room for a caveman.

The puzzles also grow more challenging and become part of a larger dilemma. On a forest island, an elf has tore down a unicorn temple to build himself a hot tub, so unicorns have emigrated. Through a series of related puzzles and tasks, you need to bring them back.

Fans of the original MySims will feel at home with the basic purpose of the puzzles; you meet Sims and help them with their problems. At few points during our hour of playtime with the demo, however, did we encounter any of the free-building mechanics of the original.

This is where MySims Kingdom rolls the dice. The creative freedom of the original has been scaled back for this kind-of-sequel, which may split fans of the series. The development team insists it wanted to try something different with MySims Kingdom, and for better or worse depending on your tastes, it has unapologetically done exactly that.

“The first game is still out on shelves,” says associate producer M.J. Chun. “If you want to make the coolest chair ever that looks like a spaceship, you can still do it.

“What we wanted was to give players the ability to do things they’re not able to do in the first game, and that’s solve puzzles, create really elaborate watering systems for gardens, power a centrifuge to make it work, as well as the action-adventure story aspects of the game.”

MySims Kingdom has made significant technical strides over the original, most notably in terms of frame rate. Stuttering was common in the first game, but we experienced nary a second of slow down during our playtime with MySims Kingdom. Load times have also been dramatically scaled back, allowing for increasingly seamless gameplay and a much more streamlined experience for players.

These performance improvements were not made at the expense of presentation, as MySims Kingdom is actually slightly better looking than the original. Colors are brighter and more vibrant in the don’t-call-it-a-sequel, and it also introduces varied topography for the first time in MySims, curing the everything-is-flat feel of the original.

The game also implements unexpectedly beautiful water effects. I marveled at them ad nauseam during the demo, often ignoring my objectives to take walks on the game’s gorgeous shorelines.

The development team laughed. I continued to marvel.

In another change to the original’s formula, you won’t be alone on your journey through MySims Kingdom. There’s still no multiplayer, unfortunately, but players are followed throughout the game by Lyndsay and Buddy, who offer advice and unlock new content.

Essences have returned for the pseudo-sequel, items you collect throughout the game in order to build certain items with certain styles. Red apple essences, for example, allow you to paint objects with an apple-themed aesthetic. An endless list of old favorites and wacky new essences has been added to MySims Kingdom.

MySims Kingdom is a single-player game. No online features have been implemented, an opportunity I refer to as “missed.”

For MySims Kingdom, the bottom line is simple; it’s made several necessary improvements over the original, but it’s also been almost completely changed in the process. I’d wager most fans will embrace the series’ new feel, but the potential for some fans to be justifiably put-off by the reduced creative element is too strong to ignore.

Hesitance to go online aside, MySims has made an interesting evolution with MySims Kingdom. The difficulty level caters toward a younger audience, and the building and creativity elements have been reduced, but the game maintained undeniable charm throughout the demo. The dialogue is particularly sharp and humorous, and the same intuitive Wii remote and nunchuck controls of the original ensure this game is as easy to control as it is to play.

Needless to say, we’re anxious to play the final retail build.

Wii owners are being given plenty of options for simulation games, and it is great to see MySims Kingdom take a unique approach to the genre. The game is scheduled to release on Wii and DS on Oct. 28.

DISCLOSURE: Infendo travel accommodations to this event were provided by Electronic Arts, including the following swag: copies of Boom Blox and SimCity Creator, and assorted Sims merchandise.