This week I decided to revisit a game that has been covered and played by me (and this site) quite a bit before. In hindsight, Free Realms was a bit of a big deal when it was released. I have to admit that I thought it was going to be something different than it was, but I was pleasantly surprised at how it played and looked. It wasn't so long ago, but my, how things have changed in the game.
Critics have said that Sony Online Entertainment ruined certain systems while loyal fans have collected pets, decorated their houses, and had a pretty darn good time. Where do I fall along the spectrum? Well, I simply have not made as much time for the game as I would have liked lately, so I couldn't tell you. Early on, I was obsessed enough over the game to host a brief podcast about it and to level up several jobs. Fastforward to now, when I decided to take a week and revisit the game.
Click past the cut and I'll let you know what I found.
The first thing I want to talk about is how wonderful the graphics are in Free Realms. I have read that a lot of people do not like them, and I can understand why. Different people have different ideas about what qualifies as excellent graphics, but for me it is a matter of how well everything blends in, flows, and makes me feel. I can honestly say that Free Realms still fills me with holiday nostalgia when I visit Snowhill, and it brings on a cozy feeling when I am running around in Seaside. There are a few games that represent, to me, exactly how I would like my MMORPG (the one I have designed in my dreams) to look. It's safe to say that I prefer the stylized look over a more realistic one. Even if I had an unlimited budget or access to the best technology, I would still go for a "cartoony" world. One advantage of Free Realms' graphics is that the game can run on pretty slow machine. Yes, it really does need a decent gaming rig to run at really smooth rates while everything is cranked up, but I can successfully run it on my basic laptop at lower settings.
The sound effects and music are still top-notch, although I wish there were newer sounds or ambient noises added occasionally. While familiar sound is one of the things that makes Free Realms a reliable experience, it begins to feel a bit stagnant. Hopefully, the new lands will feature brand-new everything... that is, if SOE ever decides to actually open them. After all, the company's been promising to do just that since the early days.
A few major changes were implemented over the years, but the one that I hear about most often is the change to combat. Now, I have't been much of a combatant simply because I'm usually busy exploring or decorating my house. However, I remember combat before the major changes, and it was closer to the "normal" combat that you would find in an MMO. If I remember correctly, back then, you would locate your target and take him down using a series of hotbar abilities. Almost any battle can now be finished with one or two button clicks, especially if you have an AoE ability ready to go. I think the developers changed this for the younger set, but it would be nice if they took combat more seriously. Honestly, Free Realms is no more a "kids game" than Lord of the Rings Online or World of Warcraft, but it would be nice if combat were more challenging. It's really the main area of the game that does feel like it was made only for kids.
The developers have concentrated on bug fixes and chat-filter tweaks aplenty, but it seems as though the main area of development has focused on the cash shop. I absolutely adore the cash shop and have spent plenty in it. In fact, I was going to add up all of the coin-based items (barring duplicates) and buy them all for this article, but I ran out of time. I plan on sitting down and seeing how many coins it would take to allow me to own one of everything, just for fun. I have nearly 400,000 coins right now in game, but with my Station Cash I think I could easily buy enough coins to reach the goal. The coin shop is a great way for players to get cool in-game items without spending real-life money. Station Cash is always there for those who would rather buy their fortunes.
Don't get me wrong; it's not as though I think that the cash-shop items are not "content." One of the common arguments against cash shops is that their development takes time away from developing "real content" like new missions to complete or dungeons to crawl through. I beg to differ. Cash-shop items are content as much as that new epic quest is. Content might be defined by how people interact with it, but there isn't a proper interaction that defines content. I can purchase that new pink dress in the cash shop and place as much value on it and get as much play out of it as someone else might with a new dungeon. And it seems obvious to me that I am not alone, as the cash shop in Free Realms is very popular.
I don't want to make it sound as though nothing new has come out in the game besides several new bits of clothing and a few mounts. The fact is that obstacle course items have transformed Free Realms into one of few games out there that allows players to make their own content. I have visited homes or lots that are packed with intricate art or obstacle courses, all built by players themselves. I wonder if SOE knew that players would go as far as many of them have with the trampolines, blocks, and other items?
SOE also introduced new minigames like Pirate's Plunder, and the team has strengthened old ones like the trading card game. I scored an interview with Mark Tuttle, the Global Brand Manager for the trading card game, before I worked at Massively. I remember when he told me about the new real-life cards that players could buy, cards that would feature their own character to be used in real-life TCG games. I still plan on getting a set.
I guess I am not enough of a stickler for details to care whether or not much has changed in the game. As long as it continues to maintain the same charm and warmth as before, I will continue to love it. While SOE has added great and wonderful things to the game since I first played in beta, so much of what the devs have done can easily slip under the radar. The live events, for example, often do not receive the credit they should. They were designed by someone, the NPCs involved were coded by someone, and the text that pops up during the event was written by someone. All of this work goes into an event that players generally enjoy but soon enough forget. The Christmas event is hilarious, asking players to defeat evil snowmen, open presents, and decorate homes with holiday items. Valentine's Day introduces players to one of the coolest monsters in gaming today: a giant, crooked heart creature that looks like something out of Edgar Allan Poe's nephew's nightmares. So at the of the week, I am happy I took some time to really enjoy the game again. Normally I just stop in for a bit, but this week showed me just how special and unique the game still is. I'll be sure to visit more often from now on.
Next week I will be looking at the wonderful Nadirim, a browser-based game that has just gone into open beta. My character's name in game is Beau Hindman, if you care to join me.
Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email! You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr!