As of the 1st of July, Sony Online Entertainment’s Free Realms had hit the staggering number of four million user sign-ups since its launch on April 29th of this year. So what’s all the fuss about?
The game is somewhat of an online “gateway drug” for players. Aimed primarily at younger children who do not have much, if any experience of the genre. Playing the standard game is completely free, although some of the quests and job classes are only available to those who pay the monthly subscription on offer. Along with subscriptions, SOE make their money from micro transactions. Players can buy weapons, clothes, items and even a pet using their (or their parent’s) credit card.
Upon looking at the website and screenshots, I thought the game was very much the typical fantasy fare. Goblins, fairies, talking animals and magic spells were all ticked off the mental checklist entitled “Generic Fantasy Stuff” I have, over the years created in my head. Once I was actually playing, I noticed many things that set the game apart from others. The first being the rather eclectic job system.
In Free Realms, players can choose from a number of different jobs that give your avatar differing skills. These are: adventurer, Ninja, Postman, Medic, Blacksmith, Kart Driver, Demolition Derby Driver, Chef, Brawler, Card Duelist, Explorer, Pet Trainer, Miner, Warrior, Archer, Wizard. Each job class has specific mini games that players take part in to level up.
Take for instance my personal favourite, the Chef. This job does exactly what it says on the tin; it allows players to cook meals. These meals can then be eaten for health or used in specific quests. Before a meal can be cooked however, the ingredients must be harvested. Harvesting takes the form of a mini-game, of which Free Realms has many. The harvesting game is a variation on the standard Bejeweled style tile matching. After this, ingredients can then be cooked.
Cooking itself is quite entertaining. Anyone who has played Cooking Mama on the Wii should feel instantly at home. After using the mouse to chop, grate, tenderize, fry and stir the meal is ready to eat.
If you prefer a bit more of an adrenaline rush and less of the culinary delights, then you are well catered to (no pun intended). Kart driving puts the players in a simplistic Mario Kart clone with all the standard power up and jumps expected. Brawling will let you take out all your frustrations on a group of goblins or other players. Dueling is handled well, with both players having to agree to duel before any Player versus Player combat will commence. Fighting Goblins works in the same way; track down the red dots on your map and click the crossed swords above the target to initiate a brawling mission.
For those who prefer a more cerebral aspect to your gaming, there is the Free Realms Trading Card Game. Cards can be collected or purchased in packs, and while I didn’t find myself too enthralled in this aspect, there is already a large following in game. Chess, checkers and tower defence games are also present and can be played in various locations throughout the game world.
Every mission completed earns you coins, stardust and treasure tickets. Coins are your basic currency and stardust is used to level up abilities. Treasure tickets can be exchanged in the Royal Vault for a random leveled item from a chest. While items can be earned this way, it’s far easier if you have real money you’re willing to blow.
Micro transactions are pretty well priced. When I first started the game I said to myself that I would not purchase anything with real money as it seemed rather daft. However it wasn’t long before I found myself breaking down. Only a few minutes into the game you are presented with a pet on loan, for twenty minute periods. This “pet rental” can be taken out once every two hours of game time.
The little furball dog I had taken on loan almost immediately melted my heart, teaching him tricks only made me even more susceptible to his big puppy eyes and wagging tail. Fallout and Fable have canine companions that I built up a bond with when playing through their respective stories, but this little guy was adorable. So I buckled and paid up, 500 Station Cash ($5) for my own in game dog. Pets start at 250 Station Cash and can be either cat or dog at the moment, with further pet types said to be on the way.
Of course, this means that when parents are sitting there with their children and the adorable little Fido playfully runs around the screen before being taken back by the pet centre, you can bet they’ll be paying that $5 just so their child doesn’t constantly pester them about it. A pretty impressive marketing ploy I’d say. Oh and my dog does a super-cute “peek-a-boo” trick now, which definitely justifies my purchase.
Free Realms is not for those of you who need headshots, hulking space marines and sniper rifles. It is also not for anyone expecting a free World of Warcraft. It is a very polished MMO that gives something a little different to the usual fare for older gamers like myself, and is pretty much the best free online game out there that parents and children can play together. The four million sign-ups versus those who play regularly is a debate for the future (or perhaps in the comments below?). What I can say is I have so far thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Free Realms world, for me it is an escape from the usual type of game I play, something I would never pay for off the shelf.
So get over to the website, sign up and see for yourself what all the fuss is about. Can four million people all be wrong? It’s entirely possible, but in this instance, I’d say they’re pretty spot on.
Everything has a unique charm to its appearance. Some may find the candy-coated visuals a bit much however.
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Nothing individually sets the world alight, but the variety on offer is tremendous.
Wonderful effects and music that will have you whistling or humming long after logging out.
Countless quests along all the job classes and the trading card game is a world of its own.
A charming experience that costs nothing to play. Free Realms has something for virtually everyone to appreciate.