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Sony Online Entertainment
MMORPG | Genre:Fantasy | Status:Cancelled  (est.rel 04/28/09)  | Pub:Sony Online Entertainment
Distribution:Browser | Retail Price:Free | Pay Type:Free | Monthly Fee:$04.99
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Free Realms Review: Free Realms Review - Edit

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Writing the first impressions article was easy. Writing this review was hard.

For one thing, I'm really not sure how I feel about the game. It's an MMO in which I have not spoken with a single human being in the month I've been playing. It's a virtual world where there is absolutely no danger, either from monsters, other people, or even falling damage. It is a pool with no depth that I keep getting sucked into. It's done in a cartoony style (not something I've ever enjoyed) done so beautifully that it ends up looking more real than real life in an inexplicable way.

So let's try a scientific approach, and judge the whole by the sum of its parts:

THE LOOK

Cartoony, bright, and cheerful. Even the dark and spooky zones are fun. The skulls are the sweetest skulls you ever saw, and the angry goth girls are too cute for words.

The art was so clean, in fact, that I missed the most impressive thing about it until relatively late: It was designed so consistently that it looks as though it were executed by a single person. The entire world fits together. The surfer dudes at the sunny beach (which, by the way, has a fun filled boardwalk on the north side and quiet beach homes on the south side, just like a real beach) have clearly sprung from the same design as the denizens of the dark and damp jungles. This happens without any sense of repetition, too. Each zone is wonderfully unique, and all of them work in harmony to create a seamless world.

No detail was too small, either. Winking eyes blink from tree hollows. The vines around the "you win" messaging grow organically. When you try on new shoes as a pixie, your feet wiggle. It's this little stuff that makes a game worthwhile, I swear. You can rationalize big stuff all day, but without the little details, you know the dev team didn't really... care.

Short version: Graphics are so well done that even people who hate the style recognize the quality.

THE SOUND

The "theme song" is only heard at the stage in a zone called Snowhill. Recorded by a group called The Dares, it's a poppy, happy thing about how it's your world and you can do whatever you want.

Remember Jimmy Eat World and that one song of theirs that was inescapable? I wish Sony had gotten that band instead. But I digress.

The actual music you hear most often is the instrumental theme. It's a vaguely pleasant, aurally null little tune that doesn't intrude. It was rerecorded in different keys depending on the zone. If you're in the swampy zone with sinking graveyards and criminally minded residents, it's a spooky delight in a minor key.

There's a different set of musical themes for the mini games, with a lot more urgency and rhythm to them. It gives a sense of energy and excitement to what is basically a matching game originally intended to amuse simple-minded shut-ins. This particular simple minded shut in has played a lot of them, lately, because I'm not just matching tiles, I'm *leveling up my mining.*

If there is music in the combat instances or the tower defense games, I don't remember hearing it, and I refuse to log back in and find out, because frankly, "I need to do more research" has sucked up ungodly numbers of hours in the last month and I need to stop using that as an excuse to avoid writing this review.

Short version: The sound varies from "not intrusive" to "enhances the game."

THE CAREERS

For everyone: Chef, Kart Driver, Demolition Derby Driver, Brawler, Miner, Pet Trainer, Card Duelist, Postman, and... and...

Oh, yes. You'll need to become a ninja.

Members (people who pay five bucks a month) get access to Archer, Wizard, Medic, Warrior, and Blacksmith.

I suck really, really bad at driving games (I'm the Super Mario Kart player who lifts the controller really high in the air and then lurches from side to side as if that would help), so all I did with Kart and Derby careers was unlock them. After a two year interlude where I played Magic: The Gathering every single night, I refuse to touch card games of any kind. Playing CCGs... it's like heroin, man. For some reason I never found the Archer, but I wasn't really looking, either. All the rest, I gave the ol' college try.

The medic and the combat classes level up by going into instances and killing stuff. If you grab the quests associated with the various instances before going in, you level up faster. But you only fill the star bubble by killing stuff, and you use the stars in the bubble to boost individual skills. Equipment for these classes is like the equipment in every RPG ever made - it improves your armor class, and adds bonuses to your attack strength.

The driving classes level up by going into driving instances.

The non-combat, non-wheeled classes level up by playing minigames. Your equipment here gives you bonuses to speed, and increases the odds of your tile chains being really long.

So, how do they play?

Because there is no PVP outside of one on one duels, there is no real need for the classes to be balanced, and they... aren't. The Ninja at level two is considerably stronger than the Brawler was until around level five. The member-only Warrior owns them both from the first swing of an axe. They all have unique special abilities with cool animations, so much so that it's worth trying them all. And since there's no game reason to choose one over the other, unless you count the leaderboards - a warrior can clean out an instance faster than a same-level Brawler - you might as well go with the class that amuses you the most. I found the Brawler's costume choices to be the most fun, with little skulls and goggles.

The Wizard plays pretty much like the Brawler with different graphics, in my opinion. You just stand further back.

All weapons, even low level ones, sparkle and shine and look impressive.

The Medic is interesting and as well executed as the rest (your damage as a Medic isn't that great, but heals are instant and you can cast a ton of them), but I can't see why you'd bother unless you were grouping a lot, and I can't see why you'd bother grouping at all.

Non-combat careers are disgustingly addictive, but they aren't balanced to be equally easy to advance.

Cooking involves playing the matching game at different farms around the world to gather ingredients, and then playing minigames that chop, stir, flip, smash, and add. Since both activities level up the Chef, you wind up at level 20 without noticing that you did anything that hard.

Mining could level up as quickly as the Chef, since this career involves playing the matching game to harvest ore (there are mines with persistent ore nodes, and there are one-use-only nodes scattered throughout the world) and then a smelting game to refine the ore into metal bars. The smelting minigame is horrific. After four rounds of it, I was reminded of crafting metal bits in EverQuest circa 1999. It requires a level of exactitude missing from the rest of Free Realms, which is incredibly jarring given how tuned the rest of the game is.

However, I tolerated it in order to advance my Blacksmith, because the smelted ore is necessary to make weapons. Making weapons involves buying weapon parts, and acquiring ore from either your own Miner or someone else. (If there is anything like an Auction House in Free Realms, I didn't see it, so doing my own mining seemed like my only choice.) Once you've got all the parts, making weapons involves... a matching game! Smithing should level up much slower than the others, given that there's only the matching game. The designers have compensated, somewhat crudely, by giving you insane amounts of experience for the crafting quests. Seriously, it's one quest, one level.

The Postman struck me as tedious, involving either the same matching tile game as everything else, or dreadful timed games where you have X seconds to deliver Y items. It's idiot proof, with little arrows telling you where to go for your next delivery, but that doesn't make it any more fun. I don't know why it's not fun, considering the design sounds really neat when I lay it out on paper - you have dog bones you can throw down to ward off stray animals, you can throw the mail from a distance with a satisfying THWACK, and the costumes are hilarious, with shorts and knee high socks.

I didn't get far with the Pet Trainer, given that the minigame was "trace this pattern with the mouse over and over." But the people in the world who have stuck it out add a lot of fun to the environment, with their pets expressing quite a lot in thought balloons.

Short version: There is a lot to do, if what you like doing is leveling up something, ANYTHING. Whatever it is, it can all be done in chunks of time ranging from ten minutes to four hours. None of it is balanced to be exactly equal to other similar things, but then, it doesn't need to be.

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