Free Realms is an MMORPG offered by Sony, which offers both a highly limited free version and a pay-to-play (P2P) monthly subscription. With an ESRB rating of “Everyone,” it’s easy to guess that this MMO is very kid-friendly and fairly simple to both understand and navigate. But what does it offer for older players, who expect adult-level entertainment and enjoyment out of their free-to-play (F2P) and P2P MMOs?
Free Realms: MMO Kindergarten?
Before we analyze how valuable this MMO is for adult players, let’s take a moment to look at one thing it definitely offers: A safe, extremely kid-friendly place that is perfect for introducing the younger generation to the MMO world. The game’s system itself is pretty simple—you select your current career, level it up for awhile, then move on to the next—and you can wander around the world without encountering big, scary aggressive monsters. The graphics are very cartoonish, too—more so than similar engines, such as Runes of Magic and World of Warcraft—which likely appeals more to the younger crowd than most of us adults.
New players can also choose between being a human and a pixie, male or female, and then customize their appearance. I wasn’t surprised to see that an option other than human existed, but I couldn’t help imaging the squeals of tween girls across the country as they rolled up their shiny new pixie toon. That’s not to say only young ladies play pixies, of course; I do imagine they make up the majority, though. With so many cute graphics, easy quests and built-in hints, Free Realms certainly has a lot to offer child gamers. As an added bonus, parents who want to let their kids enjoy an MMO, possibly while they raid in WoW, can rest assured that Free Realms is a safer, easy-to-navigate option. Best of all, it’s free (to start—see below), and the membership subscription is an affordable $4.99/mo compared to MMOs that are 2-3x more each month.
Sony has also included parental controls, which enable you to essentially shut-down the interaction your kids have with other players on Free Realms. This isn’t offered on most MMO options—in fact, many of the most popular options have a Teen rating or higher—and the added flexibility is great for ensuring you know what your kids are doing on the game, and who they are talking with. According to the official Free Realms blog, the game received the 2010 Creative Toy Award Seal of Excellence for being a kid-safe environment. Pretty impressive, and hopefully the award makes parents feel fairly confident about exploring Free Realms with their kids, and deciding if the game is a good hobby for their family.
Free? Well, sure, through level 4.
When I first loaded up Free Realms awhile back, I didn’t expect much out of this cutesy-cute MMO. I was surprised by how much fun it is; a very casual, come-as-you-play environment that had a lot of options as far as careers to level. Unfortunately, players are capped at the max experience for level 4, except for the Adventurer and Card Duelist careers. While I understand F2P games normally have an item mall—and Free Realms does too, in fact—it felt like a free trial cut off at the knees, long before most players would be hooked. Perhaps the addiction sets in quicker with a younger crowd?
When I started to actually enjoy the game, leveling up my Archer career first and learning the system, I discovered this very early level cap. According to my fellow play-tester and MMO critic, older accounts were grandfathered in when this low cap was implemented in late 2009; he was perfectly able to progress past level 4. I’ll give Sony credit for rewarding long-time players (or those who made accounts but never played ages ago) but level 4—seriously? I can understand the necessity of a pay-to-play option for smaller games like this one, but this seemed a bit ridiculous to me, especially compared to all the content you get with other F2P games like RuneScape or Runes of Magic.
Free Realm careers, zones and other content.
That being said, the monthly subscription does open up quite a bit of content. The different zones in Free Realms are put together very well, from the beaches at Seaside to the spooky elements down in Blackspore Swamp. The fact that teleporting is immediately available in the game was a welcome surprise; you simply click on the map, and choose the teleport location closest to the zone or feature you want to access. There are also seasonal events regularly on Free Realms, with special loot drops and temporary quests or other activities, which correlate with major holidays. Considering the graphics of the game are cutsey-cute, these seasonal updates are often along the lines of adorable panda hats, purple flare pants and teddy bears.
Players can also obtain bonus items by watching ad videos for various sponsors, which is a nice perk for those who really care about a bonus turkey thigh for cooking or a decorative squirrel for their yard.
Free Realms has a surprising 17 careers are available, which range from the what-you’d-expect Warrior, Ninja and Wizard, to the surprising implementation of Derby Driver, Postman and Soccer Star. Many of these careers require no combat, instead forcing players to hunt-and-gather items in order to increase in levels, or participate in specific mini games—like racing. The Smith and Cook careers both have fairly elaborate, if rather frustrating, mini-games; pour the molten metal (don’t spill!) and fry your ingredients without burning them, for example. Miner and several other actions have a Bejeweled-inspired puzzle, which is surprisingly addictive if I’m being completely honest. Line-up the items, clear the screen, gain more items as your prize. They’re fairly simple, but they’re also relaxing and casual—two elements which may be very tempting to potential adult Free Realms players.
I found the combat careers to be the most enjoyable. You essentially have a primary attack, plus a secondary attack which is dependent on your equipped weapon, plus any bonus attacks which pop-up as little icons on the battlefield while you assault your enemies. If you die, you wait 10 seconds and respawn, and are temporarily invincible on top of that. There isn’t really a whole lot of challenge here, and there is next to no reason to group up with friends especially at lower levels, unless you just happen to prefer a more social game. You have to initiate combat, which means there are zero lurking threats to pop-out from behind boulders to attack your leg, which—again—lends to that relaxing, casual feel. At the end of combat, it’s a gamble to see which item will be your reward, from career-specific weapons to a few coins, or maybe a potion. Switching careers allows you to do the same combat instance for more career-appropriate weapons, and most items can be traded to other players.
The “Station Cash,” the Free Realms currency for the real-life money item mall, is fairly competitive with other F2P MMO item malls. Most of the content seems to involve vanity/novelty items, such as a T-Rex mount (called “rides”) or a cute pet to follow you around. There are sections for armor, tools and weapons, but those are pretty pricy considering what you can find on your own while completing quests and random combat encounters.
Free Realms: Final Verdict
Ultimately, Free Realms is truly a game that has been created, marketed-to, and enjoyed by a younger crowd of gamers. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its merits as far as adult players are concerned, but one of the best aspects of this game is the kid-friendly design which parents can enjoy. Of course, kids are never 100% safe if left unsupervised online, but Sony has put some great parental controls in place which you can opt to employ while your kids are on the game. Above and beyond that, this game offers quite a bit to do, if you don’t mind the $4.99/mo. The mini games are fun, and the whole world is this cute, happy-go-lucky little universe without impending doom and unnecessary evil. I was surprised that Free Realms hooked me as much as it did, and I honestly think this is one I could enjoy playing around on it with my kids—even after I was sure it was safe, and into the realm of my own personal amusement.
There is no PvP to speak of, short of player duels, and you can expect to be continuously bombarded with friend requests from random strangers. But if you want to kill time in a cartoonish little world which will absolutely forgive you if you only play once every seven months, Free Realms isn’t a half-bad choice. There are certainly worse options, though I would consider the F2P version barely worth your time beyond a very brief trial period. I can’t split the rating for adults vs. kids, so I’m going with a 6.5 overall, but I feel the score is probably 7.5-8 for the younger MMO players out there. If you want a fun way to kill some time with zero commitment, consider giving Free Realms a try. You might decide it’s too cute and cuddly for your gaming style, but you also might find a surprisingly enjoyable trip to an almost Never Never Land type of world.