We know it's rubbish and bad for us, but for some reason we can't help getting pulled back in. There's a relaxing tone to the casual MMO that causes hours to fly by, even when you're doing very little of anything at all.
Available on the PC for some time, Free Realms launched on the PS3 earlier in the year in North America. It's taken a while for the European version to release, but its finally available to download from the PlayStation Store. You'll need to pull down a client before you can access the game itself, which downloads around 800MB of data in a similar fashion to Sony Online Entertainment's other PS3 MMO, DC Universe Online. The download's fast and can be paused at any time though, so don't worry too much about setting time aside to download the title. An 18GB monster this ain't.
Free Realms is a quirky beast. The game channels inspiration from the likes of World Of Warcraft through Facebook to create something that's as much a social experience as it is game. For those that have no exposure to Free Realms at all, think of it as PlayStation Home with a heavier MMO core and you'll get the idea.
Upon running the title for the first time, you'll need to create a character. Clothing and style choices are limited, but purposely so. Like PlayStation Home, Free Realms is supported by micr0-transactions which underline the game's entire business model.
If you've ever spent time on the Internet — which we're assuming you have — you'll have seen banner ads and promotions for free-to-play browser games in the past. They have a very distinctive, cheap art aesthetic to them don't they? Free Realms is no different, offering a flimsy and unambitious artistic style. The game's fantasy theme has a definite edge to it, which probably makes the game that bit more appealing for "Tweens". It's certainly not all sugar and rainbows.
But this is still a kids game in every facet of its presentation. The first time you're dropped into the game's enormous open-world can feel a bit overwhelming, but as you start to encounter NPCs and pick-up quests it becomes surprisingly intuitive.
Free Realms is a sandbox. It's opening screen is packed with mini-games and activities. Do you want to play chess or checkers? Participate in a game of pirate plunder? Maybe even play soccer? The quests you happen upon almost feel like justification for the mini-games. For example, during our first hour with the game we took a job as a race car driver. Quests involved completing a short driving lesson — or tutorial — recruiting a sponsor and tampering with an opponent's illegally enhanced car then beating him on the track.
Quests get added to your log and can be tackled whenever you're ready. At the time of writing we've got a quest list of about 30 activities, and it's not getting any shorter. The more you play, the more quests you pick up, forcing you to keep playing.
Free Realms is structured across a variety of occupations. Your character is capable of adopting the role of a chef, archer, brawler, knight, wizard, race-car driver, soccer star and many, many more. Each occupation has its own set of quests, unlocks, costumes and mini-games. For example, when playing as the chef you'll need to participate in Cooking Mama esque mini-games, as well as collect ingredients from around the world and harvest crops in a Match-Four type puzzle game. Meanwhile, as the brawler you'll go out on quests, defeating mythical monsters and generally saving the world.
As you complete quests and mini-games in each occupation you'll level up that career, with PlayStation Network trophies on offer for reaching level 20 in each of the occupations. With so many jobs on offer, that's a lot of game. But some of the occupations are better than others. During our time with Free Realms we got quite addicted to the chef and soccer star, but the archer for example seemed a bit bland. You'll definitely formulate favourites.
Perhaps what's so addictive about the game is its enormous amount of variety. You'll always be doing something new in Free Realms, especially for the first ten hours or so. Fiddling about with all the different occupations, leveling up and tackling new quests is genuinely addictive, even if you're actually doing very little at all.
As you play you'll happen upon in-game coins, which can be multiplied if you decide to become a paying member. It's here that Free Realms' business model comes into discussion. Paying members will get additional perks on top of those enjoying the game for free. Members are able to unlock PlayStation Network trophies, recoup savings, access various mini-games and earn more coins. A 30-day subscription costs £3.99 with a life-time subscription going for £27.99. One thing to note is that Free Realms will automatically renew your subscription if you don't turn off automatic renewal, so if you're opting for the 30-day subscription it's best to check that before you progress.
While you can use your in-game coins to purchase a vast variety of items, the very best stuff is locked up as premium content. There are literally thousands upon thousands of micro-transactions in Free Realms that can be purchased via the PlayStation Store, ranging from mounts to costumes and pets. It's easy to see where SOE's making its money — if you give a young teenager this game and let them run wild with a stored credit card, they could easily drum up bills of £1,000 or more. If you are going to let your child play Free Realms, it's best to watch what they are doing. Or at the very least put password prompts on your PlayStation Network wallet — that way you have to personally identify yourself each time you make a transaction through the PlayStation Store.
Like PlayStation Home, you'll also get access to an apartment or home which can be customised by — of course — buying furniture and dotting it around your home Sims style. You can then invite friends to your home in order to chat, etc.
It's light-hearted and fun, and to a degree it's immensely appealing. We popped into Free Realms hoping to get a quick feel for what the social MMO is all about, but got worryingly hooked. One night we put in about three-and-a-half hours of gameplay without really realising it. And that's ultimately the game's beauty.
Having progressed through several of the jobs and racked up a worrying play-time, we feel like we've seen everything there is to see in Free Realms. Short of returning for the odd game of Pirate Plunder, we can't see ourselves renewing our subscription. But during our hands-on, we couldn't help but think of what our eleven-year old self would think of Free Realms. And we can imagine kids getting truly hooked on Free Realms. There's so much content, so much to see and do, and importantly so much variety that it's going to keep young minds engaged for hours. Nothing the package boasts is particularly brilliant or well designed, but it's the variety that's key. The opportunity to go and explore a wealth of different options and careers.
There's a sinister side to Free Realms as it can be a complete money and time sink if you let it. But for supervised kids, it's a great introduction to the world of video games. While it never does anything particularly outstanding, its strength in depth that makes Free Realms such an appealing distraction.
Free Realms ia available now from the PlayStation Store. The core game is free to play, though Members will obtain additional perks. Subscriptions start at £3.99 for a 30-day membership.