The allure and addictive nature of massive online games like World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online is extremely potent for scores upon scores of players, but there are only a handful of truly all-ages games available in the genre. While simultaneously grooming younger gamers for the big league MMORPGs later in life and offering an online world suitable for all manner of players, Sony Online Entertainment’s newly launched, kid-friendly Free Realms lets gamers of all ages mingle in an exotic and playful fantasy world. Without paying a single dime, there’s a staggering amount of exploration, quests, and games to enjoy in these virtual hills and valleys.
Over a million users signed up for Free Realms shortly following its official PC launch (the PS3 version is still being worked on). Though not all players are kids, don’t be surprised to find the servers more heavily packed and the world more densely populated during after school hours. The opportunities for social networking and player interaction are plentiful via chat features, duel opportunities, and mini-games. However, shyer players can still get a lot out of the game through interactions with the numerous NPCs populating the world until they’re more comfortable, and a handy feature lets parents control and limit social interaction options for their kids if deemed necessary.
In creating a character, you can choose to play as a human or fairy (with male and female variants of both), and there are a reasonable number of options for further customizing your appearance and outfit. A brief tutorial phase introduces the basic concepts and leads you through a few missions before letting you roam freely about the world. At present, the expansively mapped landscape in Free Realms includes eight major town-like regions with different inhabitants, quests, and visual themes (with several more in the works). You’ll find snowy mountaintops populated with yeti and other cold-weather folks, a sunny beach resort located near the ocean, a jungle town full of cheerful inhabitants, haunted swamps, tucked away fortresses, and other interesting locales to frequent. Each area is uniquely designed both visually and in terms of the gameplay options available. Additionally, the world map is easy to navigate (dots represent hotspots for battles, quests, mini-games, friend locations, and warp spots), and each themed realm features a cool popup animation when you hover the cursor over it.
A large portion of the gameplay in Free Realms centers on its various jobs (character classes) that can be unlocked through quests and switched out on the fly by changing outfits. As you roam around and talk to different characters, they’ll ask you to take on a broad range of quests. While there are general missions that don’t fall under any job category, many of them follow a specific career path. Some require you to have unlocked a specific job and provide you with special experience to level up your character. For example, combat-focused jobs (of which there are six in all) like the brawler and ninja let you gain experience through battling missions. Playing as a chef lets you hunt down ingredients and cook various recipes to provide boosts elsewhere in the game. Blacksmiths and miners can forge important items and gather crucial resources, respectively. Other jobs let you dabble in being a pet trainer, a postal worker, a kart driver, a treasure hunter, a card game dueler, and more. Fifteen character jobs are available at the moment, but it appears more will be offered in the future. Four of the fifteen classes can only be opened up if you pay the nominal monthly subscription fee for optional membership. You can switch between unlocked jobs at any time, and completing missions lets you earn experience to level up your jobs, gaining access to special abilities that can be pumped up through stardust earned along the way.
The job class structure offers a lot of different ways to play Free Realms. Combat is completely optional, but players who feel like cracking some heads together can do so anywhere they can locate bands of roaming monsters or when exploring the deep caverns and dungeons hidden throughout the realm. The real-time battles have you clicking on opponents to attack and triggering special abilities by clicking on a menu sidebar.
It’s important to note enemies are not slain; they’re knocked out and disappear. The same goes for you, and you can be knocked out a predetermined number of times in a battle map before being booted back outside. Quest-based battles often have multiple objectives that give you incentive to do more than just clobber opponents and collect shiny weapons. There’s also an option to invite nearby players to a one-on-one duel.
For players less interested in fighting, there are a tremendous number of other activities to engage in, depending on your interests and what classes you’ve found. Chef jobs involve Cooking Mama-like food prep mini-games that are fun and goofy. Mining lets you play an addictive gem matching game to unearth precious ore. Animal raising lets you groom, care for, and play with your pet. The game’s race-driver jobs let you hop into suped-up rides for arena demolition derbies or racing matches. Beyond class focused diversions, the world is teeming with mini-games to play by yourself or with other players. There’s a penguin tower defense game, musical rhythm games, boardgames, and much more. You’ll also find tons of items to collect in each region. Free Realms even boasts a robust Magic: The Gathering-like card collecting and battling game, and that alone can provide hours of entertainment. As is expected, the realm is also riddled with fetch quests that can grow tiresome after a while, and spending too much time on a single job set will quickly find you bumping up against the level 20 cap. The latter will likely be expanding as the game continues to change and grow.
Free Realms sports a lighthearted fantasy presentation that’s loaded with colorful, cartoonish visuals that will undoubtedly appeal to its younger target audience. Characters are nicely animated, and expressive, thanks to a bevy of emotive selections to trigger. The visual and thematic variety in the main town regions is strong enough to keep you exploring to see what else there is out there, but the paths and terrain in between also holds plenty of cool surprises. Though things look good overall, they’re not so high-end that they cause problems when running in the web browser application, which is always good.
Much of the game’s content can be freely enjoyed without paying anything, yet there are benefits to signing up for the monthly membership to access extra stuff. Additionally, microtransactions aren’t necessary to obtain a lot of general items, outfits, and equipment, but players who are hardcore into dressing up their character and decking them out with slick accoutrements will find enough compelling reasons to spend a little extra here and there. With new regions, more character races to play as, additional jobs, a house maintaining element, and other goodies in the works, it seems the already strong baseline of online fun Free Realm provides is set to grow exponentially as the year progresses. This pleasant, free MMORPG is off to a great start and holds even more potential as Sony continues to implement new features and additions in the future.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.9 Graphics
The upbeat, exuberant cartoon-like visuals are nicely polished. 3.8 Control
Take some getting used to but work nicely in general. 3.9 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Cheerful, not too irritating for older gamers either. 4.3 Play Value
Tons to do and lots to explore, whether you’re adventuring or diving into mini-gaming heaven. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.