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StrangerVille: Weird is Back, Baby

May 20, 2019

You may not know this, but I am an extremely big fan of small desert towns with dark secrets and alien involvement. Shocking, but true.

Due to starting a new job the week The Sims 4: StrangerVille came out, I never got the chance to review (or even finish) it until last weekend. Well, things are a bit more settled now, so get ready to watch a Sims 4 game back get the absolute shit reviewed out of it.

If you’re reading this as someone uninterested in the central, mystery-solving premise of the pack, wondering if there’s still something for you in here, I’m afraid to say probably not. The Build/Buy stuff is fantastic and I can’t wait to redecorate the Get To Work science lab with some of the new sci-fi-themed objects. The new hairs are nice but nothing else in CAS particularly strikes me. And StrangerVille, while gorgeous, doesn’t add a particularly large play-area to the game and will be filled with funny acting sims and odd plants until the mystery plotline is resolved. If you’re of the sort that hates the idea of weirdness in their Sims games, then you might want to sit this one out.

But now that that disclaimer is out of the way, it just feels good to see the Sims 4 team trying something a bit different. Especially after three expansions that, while well implemented, were just rehashes of ones for previous games. It also feels good to see a bit of weirdness return to the Sims series. Although StrangerVille has some definite flaws, I wouldn’t mind seeing more stuff like this coming down the line.

The bulk of new gameplay in the pack involves solving the ‘Mystery of StrangerVille’. It’s not hard to get started with this and, even without the new aspiration to act as a guidebook, the pack actually has quite a fantastic call to adventure in the form of a unique welcome wagon for households newly moved into StrangerVille. From then on, your sims have to gather information from around town, gain access to the abandoned laboratory at the edge of town and gather materials to craft plot items. As the story progresses, the environment does too, the sky becoming more and more ominous to reflect the increasingly dire situation that StrangerVille finds itself in. In later stages, you can even see fighter jets scrambling over the town and hear the distant rumbling of either thunder, or something decidedly less natural. The environment designers did an absolutely fantastic job of conveying the scale of the threat.

The ‘finale’ is great too. Without spoiling much detail, a few new game mechanics combine with some excellent musical cues and make the whole thing feel appropriately like the ending to an adventure. Going back to town and seeing everything having gone back to normal felt rewarding in itself, which is good because the trait that one receives for completing the storyline aspiration isn’t all that great.

For those who are concerned about being able to play through the pack again on the same save, worry not. Unlike World Adventures, it is possible to reset the StrangerVille story without starting a new save.

Although I consider myself a newly-minted fan of goal-based gameplay within a main-series Sims game, the pack isn’t without its flaws, and nearly all of them are related to the story.

Although the storyline can be repeated within the same save, it’s questionable how often one would want to. Although several steps have multiple ways to complete them, the story as a whole is extremely linear and has only one outcome.

There’s also the matter of characters. The pack seems to want to have characters. The default worker at the curio shoppe is heavily featured in promo materials and I personally love his design and personality a lot. But he’s still just townie, and his role in town is filled by any other townie of the ‘Conspiracy Theoriest’ NPC class if he is unavailable for some reason. The man who lives in the (very well-designed) crashed plane lot has unique dialogue popups when asking him about StrangerVille and to join you on your mission, but other than that, he’s yet another pre-made. Eventually he’ll die and another family will be moved into his lot. It’s pretty easy to avoid meeting any of these people at all, as the game’s aging mechanic prevents any pre-made NPCs from being allowed to matter. I invited Erwin and George to my final battle, but the role could have been filled by any sims, despite the fact that these two ought to have an investment in solving the mystery.

Even the backstory behind the pack is almost wholly optional. You can discover it by doing research at the local library, but each part of it is bestowed randomly and there’s one passage that I only discovered through datamining because I had never gotten it naturally in game. Your sims arrive in the midst of everyone acting weird and the feds creeping about, and people will mention something going on at the lab in passing. But that’s really it as far as a ‘how we got here’ goes.

You delve deep into the lab but there are no terminals to read or notes to find bestow any more story upon you than what you already know from canned NPC dialogue in town. It’s weird, because The Sims 3: World Adventures did have plaques and notes for explorers to find, each with unique text that helped flesh out the world that built the ruins you’re exploring.

Despite being a story-based game pack, the plotline sure likes to keep a heavy focus on ‘go here, do this, unlock next bit’ rather than actually conveying the narrative in an interesting way. And that’s a real shame. I mentioned earlier that I love the Sims 2 portable spin-offs, and those games have some of the best, most memorable characters in the franchise. If you’re going to force the player in a linear direction anyway, you might as well add a bit of flourish to it.

And one more final nitpick: the super cool environmental effects I mentioned earlier? Completely replace the weather. If you have Seasons installed, you won’t be getting any more weather from when they start, to when the plot is resolved. StrangerVille doesn’t exactly have much weather to begin with (it’s more or less the same as Oasis Springs and Del Sol Valley), but it’s still disappointing that a huge chunk of another pack is essentially disabled on StrangerVille lots for 2/3rds of the plot.

I have a few ‘fridge’ nitpicks to do with the story itself, but they can be safely ignored if you’ve a mind to buy the pack and want to go in blind, and I don’t really think they warrant discussion in a review.

I feel like I’m being pretty harsh on a pack that I honestly did enjoy and think was worth my $20, but I’m doing it out of love. It kept me occupied for a few nights and has a lot of thematic appeal to me in general. StrangerVille is lovely, if not small. At the very least, the world’s size is appropriate for the kind of small, sleepy town it’s supposed to represent. (I wonder if ending support for 32-bit machines is going to result in larger worlds in the future, as the official reasoning given for the size of Del Sol Valley was in order to be mindful of performance.)

I played through the pack with a household of 4 sims, including a child, and had to balance solving the mystery around work shifts, birthdays and Seasons holidays. If you’re more prone to playing single sim households or just want to throw your sim into the story without having the distraction of a career, keep in mind that you’ll probably blaze through the pack’s content much faster than I did.

I’d really like to see more of this kind of thing in the Sims. Maybe not necessarily story-based (although I wouldn’t mind a few more of these sorts of adventures), but certainly strange, fun, and definitely creative.