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Realm of Magic: Funny Subtitle

October 12, 2020

Makin’ Magic was the best Sims expansion. This is not debatable. Everything about it from its music, to its character and world design is objectively superior to anything that Maxis has put out before or since. I will not argue this with you because I do not speak to people who are wrong.

So anyway Realm of Magic had some big, wizardly boots to fill. And, to put it bluntly, I’m not quite sure that it did.

Don’t get me wrong, the actual gameplay mechanics introduced in the pack make for a solid foundation: Spellcasters have a skill tree similar to vampires and celebrities and the selection of available spells and potions is decent. There’s no spell as interesting as Sims 2’s ability for witches to stop time, but the standard cheats and mischief are there.

The skill trees themselves are a little underwhelming, as they only focus on making your spellcaster more overpowered and mitigating the interesting negative consequences from magic use, rather than add any new opportunities for interesting things to occur. This has been a fairly constant theme with The Sims 4’s rewards systems: ostensible rewards, such as traits or perks, often just remove potential challenges, rather than actually contributing to making gameplay more engaging. See, for example, any of the number of reward traits that permanently freeze a motive.

I do, however, appreciate is that the unique resource used for spellcasting. Rather than regents (TS1, 2) or a bar that depletes with every cast (TS3), spellcasters in Realm of Magic have a Charge meter that increases with every spell. At higher levels, the chance to fail a spell and gain a curse increases, and when the meter caps out the sim dies. It’s not too functionally different from The Sims 3’s system, but I do appreciate the fact that it adds a new death and that the effort was put in to make to give it a unique flavor compared to the more traditional energy meter resource of vampires and mermaids.

I’ve already accepted that every new system introduced to The Sims 4 will have me either googling for or creating a mod to rebalance it and make it either less game-breaking or at all relevant. Magic is no different. As much as I think that EA’s implementation lays a good foundation, the actual risks to magical overuse are pretty hard to come across in normal gameplay, and so I highly recommend any kind of mod that makes the good spells a bit riskier to cast.

There are also familiars, which don’t really do much? But you can make your C&D pets familiars and I do love me some expansion crossover.

So, if the game mechanics are decent if not a little questionably balanced, then why do I feel like Realm of Magic is… less than it’s Sims 1 predecessor?

Well, it’s about the aesthetics.

Makin’ Magic was memorable in almost every aspect. To be perfectly honest, I barely even remembered the magic mechanics of the expansion before giving myself a refresher in order to write this review. What I do remember vividly about Makin’ Magic, is its world flavor, its object design, NPCs and its bombastic, accordion-heavy soundtrack.

Travel to Magic Town is done via either zeppelin or a purchasable hole in the ground that seems ripped right from the Sea of Green. The place itself has a sort of subtle otherworldliness that’s hard to put into words; a world of endless fog and autumn in a world otherwise without seasons or even the passage of time. The world seems to be perpetually stuck in the 19th century, in contrast to the main game’s late-90’s aesthetic, and there exist lots of activities totally unrelated to spellcasting (such as the carnival and mini-golf themed objects) that all contribute to Magic Town feeling oddly real, as if the place is a culture unto itself.

The Magic Realm of this pack, however, while visually beautiful, is merely… functional. It’s a place to go speak to the sages, buy things from the specialized stalls and then go home and forget about. Never once do I enter the Magic Realm and feel that I’ve some shared culture with any of the townies the game has summoned there alongside me. The sages, though an important NPC role, are all mortal, and therefore will eventually die and be replaced with another townie who fulfills the exact same role. It’s not even clear what the characteristically ugly, uneditable EA build occupying the center floating island is even meant to be, as it’s only ever referred to as “Magic HQ”. It is simply a manor where important NPCs hang out so that playable sims can ask them to teach them spells.

Like all worlds in The Sims 4, townies aren’t spawned in wearing anything other than their default everyday clothing and the place is pretty indistinguishable from any other community lot in The Sims 4. It’s just purple now. There’s a greenhouse you can’t enter but can find nearby the newly added harvestables for your collection, and there’s a dueling ground which I can’t say I’ve ever used, as magical duels can be performed anywhere and aren’t really worth mentioning outside of this paragraph. There’s also a bunch of magic-specific vendors in this very clear knockoff of Diagon Alley, which is just kind of unfortunate these days. And they’re all reached by a system of glowing portals similar to the one in Glimmerbrook that unmagicked sims can use to get to the Realm in the first place.

There’s just not a whole lot to do in the Magic Realm, the individual areas are a little too spread out for sims without a teleport ability or broom (please stop adding vehicles to a game that can’t properly make use of them), and, even with cheats, the only editable terrain is that of a single central building, so you can’t even add more fun yourself. Playing minigames to grind out enough magicoins to buy a house or even just fulfill your regent needs was a slog for sure, but it at least kept you returning to this bizarre little set of lots and interacting with the odd people who populated them.

Glimmerbrook is in no better situation. I’m not averse to small gamepack ‘hoods: I very much like Forgotten Hollow’s perfectly eerie vibe and small amount of lore tying Vlad into the place’s history. Glimmerbrook doesn’t really have any of that. The two premade families that already exist in the place don’t have much going on outside of acting as an example of the (admittedly very cool) magic bloodline traits, and the world itself is oddly generic for a magical place. I find myself wanting to know the history of this place, and why a portal to the Magic Realm ended up there.

Glimmerbrook’s design makes me a bit sad because it has a slight rural America vibe, whereas the Realm has has the remnants of terraced houses not unlike the ones you see in the UK. I just can’t stop wondering what the pack would be like had EA decided to keep the rural American aesthetic when designing the buildings in the Magic Realm, as opposed to the mix of clumsy art nouveau and Definitely Not Harry Potter No Sir that we ended up with. It would have been more unique, for sure.

Speaking of art nouveau, that’s the build/buy theme for this pack. And, while it sounds good on paper, I can’t see myself using many of these pieces on the regular. What should be fine, elegant details end up looking much less so in The Sims 4’s fairly chunky artstyle. It sucks, because I’m tired of the last few packs of mainly modern styles. The scarab wall lamps are real nice, at least.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a $20 game pack to what was a full expansion back in its day (for the life of me I do not remember how much Sims 1 expansions retailed at when new), but I was really looking forward to a little more weirdness in a game that has been sorely lacking it compared to its predecessors. I really think that Glimmerbrook ought to have been scrapped and those resources put into making the Magic Realm a full-fledged mini-world in its own right, that accomplished spellcasters could move to residentially. The Sims 4’s world system affords it the ability to do absolutely wild things with world design and I’m sorely disappointed that that hasn’t happened yet outside of a couple hidden worlds you can’t do much with.

Again, the mechanics are solid (although I am very tired of TS4 children once again not getting to use any of their life state features until they age into teens), but the titular realm is just… meh. Where Makin’ Magic threw a bunch of schlocky horror tropes at the wall and ended up with a beautiful mishmash that ended up as its own thing that was undeniably Makin’ Magic, the aesthetics of RoM are just… a shrug. The world is pretty, sure, but it only exists to serve a very narrow range of functions. The pack doesn’t have the beautiful zaniness that made the last purely spellcasting-focused pack special, and thus feels pretty unmemorable.

The Sims 4 Realm of Magic: mechanically solid, thematically bankrupt.