The approach of Free Realms – a casual massively-multiplayer online (MMO) game from Sony Online Entertainment, is a simple and familiar one: pack as much free content into as friendly-looking a package as possible and sell upgrades, unlocks and items for real money off the back of that initial experience. The obvious hope is that you'll become enamoured enough with the free portions of the game to pony up for advantages and privileges against other players, and Free Realms has plenty of content put aside for those who are prepared to pay.
The game purports to be browser-based, but you'll need to download client software before you start playing. Once you've done that you'll need to log into the Free Realms website to play with the game opening in a separate window. As you travel the world and move from area to area the game downloads content and data on the fly as required, meaning if your connection isn't up to scratch you can expect some slow down. But apart from that there are no other hurdles to stop you getting into the game. Free Realms is an extraordinarily accessible MMO in terms of its look and feel, keen as it is to appeal to as wide an audience (and an age group) as possible.
There's an in-game tutorial for nearly everything. The game's starting area has plenty of helpful characters that will dispense starter quests to get you familiar with the basics of the game. There's plenty to see and do, with over a dozen jobs that your character can take on (some, like the Blacksmith, available only to paying members). Each job has its own associated quests and areas and you're free to choose any.
The level of free content and its quality is quite impressive. Take the collectible card game within Free Realms (one of the first things I was introduced to) – the CCG is complex and very well thought out, a nice balance between accessibility and challenge. The card game by itself will be draw enough for some people, with Card Duelist being a job in its own right for those who want to dedicate themselves to it. But it's just a tiny fraction of the sheer amount of stuff Free Realms has to offer, for you to come across as you wade through the rest of the early game.
It's a scattershot method, certainly, but there's so much thrown at you that some of it is bound to stick. Every facet of Free Realms has been crafted to appeal to a different taste when it comes to games. If you're a traditional MMO player, familiar with the likes of World of Warcraft, there's extensive questing and combat that can be undertaken alone or in groups, with Guilds supported too. If you're a puzzle fan, job-related activities like mining and smithing actually take the form of match-three puzzle mini-games. Like racing games? There's two driving jobs your character can experiment with. Even if you just fancy exploring the world, the game has a job (Adventurer) and a reward system just for you. If you become bored of one job, you simply go and do another. One mouse click changes your profession and appearance, while the game will actually do that on the fly for you if you take on a quest that is associated with a specific job. It's very keen to make things as easy as possible for you.
Not everything works as well as I would've liked. The interface is pretty with nice chunky buttons, but the layout of the in-game menus leaves a lot to be desired. They can be awkward to navigate and don't provide much information on certain items in your inventory. Moving in and out of certain menus also caused the game to freeze and lock up for any where up to thirty seconds on occasion, despite my ample internet connection.
The nature of some of the quests can be infuriating too – characters will occasionally ask you to collect a certain number of items scattered about their local area, often within a time limit. A fetch quest, in other words. These items don't show up on your map and can be hard to spot, which can make this quest type tricky to complete, and you'll see this kind of task pop up across various jobs. Fetch quests like this are a lazy piece of design and pretty tedious for a player to perform, and I was disappointed to see them used as frequently as they were.
While free to anyone wishing to try it, Free Realms also has a monthly subscription option for those looking to access Member only content. Prices for this subscription vary by region ($4.99 in the U.S. and £3.99 in the U.K., for example), but becoming a full blown Member gives you access to additional quests, items and jobs in addition to letting you have up to three characters on the same account.
On top of that, the game has an online marketplace where you can spend Station Cash on hundreds of different items such as pets, weapons and trading cards. Station Cash is purchased via credit card and this can be done while still in-game. It will ultimately be up to each individual player to judge whether or not Free Realms is deserving of their money in addition to their time. There's certainly no pressing need for new players to open their wallet on arrival as so much content is provided free.
If you're wondering if this game would be suitable for a child (given the art style and ease of use) I wouldn't hesitate to say yes, appropriate parental supervision notwithstanding. The nature of online gaming being what it is, there's no where that's completely free of idiots happy to try and ruin your fun, but Sony Online have clearly made an effort to keep Free Realms free of that kind of element. New character names, for example, can only be selected from a name generator full of pre-approved words (hence my avatar's odd moniker of “Paxton Stonebeach”). If you want a custom name you have to submit it for approval. It's a simple measure, but one that goes a long way toward keeping the game relatively clean. Social interaction within the game is less well regulated and sensible caution is always advised here, but your average player (be they child or adult) should find a pleasant enough environment.
Free Realms is not without its flaws but it's to be commended for providing so much content for so little cost. As online games go it's quite easy to pick up and sample and has one of the safer online environments I've come across. Those gaming on the cheap will find so much to do they'll not need to spend a penny while those with the money to invest will find there's plenty of reward awaiting them too.