Free Realms is SOE's latest MMO. It's very kid-friendly with a fantasy setting. Featuring humans and fairies and insanely colourful locales, getting access to the beta has gamers around the world champing at the bit, including Team Massively. Thankfully the NDA has finally been lifted so we can start telling you all about the game.
One of the biggest features of the game is that it is, as the title would suggest, free to play. Rather than making you pay, you can enjoy it gratis or you can choose to upgrade your account, which is subscription based and will cost $4.99 a month. The upgrade gets you extra shiny features which aren't integral to the game like extra jobs and the ability to have three characters rather than just one. You also get access to leaderboards and extra items and quests.
Character-wise, the beta gives you the option of playing as a male or female fairy or a human boy or girl. There are some nice customisation options including clothing, makeup and I especially like the name generator which let's you use a slot machine-like system to come up with imaginative and distinctly New Age/fantasy-sounding first and last names. You can either let fate choose your name or take a bit you like - in my case Cassandra and onyx - and then let the wheel of chance come up with the other elements.
You don't get thrown in to the deep end though. Much like World of Warcraft or EverQuest II, there is a starter zone to ease you into gameplay, a phased area out of sync with the rest of Free Realms where you can learn Questing 101 in peace and quiet. However unlike other titles where you are instantly made to do battle with denizens larger and uglier than you, you don't have to fight. Instead the game is all about choice. My character only became a brawler by accident as the tutorial does teach you how to fight, but that doesn't mean you have to continue. Indeed it's rather refreshing to chase away creatures and be commanded to scare them away rather than stomp on them until all that is left are batter corpses.
Once the trial is over - which introduces you to the instanced quest areas - you are deposited in the main server and allowed to roam free. There are quests to do, people to befriend, emotes to play with and pets to buy (or in my case, try for ten minutes). While the world is, graphically, not too complex it is very polished and the available areas quite expansive. The popup nature of the map is especially useful and there are plenty of customisable options to help tailor how you navigate around the world.
Free Realms has some really nice touches which I particularly like. Everything feels fluffy and oversized (which I, with my horrendous eyesight, find refreshing) from the chatbox to the icons and the UI itself. A breadcrumb trail leads you straight to your target and the minimap makes a lot more sense than the one I'm used to in WoW. Indeed all these things remind you of who the game is aimed at: kids, kids and more kids. The fantasy setting feels lush, the characters plucky and appealing. I actually find it easier to play using the cursor keys as opposed to the mouse which feels a little too fiddly. Perhaps this is intentional, given the audience, as the game feels designed for ten-year-olds. Using the keys is probably easier for young children who have less advanced motor skills.
Free Realms is one of these rare titles which feels deserving of all the hype; indeed it surpasses expectations. Considering this is just a beta, there's plenty to do and see and the mechanics of the game mean there's a very easy learning curve making it perfect for kids, big or little, to grasp how to play quickly and easily.
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