Sim games are a curious thing. Sometimes they can be so addictive that they’re almost terrifying. Somehow they’re able to pinpoint exactly what makes a player tick, whether it’s farming field after field of virtual vegetables or micro-managing the lives of tiny individuals who don’t know any better. They possess an almost mystical power to provide some sort of meaning in these otherwise relatively mundane tasks, and they transform these mind-numbing labours into something truly magical. We’re utterly powerless to resist them, and we pour hour after hour into these games for reasons we can’t even hope to comprehend.
Other times, however, that special something is completely absent. It’s like you’ve rolled up to the brand new theme park in town only to find a broken and dilapidated swing-set in its place. You try it out for a few minutes and wait for the fun to kick in. Those unextraordinary minutes pass without ceremony, but you carry on a bit longer, hoping it will get better. In the end though you’re forced to resign yourself to the fact that it just isn’t as fun as that other, proper theme park down the road, so you make a break for it and get back to where the real “fun” is.
It pains me to say it, but this miserable playground analogy was very similar to my experience with Little King’s Story, the critically acclaimed Wii game from 2009. I played it for four and a half hours, and I was done. At first I couldn’t quite pin down why it didn’t hit that elusive “sim game sweet spot”. There was something lacking, something I couldn’t put my finger on, but the more I thought about it the more I realised what the problem was, and at the end of those four and a half hours, my single overriding thought was this: “You know what this reminds me of? Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King. I miss that game. Let’s play that instead.”
Sorry, Corobo. You just didn’t deliver on all those smiles and sparkles.
Now this is possibly one of the strangest thoughts I’ve had in a long time, because everything about Little King’s Story should have either blown My Life as a King out of the water or, at the very least, sunk it with several torpedoes. As IGN so famously put it, My Life as a King was “a Final Fantasy game where you stay at home and send other people out to play Final Fantasy”. With Little King’s Story, you actually went out and did the adventuring yourself with a band of warriors snapping at your heels– you weren’t trapped in your town every day waiting for your adventurers to come back. Your advisors were also cute and funny and didn’t have semi-weird relationships with your father. You had an adorable pet cow called Pancho instead of an arrogant penguin called Pavlov, and the music wasn’t the same tune every single waking minute of the game. By all accounts, I should have loved Little King’s Story. But the strange thing is, I didn’t at all.
Obviously not every game will appeal to absolutely everyone and some games are more niche than others (it may also have to do with the fact that I was borrowing Little King’s Story from a friend and thus felt less obligation to finish it), but when two games are so similar and one fails to hit all the right buttons in the first few hours, I began to wonder why My Life as a King kept coming back as my game of choice. After all, it’s the first and only game I’ve ever bought DLC for, so that must mean something, right?
It’s definitely not the story which keeps me coming back for more with My Life as a King, that’s for sure. Set after the original Crystal Chronicles, your “little king” is tasked with rebuilding his father’s kingdom now that the miasma plaguing the land has finally cleared. This is all fine and dandy until an evil spirit pops out of the crystal and takes on the guise of your dead father, and while defeating said evil spirit becomes your ultimate end game, the over-arching narrative isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. In fact, it’s very similar to the plot of Little King’s Story if you replace one evil spirit for several oni demons, but considering you spend all your time in the town, it’s not really that important anyway!
Instead, much of My Life as a King’s real drama comes from the very act of building your own town and interacting with your subjects. Naturally, sending out your adventurers to lost corners of the world and waiting for their return is important, but if that were the sole concern of My Life as a King you could more or less let the game play itself once you’d decided which behests to issue every day. It is repetitive, there’s no point trying to cover that up, but at the same time it’s ever so satisfying.
During my first playthrough, for example, I became increasingly aware that my adventurers were taking forever and a day just to make their preparations before setting off on their adventure. Day after day it seemed like they would take one step outside the city walls only to decide, actually, it’s getting a little dark now, let’s head home. My adventurers were constantly “returning early” from their behests, and I started to doubt whether these warriors were really as fiercely loyal as they professed to be. It became my pet frustration, and part of me suspected that they were simply sleeping in until noon everyday just to spite me. But I soon realised that it wasn’t their laziness that was the problem– it was my own construction.
Somehow I had managed to build all the key adventurer buildings miles apart, meaning that they were spending countless hours trapsing across the city from one weapons shop to another all because I wanted an aesthetically pleasing-looking skyline! Something needed to be done about this, otherwise I was never going to get any further into the game, and as someone who revelled in making grand fortresses in Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness back in the day, I eyed my stockpiled magicite reserves with a gleeful smile and immediately set to work re-organising my town. I shut down building after building, constantly thinking about where I should put that house or where I could fit in that Black Mage Academy, and the next morning I had a completely blank canvas at my disposal. The game may play itself at times, yes, but you’ve got to let it play itself.
You could rebuild Padarak from the ground up again and again as long as you had enough magicite.
This element of town planning (and re-planning) was sorely missing in Little King’s Story. Sure there was the same “I’d like to build this, please” aspect to it, but once those buildings were commissioned their foundations were very much set in stone, and I found that there wasn’t half as much personality to Alpoko as there was to Padarak. It felt much less like my empire– I couldn’t redesign it as I pleased, and I couldn’t organise to my liking. It was also far too easy to send my entire fleet of soldiers into the carpenter hut accidentally, wasting both my kingdom’s precious funds and my patience, but that’s a story for another time.
I also found that I enjoyed imagining what all these places were like in My Life as a King much more than actually setting out on an adventure myself. Call me crazy, but places like the Eorta Deepway or the Corrum Sih Highroad conjured up far grander images than any landscape I was presented with in Little King’s Story. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge a future Crystal Chronicles game which eventually set out to explore these locations in person, but there was something exciting about waiting to see whether your adventurers would overcome the unseen challenges you’d dreamt up. It also made me grow far more attached to individual warriors when they snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat too– if I had a difficult boss battle behest waiting in the wings, I knew I could count on Lucien or Layla to get the job done.
Likewise, managing your warriors became increasingly important as you began forming proper parties. Only the party leader is able to get a significant stat boost after completing a behest, so creating a successful party meant keeping track of everybody’s individual development. The warriors in Little King’s Story, however, were ten-a-penny, and you simply went through as many of them as you needed like they were disposable machines. Can’t wait for them to wash up on the beach after they fall in battle? Go and enlist some more Carefree Adults in their place! Just as the town had no personality, neither did any of my warriors.
Interacting with the townspeople is another thing that made My Life as a King particularly stand out for me as well. Yes, I may have heard everything they have to say about a thousand times before, but every now and again they’ll surprise me with something new (or something I scrolled through too quickly several hours beforehand). There’s also something therapeutic about homing in on those happy faces above their heads as they walk round the city and raising morale in the process. Not only does it let our little king stay out a lot longer after the sun goes down, but it also rewards you with certain medals to give your warriors (that, and the Night Theme is perhaps one of my favourite melodies in the entire game). By helping them, they help you, and thus the cycle of personal investment comes full circle. I cared about My Life as a King, but I didn’t care about Little King’s Story.
Perhaps I didn’t play the game long enough– maybe I should have stuck with it for a few more hours and rescued my first princess. But at the end of the day, I had lost interest by then, and I quickly hopped off my broken swing and proceeded to drop another thirty-odd hours into the relative rollercoaster of My Life as a King instead. It may be the lesser of the two “little king” sims on paper, but I’ll eat my crown if those four and a half hours are supposedly better than sixty hours and counting in My Life as a King.