In an era of rampant political corruption, conspiratorial crime scenes, and… Gino’s pizza
The very first rule to being a great reviewer is to always keep an open mind. Sounds easy, right? Well, it isn’t (I swear). It’s something that even the most seasoned critics struggle with on a regular basis, and for good reason: as humans, we’re wired to continually and subconsciously build sprawling frameworks of pattern-based predictive models in our minds. It’s how we survive, and it’s innate… but conversely, when it comes to professional criticism, it’s also a primary source of weakness. A crucial quality that separates great reviewers from untrustworthy ones is their ability to “turn off” this natural tendency and revert to complete open-mindedness (as complete as possible, anyway) when they sit down to evaluate a product.
Perhaps as yours, my brain had begun—subconsciously—to spin a web of indifference around the MySims franchise. The traditional series formula was widely criticized for its inability to motivate the player; after so many endless errands and empty interactions, the initial appeal quickly faded. Subsequent spin-offs, on the other hand, have done very little to impress beyond mere competency within their respective genres. So it might not surprise you, then, that there isn’t very much buzz surrounding the latest entry in this—to date—thoroughly ordinary series of games.
But MySims Agents has an ace up its sleeve. The monotonous, run-of-the-mill social simulation gameplay that deadened the earlier entries in the series now plays second fiddle to a much cooler core mechanic: criminal investigation. Sure, it still looks and feels like a MySims game, even lifting characters and environments from the previous titles, but the overall experience is vastly different from what we’ve seen to date. Plus, this game isn’t simply some copycat of the investigative/environmental puzzle game genre. Instead, it’s a fresh, good-humored, immediately accessible, and (fairly) universally enjoyable game under the guise of a shovelware kids’ title. Don’t be fooled.
Secret Agent Sim
Agents starts off questionably enough. The comic-style opening (and general presentation) is not bad, and the music is perfectly appropriate, but the first hour or two of gameplay is deceptively slow. You’ll first (briefly) customize your Sim, undergo a short tutorial investigation involving a stolen dog, and meet the game’s villain: Morcubus, CEO of the subtly iniquitous multinational corporation, Morcucorp. Then, you’re left to acquaint yourself with the townspeople for a short while, solving a couple other small-time mysteries (each with an undeniably cute fusion of kid-friendly simplicity and tongue-in-cheek cultural commentary)… but in the background, a foundational theme builds which will thread together many of the game’s mysteries.
The gameplay is simple, yet appropriately scalable. You move and interact just as you did in previously MySims games, except this time, your goal isn’t running boring errands to impress people and decorate your home; instead, it’s solving the aforementioned mysteries. As such, you’re also given some tools to work with: namely, a magnifying glass, a wrench, and a crowbar, all of which are toggled via the press of a direction assigned to them on the D-pad. (Later on, you’re able to upgrade these tools as well.) The crowbar opens and breaks things, the wrench can salvage parts and repair mechanical items, and the magnifying glass reveals hidden footprints and trails to aid you in your sleuthing.
Each mystery is compartmentalized via its own set of clues and criteria. For instance, when investigating a break-in at a local resident’s home, you must gather evidence by searching the crime scene for clues (pressing A interacts with interesting phenomena and speaks with people) and then leverage what you’ve found to take the next step. A fingerprinted set of objectives marks your progress toward each possible conclusion (“Gino” or “Morcubus” is the culprit, for instance), so it’s plain to see how the evidence stacks up as you proceed. On top of that, your case book records all of your current leads. Basically, this means that while it’s certainly beneficial to think this stuff through, it isn’t always completely necessary… and the conclusions are spelled out for you when you reach them, much like in other all-audiences puzzle games (such as the excellent Professor Layton series). In other words, it’s never too incredibly difficult that children wouldn’t eventually figure it out, but it certainly helps keep the pace if you’ve got a head on your shoulders.
Anyway, after a short while, things begin to open up considerably. You’re inducted into the Sim Protection Agency as a special agent and presented with your very own five-floor HQ, which you can then populate with a range of different characters you meet throughout your adventures (they’re each just a simple phone call away). As you solve the most important mysteries, your recruits can then be delegated to handle less pressing matters. Each recruit carries with them a unique set of strengths which are broken up visually into five different categories. You can assign them to floors in groups of three, and the aggregate ratings are then displayed for each group. Different jobs call for different strengths, so it’s up to you to be mindful of which groups are most likely to succeed on a particular job. Throughout their efforts, you’ll be contacted via text message and sometimes asked for advice to help with the work. If the mission is successful, you’re rewarded with new outfits, furniture, and other goodies.
On top of that, the game begins to layer more complexity into the formula to keep it interesting as you become more comfortable with the design. You can assign and arrange furniture pieces to particular floors in your HQ, and each item adds to the spectrum of character abilities for the relevant group in its own unique way. You score a phone upgrade which can scan materials and send them back to the lab for forensic analysis, a process which invokes an atom-bonding mini-game (and which offers the ability to track the development of mold colonies on pizza crust WITH UNMATCHED ACCURACY… plus or minus two minutes). Your archaic wrench and crowbar are eventually replaced by much more functional tools—the “F-Space Manipulator” and “Techno-Tool”, both of which introduce a greater range of interactive versatility and, thus, render future cases and exploration that much more interesting. And treasure chests containing even more goodies are scattered throughout the world to provide an incentive for further exploration.
While sim-to-sim interaction isn’t really much of a focus this time (you can’t upset other sims or anything like that in this game, making this a pretty serious divergence from the usual), the game still emphasizes your hometown and your place in it (in which case, this time, you’re actually working to protect it). As a result, the game world isn’t exactly enormous, so it goes without saying that you’ll spend a good deal of time retracing your steps through previous areas. Fortunately, this is done tactfully, providing new abilities and items (such as the upgrades we discussed above) to open up new areas which were previously visible yet inaccessible—a proven approach.
The whole adventure is laced with a wonderful sense of humor and clever dialogue that will entertain even older gamers. Actually, let me back up. Yes, the game is positively targeted at a younger audience. However, it’s surprisingly fun and unique, and the humor is (sometimes) transcendental of the age group. It’s constructed in such a way that, provided you can look beyond the unrelentingly cutesy presentation, you’ll find a fairly engaging experience in store. The mysteries quickly become much more complex than the previously-mentioned lost puppy, and at some point a few hours in, you’ll suddenly realize that you’re actually having quite a bit of fun solving them. It’s just a refreshingly unique design.
One good example is a ski resort dilemma involving a kidnapping and subsequent vandalism. You’re drawn there as a part of a larger investigation, but you’re soon wrapped up in the recent events and forced to shed some light on the situation. The most obvious suspect being accused is a local Yeti, rumored to exist but apparently not seen by hardly anyone. It’s also, quite ironically, the ski resort’s mascot, plastered on all manner of merchandise ranging from rugs to mugs. Your investigation eventually ends up taking you much further than you’d initially think, tunneling underground, climbing the cliffs, repairing satellites, and interrogating suspects to come face to face with the answers. The gameplay even involves a bit of leisurely platforming (something which is a bit of a surprise).
In spite of all this, the game is still necessarily simplified, however, and that’s both good and bad. For starters, it makes it accessible to a younger audience (what fun is getting a search warrant or luring the mayor away from his office when you can march right in, turn on his PC, and hack into it while he’s standing right next to you to reveal his conspiracies?)… but it might not be what you’re looking for. Early on, things are almost laughably easy and occasionally excessively cutesy—but that sensation lifts pretty noticeably as the game progresses.
Graphically, things are par for the MySims course (and thus quite simplistic), though animation stands out as particularly well done. On that last point, interacting with points of interest in the environment around you frequently provokes a humorous animated sequence, such as buying an energy drink from a vending machine or playing the piano. The design really does provoke a desire to investigate your surroundings, and in that regard, it’s quite clearly a good fit for a sleuthing game.
Overall, while it’s nothing that is going to set the gaming world on fire, Agents is undeniably a step forward from recent MySims titles, and it’s something you’re likely to enjoy if you give it long enough. It’s got a good sense of humor, tight and well-balanced gameplay, and competent presentation. Besides, any game where the bad guys are using plutonium pizzas to conceal their operations has to have something going for it.