Virtual Families
Reviewed by Brandy Shaul
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-05-24 PC Simulation E (Everyone) Last Day of Work

After achieving noteworthy success in the casual gaming market with their three Virtual Villagers PC titles, LDW has decided to make an interesting switch from the deserted island paradise theme to that of suburban simulation with Virtual Families.

The game is focused around your adoption of, at first, a sole "little person," as the game calls them, which lives in your computer. This little person is given the run of a fairly large home, and asks for your help in creating a prosperous life for themselves.

Very early on, your character will start to receive marriage proposals, and it's up to you to choose a fitting mate based on both characters' stats, which can be viewed on each of their individual stat screens. That is, each stat screen will list a character's likes, dislikes, profession, salary, and opinion on having children. If your original character wants kids, you would of course wish to choose a mate who wants children as well, or your game will never truly leave the starting block.

Once you choose a mate, the real gameplay of Virtual Families begins. While the game's tutorial introduces you to the controls of the title, those being simple click and drag movements to move your characters around the environment, thus showing them what you want them to interact with (drag a character onto a sink full of dirty dishes and they'll wash them; drag them onto a weed and they'll pick it, etc.), your characters will go about their everyday lives in the background.

The tutorial finishes by introducing you to the concept of having children, a necessary action if you wish to be able to carry on with the same game once your original characters have grown old. However, there is no saying that you have to have children right away, as the house offers plenty of smaller activities for you to take part in.

There's a laundry room, a bathroom, and a TV room whose tasks should be fairly self-explanatory, along with a kitchen available for not only cooking family dinners but also researching new recipes or fulfilling career duties if your character happens to be a chef or candy maker, as examples. The house has two bedrooms, one with six children's beds, and one for the adults, which can be decorated with flower petals when romance fills the air.

Other rooms in the house come in the form of the home office, where you can read emails, browse the web or work on your career (if you happen to be of the publicist, paralegal or other technology-heavy employment types), a workshop, and a shed that contains fire extinguishers that must be used to put our random machinery fires that take place in the game.

If all of this sounds incredibly familiar (Sims anyone?), that?s because it is. There is very little to separate the two games, as even the majority of the graphics within the game are almost identical. The home itself has clean-line furniture and pale non-impressive graphics, while the characters stand out in the forefront with brighter, blockier shapes.

In keeping with LDW's other titles, the character models here are exactly the same as those found in the three Virtual Villagers offerings, they are simply dressed in more appropriate attire. Likewise, the soundtrack is very reminiscent of other games in the genre as a whole, that being one of instrumental elevator music seemingly more suited for an office's waiting room than for a game in a franchise which is normally so original.

All of this combines to form a very mundane experience, an experience that is, in fact, a huge step backwards for LDW's Virtual franchise, when compared to the three Virtual Villagers titles that preceded it.

It's a head scratching situation, trying to figure out why so many of the elements that made Virtual Villagers great have been removed from Virtual Families: elements like the ability to control the game's speed (that is, controlling how many in-game minutes pass per real-world minute; the lack of said option forces any progress to come at a snail's pace or not at all), a lack of any real goal or in-depth puzzle system, and even the ability to micro-manage dozens of characters onscreen at once, since that was one of the few really enjoyable things that separated the franchise from the likes of the Sims in the first place.

One of the only semi-new additions to the gameplay model here (in addition to being able to buy food for your characters, rather than have to earn it) is that of trophies that must be earned by completing certain tasks within the game. While there was a trophy or achievement system in other "Virtual" people games, it was never fleshed out to such an extent as it is here, as there are literally a few dozen trophies to earn ranging from forcing a character to perform a certain task a required number of times, to simply earning enough money from performing jobs or selling duplicate collectibles. However, most of these trophies are about the redundancy of tasks rather than completing any story-driven events, as the story here is virtually nonexistent.

And while the ability to pause the game is, thankfully, still available (so that you can take long breaks from the game without worrying about your characters falling ill), along with the inclusion of collectible items like coins, insects, and leaves, and a few puzzles (although nowhere near the 16+ that were found in previous LDW titles), it still isn't enough to keep one playing for anymore than an arbitrary 15 or 20 minutes at a time. After all, how interesting could a game really be when your characters take (what seems like) an eternity to walk from one side of the house to another, only to decide to take a nap once they get there?

I really hate to go so full-tilt negative when talking about a franchise that normally is very near and dear to my heart, but when all is said and done, it seems fairly safe to say now that Virtual Families wasn't so much a spiritual successor to the Virtual Villagers franchise as it was an attempt to jump on the excitement that Sims 3 is sure to cause once it launches. "Can't afford the Sims? Can't play it on an old computer? Come play Virtual Families instead!" And while I would normally be quite supportive of that motto, unfortunately, when it comes to Virtual Families, the game is lacking in far too many respects to make it worth your while.

Special thanks to Carla Humphrey and LDW for providing a copy of this title.