This week, Fraser's the one being offered up as a sacrifice to the cruel gods of Early Access. He's been flung back through time to live his best serf life in GolemLab's medieval sim, The Guild 3 [official site].
Being a freelance video game man, I suffer from a great deal of existential dread, and it’s proved to be too much for me, so I’ve packed it all in to start fresh in The Guild 3's recreation of 15th century London. In my new and improved life, I’m Carlton Bloomer, a rogue, a pickpocket and a feckless ne’er-do-well. Join me as I try to rise to the top of medieval English society using my quick fingers and juggling skills.
I could have picked a less… ethically challenging path for my first foray into The Guild 3. The character creator lets you choose a starting skill that informs how you’ll make your way through the world. I could have been a herbalist or maybe a craftsman, but why make when you can take?
Life begins at home. Literally. I spawn into the world standing right next to my awful house. My awful, almost empty house. In storage, I have two daggers. These represent my sole possessions. With no tutorial and a hint system that decides to break after the very first tip, I’m already a wee bit lost. I try to remember how I’d start things off in the previous Guild game, but I seem to have forgotten everything in the last seven years.
This is fine. It’s a lovely day, the sun is out, the serfs are workings -- I should see what trouble I can get into. A quick glance at the confusing skill tree informs me that I can select a new skill. Obviously I choose pickpocketing, the foundation of any successful criminal career. I’ve already spotted my first mark: the very first person I see. He’s just standing there, oblivious to my ill intent.
Unfortunately, picking pockets seems to be beyond me. Clicking on my mark just moves me uncomfortably close to him. Close enough to kiss him right on the lips. We stand there, in silence, for a sexually charged in-game hour. It’s only after a cold shower that I realise there’s a button that reveals all the class-based actions I can perform, and pickpocketing hasn’t been unlocked yet. I’ve selected it, sure, but that just means I’m in the process of learning it.
This minor setback has not diminished my optimism because while I learn to pick a pocket or two, there are three roguish things I can do right now. Setting up an ambush seems like a bit much for my first day on the job, and who would I even ambush? I don’t know anyone. Scouting roads sounds a lot like just walking, and that doesn’t seem particularly thrilling. That leaves jugglery, the most devious skill of all.
The Guild 3’s jugglery skill appears to be more like a really bad interpretive dance and involves zero balls, swords or fire. I find an unsuspecting victim and throw some shapes briefly. She seems to dig it, laughing and clapping as I do my best impression of an inflatable tube man. When I’m done, she tosses me some cash. This doesn’t seem too hard, but I’m thinking too small. What kind of fool performs for an audience of one? I crave the adoration of a huge crowd, and that means leaving London’s sleepy outskirts and heading right into the heart of the big city. Fame and fortune and probably more not-really-juggling await!
It takes me a little longer to make my way down the road to London than I expected. The wild and unwieldy camera controls and UI work hard to befuddle, and I lose track of Carlton more than once. With a little perseverance, however, I enter the gates of England’s capital before dusk and start looking for the pub. Nobody likes an impromptu street performance more than drunks.
Lamentably, there’s no pub, inn or tavern of any kind to be found in all of London. I manually browse the list of buildings and the only place I’m likely to find drunks is near the church. London’s a pretty busy place, though, and I quickly spot a likely crowd milling around on the street. I only have to look into their eyes to know what they're thinking: “Show us what you’ve got.” I’m going to show them shapes they’ve never even seen before.
It’s time for some mental arithmetic to predict how fat my purse is going to be after all this. I have around 20 gawking potential patrons and my sole previous experience tells me that I can earn 32 gold from a single onlooker. Even assuming that half of the crowd don’t dig my performance, I’m looking at a 320 gold windfall. I am obviously very excited.
I get 10 gold.
Come the hell on. Despite the increased size of my audience, that's a third of what my first performance netted me. Why? That’s a question I’m asking myself a lot while attempting to muddle my way through the 1400s absent even a sliver of guidance or context. What is clear is that there’s no point in trying to attract big crowds, so I’ve wasted the better part of my day in the cosmopolitan city of London, with its two shops and a church.
A few more dances later and I’ve made a little bit of cash, no thanks to the vast numbers of people watching me make a fool of myself. I’ve also levelled up my jugglery skill and now I start to dream of all the new abilities I’ll learn. Perhaps I’ll even be able to actually juggle. But no, the life of a rogue is not a happy one. It’s tragic. So when I open up my sparse yet jumbled skill menu, I can’t even see a jugglery skill.
In the rogue section I can only see fighting, sleight of hand, veteran and shadow arts. The first two are sort of self-explanatory, unlike the others. Veteran might make me better at fighting too? And shadow arts sounds like it has something to do with murder. But the vague explanations are no help at all. At least that’s consistent with the rest of the terrible UI. To unlock these other skills, I’ll need to do a bit of grinding. Splendid.
But wait! I might not have enough experience to get a new skill, but I have levelled up my social status… somehow. The Guild 3 has a bunch of social classes, each unlocking new skills and abilities like creating businesses and controlling employees. In the previous game, new titles had to be purchased, but here it happens automatically while you’re doing other things. So now I’m a yeoman.
I’m also something of a hero. While I was busy trying to parse the menus, someone apparently tried to murder a man, but I spotted the attempt and called for the guards. My reputation is a little better because of my heroics. Except none of this actually happened. It’s just a random text event that offers me no choices or opportunities. While I’m making a sandwich, I leave the game running, with Carlton standing in the middle of the street doing nothing. As I enjoy my tasty lunch, I also manage to foil another murder attempt, dig up ‘antique shards’ worth 9 gold in a field and hold a lavish feast in my empty hovel for my invisible friends. I’m better at this game when I’m idle.
Maybe I’ve been going about this all wrong. My 32 years living with capitalism has made me focus too much on work when I should be making meaningful human connections. In The Guild 3, that means getting married. A spouse means kids, and kids mean a legacy. The ultimate goal, though that might be too strong a word in what is a sandbox, is establishing a successful dynasty. You can also pick more specific objectives, but I’m playing in the free-form mode.
I’ve noticed one woman showing up to several of my shows. And it’s definitely not because there’s not much NPC diversity. Her name is Melanie and she is single, 23 and has some peasant clothes. I’m smitten. Seduction is a lot like jugglery, in that it involves pushing a button, watching an animation cycle and then being disappointed with the results. “You successfully complimented Melanie,” the game tells me. Cool. Over the next few minutes, I successfully compliment Melanie 25 times. I can’t tell if it’s doing anything. Melanie wanders off, without a word. It’s started to rain.
Unable to find my beloved again, since the only way to search for a character is by manually looking through the list of every single dynasty and every character connected to it, I give up. I might be besotted, but I’ve got my limits. All in all, my first day in London has been terrible. I’m angry. Seething, even. And I’m going to take my rage out on the people of the capital. This is my supervillain origin story.
Hitting the ambush button conjures up a hiding spot, with crates and bushes popping into existence as if by magic. This is going to be great, I just know it. Everyone will fear Carlton Bloomer, Evil Wizard Rogue!
Some filthy peasants walk right by my hiding spot, and I strike. Or rather, I walk right up to them just stare. Oh dear. I forgot that I still can’t pick pockets yet. I can’t fight either. So… I just let them walk by. It’s really awkward for everyone involved.
So I have an ambush skill that I can’t do anything with, a scout roads skill that I’m yet to find a use for and an interpretive dance skill that earns me a pittance. It’s the only thing I seem to be able to grind, though, so it’s back to jumping around like a berk for me. As I dance for my supper (but not really, since I don’t seem to need to eat or sleep, my life is a waking nightmare, send help) I start to think about Melanie. Maybe I just didn’t compliment her enough, or perhaps I should have given her a gift. But what? One of my daggers?
Eventually, I reach resident status, which means I can finally start fights, and I’ve earned enough experience to unlock the pickpocket skill. Time to bring back the plan! As I hide behind my magical crates and bushes, I spot a perfect target, the only person on the road. I click attack and I rush at him. My hiding spot also comes with me. Somehow it’s stuck to me. It doesn’t give me an edge, sadly, and the guy beats the crap out of me.
Aside from my injuries, there don’t appear to be any other consequences. After battering me, my not-quite-victim just stands there, not reacting. When I walk right up to him again and, in full view, pilfer his pockets, he doesn’t move an inch. I’m 54 gold richer. Pushing my luck, I start to dance. He throws another 36 gold. Incredibly, I manage to make 600 gold out of this guy, picking his pockets and dancing over and over again. When he does finally notice, I surrender and we’re cool again. I pick his pocket five more times. It’s bottomless and I’m loaded. I’ve also levelled up again.
I’m still wearing my hiding spot.
With my pockets full of gold, I feel like I could do anything, which is why I end up married to a woman called Regina after complimenting her five times and then proposing. Proposing is a new ability I seem to have unlocked. A day passes and now we have a son, Gilbert. He just… appeared one day. This family lark is easy. Balancing that out is the apparent uselessness of my spouse and offspring. I might as well be living with a pair of mannequins.
Disappointment has hounded me at every turn. Nothing I do feels like it matters, and the simulation that ostensibly drives the game is very, very slight. Relationships, jobs, the economy that’s meant to lie at the heart of the game -- all of them are half-baked at best, and I’ve seen little evidence of any dynamism. This hollowness is making my existential dread flare up again.
Even by Early Access standards, The Guild 3 feels extremely rough. There are plenty of things to do, once you grind to unlock them, but they’re all empty activities that require almost no player input. GolemLabs warn players that it’s a complex game, but I’m just not seeing it. The systems and interactions aren’t complex, they’re just frequently obfuscated.
Reading the Steam store page raises some alarms, too. The developers say that they’re “nearing completion and balancing/polishing the game”, but I don’t see how that’s possible given that it feels pre-alpha at best. Apparently they’ve added all the features that they wanted to, and the only difference between this and the final version will be stuff added from player feedback. Like its predecessors, The Guild 3 still has a compelling Sims-meets-Anno conceit, but there’s so much more work left to do than its creators seem willing to admit.