The name of The Sims 4’s latest expansion pack says it all. Called Snowy Escape, it’s all about gathering your work-weary sims and shipping them off on the wintry getaway they deserve. The pack adds a whole new map to escape to, and, like a mug of hot chocolate with all the gooey marshmallowy trimmings, a dose of hearty holiday goodness, too. But vacations à la The Sims have a different spin this time around, with the pack taking us to a “Japanese-inspired world” that’s both visually alluring and just Great. Big. Fun.
Mount Komorebi is the place to be for all things festive frolicking, I learn as I dig into a preview build of Snowy Escape. The pack’s new neighbourhood is nestled around the snow-capped mountain and comprised of three distinct regions, each with its own Japanese mountain town flavour. In the green foothills is the historic Sembamachi, “town of a thousand leaves”, which exists side-by-side with nature. It’s encircled by bamboo forests home to little spirits your sims can encounter, and threaded with a mountain river overlooked by cherry blossom trees.
At Komorebi’s base is the modern, vibrant town hub of Wakaba. Its frostiest biome, Yukimatsu, is where the gnarly world of snow sports meets the serenity of onsen baths and remote cabin holidaying.
On the choice of setting, the pack’s lead producer and series veteran Graham Nardone tells me in an interview: “It hasn’t been since Sims 1, when we did our mountain town, where we’ve had a world that just has snow all the time and all these fantastic winter activities, but of course we’re taking it so much further here, 20 years later,” he says. The Sims 4 team added its own twist in “subverting some of the expectations for where that setting might take place”, one obvious example being the French Alps. “An increased focus for us recently,” Nardone says, “is exploring additional cultures; bringing these authentic experiences into the game.” Japan boasts a rich winter sports tradition all its own, with roughly 600 hundred resorts known for reliable powder snow.
Each of Mount Komorebi’s areas plays host to one of Snowy Escape’s key new features: festivals. During the Festival of Light, the town erupts with fireworks and bonfires, and sims send lanterns floating down the river. The Festival of Snow sees crystalline ice statues pop up around the ski slopes, and the whole area becomes bathed in multicolour lights like a Studio 54 dancefloor (but, y’know, pretty). During the Festival of Youth, the adorable mascot of Mount Komorebi, Yamachan – inspired by real-life equivalents at Japanese ski resorts, Nardone says – can take little ‘uns on a virtual ‘Voidcritter hunt’, which is essentially Pokémon Go, Sims-style. Plus, Yamachan’s happy to pose for as many Simstagram selfies as my sims’ whims dictate. Each of the festivals features exclusive snacks to savour, plus cold weather outfits and knick-knacks to collect.
The new year-round activities are where the expansion really shines, though. Chief among them are the skiing, snowboarding, and sledging to be found in Yukimatsu. For those cramming their toes into rented boots and clambering up the hill for their maiden voyage down it, there’s a row of novice bunny slopes. On these, I can hop in a sled with my nearest and dearest, too, if the thought of scoring some wipeouts doesn’t tempt.
The best entertainment, though, are the downhill slopes nearby, which have different levels of difficulty and intensity – and they’re a really winning addition to the game. Nardone explains that sims aren’t locked into predetermined paths down the mountainside – they’ll choose their own route. There’s a decent element of replayability in this; lock the camera onto a sim, hit ‘ski continuously’, and the rest is just great screenshot fodder. There are bumps, twists, and turns on the descent, and my sims are about as fearless as Chuck Norris when flinging themselves downhill.
That’s not to mention the pack’s headline social event: mountain excursions. Essentially, it’s a group trek up the neighbourhood’s eponymous peak, but not one you can half-heartedly suggest on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
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The activity is dynamic, so each attempt will throw different versions of the ascent at aspiring mountaineers. There are various items, rewards, and locations to discover on each iteration of the route – including a new woohoo location in an ice cave, in case you’re wondering – and conditions can vary enormously. Ice can make the climb treacherous, as can new weather events such as thunder snowstorms. Those are heavy blizzards with lightning. They’re potentially deadly. Like rock walls, which are also potentially deadly. Yes, this is still a holiday we’re talking about.
After I’ve picked up supplies (foodstuffs, salves, and pest repellants), ordered hiking gear, and notched my climbing skill up high enough, I catch a ski gondola to the first marker at base camp. My modest team of two then makes its way through various ‘stages’ of the trek, ticking off objectives at each one to progress to the next. All the while I’m reminded of the peril (one of those snowstorms hits in the first leg of my climb). Make it to the top, however (I didn’t), and there are rewards, like valuable items to dig up, a mountaineering trait, and special plaques. And eternal bragging rights, naturally.
Success or no, there are the neighbourhood’s onsen baths to indulge in. Japanese folk music tinkles from speakers as my snow-battered sims heal their injuries and sore feet in the waters. Oh, and they’re another new woohoo spot, too – though I imagine the manager’s frostiness should you get caught would rival Mount Komorebi’s. I can also send my sims back to their holiday home to crowd around a Kotatsu table and share a hot pot, which sits centre-stage, bubbling gloriously as the snow falls outside.
All of these activities add an extra dimension of shared experience, which is underpinned by the pack’s two new gameplay features: Lifestyles and Sentiments. “Lifestyles are all about those lived experiences that a sim has,” Nardone tells me. “[They’re] about how a sim goes through their life. The environment they’re in; the objects and sims that influence them. As they begin to form habits from those, they develop into these Lifestyles, and that enhances and changes how they behave.” There are 16 in total, and they include things like ‘outdoorsy’, ‘people person’, and ‘junk food fiend’.
Sentiments, on the other hand, “are all about adding more depth to relationships between sims”. They make for a subtle but pretty seismic change under the hood. Unlike before, sims can now share an experience, like a date, but end up feeling very differently about how it went, depending on each sim’s personality and goals. Sentiments that then develop can influence how sims feel about and react to each other going forward.
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For example, in watching two of my sims go from pals to romantic partners, Sentiments gradually moved on from things like feeling close after pleasant conversations to ‘deeply connected’, where a ‘powerful bond’ had formed, and my sims gained a ‘source of strength and comfort’ in each other. Aww.
Once the holiday’s over, I can capture the look and feel of the neighbourhood’s holiday homes in my own with new build and buy mode options. There are Genkan-style platform entryways which automatically trigger sims taking their shoes off, as well as tatami mat floorings, raised platforms to adorn with deco items, and other similar offerings. Heck! I can even live in the neighbourhood, so the holiday’s right on my doorstep.
While inspired by Japan’s mountain towns, the pack strikes a nice balance in bringing certain touchpoints of the culture to the game and fusing it with The Sims 4’s existing aesthetics and gameplay. “We didn’t want to do something that was all encompassing of everything that Japan has to offer – it’s an incredible country with a rich history, and there was no way we were going to get every little piece of that into the game,” Nardone tells me.
“Instead, we decided to focus on what we could layer in with this specific winter focus, so we immediately went to the Japanese countryside and these incredible mountain towns that are just nestled in nature.” This translates well in Snowy Escape, and it adds something fresh and fun to the game while evoking fond memories of winter holidays that many fans can relate to – and, of course, that beloved Sims 1 Vacation expansion pack. Ahh, nostalgia.