is an upcoming game that has been getting a lot of attention, and rightfully so. Not only does it have a difficulty level that’s leaving the most hardcore gamers screaming, but it’s doing a lot of awesome, new things with the dusty old RPG genre. But something’s bothering me about the whole thing: it’s not prompting a lot of talk about the games that came before it.
If you didn’t know, Demon’s Souls is the spiritual successor of a series of games called King’s Field. There have been four games in the series, and for some reason, three of them actually made it out of Japan. Okay, so I guess I really can’t blame anyone for forgetting about or casting King’s Field to the side for the things to come. They’re not a very appealing set of games, and I say this as someone who genuinely enjoys them. The sort of slow, plodding gameplay that they provide just isn’t interesting to most people. But I absolutely love them, even though they’ve long passed on into the realm of The Forgotten.
Note: For all intents and purposes, I’m going to focus mostly on King’s Field IV: The Ancient City, the KF game I personally love the most and have the most experience with.
There are so many strikes against the series that it’s hard to find a place to start. One has already been stated; a lot of people just don’t like the way they play. They’re really tough, lengthy dungeon crawlers that require a lot of wandering and maneuvering around enemies as you chop, chop, chop, chop, chop away at them. It’s a similar case to that of roguelikes and romance simulators/eroge games. King’s Field games are part of a subgenre that is popular in Japan, but a niche market everywhere else.
They’ve all been cursed with some really bland cover art, which is something that keeps even the best games (just think of Ico) from moving off the shelves. Just take a look at ’em. They don’t do much to convince buyers that they aren’t the same old fantasy crap that’s been done a million times before. Not that there’s anything wrong with fantasy crap. But it’s been done a lot, especially over here in the Western world.
Some may not think much about the way the games actually look, either. They’re dull, muddy, and minimalistic. Even the menus are pretty plain. I can openly admit that the first time I saw IV in action, I thought it was the ugliest thing I had ever seen and subsequently had very little interest in whatever it had to offer. The older games look even worse in comparison; IV isn’t all that bad once you get to know it, but at that moment in time, I didn’t know any better.
What initially drew me in was the sound. As my friend played, I closed my eyes and got only the auditory cues for a while. I loved the haunting melodies, the sound of armored feet patting the ground, the disgusting squelching of slime monsters in the distance and the shattering of skeletons beneath a spiked mace. These sounds sparked something in me, something that made me go back and try the game myself.
When I did, the first thing I did was step on an unstable patch of ground and drown in lava. But I didn’t let the game’s somewhat unfair design stand in my way. I slowly but surely made my way into the titular ancient city and had one of the best, most personal experiences I’ve ever had with a videogame.
The one thing that the King’s Field series really has going for it is its atmosphere. It’s got atmosphere coming out the wazoo. They’re RPGs at heart, but I would say that they hinge on horror. The scenery, music (or sometimes the lack thereof) and even the barebonedness of the mechanics all work together to create a very ominous, eerie field of play. I don’t like horror games because I’m a big wuss. Cheap scares make me jump every time. But King’s Field provides just the right kind of horror for me. Not the kind that makes your heart stop around every bend, but the kind that makes you progressively feel less and less at ease.
There are some cut scenes scattered throughout, but a lot of the story is told through what the player finds as they explore. In King’s Field IV, for example, you go into the game with the knowledge that a thousand soldiers went into the Ancient City to try and do the same task you have been given (taking an unlucky idol back to its resting place). As you go deeper into the cursed place, you happen upon bodies, bones, and dying soldiers hopelessly looking for their comrades; this is all that’s left of the army, and it makes you come to terms with the fact that because you have the idol in your hands, you’re going to be next if you don’t get rid of it soon.
The ones I’ve played have no load times, which is pretty much what makes the action move so slowly. But I feel it’s a fair trade off for what From Software did with that time not wasted on watching bars fill up. Loading screens tend to serve as a reminder that what’s going on is just a game, so the lack of that feeling combined with the speed of the game makes your character seem a lot more human. You never see him or her, but you do know that they’re being bogged down with heavy armor, weapons, shields and items. They/you’re also trapped in an extremely gloomy setting where you don’t see sunlight for weeks or even years. It makes sense that you’re not jogging about the place like you’re fit, light as a feather and happy to be alive.
The slow pace of everything mixed with the non-linearity of the exploration gives you the feeling that you’re this small speck of a person within the sprawling labyrinths before you, uncertain as to which way you should turn next. You’re not especially strong, and beneath all of your armor, you’re still very vulnerable to the dark beings that live in the ancient city. You have some magic at your disposal, but it is very limited. The bottom line is that you’re put into a situation where you don’t feel like a hero. You’re just a guy in a bad place who might have a chance of making it out alive, but only because of the stuff he finds along the way. You do level up, and that helps, but the process is as slow going as any other part of the game.
Personally, I felt even more vulnerable going through the underwater portions of the game (if you didn’t know by now, water in games scares the crap out of me; like I said earlier, I’m a pushover), but it was a good sort of vulnerability. It helped me remember that death was always looming above my head, and to never let down my guard, which is what I would feel if I were really in the situation the main character was in. I already moved slow enough, but I purposely went even slower, cautiously watching where and when I took a step.
And then there is the eventual crawling back out of the wretched underground city, through a single door that takes you out into a neighboring enchanted forest. After traveling through dark, creepy caverns for so long, I actually squinted as I made my way back out, just as my nameless character would have after not seeing the sun for so long. This area is the only place where I ever felt safe the entire time, and to open a door and see signs of life not twisted by darkness restored my hope. Whenever the underground city started to get me down, I would make my way back to the forest to relax and stab some cute, furry creatures (some of the only ones to not be completely horrifying in the entire game) in good old natural light.
By grace, instead of giving up, thinking the game was too hard, or being too frightened to progress further, I got through King’s Field IV, and all of the above is how it made me feel. It’s the reason why I’ve looked into most of the other games, including Shadow Tower. I have really enjoyed the experiences they have given me, and as people who enjoy things are want to do, I am curious as to why no one else has ever said they felt all of these things before me. Is it because there are other games that have done the same thing in better ways? This may be true; I haven’t played every game ever made, especially those that look like they are based on scaring the crap out of their players.
King’s Field surprised me for scaring me in a way that I enjoyed. It doesn’t use shock tactics; it’s way too slow to be shocking in any way. Instead, the series reminds me a lot of the creepily atmospheric games of yore (further back yore), like Shadow of the Beast (another great forgotten game that should be discussed) or Ecco the Dolphin. These games didn’t set out to scare, but still managed to creep people out in seemingly unintentional ways.
In the case of King’s Field, the moody atmosphere and unintentional scares had a hand in making me believe that I was a part of what was going on. For this, I think the series is worth bringing up, especially in a time when its offspring is being birthed into the world.
Chances are that if you’ve never played these games before, you will read this, try one of them, and come back here cursing my name for ever letting me talk you into it. King’s Field games are not for everyone. They’re hardly even for the people who like this sort of thing. In many ways, they’re style over substance, and in many other ways, they’re just plain bad. But you have them to thank for a really great game that’s about to grace US store shelves. So, if nothing else, thank King’s Field for its son.
But if you do happen to feel the same things that I feel about any one of these games, you can join me in thanking them for the time spent with them. Thank them for their somewhat bland settings, because they made you feel trapped in a dark, unwelcoming place with no way out in sight. Thank them for their bizarre monsters, even if many were uninspired, because they gave you something to do so that you could keep going through the labyrinths. Thank them for their difficulty, because they kept you on your toes the entire way through. Most of all, thank them for the easy gateway they create between the game and the player. Fear is something that we all know, and by letting us literally see the world through the eyes of their nameless heroes, we can sympathize. We can give them a name: our own.