Monday, September 26, 2011

King's Field: The Ancient City; an unappreciated From Software classic

I’m going to take this opportunity to rave just a little more about one of the greatest, most under appreciated games of the PlayStation 2 era, and that game is King’s Field IV (known as “The Ancient City” in the US). See, without From Software’s first person Gothic opus, we would likely never have had Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, and I think we’re all glad for the existence of those games.

And yet, at the time it was released, King’s Field IV polled terribly with the critics. Gamerankings, for instance, over 22 reviews has the game score an average of just 56.65 per cent; a far cry from the plaudits levelled at Demon’s Souls.

Why is this? It’s a question that has honestly confused me when I’ve thought about it in the past, because aside from the difference in perspective (first person to third person), King’s Field IV and Demon’s Souls are virtually the same game.

Both games are lonely romps through Gothic wastelands. Murderous Gothic wastelands. The first time I popped King’s Field IV, I died within the first ten steps when I put my virtual foot on a big of ground that gave way… right into a pool of bubbling larva.

Nostalgic thrills every time I see in-game footage. This is one of,
if not the favourite game of the generation for me

That unrelenting difficulty never lets up. Though the pace of the game itself is slow, the tension levels remain high, as every monster can be deadly, every corner hiding a trap that can rip you in half in the blink of the eye. Friendly faces are few and far between, but you’ll find some in the deepest pits, the darkest dungeons and the most miserable of buildings.

The thing about King’s Field IV, aside from the difficulty, that makes it compelling to wander through, is the amazing atmosphere that it pushed through the PlayStation 2, with a minimum of technological prowess. See, King’s Field IV isn’t pushing amazing levels of polygons, in fact at times it’s downright blocky. What makes it such an amazing game in terms of atmosphere is a combination of the music, with is ambient and darkly beautiful. The game did a really great job of building believable catacombs, filling them with fitting monsters and undead, and then hiding appropriate treasures to make exploring the catacombs worthwhile.

In other words, the game did such a great job of level design, that navigating through the twists and turns of the catacombs provided the same joy of exploration that the very best of pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and the very best Dungeon Masters can convey.

Yes, the story telling was quite thin, but then the dungeons themselves had stories of their own just in their design, and unearthing the rare map of those dungeons provided enough context to give the adventuring a point. Yes, the combat was far less interesting than most RPGs, but this wasn’t a game of combat, for all the evils that looked to kill the hero. It was one of exploring, and puzzling out how to reach that treasure chest just behind the wall and bars over there.

And perhaps it was those expectations that let the critics down at the time. King’s Field IV was a surprising and hugely original game. It’s a pity we haven’t seen anything of its kind since (Demon’s Souls for all its brilliance is far more about the combat).

Hopefully From Software decided to revisit its first person classic franchise after Dark Souls is done and dusted. But not too soon, because we’re going to need plenty of time to get through Dark Souls’ reported hardcore challenge.

Does anyone else have fond memories of the King’s Field games? Be sure to let us know and say hi!



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