Dungeon Crawling in King’s Field: The Ancient City

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By Mike DeVillar on October 27th, 2020

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There are always things that you come across in life that regardless of whether they are or not, feel forbidden. Perhaps it’s an album from an obscure music genre, or a film that is transgressive and challenging. Maybe it’s a book that changes your outlook on the world. Perhaps, in some instances, it’s a video game you came across by happenstance, while taking a look at where another franchise came from. 

For those familiar with the much lauded, genre defining Souls series developed by From Software, esoteric design and obtuse mechanics are the norm. Especially in the first two titles, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, the games plant a flag in the ground that states the player needs to rise to the challenge. It’s a flag that has made From Software a lot of fame and fortune. 

But the powerhouse developer of tough as nails action RPGs had been making games for decades. The esteemed Armored Core franchise, cult favorites like Shadow Tower and 3D Dot Game Heroes, and others speak to a long lasting, far reaching history that started all the way back on the original Playstation. However among those games there’s one that, had it not existed, Demon’s Souls would never have come to be. In many ways these games are the precursors to the Souls franchise. 

I’m talking of course, about King’s Field. 

Kickin’ It Old School

The first King’s Field game was released in the first few weeks of the Playstation in 1994 exclusively in Japan to mixed response. Though it was criticized for its clunky controls, slow movement, washed out, muddy colors, and overly difficult gameplay, it was a modest success. For those that enjoyed it, the game’s atmosphere and lack of load times were seen as a benefit that created an immersive, but difficult experience.

Achieving some modest success, the game spawned several sequels that were localized in the west. They were never popular titles, with critics largely divided on their quality, but the game’s defenders always seemed to recommend the game as something that people need to play.

However, after King’s Field IV’s release in 2001 (2002 in North America under the name King’s Field: The Ancient City), the franchise went dormant, and it is safe to say that while elements of the games have been preserved, King’s Field is gone for good. For the curious sort however, the games have provided a much needed first time experience that for many has been hard to grasp after beating later From Software titles multiple times over, with King’s Field IV being heralded as the must play of the bunch. Heck you might even be one of those people about to take the plunge. But before you take up your sword and venture forth, let’s take a look at the game and how it’s held up.

Sluggish Swings and Steady Spells

Some might call King’s Field IV’s pace methodical, others might say it’s paced in a specific way to make you think tactically about every action. But cutting to the core, this game is slow. Really slow. 

Your sword swings at an awkward angle that is easy to miss with, and the stamina bar where you get much of your damage from refills at a leisurely pace that makes you think it might be getting paid by the hour. Your hero also trudges along like he’s made of iron, and turns with the grace of a block of granite. 

Alongside this, controls are finicky, with looking up and down, as well as strafing being mapped to buttons by default. There is limited customization of your button layout, but the right analog stick will see very little use in this game for those hoping for the now standardized twin-stick movement of most  first person games.

This creates a stiff, but admittedly tense atmosphere that makes you question and focus on every movement, though that is due largely to how quickly death can come. Enemies hit hard, HP is low and save points, while plentiful, do mean load times have to be accounted for.

Making it Make Sense

After a few hours though, the game begins to click. The controls become second nature, you start to learn how to use your weapons. A sixth sense about hidden doors even starts developing. The game, in its own strange way, begin to become fun. And that’s where King’s Field becomes addicting. 

Combined with it’s spartan storytelling, and how foreboding the visuals are, the game makes you feel like the lost adventurer you actually are. Your goal is woefully simple. You are in the possession of a cursed idol, and you must deliver it back to its place within the Ancient City, a place where a great swordsmaster and his knights have gone and become lost within. In doing so you will bring peace to the land of Heladin. 

You’d think an army could make one silly little return

As you might imagine though, the quest is not so simple as returning something to the shelf it belongs on.

With little to your name (just the clothes on your back really) you set out on this quest that seems impossible. Along the way you learn bits and pieces of the land, the people that inhabit it, and the doomed quests of those before you. Despite the stiffness of, well, everything, the game is genuinely haunting.

NPC’s faces are muddied and faded, suggesting more detail than they show, and most of them are every bit as lost and confused as you are. Their stories are odd, they themselves are strange, and even the helpful folk always seem like they are keeping something from you that you ought to know. Levels contain multitudes of secrets, and have short, repetitive BGM loops that at once can set you on edge, while being an earworm. 

In short, the longer you spend with the game, the more you just find yourself naturally sucked into it. After about three hours, you’re in the world, on the adventure, and the last thing you are thinking about is how your character controls like a Chuck E. Cheese animatronic in need of servicing. 

That’s where King’s Field IV clicks, and where I imagine the whole series clicks for people. It’s a game that sinks its claws into you and makes you want to see what the hell is at the end of all these challenges you’ve had to overcome.

Made for the Few

King’s Field IV is not for everyone. I’d argue that it’s honestly not for most people frankly. But for those seeking a challenge, or to see where From Software’s foundation for later titles was laid, I’d recommend booting up the game and giving it a whirl. Despite its tough, weird controls, total lack of any tutorial, and how boorishly esoteric it is, King’s Field IV can be an exciting time for those seeking challenge and mystery. 

7
Solid
Despite its odd controls and off putting introductory moments, King’s Field: The Ancient City is a thrilling game for those seeking a tough as nails dungeon crawler.

Mike DeVillar is a writer/editor that's stumbled his way into the games industry, as well as a lot of places he shouldn't be getting into in general.

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