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Friday, March 14, 2014

Dark Souls 2 was cool and all, but what about a new King's Field now?

Opinion by Matt S.

By now I hope everyone who appreciates quality games has picked themselves up a copy of Dark Souls 2. This dynamite title is one of the finest that you'll get to play on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 because it's tough, but ultimately rewarding. It's got that classic approach to difficulty that should appease people that bemoan how "easy" games have become, while also being undeniably modern in its approach to design and execution.

You can read our full review of that game here. The purpose of this piece isn't to critique Dark Souls 2 all over again. It's a brilliant game and there's not much else I'd want to say that I haven't already mentioned in the review.

But.

But as I mentioned in the review, as I was playing the game, and then reading people's reviews and/ or experiences of playing the game I was keenly aware that I am one of the relatively few people out there that loved the Souls games before the original Souls game (Demon's Souls) even existed. Before there was Dark Souls and before there was Demon's Souls, there was King's Field, and as glad as I am that the Souls games exist, I can't help but feel that From Software has achieved everything that it can with this series, and now is time for it to go back to the purest realisation of the underlying Souls philosophy. In other words, it's time for a King's Field V.



People say Dark Souls was hard. Others insist that Demon's Souls was harder. King's Field puts both of those games to shame. Most players who played King's Field IV died within the first three steps of starting it, courtesy of a bit of ground which is hiding a lava flow underneath it. Unlike in the Souls games, death is something more painful, too; die and your only recourse is to reload your save file, which could have been an hour ago thanks to the pacing of save points, and go through and methodically collect everything again. There's none of this "resurrect yourself and continue on as though nothing happened" nonsense. Oh no. King's Field wanted to kill you, and it wanted you to stay dead.

Playing through a game of this kind of difficulty from the first person perspective was a different experience, too. See, in King's Field you never see your avatar; everything, therefore, is experienced personally. There was something much more visceral about having the action happen directly to your screen, fighting enemies that are directly attacking you, or plummeting to your death and personally watching the environment whiz by. I've just described the appeal of every FPS ever, but the slow, methodical pace of that first person perspective in the King's Field games lent them a different kind of intensity entirely; it was suddenly more difficult to be fully spacially aware, which meant that the game could spring tricks and traps on you that simply wouldn't be surprising (or deadly) when the camera is pulled back away from the character, as it is with the Souls games.

The other benefit that the King's Field games enjoyed due to that first person perspective was the atmosphere. As primitive as the games were, when coupled with the melancholic music, the dungeons, cathedrals, and more open environments had a bleaker and yet more grand aesthetic when you could literally look up and see the constructions towering over you. Gigantic boss monsters were even more intense when you could see them beelining directly towards you. For a dark fantasy putting the player literally in the thick of the action was something that I have missed from the Souls games. I understand why From Software detached the players from the experience by making the Souls games third person (more on that later), but I always preferred the immediacy that the first person perspective allowed. In short, I was that much more immersed in the worlds of King's Field than I ever was in any of the Souls games.



And then there was the level design, which was delightfully old school, and yet so incredibly enjoyable to work through. Secret passages, puzzles and traps were scattered through the environments better than I had ever seen in any game before or after. King's Field IV, especially, transitioned between environments expertly, and provided the game with a kind of environmental narrative that the Souls games emulated, but never perfected. Perhaps because, again, that first person perspective put me directly in the environments.

There's a real sense as you explore a King's Field game that you're tackling dungeons designed by someone who has been playing pen-and-paper RPGs for many, many years. It's a difficult quality to explain, but the challenges that King's Field's environments throw up feel very Gygaxian (Gary Gygax being the creator of the original Dungeons & Dragons and his approach to game design is unique enough to have its own name). Souls games are made very much aware that they are video games, whereas the King's Field games were created as RPGs first, and the attention paid to the fact that these were videogames was secondary at best.

And of course, that's not always a good thing. There are elements that work for a pen-and-paper RPG that could never work in a video game, and their presence in a video game reduces its objective quality. Further, the King's Field games were made on extremely thin budgets, and as such had some severe technical limitations. Combat was quite poor - not least because this game was released before developers have figured out how to do good melee combat from a first person perspective. Anyone who has played a King's Field game knows that it's at it's weakest when you, the player, need to move in close to the enemy, then retreat while it goes through its attack animation, then run in and hit it for some damage, before ducking away again. This combat strategy is enough to get through the game, but it's not even close to the quality of the swordplay of the Souls games.



And that's why a game like King's Field IV has such a low critical rating compared to the Souls games. I'm not suggesting that it's a hidden classic by any means - it was a raw and nice series and people who loved it did so despite its flaws.

But From Software has decent budgets to make quality games now. People have figured out how to make interesting first person melee combat. The next-gen hardware could produce spectacular environments to explore. With all the success that From Software has had with the Souls games, perhaps now is the right time to capitalise on that fan base, and give many of them their first taste of what Souls games were like before they were Souls games.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
Dark Souls 2 was cool and all, but what about a new King's Field now?
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