Article by Matt S (premium article).
I almost wish the Souls series never happened. I say “almost” because I am a massive fan of those series and I am ultimately glad that they exist, but it’s a bitter sweet relationship that I have with the series, because the Souls series replaced From Software’s brilliant King’s Field franchise, and those games, especially the fourth and final, are some of my favourites of all time.
The “spiritual sequels” to the King’s Field series certainly worked from a critical and business perspective. Dark Souls III is inarguably a AAA-quality title, and where King’s Field IV was utterly panned by the critics, these games can’t do wrong with that same audience.
But I do wonder, if From Software were to release King’s Field IV as one of those upscaled PlayStation 2 titles on the PlayStation 4, would people look at it in a different light? Is King’s Field IV: The Ancient City potentially the most under appreciated classic game that has ever been developed? Almost forgotten, and with a Metacritic average of just 60, I actually think that’s quite possible.
The lack of direction seems to be what put a lot of players off back when the game was new, and the review scores reflected that – while the full copy for most full reviews seem to have been lost to the world of 404 errors, the brief captions that have been preserved by Metacritic tell the story in itself:
“The action is so slow and the world so depressingly medieval.” – PlayStation 2 Magazine.
“Shape up the way the game flows, its speed, and a better control/attack system, and this might be worth looking at.” – Gamezilla.
These criticisms are, of course, features that were later lauded in the Souls series, as they are themselves deliberate, slow paced action games with complex combat systems. King’s Field IV is certainly slower and clunkier, as a product of the time it was developed in, but the attitudes towards these features has nevertheless taken a complete 180 degree spin in the years since.
The storytelling of Kings Field IV also made you work. Just as the Souls games feature precious few NPCs, and these characters would only reel off a couple of lines of dialogue, in Kings Field IV, you are expected to piece together an understanding of the melancholic, gothic world by interpreting the objects that you come across, as well as the environments that you’re seeing, and build a story from them.
Because the level design has to be excellent to be a part of the storytelling process, King’s Field IV has some truly excellent level design. Dungeons are loaded with secrets and environmental traps and puzzles to solve. The atmosphere quickly becomes a lonely, oppressive one, where you do feel like you’re delving into decrepit places of antiquity. One of the most exciting things to do is to discover maps of the various dungeon layouts, because those maps hint at the adventure, loot, and danger ahead, and this is something that From Software was keenly aware was a strength of their game; the maps were often intricate puzzles all of their own to figure out.
In other areas, King’s Field IV was a product of its time, and therefore nowhere near as refined or subtle as the Souls games are. Music was an expected constant in games back then, so where Dark Souls only uses music when it wants to ramp up tension (mostly in those boss battles), King’s Field features a persistent soundtrack. It’s a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, to be certain, and perhaps one of the most unique compositions that we’ve seen applied to a fantasy game, but it certainly gives the game a different tone to the (deliberately) dreary Souls games.
The combat plays out in first person, which also changes how you’ll actually fight enemies. In King’s Field IV, the way to battle most enemies was to get close enough that they would start an attack motion on you, dodge it by stepping backwards so the attack misses, and then closing to hit the enemy back while he was going through his reset animation. It’s clunky, there’s no denying that, but it’s clunky with a purpose, as there is also a classic Souls-like tension that’s introduced when meeting a new enemy for the first time, low on health, and knowing that a single mistake in timing would be the end.
Which brings me to the greatest difference between the Souls games and King’s Field IV; in a Souls game, if you “die” you a restored to life at a check point, and have a chance to go back to where your dead body is and grab back the stuff that you lost when perishing. In King’s Field, if you die, it’s a game over screen, and the save points are spaced quite substantially apart. You might need to do some backtracking.
The game knows how to hit hard, too. If you’re not paying attention, it’s possible to trigger an instant-kill trap and die within two steps of starting King’s Field IV. But, by the same token, players that are observant find that the game rewards them, with combat encounters that are intense, but manageable, and plenty of secrets and rewards to help make the journey a little easier. King’s Field IV’s greatest strength is the way that it teaches you how to play it by throwing you in the deep end – if you learn how to swim by yourself, you’re then that much more likely to feel like you’ve achieved something meaningful.
For all the criticism the game received, there were some signs among the relatively few positive reviews for King’s Field IV that critics would appreciate the future Souls series. Again, from review quotes preserved via Metacritic:
“It took me almost an hour before I GOT King’s Field: The Ancient City–and then the experience suddenly became charming, challenging and rewarding.” – Electric Playground.
“With a better laid-out world, more cleverly hidden treasures, and a great sense of nonlinearity, The Ancient City is a nice bit of evolution for the series.” – GamePro.
That sounds exactly like the way critics react to the Souls series, does it not? If you ask me, From Software, purely as an experiment, if nothing else, should bring on a PlayStation 2 Classic re-release of King’s Field IV. I’m looking forward to people rediscovering this classic.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld