King's Field - Preamble
Over the last decade, gaming in general has undergone a transformation. Simplifying gameplay while diversifying its audience. Mainstream gaming has homogenized, newer more social and "casual" genres have emerged, other more hardcore ones have disappeared or transformed into something more acceptable. One of these "casualties" is the first person variety of dungeon crawler.
Back in the 90s, PC owners were lucky to see many of them, including the likes of Ultima Underworld, Lands Of Lore, the original Might & Magic series, Wizardry and The Bard's Tale. Console gamers were also treated to many episodes of Wizardry, Shin Megami Tensei, and the likes of Shining In The Darkness / Holy Ark. All of these games emphasised first-person viewpoints, controlling a single character or a party of characters. Combat was in some cases turn-based e.g. Wizardry, in others real-time e.g. Ultima Underworld. Character creation, levelling, statistics were all crucial to progress, otherwise an inattentive player may reach later game levels severely underpowered, and often sheer grind wasn't enough.
Returning to the present day, the first-person dungeon-crawling RPG is currently limited to the Elder Scrolls series and a scant few Nintendo DS games. Otherwise, first-person is out. Third-person is in. Character generation is (mostly) out, hack-and-slash is in. Convoluted maze-like level design is rarely seen, and more linear, easily-digestible levels are the norm.
This is likely why King's Field is not only a lesser-known series in the west, but has even been completely forgotten by its developers. It embodies many of these "retro", hardcore gaming traits, and a lot of people are likely to try it and run for miles in the total opposite direction. On the other hand, perhaps you prefer a more old-school approach? If the idea of being lost in mazes with only your weapons, magic and armour to defend you seems appealing, then King's Field will be of great interest.
What is King's Field?
King's Field was produced by the Japanese software developer From Software, otherwise known for the Armored Core series, the cult classic Playstation 3 release Demon's Souls, and its Xbox 360/PS3 spiritual successor Dark Souls. It is played in the first person, with full 3D movement, although it does not at all resemble a first person shooter, particularly in how slowly your character moves.
Playing the game, little concession is made to the player. You begin each game with weak attacks, little or no magic, healing items or much of note. Expect regular one or two-shot kills from even the first enemy encounters. Visuals are spartan, oppressive, not helped by the Playstation's rather limited 3D capabilities. Levels comprise mostly of corridors, rooms, and corridors (with some occasional and major exceptions). Locked doors requiring the usual round of keys - not all are reusable - and they become a focus for exploration.
There is little, if any, direction given to the player in any of the games. The experience of playing King's Field is ultimately slightly confusing at first, but ultimately massively open-ended and atmospheric. The purpose of the gameplay is simply a little more involved than hacking and slashing, and the games don't play all of their cards immediately. Discovery is absolutely crucial, and a main draw in King's Field.
There are four primary games in the series - the first, second and third on the Playstation, and the fourth on the Playstation 2. Westerners were lucky enough to receive English translations of King's Field 2, 3 and 4, as well as the off-shoots Eternal Ring and Shadow Tower. What possessed From Software to make this effort isn't clear outside of whatever success was received by the first game in Japan. The games are not text-heavy though, which is traditionally a major issue during translation of a game. For reasons unknown, the first King's Field never made it to the west and as a result localised editions of the second two games were "re-numbered" accordingly. KF 2, was the first game to receive an English translation, and was released in the USA and Europe as "King's Field". Kings Field 3 was again "re-numbered" for the West, and made it to the USA only as "King's Field 2". There were also two King's Field "Additionals" released on the PSP, as well as three mobile games, however none of these have made it outside Japan.
First-person combat on consoles is a notoriously inaccurate affair. The first three King's Field games all appeared on the original Playstation, and without analogue controller support. This inevitably leads to over-pressing of the directional-pad, a lot of L1/R1 strafing and swinging wildly at the appendages of one's nearest adversary. What seems like a crapshoot at first eventually becomes second nature, and even compelling. King's Field balances a sense of risk vs. reward near-perfectly. Often the player will be risking a one-shot kill while circling a particularly difficult enemy, however once said enemy has been downed they will boost your strength and/or level, and may also open a path to a much-needed healing item.
The RPG "system" in the game initially seems basic. You have no party, and are entirely alone. The HUD in all four games have gauges denoting your HP (health-points) and MP (magic-points), as well as a compass, displayed at all times. These are augmented with HP and MP "strength meters". As you stab, smash or hit with your weapon, the strength meter empties entirely and must refill before you can throw another hit. Melee attacks can be made at any time, but casting magic requires a FULL MP strength meter, even if you wish to call upon a defensive / passive magic in the menu. Melee attacks with maximum possible damage require a full HP strength meter. If you attack while the meter is in a less than full state, your attack power will accordingly be weaker.
There are many other stats in the game, including broad "strength" levels for your magic and melee attack strength. Simply, this means that it is possible to "level up" your attack power, and magic power. As hinted above, this happens while incurring damage upon enemies, with melee or magic attacks. You will also level up in the traditional way when attacking enemies, but this is less important to progress.
There are many player equipment slots: one for a weapon - there's no dual-wielding - many for various armour pieces, a magic slot to denote which offensive magic to attack with, and an item slot that you'll likely reserve for healing. As well as the "offensive" magic there are defensive / healing magic that cover the usual heals, antidotes and resistances as well as some unique extras. These defensive magic are cast within the menu. It works well enough, but it will feel a touch clunky to those used to modern RPGs where players may assign whatever magic they wish to hotkeys.
Unlike most RPGs, you don't have stats for intelligence, dexterity, and so forth. The stats here are limited to earth / air / fire / water attack and defense, plus your attack and defense against different types of attack e.g. slash, stab and swipe. The game is heavily combat focused, rather than "character-focused", and the expert King's Field player will choose different weapons for different occasions; skeletons tend to go down faster with a spiked mace.
The menus are simple, effective, and employ large fonts that are clear and readable. Even in the packed statistics pages, it's easy to understand everything. Save points can be loaded at any point, any time, but only saved at specific "crosses" or altars dotted around the levels or maps, and sometimes these are located very far from one another! The options menu gives some control over enabling and disabling sound effects, music, and even the head-bobbing. Useful if this makes you queasy!
Shops are a regular feature in the game but - unlike most JRPGs - shops locations are not limited to towns, and they are usually dotted around the gameworld. Often NPCs can be found in fairly random locations, buying and selling items, or offering other services. The latter particularly becomes a major factor of progress in the second game. Gold is the currency of King's Field, always limited and important in the first few hours of play, it becomes somewhat useless once you reach the latter stages and have all the healing items, armour and weapons you need. Since many pieces of armour and weapons can be found in treasure chests littering the game world, you'll likely limit your purchases to other items, if you want to make progress.
Why it's Not For Everyone...
As should be evident, King's Field is a rather different beast to normal JRPGs. The plots are simple but effective, the cutscenes are few, and NPC banter is limited though often interesting. Most of the player's time in a King's Field game will be exploring dungeons, finding items, using keys to unlock things and strafing around enemies. This is also where the critical divide surrounding the game stems from: King's Field is a SLOW game. Progress, combat and everything in the game is taken at a far more deliberate pace than a lot of other games, particularly console games! Many players hate this on principle, or worship the games for it.
It's also worth complaining about the player character's slow turning speed in King's Field. To call it slow would be accurate, particularly in the first and most especially the fourth game. You will either adjust or throw down your controller in defeated agony. It could be argued that it adds much tension in combat - and often it feels that way - however just as often you'll find yourself punched and scraped by enemies off the side of your vision, and the many seconds it takes to turn around to see them feel agonisingly long. Forward and backward movement isn't all that slow, though (with one major exception we will come to), but it's only in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th game that your player character can run, and this will completely deplete your attack and magic strength gauges.
The visuals are typically not great, as in general the textures and models in first three games are spartan, repetitive, and low-poly but effective. As the fourth King's Field was on PS2, however, the visual update was dramatic.
There's a lot of very well composed and memorable music in the King's Field series, however because specific themes are used for specific levels (KF 1) and sections (KF 2 + 3), you'll be listening to the same melodies on repeat for quite a while. As for sound effects, those in the first game are effective but come across as rather muffled and a touch jarring. The sound effects in KF 2 and 3 retain the muffle but feature thunderous door rumbles, quite unsettling enemy sounds, clashing weapon effects, and - particularly - tormented screaming when you die. The fourth game improves on this a lot but all four games drip with a tense, uneasy atmosphere, as a result of their sound effects.
Unfortunately, despite aforementioned PSP and mobile King's Field releases, From Software have effectively forgotten all about the series. This is a crying shame, and Demon's Souls third person hack-n-slashery isn't quite a suitable replacement. Despite this, Demon's Souls' popularity gained From Software a lot of attention in the West, so let's hope that this may bode well for potential additions to KF in future.
In short, King's Field is that rare breed: an immersive simulation. A player is placed within a world that has its own rules, and said player is allowed to interact and discover, using a first-person viewpoint, with that world and its inhabitants. King's Field doesn't quite have the depth of Ultima Underworld's character creation, or the interactivity of your average Thief or System Shock 2 mission. But it is, nevertheless, an immersive simulation combining simple but effective melee combat, magic, dungeon crawling, compelling difficulty, exploration and personal discovery. It stimulates both sides of the mind, and is simply a very good series of games. If you like a challenge!
A huge thank you goes to Magnus Guyra for some vital corrections to the article, and miscellaneous useful information. Cheers Magnus!
King's Field II
King's Field II
King's Field II
King's Field III
King's Field III
King's Field III