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King's Field: The Ancient City

Publisher: Agetec Developer: From Software
Reviewer: Ogami Itto Released: 03/27/02
Gameplay: 82% Control: 85%
Graphics: 78% Sound/Music: 83%
Story: 75% Overall: 80%


While RPGs have gained quite a bit of mainstream popularity in recent years, there are still games out there that exist as niche titles. These games are the ones you see in the used game section—the rash purchase of a gamer who didn’t do his homework and rushed into grabbing a game that wasn’t for him. The common assumption is that these games remain niche titles because they’re not very good—and in some cases, that’s true. It seems there are at least a few people out there who love any game—no matter how bad it is.

On the other hand, we find games like the King’s Field series. King’s Field remains a series that many RPG fans have heard of, but few have experienced. Those who have played the games tend to have one of two very distinct reactions: they hate it completely, or they love it and become part of an ever-growing cult that worships the games. There’s simply not much in the way of middle ground with these titles.

Agetec has recently released a new King’s Field game, King’s Field: The Ancient City. This marks the series’ debut on the PlayStation 2—and it’s a debut that should please longtime fans of the King’s Field saga.

Story

At the western edge of the world, nestled at the base of a mountain range and bordered by a barren land, lies the Land of Disaster.

Once known as the Holy Land, an area populated by the Forest People, the Land of Disaster has fallen into darkness. Sun no longer reaches its streets and its citizens have retreated to an underground city. No one knows why, exactly, the Holy Land has suffered this fate.

Years later, King Lucien--the ruler of Heladin—was presented with an idol designed to represent peace between the kingdoms. Lucien was pleased with the gift and vowed to place it in his throne room, where he would see it often and be reminded of what it symbolized. However, soon after receiving the idol, the kingdom of Heladin fell into a state of decay. Fearing the kingdom was cursed, Lucien commanded his scholars to figure out what kind of witchery had befallen his empire.

Lucien’s advisors discovered the legend of an Idol of Sorrow, a mysterious stone figure said to have originated with the forest folk in the Land of Disaster. Certain that the peace idol was none other than the Idol of Sorrow mentioned in legend, Lucien sent his swordmaster, Septiego, and a battalion of troops into the Land of Disaster to return the cursed idol.

Septiego and his men were never seen again.

Soon after, a stranger delivers the Idol of Sorrow to Prince Devian, the heir to the throne in the nearby kingdom of Azalin. The stranger tells Devian to ‘return this idol to the Land of Disaster so that the other kingdoms do not succumb to its wicked curse’. Charged with this important task, Devian sets out for the Land of Disaster to return the idol and discover what has happened to his friend Septiego.

As you can probably see from the plot synopsis, King’s Field: The Ancient City features a richly crafted plot that drives the game. In a nice change of pace, the game eschews the traditional ‘save the world’ plotline found in most RPGs and focuses on a much smaller, but no less important, quest.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the story is divulged through reading the game’s instruction manual, or in the opening cinema scene of the game. Once Devian’s adventure begins for real, there are very few people to talk to on his path, and little in the way of plot development. This is particularly disappointing because the story that the manual outlines is an intriguing one—but it plays such a minor part in the game proper that I often found myself wondering what exactly was going on.

While Devian will spend the bulk of his journey alone, he will encounter a few people wandering through the Land of Disaster. He can chat with these people if he chooses, and each will give him some information, but the overall story presentation is woefully inadequate for an RPG. With better plot integration, King’s Field: The Ancient City could be a great game. Instead, it’s merely a good one.

Gameplay

I can’t lie—for the first few hours, I absolutely despised this game. King’s Field isn’t a game for adrenaline junkies or casual gamers. It’s a difficult title that features a pace that can be best described as snail-like and is guaranteed to have you cursing at the television on numerous occasions thanks to its difficulty level (particularly in the early going).

However, to its benefit, the game is rarely cheap. Death is abundant in the Land of Disaster, particularly for those who are impatient, but it’s generally fair. The game’s battle system and speed consistently factor into the frequent death equation, but once the player realizes this—and begins to play accordingly—he’ll be able to live longer.

The game features a bit of a learning curve—and until you learn the nuances of gameplay, this game will beat you down. I charged off into my first battle in a town area and promptly died ten or so times before finally winning. Why is this, you ask? Because King’s Field is a game that makes you play according to its rules.

The game, like the earlier incarnations of the series, is presented in a first-person perspective. One would guess that this choice is made to help immerse the player in the game—but it generally feels like a way to make the game without having to put in a character graphic. The first-person perspective works, though—for the most part. The biggest downside to it is the occasionally choppy framerate, which gave me a headache and made me nauseous on a few occasions.

Battle is waged in real-time. Devian is maneuvered through the game’s environments with the analog sticks—one moves him, the other adjusts his view. Encountering enemies means you have to implement an attack strategy—which rarely deviates from ‘run forward, strike, retreat, repeat’. For variety, one can always implement the strafing technique, which works, but would work better if the game featured a lock-on targeting system.

While the game certainly seems like a hack-and-slash adventure (and it is, to a point), there’s more to it than that. Devian features an attack gauge that fills with the passage of time. When it’s full, Devian can land a strong attack. When it’s less than full, he can still attack—but it will be a weaker blow. Because of this, you can’t simply run up to a monster and hack away at it—unless you have a death wish, that is. Instead, the player must attack, retreat and let the bar refill, then attack again. As Devian gets stronger (and finds different weapons), the bar will fill faster. Spells run with the same principle, except that the gauge must be completely full in order to cast. Running drains both gauges, so walking is often advisable—yet another factor that really slows the game down.

Devian grows stronger through defeating enemies, which earns him gold and experience. Each level earns the character a series of stat increases, thereby making him stronger. Weapons also level up through use, as do spells. Higher level weapons have the added attribute of being able to use some types of magic forged into the blade.

Gameplay is an interesting mixture of fighting and puzzle-solving as Devian works his way deeper into the Land of Disaster. The majority of the puzzles rarely rise above the level of ‘find a key to unlock a door’, but they do promote exploration of the game’s large (if somewhat repetitive) areas.

King’s Field plays very slowly, with a finicky combat engine that tends to make the game harder than it needs to be (Devian moves at such a slow pace that even turning to face an enemy coming up from behind leads to taking several hits before he manages to see his foe), however, there’s something that’s quite addictive about it. The game has an incredible amount of atmosphere—enough to keep me coming back to the title in the early going despite the fact that I didn’t really like the game. As I progressed, the atmosphere put the game over the top for me—and I wound up really enjoying the mood, and even the pace, of the game and its intricacies.

While those who crave fast-paced action will likely be completely turned off by the gameplay in King’s Field: The Ancient City, patient gamers who like to explore will no doubt enjoy what they find here.

Graphics

Essentially, King’s Field: The Ancient City looks like a high-resolution version of the older games. One of the complaints against this series (and it’s a valid one) is that the games simply refuse to evolve. While that may be true for the gameplay (which remains largely unchanged from previous installments), at least the graphics are getting better.

When standing still, King’s Field looks quite nice. It features some elaborately drawn environments, decent monsters (although a few seem to be little more than palette swaps of other monsters) and some nice spell and particle effects. Moving, however, can have an entirely different effect.

King’s Field suffers from an erratic framerate that makes certain areas fairly choppy in their presentation. The framerate isn’t a gamebreaker, but if the developers had bumped it up a few notches, this game would certainly score higher in the graphics department.

The framerate isn’t the only problem, though. Clipping issues (in one instance, I was able to defeat a boss by standing outside a closed door and chopping him through it) and some misaligned seams and tears in the polygons show up from time to time to mar the gaming experience. These aren’t terrible things (although being able to beat the boss without taking damage was kind of a letdown), but they do manage to detract from the game. It’s disappointing, because it’s another area where with a little more work, the game could have become something really special.

In the positive column is the fact that the game features almost no load times. I didn’t notice it until I was about halfway through the game, but leaving one area and entering another is a seamless transition. The only time the game loads is when you teleport—and even then, it’s merely seconds.

The game features one CGI cutscene in the opening, and one at the end, but little else. Both scenes are quite good, making me wish they’d have included more in the adventure. More cutscenes would have certainly helped the game’s visual presentation, but what’s there is still pretty nice.

Control

This is perhaps the hardest category to rate. Prince Devian is very responsive, but the game plays so slowly that it doesn’t matter in most instances. The mere act of turning 180 degrees can be frustrating because it takes so long to actually pull off the maneuver. In the heat of battle, it’s even worse.

The walking rate is also quite slow. But, neither of these things are really flaws of the controls—they’re just part of the way the game is designed. Because of this, once the player adjusts to the slower pace, the speed becomes less of an issue.

One area that could have used some work is in the item placement. Putting some of the keystones in slots is an exercise in aggravation as Devian must line up just right in order to get something to happen.

Sound/Music

Easily the strongest category in the entire game is the music.

King’s Field features a lush and appealing score that perfectly complements the atmosphere of the game. The orchestral score is simply stunning in several spots, all but guaranteed to have the player stopping simply to soak up the music.

There could have been a few more tracks overall, but what is in the game is so good that I found myself not caring if I’d already heard a particular piece of music before. Soundtrack junkies will almost assuredly like what they hear in this game.

While the soundtrack is great, the rest of the sound effects are somewhat lacking overall. Footsteps sound good, but swords sound more like shattering crystal than sharp metal. In that same vein, there’s not a great deal of variety in the foley work—which makes some of the sound effects become repetitive as Devian progresses through the game.

Conclusion

While not for everyone, King’s Field: The Ancient City is all but guaranteed to please the hardcore fans of the series. The adventure lasts only 20 or so hours (of game time—that’s not counting all the times I died and had to do sections over again), but it’s a perfect length for a game of this nature.

It would have been nice if they’d cleaned up some of the graphical glitches and bumped up the framerate, but those are minor flaws that won’t really impact your enjoyment of the game. Besides, the excellent soundtrack and loads of atmosphere make up for many of the title’s shortcomings.

It’s disappointing to see the mainstream gaming press give this game such low scores. While King’s Field certainly has some flaws, it’s not the abomination that the magazines have made it out to be. Simply put, King’s Field is a niche game, designed to appeal to a very specific audience of hardcore RPG fans. The majority of mainstream gamers will undoubtedly be put off by the pace and simple presentation, but fans of dungeon crawlers and RPGs should certainly give this game a look. King’s Field has always marched to a different drummer than even the other games in this genre, but the change of pace is a welcome thing around these parts.

Ogami Itto

The dreaded giant spider—one of the game’s first bosses.

The cutscenes are nice—check out that fire.







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