Slowly, the Dual Shock 2 slid from my twitching grasp, landing with a dull thud on the shaggy carpet. The saline that had beaded for so long on quivering brows finally relaxed, flowing in thin rivulets down clammy cheeks. I stood up, feeling the dry crack of bones too long accustomed to stasis. My struggle was finally at an end. The long journey through the darkness had filled me with fear, doubt, regret and terror, but I had emerged alive and triumphant. As I sit here in retrospect, glazing over the memories of the haunting quest I had endured, I realized that this journey was one few would embark upon and even fewer would survive.
In 1994, From Software released the first game in the King’s Field series: a saga that introduced action-oriented role-playing to the 3rd dimension using polygonal environments in a first person perspective. While groundbreaking for the time, King’s Field was met with harsh reviews. Even by first generation PlayStation standards, the game was ugly, simplistic and cumbersome. Not surprisingly, the game remained in Japan.
Persevering onward, the sequel to the original King’s Field was released, improving on many of the shortcomings of the maligned original. King’s Field 2 would garner moderate recognition and would eventually be localized courtesy of ASCII Entertainment (now known as AGETEC) in early 1996. This sequel would be known to western audiences simply as King’s Field.
Despite lukewarm media criticism, King’s Field (USA) was a small success, earning a modest though dedicated fan-following. It was inevitable that when King’s Field III was released in Japan, many wondered if AGETEC would take another chance in bringing this superior sequel to America. Much to the delight of fans, the game was localized and released in late 1996 as King’s Field 2. Over the next few years From Software seemingly abandoned the King’s Field saga, but not before taking one last stab at the PlayStation with Shadow Tower: a spiritual successor to the King’s Field line.
To fans, it seemed that the legacy was over, but with the release of Eternal Ring for the PlayStation 2 in 2000, their spark of hope became a blazing conflagration: the 128-bit resurrection of the King’s Field engine was nigh. The series that was seemingly left for dead had not been forgotten. Now, over 5 years later, the true successor to this long standing series makes a grand entrance on Sony’s PlayStation 2. King’s Field IV was released in Japan and quickly snatched up for localization by our friends at AGETEC and dubbed King’s Field: The Ancient City. Does the return of this forgotten legacy mark a new era for RPG fans or is it doomed to fade into quiescence?
In the land of Heladin, something is amiss. Their king, smitten by a strange idol that was given to him as a gift, lies dying. The country was enveloped with a strange sorrow, a certain darkness that stains the soul of man. Ever since the idol was brought into the kingdom, the once prosperous nation fell into a state of corruption and decay. Fearing for the life of his king and home, the sword master Septiego took a battalion of his best men to return the idol which was believed to be the source of this tragedy. Alas, the party was neither seen nor heard from again. The idol was presumed lost forever, but the decay of the nation continued.
Meanwhile, in the adjoining kingdom of Azalin, a shrouded figure appears at the doorstep of Prince Devian. From within his cloak, the dark stranger produced the object of Heladin’s corruption: The Idol of Sorrow. The idol was originally taken from the ruined depths of the Holy Land, now known as the Land of Disaster, and given to the unsuspecting king of Heladin. If the idol remained outside of the ancient city, Heladin, and possibly Azalin, was doomed to mirror the twisted metropolis that spanned the vast underground caverns of the Land of Disaster.
With strong resolve, Devian embarked on his quest to return the cursed idol and return prosperity and vitality to his neighboring kingdom. His adventure though the ancient city would lead him to many discoveries long since lost after the collapse of the Holy Land. He would encounter the last vestiges of Septiego’s troupe, and eventually discover their master’s fate. Prince Devian would learn about the ancient and wise Forest Folk, the neighboring Earth Folk, and their war against the nightmarish Dark Folk. All of these secrets and more would be revealed to the young Prince, but does he have the strength of heart to harbor such monstrous truths?
While King’s Field: The Ancient City sets up to tell an impressive yarn the actual delivery of the storyline is lackluster. Unlike the typical RPG with bustling towns and chattering NPC’s, The Ancient City is populated with a handful of characters whose messages are as cryptic as they are dull. AGETEC’s localization of the game is respectable, but the players in the drama are generic, monotone and soulless. Though for the first time in the series history, the characters have eyes; empty as they are.
Players must drill the few inhabitants of the Ancient City for information, and most of their information isn’t of much use. Quite frequently, one must rely on wanderlust to discover new areas. Many of the games puzzles are quite simple to figure out, but without the direction of NPC’s or direct clues, some of them can be irritating. The overall lack of characters throughout the game hinder the depth of storytelling tremendously. Those that do exist to further along the plot relate in such drab and colorless dialogue that is becomes a chore visiting them at intervals for information updates.
For a game that houses a great deal of plot potential, King’s Field: The Ancient City thwarts itself by robbing the cast of personality and limits the amount of life with which to interact. The crime of the matter is that there could been an amazing story told within the confines of such an atmospheric game.
King’s Field: The Ancient City is a sight for sore eyes. Finally blessed with the polygonal power of the PlayStation 2, From Software’s vision of high adventure can be experienced in true grandeur. Fully polygonal and played from a first-person perspective, King’s Field: The Ancient City espouses a fiendish palette of locales that can only be regarded as architectural marvels. The inner labyrinth of the Ancient City is diverse, dark and foreboding. The textures are wonderful reproductions of weathered stone and stained concrete. Archaic runes and images amid centuries-tortured ruins populate the subterranean expanse.
There have always been arguments about the series being awash in grey and brown, lending to visual boredom and repetitive wandering. While the truth of the matter is plain: those looking for pastels and flashes of chrome are better served romping through Grandia II or Final Fantasy X.
King’s Field: The Ancient City introduces the player to cold and seemingly austere surroundings, but the haunting size and atmosphere will leave you breathless. The structures you will discover are colossal and stylistically diverse: from the shattered Cathedral that is the entrance to the subterranean city, to the Pyramid of Widda: an enormous edifice of evil cutting through dark clouds on the coast of a long forgotten beach.
While the majority of the game is played within the sprawling catacombs of an ancient underground city, there are precious few areas that are touched by daylight. The most striking of which is the realm of the Forest Folk, a grand arboria of ancient redwoods and forest moss. The blinding daylight that pierces through the canopy of foliage is breathtaking.
The simple contrasting nature of lighting from dank subterranea to brilliant terra firma shows the genius of From Software’s graphic designers. They even went so far as to include subtle touches of presentation to further the atmosphere of fear. Upon exploring the mine, I happened across a corpse, bloated and rotting. Once a man, the sagging flesh was now a feast for a fruiting body of fungus. As I grew closer to the poor wretch, I drew back in horror as the mushroom reared back and exhausted a cloud of poison. Moments of terror and disbelief are paramount to the King’s Field series and The Ancient City is no exception. The introductory CG is beautifully rendered, but other than the short ending cinema, there are no other instances of FMV in the game.
A classic complaint about the series has always been the substandard frame rate. Thanks to the architecture of the PlayStation 2, King’s Field: The Ancient City runs at a fairly consistent 30 fps but suffers from occasional slowdown when faced with multiple monsters, large boss encounters and rendering massively open vistas. Though the slow pace of movement gives the illusion of decreased frame rate, the graphics do remain smooth.
The creatures that inhabit the Ancient City are legion and are generally well-crafted misanthropes. These denizens are entirely constructed of polygons but the quality differs. Some creatures are simply awe-inspiring such as the amphibious lizardmen, while others appear placeholder such as the ho-hum goblin. I was impressed by their use of textures on some of the more elastic creatures. The sheen of wet amphibian skin to the perfect reflective surfaces on the mineral knights during the final encounter is simply jaw-dropping. Some of From Software’s creature creations rival anything I’ve cut down in an RPG. Sadly, not all of the beasts are so lovingly created.
The diversity of species is impressive, from the oversized pillbugs who crawl around on the plain to the nubile dark archers who patrol the deepest levels of the ancient city. Amid this monstrous menagerie, there are creatures of phenomenal size and power. These encounters, while occasionally scripted are frightful to experience. Upon invading a nest of creatures it is not uncommon to find the matron of the hive to be over six times your size. These pant-wetting experiences are thrilling to the extreme. Most creatures you encounter, regardless of size, are animated with savage beauty and attack with surprising speed.
The spell effects are decent displays of polygon and light; while pretty, are little more than average on such capable hardware. The evidence of environmental effects is sparse, but the use of reflection in pools of water, the diffuse haze of poison clouds, and the cloying tenacity of magical darkness is commendable. The use of light in The Holy Forest is awesome, but such displays of lucid magnificence are few and far between.
King’s Field: The Ancient City creates a believable world of darkness amid a subterranean metropolis gripped in the decay of eons. The bloodthirsty inhabitants of these blighted ruins are beautiful in their chilling freakishness and nightmarish scope. The atmosphere of solitude within enormous caverns and dwarfing halls bring the player further into the darkness.
Music has always been a hallmark of the King’s Field saga, and King’s Field: The Ancient City is possibly the most acoustic of the series. With an atmosphere of fear, death and decay, you might imagine the audio accompaniment to be morose and dull. Though the overall themes are that of sorrow and fantastical discovery, I’m pleased to say that the melodies interred are wondrous constructions of piano, choir and acoustic guitar. While this sounds like a perfect date with Yanni, the score isn’t snore-inducing. The tunes that follow you throughout the adventure range from lonely lullabies of remorse to rising refrains of wonder. Unfortunately there is a significant lack of upbeat orchestration, as most of the score is subdued.
Outside of the opening narration, which is quite bad I might add, there are no spoken lines to be found anywhere in the game. The NPC’s communicate in text alone with creatures calling in hisses and screeches. I won’t decry the game for the lack of voice-over, but for a game placed on DVD-ROM they should have made an exception.
The ambient sound effects of King’s Field: The Ancient City is truly one of the caveats of the series. The sound of your footsteps echoing into the darkness, the crisp crackle of torches dancing in the shadows and the mewling of monsters reverberating through the walls is enough to send chills down your spine. The sounds of combat and spell casting are as equally full and crisp.
For a game that relies on acoustics for setting and mood, From Software did an impeccable job of sound placement. While the player’s scope of view is limited by perspective, the depth and range of audio effects allows the wary adventurer to “feel” their surroundings. The sound of footsteps to the rear, or an arrow in flight from your right: all are heard with crystal clarity and immediate placement; truly an impressive achievement for a game that has no Dolby 5.1 support. Sadly this aspect of sound engineering can’t fully be appreciated on the standard television speaker. Those with high fidelity sound systems are in for a treat.
King’s Field: The Ancient City exudes a sense of solitude through impeccable acoustic ambience, while pleasing the ear with gentle orchestrations that further the mood of darkness and decay. Despite such an enticing and well-conceived score, The Ancient City was plagued by a simply shoddy introductory narration, and the lack of voice-over was truly a disappointment. Thankfully these misgivings do little to detract from a thoroughly enjoyable audio experience.
As an action-RPG, King’s Field: The Ancient City bears little resemblance to the typical console quest and more of to adventures on the PC. The game is played from a first-person perspective, and all combat takes place face-to-face. You attack, dodge and cast magic in real time while tolerating the ageless “Stamina System” that has been the curse of the King’s Field series since its inception.
Simply put, the player has 2 horizontal gauges that indicate physical and magical stamina. Each associated gauge is completely depleted when you swing your weapon or cast magic. You may not attempt to swing another blow or cast again until the respective stamina bar has completely refilled. Leveling up will improve your stamina capacity and speed, but players are given another opportunity to hone their prowess. As you continue to connect with crushing blows or strike with fierce ether, your strength and magic power will increase individually. This rewards you with faster regeneration times for each associated stamina gauge. Therefore, an adventurer must strategize his actions to survive while capitalizing on his method of combat.
While this may sound intriguing, the learning curve is steep. The tag-teaming of physical and magical resources fosters a painfully slow and awkward combat system. While old time fans of the series have become accustomed to this system, the level of acclimation necessary to feel comfortable during combat may be too high for the uninitiated.
Another complication of this menagerie is the integration of swift movements as a stamina expense. Whether in melee or adventuring, breaking into a jog or quickly side stepping will deplete both stamina gauges swiftly. Upon screeching to a halt, your gauges will begin to fill again unless you should choose to take martial action. Thankfully, quick movements don’t require full gauges and speed isn’t lost once the bars are empty. You may jog and dodge to your hearts content; the bars simply remain vacant until you stop. The risk one takes when taking evasive action is that upon halting, both physical and magical stamina recover much slower than after making a combat action. This can make fighting a powerful enemy or a large mob of monsters tricky if not outright deadly.
As you battle, your strength and magic will improve, allowing you to engage in more complex combat tactics, but the for first few hours of the game the combat is plodding and outright cumbersome in comparison to the streamlined combat of more established action RPG’s.
Micromanaging your supplies is a snap thanks to a convenient pop-up menu screen, and switching inventory or using items is simple due to a fairly utilitarian GUI. Thankfully, real-time encounters don’t interfere with itemizing as the on-screen action pauses while you tinker through your rucksack. Though the interface is generic, equipment selection is a ton of fun. All wearable equipment is placed on a smashingly rendered and fully rotateable mannequin for your visual enjoyment. Since you never see your character outside of a gauntlet wielding a weapon, playing dress-up in the menu can actually be fun as some of the armor designs are awesome. The sheer number and variety of weapons and armor is simply staggering.
With all this diversity, where’s the catch? Simply that all the equipment suffers from durability. That’s right, keep using your favorite sword and eventually it will lose sharpness and ultimately break. Run over lava one too many times and you may as well throw those greaves into the dumpster. While this promotes a certain degree of frustration during gameplay, there was never an instance where I outright broke a piece of equipment through regular use, though I whittled down the edge of my katana to the point of using it as a butter knife. Thankfully, there is a surly dwarf who will repair your damaged goods, and even improve their statistics, provided you have the right material. Unfortunately, the diminutive smithy isn’t accessible until roughly halfway into the game, and even then you have to wait several minutes of real time for him to finish his forging. I easily managed to finish an issue of EGM waiting for him to overhaul my entire inventory.
Spells are found encased in small magical shards that are scattered throughout the ancient city, and like their tempered counterparts, these weapons of ether gain in strength and speed as they dispatch more and more monsters. There are 36 of these crystal baubles, and finding all of them is a challenge indeed. These incantations come in the usual elemental flavors along with the rudimentary light and dark magic. Some of the initial spells are blasé, while the rarer ones are wickedly creative and astronomically destructive.
Overall, the gameplay nuances of King’s Field: The Ancient City are unique, but some of the mechanics may be too frustrating for casual gamers. While this is old hat for fans of the series, the game does very little to accommodate new blood. RPG fans with patience and an open mind may find the game cumbersome at first but will be pleasantly surprised once they become acclimated to the combat system.
The bane of the entire King’s Field line has been sluggish execution and cumbersome controls, and while The Ancient City manages to address certain issues, only the valiant may have the heart to adapt. The previous incarnations of King’s Field were cursed with digital controls, but From Software seems to have evolved the series, allowing gamers to use the analog stick for the first time.
While this aspect may have fans cheering, I’m going to have to throw a few flies into your ointment. Those who decried control via the crosspad will be horrified to find that using the analog stick yields no improvement. In fact, the analog sticks read as a digital signal, making all the subtleties of true analog control null and void. You will still have to use the run button to move quickly and no amount of teasing of the analog stick will change your character’s pace. Those who managed to become accustomed to the digital pad from the earlier games will find the switch to digital control via the analog stick to be oversensitive and unwieldy. But what’s a game of King’s Field without adapting to the controls? Though it took me the better part of an hour to become as fluent with the analog stick as I was with the digipad, in the end the analog stick won me over.
The other movement controls remain unchanged: sidestepping and looking up-and-down are delegated to the shoulder buttons of the Dual Shock 2. Attacking, spell casting, running and menu are mapped to their own respective symbol buttons while the item hotkey is precariously mapped to the SELECT button.
While the arrangement of the controls seems simplistic enough, the execution of actions is where King’s Field: The Ancient City suffers most. In order to maintain the image of realism, certain movements were based on statistics such as strength. Swinging a blade at an early level is painfully slow due to relative weakness, but as your character matures as a warrior, the speed improves, but never to the extent of an arcade hack-and-slash. Walking and running are kept at a tolerable pace, as the main character is just a simple human in a very large environment. Impatient gamers will find the movement speed aggravating. Those used to the inhuman speeds of most other videogame characters will find Prince Devian’s pace plodding, but let’s see them jog a 10K in 300lbs of platemail! Since weight encumbrance plays into the game so heavily, carrying gear over your limit will slow you down considerably to the point of making running impossible.
Realism aside, there is one aspect of the control of King’s Field: The Ancient City that is completely illogical and damnably frustrating: turning. Rotating your view is akin to turning a camera 6 inches deep in fermented molasses. Turning 360 º at half the speed of forward movement is simply intolerable. In crowded melee, this fault has proven to be deadly.
Though the control issues are frustrating, the true tragedy of these problems lies in the fact that they alienate the game from a larger audience. While certainly not completely unplayable, the degree of patience and tolerance necessary to go adapt to these shortcomings is much greater than the average gamer can muster. These faults have haunted the King’s Field series for time immemorial, and while the change in control medium is certainly an improvement, there isn’t enough streamlining of execution to warrant the game accessible to the mainstream audience.
King’s Field: The Ancient City doesn’t revolutionize the genre nor does it attempt to redefine its lineage. The game benefits tremendously from the architecture of the PlayStation 2, espousing attractive graphics and amazing sound. Sadly, the evolution of the series stops there, as the more important issues of gameplay and control were left by the wayside. While those familiar with the series will feel right at home, there is very little room for new initiates to feel welcome. The slow moving pace will kill the attention of most gamers, but those who manage to persevere will find a diamond in the rough.
Without a doubt, King’s Field: The Ancient City is the most challenging of the saga: easily twice the size of its predecessor and three times as relentless. The thought of such a grand adventure is thrilling for old-guard fans, but these facts only makes the game more dauntingly inaccessible to the average gamer. The blatant disregard for the conveyance of plot is anathema to an RPG, but somehow King’s Field: The Ancient City manages to scrape by. Despite these flaws, I found my adventure in the Ancient City to be one filled with danger, excitement and elation.
King’s Field: The Ancient City manages to instill a dubious fear of the unknown into those who dare venture into its dark recesses. If I can walk away from a game that genuinely frightened me though the brilliant use of sight and sound then I’ve been thoroughly entertained, and isn’t that what gaming is all about? Though the series has been prematurely butchered by the media, I’ll have to stand by all of the King’s Field fans and say “Don’t knock it till you try it.”