Patience is a virtue. A disappearing virtue soon to be extinct, but a virtue nonetheless. In this age of instant gratification and sensory overload, its easy to see why the King's Field series has been so consistently overlooked and under-appreciated. The gaming industry has been chronically ill-suited to promote the appreciation of subtle, atmospheric titles. As a result, players don't know what to do with these types of games when they arrive. King's Field is not the kind of title that leaps out at you from the shelves, nor does it grab you bombastically with excess. Frankly, its never going to be a top ten game or one that gathers a huge following. However, for those select few who can enjoy games offering true alternatives to the current selection of me-too titles, King's Field is not without considerable charm.
The game is best summed up as a first-person RPG (Role-Playing Game) taking place in a fully realized 3D world. Heavy emphasis is placed on exploration, with secret items tucked in nearly every corner. Movement is handled by the D-Pad or the left analog stick. Looking around and sidestepping are accomplished by skillful use of the four shoulder buttons, and the right stick has a limited view function as well. There is an amazing variety of armor to find and equip, along with a healthy selection of swords, axes, hammers and projectile weapons. An especially nice touch is that your characters appearance changes on the main menu each time you put on something new. Magic spells for both offense and defense also play a role, although the emphasis is clearly on the real-time melee seen through the eyes of the main character.
The games story begins with a simple quest: return a cursed idol to its altar deep within the heart of an abandoned city. After watching the opening cutscene, you walk through a gate and start your adventure from absolute zero. Within seconds, you know that King's Field is not like other games. While staying within the framework of fantasy entertainment, its approach is about as realistic as you can imagine. Picture yourself entering a strange and otherworldly realm with no weapons, no guidebook, no companions, one basic goal and no idea how to go about achieving it. Welcome to King's Field. Make no bones about it… its tough. The game hands you absolutely nothing, never holds your hand, and leaves you to sink or swim based entirely on your own ingenuity. In fact, the developers place such a strong emphasis on player independence that its quite possible to die within five steps after walking through the first gate (provided you're careless enough). I like to think of it as FromSoft's way of saying that the gauntlet is thrown.
Don't let me scare you, however..I love this game. The wide-open, exploratory nature of the quest can be a bit intimidating, but once you understand how the world works and whats expected of you, the level of immersion is incredible. The huge areas are designed excellently, and unfold as one continuous land. There are no loading screens and no discernible breaks except for music changes. Going from open woodlands to castle ruins, and then down to a dusty tomb or a giant insects lair all feels completely natural and believable. Its very easy to buy into the illusion that FromSoft has created.
The graphic quality of the environments is outstanding as well. There are several places where the mood and atmosphere are so present that you forget youre even playing a game. After making my way through some catacombs and graves, I found a door that opened onto a flooded subterranean cavern. Just beneath the placid surface, I could see the magnificent underwater spires of a long-forgotten castle rising form the bottom like obsidian coral. Moments of such sheer awe—such feeling of discovering something so breathtaking and fantastic happen so rarely in games that its a crime most players wont ever experience it.
Not all of the games appeal is on such a large scale, however. While making your way through the Ancient City, there are so many small touches and nearly unnoticeable details that most players wont even get close to seeing all that's there to be seen. Searching underneath rubble, poking and prodding shadowy alcoves and trying unorthodox strategies will unearth a great many things. You literally never know what will work in order to reach a seemingly unreachable treasure or dangerous precipice until you try, and the results are often surprising. Keeping your eyes open and getting involved in the environments will reveal the small flashes of brilliance embedded throughout the lonely, consuming atmosphere.
The reward of succeeding at a game like King's Field is similar to the feeling of accomplishment a person might get after making their way through a vast wilderness, or from standing atop the summit of a mountain after an arduous climb. So much of the players persona gets involved that it becomes more than a simple game—Its a challenge of your very mettle. By the time the ending credits roll (IF they roll) you'll feel that you've proven yourself against countless obstacles and emerged stronger for it. However, with all of my glowing praise in mind, the fact remains that King's Field: The Ancient City is most certainly not for everyone.
Snapping out of my reverie, I know for a fact that the biggest complaints people will have about King's Field will be the same issues that have been present since its beginnings. The control scheme is the most obvious rough spot. Its embarrassingly clunky to use the shoulder buttons so much when you've got two analog sticks left un-optimized, and the dated setup is badly in need of a complete overhaul. Cruising down the corridors of the game comes second nature to me since I'm a veteran of nearly ALL the FromSoft games. However, its going to feel extremely awkward to most people. Things are slow and deliberate, and the turning speed is especially vexing. It doesn't feel anything like a first-person shooter game at all (a good thing, since its not), but the calm pace and unorthodox control can hinder the feeling of immersion for new players. Quite honestly, I think it would definitely be in FromSoft's best interest to simply bite the bullet and provide players with a true analog setup for all future discs. You'll probably end up mastering the digitals despite the halfhearted attempt to implement the sticks, so expect a bit of a learning curve here.
Another thing that's mildly problematic is the ease with which you can miss crucial items. Since you are left to your own devices in the deep, dark depths there's no real way to tell what items or areas are optional and which aren't. At a few points, I wanted to rush ahead into new areas or skip some I didn't care for, but there is absolutely nothing more painful in a King's Field game than passing up a vital item and having no idea where to find it. As a consequence, you have to comb every inch of the land to avoid problems later. It can be doubly tough since you don't get any kind of useful map to aid your search until at least three quarters of the way through the game. In hindsight after completion its quite clear what the key events are, but lapse in your systematic search the first time through and you'll sorely regret it. Do yourself a favor and take notes.
Lastly, something that has been requested from the developers several times and never implemented is the addition of more interactions and side-quests with the games peripheral characters. While one of the games most unique qualities is the powerful feeling of solitude while probing the mysterious ruins, it wouldn't hurt to decrease the aura of loneliness by just a hair. I wouldn't want things to be overdone and turned into a series of fetch-quests like practically every other RPG out there, but a little socializing between dungeon dives would be appreciated since the monsters you encounter don't make for very good company.
I think there's really something to be said for the slow, moody and incredibly involving approach to adventuring that King's Field: The Ancient City takes. Its substance and sensibility are so unique and so far removed from the normal content of what the term "Role-Playing Game" has come to represent that I think most people simply don't know what to do with it. Therefore, very few people give it the chance it so richly deserves. This game comes with my highest recommendations if you have patience and are willing to take an open-minded attitude toward what the game has to offer. The experience you'll have is quite unlike anything else on the console market.