King’s Field, FromSoftware before Dark Souls and Elden Ring

The warrior is tired. Sitting in front of a deadly fire, he seems absorbed in deep thought as he absentmindedly kicks a couple of pebbles here and there, his gaze seemingly lost on the two-handed sword he’s just skewered a Bell Gargoyle with. Both he and I, however, are aware that the time to rest is short, just those few minutes to fill the flasks of Estus and then set off again.

This scene will sound very familiar to anyone who has spent even a minimum of time in the Dark Souls and Elden Ring universe: that powerful feeling of loneliness and piercing melancholy, inevitable after a fight to the death that almost left us breathless. In this sense, it may not be surprising to learn that these atmospheres have been well known to FromSoftware for several years before Demon’s Souls came out. In fact, we could follow in their footsteps almost thirty years back, up to their debut in the gaming world.

Let’s rediscover King’s Fieldthe game that laid the foundation for the Souls.

A polygonal RPG for the PlayStation

Watch out for the skeleton attack!

King’s Field was the first game released by the Japanese software house, although the company had already been around for a few years, having previously been busy with office software. Originally released in Japan in 1994 as PlayStation exclusive, was among the very first titles available for the Sony console, launching just over two weeks after release. A lukewarm critical reception did not prevent a good success with the public in the motherland but, nevertheless, the title was never officially released in the West. Some enthusiasts have made an English translation patch available, should any daring player want to try their hand.

The first title of the series that we received in the West was, however, the 1995 sequel, King’s Field 2, released by us as “King’s Field”. The sequel, King’s Field 2, is – as you may have guessed – actually the third game in the series. In short, a classic confusion of Final Fantasy-style titles for Super Nintendo. In the original the protagonist is Jean Alfred Forester, son of the captain of the guards of the kingdom of Verdite. Jean’s story begins right at the cemetery, to try to find some more information on the tragic end of her father, who disappeared after embarking on a dangerous expedition with the aim of defeating the demons that afflict the realm. The sequels explore the later adventures of Verdite’s realm, but always with a predefined character, missing what would become the classic Souls avatar creation.

A fragmentary quadrilogy

Graphically, there isn't much difference between the first three King's Field
Graphically, there isn’t much difference between the first three King’s Field

The third game, as mentioned, also came out for the original PlayStation while, in 2001, the series made it to the next generation of consoles. King’s Field: The Ancient City for PlayStation 2 was the fourth, and (for now) last chapter. There storytelling of King’s Field, already in the original but also in the sequels, is presented in a decidedly fragmentary way. The player is only communicated bits of information, often somewhat cryptic, delivered by the different characters, such as fishermen or farriers that Jean Alfred (and the other protagonists) will meet in their exploration of the inhabited places of Verdite.

That is only part of the experience though, as most of the time the player will spend exploring dark dungeons and caverns. It is an almost forced choice for the time, considering how King’s Field is one of the first titles entirely polygonal in 3D to hit the market.

The limited technological capacity of PlayStation (at least as regards the first titles) would have made it extremely difficult to create a world to explore outdoors: for this reason, in that sense, the player’s freedom ended up being rather limited.

In the evolution between the two generations, the design of the world of King’s Field has clearly become more complex, although never reaching a real open world, although in the fourth title the areas to explore are more connected to each other and thematically varied .

A fair blow to the carnivorous plant
A fair blow to the carnivorous plant

It is, therefore, natural to describe the King’s Field series as a classic “dungeon crawlers“, that sub-genre of RPGs whose gameplay takes place almost exclusively in underground settings and, often, is presented with a first-person view. From the progenitor Dungeon Master, up to more recent titles such as Legend of Grimrock, as far as we could claiming that it’s not an immensely popular sub-genre has undoubtedly had its following.However, while the first King’s Field is almost exclusively set in various dungeons, the other titles also feature long stairways and towering towers to explore, up to get to the forests of King’s Field 4.

As with the original, the entire FromSoftware series features in-game mechanics first person, and as a result the combat does not reach the complexity of the Japanese studio’s most recent RPGs. Movements are also slow, so there’s no way to avoid blows with parries and dodges, and even running away from enemies is often made difficult by how slowly Jean Alfred moves. The combat mechanics boil down to firing a shot with our weapon, waiting for the stamina bar to refill and then trying again. There are also magical attacks, as well as bows and arrows, but for the most part, the hand weapon is the most effective.

In a similar way to The Elder Scrolls series, to increase our attack capacity we will simply have to practice. Thus, to become stronger and more precise, a few hundred blank shots were enough. One of the most effective tactics was to go around the enemies, so as to attack them from behind. Most of the opponents were even slower than the main characters, so getting behind them was relatively easy.

A Quadrilogy of Despair

King's Field IV features much more detailed locations
King’s Field IV features much more detailed locations

So far, we’ve seen how the Japanese studio has managed to brilliantly create an RPG from scratch; but what is the connection between the FromSoftware of 1994 and that of 2022? The main reason King’s Field will feel familiar to fans of Dark Souls chapters isn’t due to the combat, nor simply the references and quotes from the series (such as the Moonlight Sword). Rather, it would appear to lie in the way the entire universe of the Japanese studio’s RPG series has been constructed. The Verdite realm of the original King’s Field is a place where hope ceased to inhabit decades ago. The dialogues with the NPCs constantly remind the player that he is faced with an almost impossible mission: that of saving the realm from an evil and demonic presence.

Regardless of our mission, the mood of the characters we meet will always be the desperate one we are familiar with. One of the first missions of the original King’s Field consists precisely in having to find the son of a gravedigger who, as it turns out later, does not need to be saved, since he has already been slaughtered by a mummy. Beyond this, defeated warriors are also encountered who literally “can’t take it anymore” and beg the player to be killed, an act necessary to earn a mission item. In the tradition of FromSoftware, we are free to kill anyone we meet, which is potentially the classic double-edged sword. Taking out the wrong character will mean going down a dead end street.

The Courage of FromSoftware

In King's Field there are also problems... of diet
In King’s Field there are also problems… of diet

In 1994, there weren’t many other Japanese developers brave enough to create such an RPG experience. Not only because it was developed completely in 3D, in itself already a good challenge in 1994, but because the underlying philosophy is far from the other JRPGs of the time. King’s Field seems to be influenced more by Western games, such as the aforementioned The Elder Scrolls: Arena or, perhaps even more, Ultima Underworld. Just the spin-off of the classic Origin series was among the first to demonstrate how an RPG could be designed in the first person, carried out by a (pseudo) 3D graphics engine.

But FromSoftware went far beyond the path traced by the American studio, leaving the player at the mercy of a merciless world, forcing him to go forward with minimal clues and without guides (a map system will arrive only in 2001). King’s Field is just how the Japanese studio cut its teeth: difficult experiences which leave the player alone to explore dangerous territories. And yet, there is an extra touch that often differentiates the works of the Japanese studio from those of the competition.

Despite the prevailing sadness that dwells in Verdite’s realm, a dim hope can be found, barely visible among the dark clouds. It is especially noticeable in some moments of King’s Field 2, where the player, after having climbed a tower that seems to never end, finally sees the sunlight peeping through the branches of a huge tree. It is probably one of the few moments in the entire series in which the player is left with a minimum of hope. Maybe, just for a moment the sun will finally be able to defeat that horrible night. But unfortunately that victory is merely ephemeral, as very soon we will be back to gritting our teeth in the dark.

The lessons learnt

A warm welcome
A warm welcome

28 years have passed since King’s Field and, since then, the Japanese studio has not stopped constantly learning from its past titles, rigorously honing the ability to create alternative universes and memorable enemies. At this point, it is good to specify that the first King’s Field has certainly not aged so well, between “tank” controls and inexorably slow mechanics. The speech could also apply to the entire quadrilogy, given that FromSoftware has never wanted to revolutionize that basic concept. Sure, King’s Field 4 is much more digestible, but still doesn’t change what we saw previously.

And, even in this, we could draw an easy parallel with the recent works of FromSoftware. In the parable between Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Elden Ring, we can observe a studio that constantly learns, refines, adjusts, adjusts. But it doesn’t revolutionize. Of course, we can safely say that Dark Souls (or Demon’s Souls) would never have existed without its distant relative King’s Field. And not only that, the similarities between the two series are so many as to suggest that it is actually about a single universe. Throughout the quadrilogy, the elements in common with the recent FromSoftware titles are wasted: magic rings, shortcuts to unlock, weapons that wear out, traps.

King’s Field was the first to demonstrate that melancholy and sadness can be defeated, maybe not forever, but enough to find hope to carry on. That same faint spark that makes us hope that we can get up again today, perhaps with the will to try again, to improve ourselves. Perhaps, one day, we will be able to overcome certain seemingly insurmountable difficulties. In short, King’s Field was the first to demonstrate the need to keep alive that hope of becoming better. Of – how to say – “git gud”.

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King’s Field, FromSoftware before Dark Souls and Elden Ring

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