Released in 1994, action RPG King’s Field established the tone and style that would one day make FromSoftware an international powerhouse with Dark Souls and Elden Ring. Damiano takes a look back…
My warrior can barely muster the strength to even sit at the bonfire. Huddled in front of its dying embers, he seems lost in thought – perhaps recalling past challenges and those still to come. There are a scant few minutes to catch a breath and fill up the Estus flasks before it’s time to fight again.
It’s the kind of bleakly reflective moment you’ll commonly find in FromSoftware’s Soulsborne universe, as made famous by the likes of Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls and Elden Ring. But how did the studio come to develop one of the most successful runs of RPG in the history gaming? The answer lies far back in time, and the studio’s 1994 debut.
FromSofware was originally founded in Shibuya, Tokyo in 1986 by Naotoshi Zin, who’s still the company’s representative today. The company initially worked on something far more dark and gloomy than any of its later RPGs, however: business software. With the advent of the new console generation, though, FromSoftware decided to expand its horizons. First emerging in 1994 as a Japanese PlayStation 1 exclusive, King’s Field was the studio’s debut and among the first titles available at launch for Sony’s new console.
While Japanese magazines weren’t exactly enthusiastic, the public liked what FromSoftware had to offer, making King’s Field a modest commercial success. Despite this, the studio’s first foray into darkness remained unreleased outside of Japan, though a fan-made English translation was made available years later.
Still, ASCIIware took interest in the studio, arranging a western release for the sequel. Indeed, the first game to arrive on our shores was 1995’s King’s Field II. But, in a classic case of renaming confusion, ASCIIware simply renamed it King’s Field, with King’s Field III becoming King’s Field II and so on. In the original title, the protagonist is Jean Alfred Forrester, son of the captain of the guard in the kingdom of Verdite. Jean is looking for information about his father, who disappeared while trying to purge the kingdom of the demons that have plagued it for years.
In the second game, the Moonlight sword – a precious weapon of Verdite – is stolen, so it’s up to Prince Alexander to embark on a dangerous journey to find it and restore balance to the kingdom. In the third and final title, the king’s son, Lyle, goes on a similar quest to restore peace and happiness, again via the Moonlight sword.
Narratively, the first three King’s Field titles could be considered a trilogy. There’s little difference between them aside from slight cosmetic updates, lore and quality of life improvements. At heart, they’re first-person RPGs, where players explore, kill monsters, upgrade equipment and complete subquests.
In a way that will be familiar to Dark Souls veterans, the narrative in the King’s Field series is presented in fragments, with NPCs relating bits and pieces of information, often in a cryptic way. Those characters are usually found in cities, which work as a respite from the combat which, for the most part, takes place in underground caves, crypts and lairs. Overall, King’s Field series can be described as a dungeon crawler; while all the various caves and lairs are connected to create the illusion of freedom, there’s no real open world to explore in the King’s Field trilogy.
After a break, King’s Field returned for the final time on the PlayStation 2. Released in 2001, King’s Field: The Ancient City was the fourth title (well, the third in the west) in the series. But despite the studio banking on a triumphant return, critics weren’t happy. IGN gave it a 66, commenting that “desperate adventurers could find a lot to like”. Even GamePro, who wrote a positive review, added, “Don’t expect anything new from the game; this is one for the fans”.
The Ancient City proves just how little FromSoftware has strayed from its design philosophy in the last 29 years. The game doesn’t modify the mechanics established in previous entries, despite the intervening six years and new console generation. The studio just kept honing its approach to designing first-person RPGs, never straying from its original vision, but instead refining aspects of its adventure – especially the combat mechanics. This can also be observed in the way it used (or recycled, perhaps) design ideas from different genres, like for the first-person adventure Echo Night and, even more evidently, in the 1998 RPG, Shadow Tower.
Still, the jump to a new, more powerful generation of console would still inspire FromSoftware to enhance the original design. This can be seen in the first PS2 game developed by the Japanese studio: Eternal Ring. A more Zelda-flavoured RPG, it learns some of the lessons from previous titles while introducing new concepts, many of which would be translated to King’s Field IV.
While clearly bigger and more complex than its predecessors, King’s Field IV still isn’t an open world RPG. It’s much more varied in tone, presenting forests and various open areas – a clear jump from the simple caves and underground lairs of the original. Still, the sequel keeps its foot firmly planted in the ‘hopeless desperation’ tone that the series had been known for.
Fit for a king
By 1994 standards, the original King’s Field could be considered revolutionary, especially for the Japanese market. Here came an RPG which wasn’t only entirely polygonal and in 3D, but also took lessons from western RPGs. In the mid 90s, Japan was known for the classic style of JPRGs by Square Enix or Sega, a style which would also be revitalised on the PS1. King’s Field, however, headed in a new and different direction, playing closer to Ultima Underworld or The Elder Scrolls: Arena rather than, say, Dragon Quest.
FromSoftware clearly loves desperation-ridden worlds, particularly given the bleak nature of the first environment it ever created, the Kingdom of Verdite. The anguish of Verdite is far removed from the cheerier façade of other classic mid-90s Japanese RPGs. Interacting with NPCs provides a stark reminder of how nigh-impossible the player’s mission is. It makes perfect sense, then, that when played 29 years later, the King’s Field series isn’t exactly approachable.
King’s Field’s protagonists find little help in such a despairing place, and the characters they meet only serve to underline the sense of hopelessness. One of the original game’s first missions involves finding the kidnapped son of a graveyard keeper. The mission ends with the player finding the son’s body, mutilated by a mummy. There’s no happy ending here.
If you decide to challenge the misery of the Kingdom of Verdite, you’ll have to make sure you don’t get discouraged too easily. Among the typical characters players meet on their journey, scorned warriors pray that their nightmare will end. One of those warriors will even ask Jean to kill them. It’s another tradition of FromSoftware’s Soulsborne titles, starting 29 years ago: the player is free to kill anyone and everyone they encounter.
Despite all the darkness, though, there’s still light to be found. While these moments are rare in the original King’s Field trilogy, it’s still possible to see light shining among huge trees after climbing a long staircase in King’s Field II. You’re taken from a dank, dimly-lit cave to a luscious forest in the fourth chapter. These moments of environmental storytelling are few and far between, perhaps for technical reasons, but they still work wonderfully in restoring a sliver of faith to the player.
The way FromSoftware has honed its skills and evolved over the past 29 years is quite unique in the gaming industry. Once the seeds were first planted in King’s Field, the studio has stuck to its roots; its design philosophy was applied to huge international success in Demon’s Souls (which switched to a third-person perspective), but the studio has always dealt in gradual upgrades rather than revolutions.
With the likes of Dark Souls, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Elden Ring under its belt, FromSoftware’s RPGs are known today for being grim and unforgiving trips into darkness where players are constantly asked to improve their combat skills. As King’s Field fans have long known, though, the company’s games have always been like that.
Each of the studio’s subsequent games has excised the fat from the last, revisiting previous mechanics without changing them too much. The studio has also continuously connected the Dark Souls/Demon’s Souls universe back to King’s Field, so much so that it’s easy to consider them as one. They share magic rings, shortcuts to be unlocked, weapon durability, hidden traps, and common weapons like the Moonlight sword. Ever since 1994, the latter weapon has appeared in all the Soulsborne games – with the logical exception of the ancient Japan-set Sekiro.
From King’s Field onwards, FromSoftware proved that even when we experience most depressing and difficult moments of our lives, there’s still hope to be found. You won’t find it by simply waiting around; instead, you have to forge an iron will and remain steadfast against enemy attacks. You must resist any temptations that might make you stray from your path. Or, to put it more plainly, FromSoftware’s games are all about one thing: the need to “git gud”.