The following is a brief record of my wanderings in the world of King’s Field II (retitled as plain King’s Field for US and EU players – something of a Final Fantasy IV/II situation there) and shameful proof of my total lack of any sense of direction whatsoever, even in a game happy to display a compass on screen at all times and leave an accurate map that helpfully always shows the precise direction I’m facing lying around in a treasure chest so easy to find even I managed to get my hands on it as early as possible. Oh yes. Before we embark on this doom-laden escapade I feel I should say that everything chronicled here actually happened to me, in this order, with only minimal editing to make me look like slightly (slightly) less of an utter moron.
I made a solemn vow to never check online for hints, answers, or maps while I played this one – some games just aren’t supposed to give up their secrets easily to newcomers who wouldn’t understand the significance of them anyway, and it’s more fun for me if I wade in and try to make sense of all the twists and turns by myself. This is doubly true for a game where meandering around in the dark and getting so very lost is as much a true part of the experience as finding the Moonlight Sword and whacking the final boss over the head with it. Getting into the spirit of things is important, and racing to the end credits for the sake of hastily sightseeing my way through King’s Field II feels an awful lot like fast forwarding through a song with one earbud dangling around my shoulders, tetchily insisting I’ve heard the exact same music only in half the time it took everyone else.
I’m not wholly ignorant, of course: I have some previous experience with FromSoftware’s unforgiving style and I’ve also taken the time to read the manual from cover to cover as well as pay close attention to the mood-setting intro FMV, so I’m at least as prepared as From expected anyone to be.
That’s what I told myself as I stood on a tiny scrap of land just off the coast of Melenat, left all alone in the inky night with instant death literally footsteps away and nothing but a dagger to my name with no idea of where to go.
The visual style (and it is a style) of my pancake-flat water and aggressively pointy cave surroundings look absolutely gorgeous – a representation of the landscape, as if it had sprung forth from hastily-scribbled drawings in a tabletop gaming session. Or – if we think about this a little more deeply and take into account King’s Field 2’s fascinating artistic choices, such as the blank visages of every humanoid NPC or the nigh-constant darkness – it’s the interactive equivalent of a half-remembered dream, filled with understandable and familiar objects – a table, a waterfall, a fountain, a door – that remain abstract and unreal no matter how closely you examine them.
Nervously dashing past a giant squid monster apparently guarding some sort of pearl (I later learned this was an inspired example of generic item placement), I found a short sword and made the rookie mistake of thinking a few painfully slow kills with this new weapon against the slowest and least threatening starter enemies made me an invincible force of goodness and light. Confidence carrying me to places where common sense refused to tread, I continued to pick my way along submerged paths hidden in the salty gloom to a dead end decorated with an enormous waterfall. I held my breath. There had to be – had to be – a secret cave behind this impenetrable rectangular block of polygons coated in blue textures – that’s just the rules… and there was. Well, what else was there to do but optimistically charge inside brandishing King’s Field’s equivalent of a rusty butter knife and wreak righteous havoc on the denizens within?
Sadly a short while after this thought left my tiny brain and visited my fingers I spotted a skeleton hiding just inside the cave entrance – a skeleton that killed me instantly with a single, slow, blow. Perfect.
And I mean that sincerely: I saw somewhere interesting off in the distance and not only was I able to walk over there without any teeny-tiny loading tunnels getting in the way but it was entirely my decision to do so, I hadn’t been railroaded anywhere in classic “But thou must!” fashion. I had been curious and my curiosity had been accommodated and rewarded. That death at the end wasn’t ideal, no, but it was a reminder that I should see myself not as an avenging force of RPG heroism in a strange land in need of a serious thrashing but as a unwelcome outsider, poking my nose in ancient abandoned places where it’s not going to be welcome. That death wasn’t a punishment – it was a lesson.
So anyway I reloaded an earlier sa- Oh wait no I had to restart the whole game, because at this point in my short Field-y life I had no idea where the nearest save point was, never mind got close enough to use one. There was nothing for it other than to head off again – in the opposite direction this time – finding a restorative pool of water, a tantalising locked chest with no key in sight, a secret door that scared the pants off me (after Shadow Tower I’m convinced all secret doors will leave me trapped in a small room with a vicious skeleton for company), and my own untimely death.
Another restart, and another batch of new experiences to go with it. I found an incredibly talkative fisherman swiftly followed up by an unrelated twin-headed snail that killed me with its… breath? Spittle? Maybe some body fluids are best left unknown. But before I died (again) the fisherman mentioned something about a nearby lighthouse – so the next time I start I search for and find it, and at the top a shining fire crystal awaits me, allowing me to equip a brand new fireball spell… which I don’t get to use because I forget fall damage is a thing and excitedly leap off the side of this tall structure without any thought for my own safety. Another run presents me with three unlocked treasure chests in a high place… and two skeleton-related deaths later I find the only one that actually contains something other than my monster-instigated demise. With that tricky situation finally out of the way for good I push further and further, leaving now familiar corridors far behind as I venture out into the unknown – and spot my first save point behind a fake wall. Not even saving comes without a fight in King’s Field II. Unfortunately death in these uncharted rooms comes far too easily and too often even by FromSoftware standards, so I make the decision to retreat to spaces where I’ll probably, rather than definitely, die.
Now here’s the thing: Not having to put myself through such tough life-or-death trials should feel like a blessing – a chance to adjust the game to my own capabilities – but with King’s Field II being so directionless whenever I come across something difficult my thoughts lean more towards “Guess I’ll go somewhere else then” rather than “OK, time to focus, try my best, and dare myself to find a way through this challenge!”. Echo Night and Shadow Tower were always forcing me into uncomfortable and dangerous positions, sometimes literally to the point where even the floor would damage my health, but the open-ended nature of this title makes everything look less suffocating and immediate. Perhaps this lack of urgency is deliberate: There’s no doubt King’s Field II does an excellent job of making you feel like you’re wandering around a world where important events have already happened – whatever you’re here for, you’re definitely too late.
I’m not too late to kill that giant kraken plonked right at the beginning of the game though, and with no other specific goal in sight I find myself consumed by thoughts of finding a way past the giant beast and into whatever cave he’s obviously guarding the entrance of. Maybe there’ll be nothing there at all, or maybe it’ll contain a game-breakingly powerful weapon waiting proudly on a stone altar, or a magical gem, or maybe another bigger kraken out for revenge… whatever’s in there, I really need to know. And probably die to it as well.
So much so that after one too many kraken-administered deaths later I break my unbreakable vow and decide to do some online research: Can I kill them right now, or am I supposed to wait until I’ve done something else? Can I make them move out of the way? Do I need a specific item or spell to clobber this cephalopod? After a taking a few search engines for a spin I am now left picking through a combination of FAQs written by people who know the game inside out and seem to assume anyone reading will already know exactly what they’re doing and fragmented forum posts left behind by the sort of people who have played so much King’s Field they felt the need to seek out others to discuss specialist strategies with online. Wading through this dense web of truths I lack the frames of reference to fully understand feel as authentically “old forgotten knowledge” as anything found in the game itself, and I do eventually find The Answer: It is possible to kill the kraken – and using nothing more than the starting dagger as a fresh player with no armour, too. This is all good news – I need nothing more than patience and my wi-oh no, there’s some bad news. The bad news is the person who performed this amazing feat freely admitted to needing to save-state their way to victory. The worse news is the other Keepers of King’s Field II Wisdom did not feel this fact diminished their achievement, and that was the moment when I realised my aquatic nemesis is virtually untouchable for someone like me, a person possessing the all concentration of a kitten in a room full of butterflies.
Reluctantly leaving that gigantic cave-blocker behind, I decide to go and probe an area I vaguely remember from an earlier wandering… but somehow manage to make a wrong turn down what I could have sworn was a linear path, heading off down corridors and over bridges I’m sure weren’t there the last time I looked, into a fresh batch of caves. A ghost hits me as I dash past them and something new happens – my vision darkens, making it impossible to see the exit at opposite end of the next cavern. I’m left standing at the boundary of the next area, sandwiched between the ghosts gathering inches away from my virtual face (but unable to attack across that invisible line – fans of Phantasy Star Online will probably recall abusing a similar life-saving trick) and all of the other enemies I left behind in my blind haste lazily ambling in my general direction. That’s bad enough as it is but then my vision clears and I can see not only the exit I was hoping for but what appear to be three gravestones jutting out of the dirt up ahead – as if there was ever any doubt that King’s Field II wanted me dead.
And I do think it wants me dead – stone dead as often as possible – but never so put off I’m gone. It’s no exaggeration to say that every single time I reload a save (now I can finally do it) there’s always something new to find no matter what direction I strike out in – a chest, a hidden path, an item, a scrap of lore – even when I’m not looking for it. Take bloodstones, for example: I’ve accidentally found a few of them in all sorts of odd corners and chests at this point, although I couldn’t tell you what they are or what they do (I scuttled off to check the manual, but they aren’t mentioned there). Are they important? Do they cure a status effect I’ve not seen yet? Are they shiny trinkets to sell? It doesn’t really matter – I’ve been exploring and I’ve been rewarded with treasure for my amateurish efforts, and in many ways unknown sparklies that could potentially be everything and nothing are far more exciting than digging up 100G’s worth of coins or earning a shiny pair of gauntlets, even if they would be more practical.
By now I have fought my way past ghosts, man-eating plants, angry termites and…skeletal seahorses (They’re not, not really… but they kind of are) and have somehow stumbled upon a “village” made up of two single-room buildings and three whole people but nobody’s really in the mood for talking as there’s an adventurous little boy missing and I, as the only person capable of moving from their appointed spot, should probably do something about it. Under normal RPG conditions I’d be the first to head off into the unknown for the sake of a helpless NPC, but the thought of searching for someone in particular when I’m already constantly lost and incapable of finding my way out of a room with one exit (literally in at least one instance – although in my defence the exit was a hole in the ceiling) doesn’t fill me with joy, so I pretend I haven’t heard this poor mother’s plea and stumble off again, assuming that if my current performance is anything to go by I will probably find the boy by accident while I’m hunting for something else entirely.
And I was – just this once – absolutely right. You rejoin my feeble quest as I stagger around a termite’s nest with enough health to withstand zero (0) termite bites, no clear idea how to get back to safety, and no healing items. With nothing to lose I settle on the classic “headless chicken” approach to exploration, picking my route based entirely on answers to the question “Is there a sodding termite in my way or not?” and of course there’s now a giant termite queen dead ahead and suspicious little termite-sized holes in the walls instead of a nice, boring, stone corridor with a harmless wooden barrel sitting on one side. I die, swiftly and shamefully – but not before spotting the small lost child mentioned earlier standing behind the termite queen.
I’d like to tell you that after this shining nugget of revelation and knowledge from my previous attempt at navigating this dual-layer nightmare of a nest I was finally able to slay the termite queen, her defeat snowballing into a victorious crusade against all who would dare challenge me until there was nobody left to fight… but no. She killed me. Very quickly. And many, many, many, times.
That’s far more King’s Field than watching any credits sequence could ever be.