A wave of dread washed over me as I booted up King’s Field IV for the first time; I wasn’t concerned with the legions of monsters that lay ahead or if I’d be able to piece together the scattered scraps of plot, I was worried FromSoftware’s first-person free-roaming dungeon ’em up series might be something that only worked through the abstract lens of the original PlayStation’s graphical limitations: The clean shapes and short draw distance in King’s Field II gave that game an otherworldly air, an unreal place clinging on to its own existence by its fingertips, the land itself fading into nothingness if you took just a few steps back. Could this delicate atmosphere survive the rolling back of the darkness and the greater detail that comes from such an extreme graphical upgrade?
At first blush this PlayStation 2 exclusive seems to be a successful sequel simply because it’s such a superficially safe and gentle update of the now established King’s Field’s formula: You’re once again dumped goodness knows where clutching nothing that will help you live even a second longer and there’s an unceremonious death-by-environment lurking just a few steps away from your starting position – so far so familiar. However this isn’t the thoughtless churn of the same old content slightly polished and repurposed to hoodwink the next batch of unaware consumers but proof of a game totally at peace with itself – King’s Field IV knows exactly what it wants to achieve and how it wants to do it, modernity be damned. Even the now standard DualShock 2 controller still finds its second analogue stick utterly ignored (and its first only doubling up on the digital d-pad’s movement duties), vertical camera controls still tied to the L2 and R2 shoulder buttons just as FromSoft like it. With the game being so keen on keeping one foot in the past and the other firmly planted in the developer’s own way of thinking the easiest assumption to make here would be that their unique style of dungeoneering is only tolerated because it’s so stubbornly stuck in its own quirky ways, praised beyond its actual quality by those seeking to prove how offbeat their RPG tastes are due to its status as a relatively niche yet still internationally available title. Leaping to this conclusion would be wrong: King’s Field IV’s environments are cherished by those who get on with its more methodical style of play – and this deadly game of discovery will never be everyone’s cup of tea – just because they’re so very well designed, always finding that contradictory sweet spot between freedom to roam and a subtle guiding hand, between playing fair and wiping you out in an instant. Key items are never hidden too far away from the point they need to be used – often glimpsed through a nearby window, poking out beneath a pile of rubble, or protected by a dormant enemy – and however far you wander along the game’s meandering paths you’ll find a copious amount of shortcuts, unlockable doors linking vital locations, and even magical warping wands that allow you to customise your destination to a limited extent. King’s Field IV promises you will always have a realistic chance of ending up where you need or want to be holding the one special object you hoped to find on the way there… if you can survive the journey.
And the sheer relief you feel when you realise after a long trek you’ve come back to somewhere you’ve already cleared out or see an enemy in the dark and realise it’s a monster you learned how to effectively deal with an hour ago while wearing worse equipment is so strong it’s almost overwhelming: Few games say “You will die” and mean it purely as a statement of fact the way this one does, and it’s a design philosophy that changes your entire relationship with the game. King’s Field IV is a genuinely intimidating experience – it will not hold back or try to scoot you out of an area you really shouldn’t have found yourself in yet, it won’t stop you accidentally drowning yourself or fatally sidestepping into lava – every single mistake in your judgement or skill will be swiftly caught and punished, creating the distinct impression that you’re not making progress, you’re not doing well, you’re surviving. The severity of this attitude improves your exploration immeasurably: Now decisions aren’t simply a case of “What will the game reward me with if I bother to go in there?” but instead come down to whether you feel in your gut investigating a new room’s worth the risk it may bring, creating a looming sense of paranoia where every gift is accepted gingerly and with suspicion as you wonder what price you’re about to be made to pay to keep your new find.
This danger could come in any form: Sometimes a helpful item must be snatched from the jaws of a flaming trap or a pile of bones might not be quite as dead as you’d expect them to be as reanimated skeletons rise from the ground or clamber out of coffins, armed and ready for combat. The ground can crumble beneath your feet without warning, drinkable pools of water may be refreshing or poisoned with little clue either way until it’s already too late, secret alcoves and hidden passageways may be guarded by magic-flinging monsters, and an endless supply of smaller critters may drop from above or emerge from unblockable holes in the walls. Crucially there are stories behind many of these moments, often quiet fragments of lives brutally cut short. There’s the murderous ghoul you find wandering a single room – he was a helpful human when you left him. A skeletal forearm – and only a forearm – can be found gripping a ledge, a shiny ring on its finger; take this jewellery for yourself and the hand slips away into the dark, a sad end to an unknown tale. Forgotten subterranean graveyards, their headstones damaged and decayed.
King’s Field IV’s potent combination of silence and scattered memories are also the perfect place for your own adventures to naturally spring forth as you interact with the game: It’s the tale of that time a monster spat a new spell in your face, leaving you to stumble around semi-blind until you found yourself stopping in fear at one end of a corridor, the other a dense blackness broken up only by too many pairs of shining red eyes staring your way. It’s when you cautiously watched a skeleton ringing a large bell and didn’t realise this summoned a horde of undead archers until it was far too late to run to safety, or the incident with the ancient golem – an unthinking mass of stone that would have happily squished you flat if you hadn’t remembered to place the crown that subdued it on a nearby stone bust.
When it’s not busy using the environment to kill, teach, or intimidate you King’s Field IV is “just” plain beautiful: Warm torchlight illuminates cold stone walls, flooded areas accurately reflect the monsters wading towards you in the water, detailed stonemasonry is carefully crafted to fit dark corners the player may never see and a variety of ornate glass bottles clutter your inventory. You’ll travel further and further from the opening’s dusty browns, finding new paths and seeing how far you dare take them, past ramshackle wooden homes and well-stocked stores into spider-filled caves and so far beyond you’ll eventually forget when you last saw daylight. You’ll carry on, picking your way through collapsed tunnels and pushing aside heavy stone doors as slimes and ghouls go from being game-ending adversaries to nothing a few careful swords swings won’t silence forever, a welcome alternative to the towering monstrosities and more cunning opponents you’ve been facing recently. And then when you do finally return to daylight it’s almost blinding, bringing you out into a wooded area where leaves gently tumble to the ground, a small oasis bathed in ethereal light… and you know you soon have to move on again, as if you never truly escaped the dark at all. The sky does come back later, only this time it’s not a soft welcoming glow but a violent thunderstorm and within moments you may find yourself hopelessly outclassed and brutally murdered by a new enemy you’ve not seen before or since.
It’s irresistible. I can’t remember the last time I found myself leaning in just to get physically closer to a game or so enthralled I kept promising myself the next area – no not this one because I just got here and ooh what’s that over there?, I mean the next next one – would be when I put the game down for a break. Still, on paper there’s a lot that could be improved here: The weapon swings seem to be either “slow” or “slower”, the camera tilt on shoulder buttons will feel awkward to anyone who’s played virtually any other game on the console, the sporadic nature of the save points in such a brutal title are utterly punishing for the impatient – these are all understandably off-putting and could be taken as a sign of a game unable or unwilling to embrace the fu- no, not even the future, just what had been broadly accepted as conventional good game design by the time of the game’s release. But to take anything more than a personal dislike to these decisions – and they are decisions – is to miss King’s Field IV’s heart. This game isn’t trying to be a good first-person RPG – it has no interest in chasing the ghosts of market trends, other publisher’s ideas, mainstream review scores or general common sense – all it hopes is to be is the very best King’s Field it can be.