Taking an old series to new depths

At first blush the rigid grid-based dungeon crawling of From Software’s 2006 PSP exclusive King’s Field Additional I appears to be a drastic departure from the immersive die ’em ups that came before it, this UMD upstart choosing to ditch the freeform exploration of old in favour of a right angled labyrinth and the solitary town above it, Wizardry style.

This genre shift makes it an easy title to dismiss out of hand, classic King’s Field serving as a clear reminder of all the things Additional I can never do: Nothing is ever tucked away in a torchlit corner or placed tantalisingly out of reach on a small ledge. You will never peer into the gloom below and suddenly realise you were fighting for your life down there an hour ago, or walk into a dark room and involuntarily shudder when you realise the odd sound you can hear is coming from above

This laundry list of imagined slights ignore the fact that Additional I was never trying to emulate these experiences in the first place—and it also ignores just how perfectly the game captures the spirit of its revered namesakes too.

The game’s slender story is as always told in scattered fragments by often unrelated parties, the death and decay you fight through the tattered remnants of somebody else’s ambitions. The people you meet along the way might turn up later in places you never expected to find them; their own agendas unclear, something to piece together if you choose to do so.

The painterly artwork used to convey these scenes and everything else within Additional I is just fantastic, offering emotion and texture while still obscuring the finer details in a characteristically King’s Field-y manner that makes it all feel like a half-remembered dream. People will look bloodied and exhausted, monsters will be horrific nightmarish creatures you hope to never see again (hi there, door that’s actually a giant and distressingly human-like mouth), and powerful foes will stand resolute amongst the flames, but there’s always that element of the unknown in there too—the face you can’t quite define, the faded mural open to interpretation.

The game relishes keeping you on the back foot in every possible way, which is why (just like in “real” King’s Field games) the walls are stuffed with hidden doors waiting to be discovered—and also why the game perfectly content to let you struggle on without the life-saving equipment and healing magic these secret areas may provide. Floors may ominously crack as you walk over them, your warning that any attempt to return this way spells certain doom. Bottomless pits, collapsing bridges, and everybody’s From Software favourite—large areas covered in some sort of harmful substance, ranging from poisonous spores to plain old fire—show up from time to time, all of them happy to cut short your adventuring.

Basic survival is only half the battle, as your progress is often hampered by a wide selection of unique problems in addition to the usual monsters and death. A few early examples include turning off a valve to quell path-blocking flames, burning down gigantic spiderwebs with a magical rod, and finding the combination to a cylindrical lock in a handwritten memo located elsewhere in the dungeon. Every floor honestly brings with it some novel environmental obstacle, and these go a long way to keeping Additional I from sleepwalking into the trap of being a tedious maze filled wtih doors and keys (thinking about it, there are… perhaps three keys all game? And they’re all multi-use too).

Yet for all of this intentional hardship—and just like From’s very best dark fantasy games—Additional I wants to see you struggle, not fail.

There are no disorientating spinner plates to contend with, teleporters are treated as a method of transportation rather than an invitation to fruitlessly throw yourself onto a dozen identical magical tiles for the next half an hour in the faint hope of stumbling upon the right one, and you never have to wonder if you’ve missed the tile containing a large room’s sole NPC, because the game always shows an indistinct humanoid silhouette in the distance if someone’s standing (or lying, in the case of the game’s many corpses) somewhere you can see them.

The game’s three maps are equally considerate, with each one—once found—covering multiple floors. What’s really great about these is that they’re treated as in-game items for your character to unfurl, rather than a player’s automapping tool. The first map you obtain is given by a soldier, its frayed edges and yellowed parchment reflecting its humble status. Later maps have highly decorative and neatly edged borders, in keeping with the elevated status of the hallowed halls they depict—even if they do omit vital details from time to time. However detailed they are(n’t), you’ll always be able to see your exact location as well as the direction you’re facing even if the lines are faint and blotchy in places: your clue that it is worth exploring that far corner, you just can’t be entirely sure what’s in it or how to get there.

As patience testing as the idea of an eternally incomplete map may sound, the labyrinth’s floors have been designed with these uncertain experiences firmly in mind. The little hints the game does give you are always sufficient, and your goal for each floor is always clear: the only other staircase arrow on the map, that ornate door in the large hall, whatever lies at the end of the long hallway lined with pillars. Even the one floor that has no map at all feels manageable as it’s incredibly small, simple—and entirely optional. 

These maps have also been fitted with unlockable shortcuts, making those repeat runs through previously cleared floors after a quick trip back to town (thanks to a magical staff you find early on, offering infinite one-way warps back to safety) relatively uncomplicated: once you’ve done everything you need to in one of the endgame floors any further visits are literally an arrow-straight walk from one staircase to the next, for example.

The trek back down is still long enough to encourage you to press on a little further than you feel comfortable with from time to time for the sake of getting just that one bit more done, but even so when the time comes to warp back and grab some fresh supplies it genuinely only takes just a few minutes to go from the town to the sort of deep levels only darkness and dragons reside in.

This doesn’t mean you can afford to get careless though, as you can only carry twelve items at a time. Thankfully consumable items stack (although even then you can only carry nine of anything, no stacks of stacks allowed) and any equipment you’re wearing doesn’t count towards this total, but even so it’s a real restriction that sometimes forces you to make tough decisions about what to take and what to leave behind.

It’s not a simple case of taking whatever makes you live longer or hit harder either, as weapons degrade with use, and if used enough will break, leaving you, like me, punching a powerful water elemental in the face for minimal damage for what feels like an eternity because it’s in that terrible moment you realise Additional I doesn’t allow you to swap out weapons in battle under any circumstances, or run away from a boss fight. Yeah. That was a tense battle. Damaged weapons cost a small fixed amount of money to repair back in town, while broken weapons can cost thousands to restore. Thankfully money is really only an issue in the first half of the game, so by the time you need to carry three different swords with you in preparation for the challenges ahead keeping them all battle-ready will be no issue—so long as you’re careful, anyway.

The fights you dull your blades in occur randomly (boss/special event battles excepted) as you wander the labyrinth, and to my surprise they actually mimic King’s Field’s usual rhythm of quick pokes and defensive observation very well. The usual physical and magical stamina bars are present and correct, and as always you’ll do more damage if you wait until they’re full before unleashing your attack, although there’s nothing stopping you from throwing out the odd flurry of pokes from time to time—in some situations, any damage is good damage. Incoming attacks can be blocked to varying and slightly unpredictable degrees of success if you’ve got a shield equipped and the physical stamina to hold that defensive position, every enemy action preceded by a clear visual tell that lets you know something—although you can never sure exactly what—is coming. All enemies have their own attack patterns, special skills, and unique behaviours to watch out for, making an encounter with a screen-filling lich feel very different to a simple skeleton, intimidating demon, or faceless puppet, even though at a glance they all seem to be nothing more than flat sprites (sometimes animated, sometimes not) awaiting your carefully timed assaults.

Some will try to block your attacks, some will burrow underground, some choose to wrap their limbs around their body before exploding, some will charge up a powerful combo (which again has a different “tell” to a standard attack), or leap into the air before attacking from above after a slightly randomised period of time. Some have multi-hit attacks that make it easy to let your guard down too early if you’re unaware, leaving you wide open for a nasty hit. Every battle feels dynamic and dangerous, and over time you start putting your guard up at the very last second just so you can sneak an extra hit in there, and learn that enemy’s first swipe is always swiftly followed up by an untelegraphed second.

It’ll come as no surprise when I tell you I’ve died a lot during these encounters (and in plenty of other places too), but Additional I always finds a way to make it part of the experience, rather than a punishment. It always felt like I had it coming: I could’ve gone back but I chose to keep going, I could’ve made the effort to find another way around those obvious arrow-spitting holes in the wall, I could’ve saved at any time in one of several save slots before venturing into uncharted territory, but didn’t. There’s always some way to fight back, some way to learn and improve on the last attempt, something else I can try. It’s thoughts like these that push Additional I’s players ever further into the darkness, death something the game dares you to conquer rather than merely avoid.

This is a fantastic dungeon crawler. It’s as perfectly King’s Field as anything else in many significant ways, and every way it isn’t suits Sony’s portable hardware well. Now I’ve finished it all I want to do is grab a copy of Additional II and see where this wonderful duology goes.

[Ko-fi supporters made this article happen!]

2 thoughts on “Taking an old series to new depths

  1. I had seen a bit about the King’s Field games in a ThorHighHeels video (iirc) and how these were very rough yet showing a prototypical glimpse of…classic From Software design in making your life miserable (and forcing you to get better); to know that there was a new game/remaster of one of their oldest series AND that you described it having far more tweaks so that its less *senselessly* punishing is very interesting, yet understandable with how they clearly had in mind the newer times they were in.

    Like

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