Dark Souls 2 DLC and Bloodborne are on the lips of many gamers right now, but before looking to the future of From Software’s Souls series, Dave Cook pays his respects to where it all began.
Harsh difficulty curves, purposely ambiguous world states and methodical pacing are just a few hallmarks From Software has etched into the fabric of its Souls series. Under the stewardship of series veteran Hidetaka Miyazaki, PS4 exclusive Bloodborne is set to carry the series legacy into 2015. Indeed it’s an exciting time to be a Souls fan.
”Long before Miyazaki began work on Demon’s Souls the Tokyo-based studio had already established several of its core concepts in King’s Field.”
It’s an upstart franchise that counters almost everything that makes games in the triple-a arena so popular. There is no instant gratifaction to be found in the realms of Lordran or Drangleic, no big explosions, or long bouts of exposition that clear up every narrative detail. They are ballsy projects that go against the grain, and it seems to be working. The series grows more popular by the month.
But where did the Souls concept come from, and how did it grow to this point? Back in 2012 I interviewed Miyazaki about the origins of Dark Souls and to learn more about his unique design philosophy.
He told me at the time, “What Dark Souls is offering is a feeling of accomplishment. That is the game concept of Dark Souls, so it looks a difficult game. Dark Souls is a game offering a feeling of accomplishment which may be relatively rare among other games nowadays”
“However,” he added, “this does not mean [the industry] lacks creativity, but a shift of values offered by games. If the game industry lacks creativity, this will result in a stagnation in value that games offer, but I believe that games are still a media providing players with new and diverse value.”
He’s a humble man, that’s for sure.
Long before Miyazaki began work on Demon’s Souls – the first in From Software’s series – the Tokyo-based studio had already established several of its core concepts in King’s Field. This lesser-known PS One title went on to spawn three sequels ending with King’s Field IV: The Ancient City on PS2. It hit Japan in 2001, a full eight years before Demon’s Souls launched exclusively on PS3.
Though separated by almost a decade, there are common threads between both franchises that have clearly informed not just Miyazaki’s work, but that of Dark Souls 2 co-producers Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura, and recently, Lords of the Fallen producer Tomasz Gop. It’s clear that this series has inspired many creators across the world to push for greater difficulty in their games, and inject their work with Souls concepts.
But what is King’s Field? It’s an obscure title that is both archaic in design, yet endearing thanks to its gruelling challenge and mysterious nature. It gives little away, yet invites players to dive deeper into its murky world to piece together what little insight is available.
You can see it in action here, thanks to a superb video walkthrough from wolfman11983. Thank you sir:
King’s Field takes place in the land of Verdite, a realm once saved by a mysterious champion who disappeared into the fog of a nearby forest, never to be seen again. This so-called Dragon of the Forest will return one day to save the realm from a horde of beasts that have emerged from the Dark World, and it just so happens that’s you. Much like the Souls games, King’s Field ends on an ambiguous and bittersweet note.
”Though many of the NPCs remained largely ambiguous, they certainly laid the frame for memorable yet mysterious Souls characters such as Solaire, the Emerald Herald and the Maiden in Black.”
The player must slog through the dark, depressing land in first-person while methodically fighting brutal monsters as they go. Along the way they’ll earn gold and gear, equip spells and die lots. By the end of the adventure, the Dark World door is sealed once more, but a final text crawl warns that it’s only a matter of time before the passage opens again. It’s a short-lived victory, just like kindling the flame in Dark Souls.
While the soul absorption mechanic isn’t present in King’s Field, Miyazaki did retain some of the game’s essence when he crafted Demon’s Souls. It takes place in a dark Medieval kingdom awash with beasts and death, offers very little in the way of sign-posting or exposition, and features a slow combat mechanic reliant on strafing and knowing when to back down. I already mentioned that you can die lots. I’m not sugar-coating that either.
Here’s King’s Field II:
From Software’s second entry looks a lot better than the first, and includes a continuous soundtrack. The game was released in 1995 and casts players as Prince Alexander – one of the Verdite King’s allies – as he attempts to find the Moonlight Sword. It’s located somewhere on the isle of Melanat, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s also completely rammed with savage creatures that want to kill you dead.
”Only you have the power to take the object into the old city and break the curse before it’s too late. Almost sounds like the cursed hero travelling to Drangleic in Dark Souls 2, doesn’t it?
The clip above really shows just how similar the combat mechanic is, even in first-person. Alexander’s slow, heavy sword swipes recall many weighted melee weapons from across the Souls series, and the range of status effects are certainly something to be feared. Those poison attacks look fierce.
Kings Field 3 followed a similar format as its predecessors, but with an expanded cast of characters each with their own backstory and relevance to the plot. Though many of the NPCs remained largely ambiguous, they certainly laid the frame for memorable yet mysterious Souls characters such as Solaire, the Emerald Herald and the Maiden in Black. Their true motives are never concretely spelled out, but there are enough threads in each game to draw reasonable conclusions about who they are.
This insightful and slightly mind-blowing video connects the dots surrounding Solaire in Dark Souls, in an attempt to figure out who he is, and how he’s connected to the darkness smothering Lordran. It’s genuinely incredible and I’d advise any fans of the series to watch it:
Next up: King’s Field 4 and Shadow Tower.