Move Over, Dark Souls: The From Software Title Inspiring A New Wave Of Games Is King’s Field

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Few games are as influential to the modern gaming world as King’s Field, From Software’s 1994 PlayStation 1 dungeon crawler. Almost every game in From Software’s catalog owes something to King’s Field. The studio iterated on King’s Field’s dark fantasy setting, unrelenting difficulty, and hands-off storytelling until eventually spawning Demon’s Souls and, most recently, Elden Ring. Without King’s Field, there is no Armored Core, Sekiro, or any of the vast swathes of games from other studios inspired by From Software’s now-prolific catalog.

King’s Field is also notable for bridging the gap between console and computer RPGs that existed in the early ’90s. King’s Field blended the real-time combat, free-roam first-person movement, and player-driven exploration of ’90s PC dungeon crawlers like Ultima Underworld with the streamlined role-playing mechanics and minimalist storytelling of early console RPGs like Dragon Quest. The result is a wholly unique RPG unlike any game before it–or after it, for that matter.

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Now Playing: FromSoftware Before Dark Souls

Yet, despite its importance, few people know of King’s Field today, and even fewer have played it or its sequels and spin-offs.

Part of the issue is availability. From Software rarely ports its older titles to new consoles outside of Japan, where some older From games have reappeared as PS1 classics on the PlayStation Store. However, none of the three King’s Field titles released in North America have ever been ported to newer consoles, and only two of its spin-offs are currently available on the US PlayStation storefronts: Eternal Ring on PS4 and PS5 and Shadow Tower on PS3 and Vita. Fans routinely ask the studio to port or remaster King’s Field and its other classic dungeon crawlers, but From Soft president Hidetaka Miyazaki is openly hesitant to touch the series without King’s Field’s original producer, Naotoshi Zin.

King’s Field

Playability is also an obstacle. Products of their time, the King’s Field series and its spin-offs feature graphical styles and control schemes that modern players would consider “clunky” at best, and few who brave these brutally tough adventures make it very far in the first place.

“My first impression of the original King’s Field (US) was probably similar to that of every other new player: ‘This controls terribly and it is aesthetically offensive,'” says independent game designer Michael Alexander Tröls of his first exposure to the game in 2014.

Despite his first impressions, Tröls pushed through those opening hours and, like many other players, discovered a hidden PS1 gem. He moved on to the other King’s Field titles and spin-offs and eventually sought more exploration-focused dungeon crawlers on console, but there were few beyond From Software’s output. The closest things were the PC games that influenced King’s Field like Ultima Underworld, Arx Fatalis, and Eye of the Beholder–but those RPGs are very different from the streamlined and atmospheric style of From Software’s output.

So, inspired by what he calls a “severe lack of options,” Tröls decided to fill the gap with his own King’s Field-inspired RPG, Monomyth, which launches in Fall 2022.

Monomyth
Monomyth

Monomyth is just one of several “King’s Field-likes” cropping up recently. These games aim to capture the feeling of From Software’s classic dungeon crawlers while modernizing aspects of the experience. Monomyth, for example, features more flexible gameplay systems than From Software’s now-archaic dungeon crawlers.

“King’s Field is an impressive game in terms of scale, but the feature set is relatively straightforward,” says Tröls, alluding to the King’s Field series’ emphasis on player growth through world exploration rather than grinding experience or skill points. While that makes exploration highly rewarding in King’s Field, it’s also a comparatively limited RPG experience–something Tröls aims to change in Monomyth.

While Monomyth still features the crisscrossing metroidvania level design of its spiritual progenitors, players have more agency in Monomyth’s world through “immersive micro features,” as Tröls calls them. These include small touches like “baking bread, fishing, [and] playing instruments,” to “more involved systems like different ways to deal with locked doors, or the fire of a torch interacting with different elements in the game world,” which allow for more open-ended problem-solving and player expression than one would find in King’s Field.

So far, the formula has paid off. “People have actually responded surprisingly well to what I believe is the minimization of comfortability features in favor of immersion,” Tröls says about Monomyth’s early demo feedback. “I believe that people are more than ready to accept ‘unconventional’ or ‘old-school’ design if only they can provide a certain level of immersion.”

King’s Field’s unconventional design and old-school pacing were also primary inspirations for Devil Spire, a challenging roguelike dungeon crawler with a retro 3D aesthetic. “I noticed that the industry offered very little of what I wanted to play: an immersive, procedurally generated first-person dungeon crawling adventure in a dark and cryptic world, and that’s what I set out to make,” says the game’s lead developer, Ithiro Sumi.

Despite the overt Demon’s Souls homages in the game’s key art and logo, Devil Spire is Sumi’s attempt to recapture the feeling he had playing King’s Field on PlayStation 1 as a child. “I had never felt anything like that for any game since then, so I set out to recreate it,” he says. “I wanted to bring that unique experience of conquering a world that’s dangerous and mysterious, yet oddly alluring and comforting in its melancholy, to the modern times.”

Devil Spire
Devil Spire

Using a mix of lo-fi 2D character sprites and blocky 3D environments, Devil Spire looks and feels like a PS1-era game (in a good way). But instead of meticulously designed levels, Sumi opted for procedurally generated dungeons. “I have a great admiration for procedural generation, and the kind of experience roguelite games can give you, and I really felt like the two could be combined to bring what I held in my heart to life.”

Sumi wasn’t the only one seeking that same experience; Devil Spire launched on Steam in February and has earned a “Very Positive” average rating from user reviews. Like Monomyth, players are responding well to Devil Spire’s old-school approach.

This raises the question: if there’s such a demand for King’s Field-like games, why did it take so long for them to show up?

“I don’t think there was a lot of appetite for ‘King’s Field-likes’ until fairly recently because most people didn’t know about these games,” says indie developer and YouTube creator AesirAesthetics. He attributes King’s Field’s recent revival to YouTube and Twitch creators finally giving these games a fair reappraisal. “As more and more people start diving into those games for content, the barrier to entry keeps getting lower and lower.”

Like many recent King’s Field converts, Aesir was a fan of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls long before experiencing King’s Field. He only checked out the game at the request of his viewers, and his first impression was less than ideal. “Initially I thought the first King’s Field was absolute dogshit, but I kept playing, and when it finally clicked, I fell in love with the thing.”

Naturally, Aesir’s experience with King’s Field and From Software’s other dungeon crawlers impacted his own indie development projects, most notably Snail!, which blends the obtuse gameplay of From Software’s games into a top-down action-adventure reminiscent of Nintendo’s 2D Zelda titles.

Snail!
Snail!

But even though Snail might not be a King’s Field-style dungeon crawler, From Soft’s design philosophy nevertheless influenced its creation. “There’s a lot of experimentation in those games which in hindsight you would never think to do today […] because no one experiments like this outside of the indie scene,” he says. “I don’t really make hard games, but this idea of not trying to please everyone has drastically changed up my approach to designing games.”

Every developer I spoke to echoed Aesir’s sentiment. They feel From Software’s recent games lack a certain “jank” or experimental edge compared to King’s Field–or even Demon’s and Dark Souls. You won’t find inscrutable features like Demon’s Souls’ World Tendency in Elden Ring, for example. And for some developers, restoring a sense of mystery to the genre is a major motivation behind their games.

“I miss the slower pace and sense of lower-budget indie strangeness the older [From Software] games could have,” says Kira, a game developer and musician well known in the indie horror scene thanks to games like Lost in Vivo and Uktena 64. Their newest project, Lunacid, is an RPG inspired by King’s Field, as well as From Software’s other forgotten dungeon crawler gems, Shadow Tower and Shadow Tower Abyss.

The Shadow Tower duology are first-person dungeon crawlers like King’s Field, but with polarizing gameplay mechanics like aggressive weapon and armor durability, unorthodox leveling systems, and stringent in-game economies. These games are much harder than anything From Software tried in the King’s Field series, and their settings are even stranger. The first Shadow Tower is more akin to a gritty, medieval survival-horror game than a fantasy RPG–though quirky characters like a talking mole and a grumpy dwarf show up throughout the dungeon to alleviate the tension. And Shadow Tower Abyss takes place in a subterranean alien megastructure where you fight giant bugs, trolls, and eldritch horrors using swords, magic, and… machine guns.

While few mainstream games would ever feature such risky ideas, indie developers like Kira are inspired by them. The inspiration is most evident in Lunacid’s setting: a giant well that stretches deep underground, where criminals and exiles try to survive amid gloomy ruins teeming with monsters and demons.

Lunacid
Lunacid

However, making a game like Shadow Tower or King’s Field was not necessarily Kira’s original vision for Lunacid. “For a long while, I’ve wanted to make something akin to a first-person Castlevania. I wasn’t aware of the King’s Field or Shadow Tower series until after starting to work on Lunacid,” they say. “[But] once I started playing them, I realized that those were very much what I wanted all along. They became a great source of inspiration for Lunacid.”

Of course, not everything about those old From Software games made it into Lunacid’s design. “I made a conscious effort to try and modernize the gameplay somewhat, and while I really like the circle strafe and flow of older From Soft combat, I feel that some modern players don’t have the patience for it.” Other elements, such as the movement, inventory, and fast-travel systems, are also more approachable by today’s standards than those found in King’s Field or Shadow Tower.

Kira is careful not to overdo it with these modernizations since part of their goal is to preserve the King’s Field “vibe” they and many others are after. “I was first worried about it being too fast or too modern,” they admit, though its cult following on Steam and Discord and active community wiki make it clear something is working–and serve as additional evidence that players are ready for more games like King’s Field, even if they’ve never played the original game.

Dread Delusion
Dread Delusion

“King’s Field has become a sort of mythological game; everyone seems to know of it and want to talk about it, but few people have actually played it,” says James Wragg, lead developer on the upcoming retro-3D RPG, Dread Delusion. “In some ways, that’s really in keeping with the game’s strangeness and esotericism; it’s a legend whispered in hushed tones, though few have experienced it firsthand.”

Dread Delusion is a strange and esoteric game in its own right, set in a world where humans live on floating islands populated by clockwork automatons, undead creatures, and dead gods. There are warring factions to join, heaps of side quests to undertake, and lore-filled books to pore over. It’s an ambitious game, with a scope closer to Bethesda’s classic RPGs like Morrowind or Daggerfall–which Wragg openly cites as other major inspirations for Dread Delusion’s setting–than From Software’s older titles. Yet it is King’s Field’s “presence of real danger and mystery” that inspires Wragg most.

“There’s a certain school of mainstream game design that seeks to streamline the experience of play; to remove any genuine danger or mystery, so that every player is guaranteed to unlock all the content they paid for,” he says, noting that “King’s Field eschews this style of game design. If you play any of those games, you will experience fear, confusion, horror, failure. There are secrets hidden away that few players will ever experience. But more than that, a player who perseveres will have told a genuine story through their [in-game] actions.”

To be fair, all of From Soft’s Soulsborne titles and many of the Souls-like games they inspire provide player-authored experiences like Wragg describes. However, there’s clearly something special about King’s Fields’ slower, meditative pacing that many players and developers alike are seeking, but few AAA RPGs provide. Wragg sees this moment as the beginning of an indie-led renaissance of obtuse and experimental dungeon crawlers that can pick up where games like King’s Field left off and finally bring these experiences to modern players.

“Indie devs now have the tools and know-how to make fully 3D RPGs and release them to an engaged audience, while big budget RPGs are stagnating,” he says “As devs we can take inspiration from the past, both with mechanics and aesthetics while innovating and experimenting in our own way. It’s really exciting.”

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