Out of the Light and into the Darkness

User Rating: 7 | King's Field: The Ancient City PS2
There's a consensual, yet unspoken rule of modern game design which states that for a game to be enjoyable and entertaining, it can't ever become hard or frustrating, lest players feel bad and lose interest. Surely, such lapallissade could only be a synonym of some obvious universal truth regarding game design, but the superficiality of such a crude assessment could only lead to a misconceived notion. The truth of the matter is, that in the realm of true games, for you to feel that warm sense of enjoyment and self-gratification, you need to overcome challenges. Challenges require skill, skill must be attained through training and trial and error, and trial and error is bound to lead to frustration, whenever the error part comes into place. The greater the challenge, the higher the sense of gratification. But big reward means big penalty, so difficult challenges come at great costs. The equation of "fun" is obviously more complex, but this small prelude should give you enough insight to understand that, while modern design may allow you a superficially more fulfilling experience, it will always lack the sense of accomplishment that difficult games can elicit. You simply can't remove frustration from the equation without in the process removing part of the fun. Not all designers have forgotten this old truth of game design, and "King's Field IV", as its predecessors, comes exactly from such designers (Rintaro Yamada and Satoru Yanagi).

Playing "King's Field" feels precisely like playing games from your childhood. You start the game without watching lengthy cut-scenes, or playing through tutorials that help understand the game. The minute you press the start button, the game starts in the proper sense, and in "King's Field", that means you're bound to die from then on. In fact, that's precisely what happened to me in the first ten seconds of the game, as I stepped on a piece of rock that caved into a pit of hot boiling lava, killing me in the process. No checkpoint nor extra lives; the cold dark game over screen loomed only with a load-game option which I could not use for not being able to reach a save point before my first death. The process repeated with a new game. On my second try though, I could see clearly where I had died, which meant that on my third attempt I knew which path to take to avoid certain death. This is the gist of "King's Field" – you play, you die, you play again and avoid death till you die again, and slowly but steadily, you advance in the game. As you go by, you start to play the game almost as if you were actually in the game world, desperately clinging to your life, cautiously avoiding any suspicious looking room or enemy. The game's pace helps immensely – your character trots and attacks very slowly, forcing you to plan every step very carefully. Loneliness, darkness and anxiety will be your only companions while the game lasts. For you will fear the game-space, because at any moment, you may die and have to repeat the long, extenuating track you took since your last save. Such hardships inevitably lead to moments of sheer despair when you die, but with a good deal of patience, you can mitigate such moments to mere interludes before the conquest of the next hard earned goal. In the end it all pays out, and you'll feel as a true hero, one capable of conquering everything… till you die again, that is.

The game's atrocious difficulty serves as the perfect gameplay metaphor for the story the designers are trying to convey. Fantasy stories tell of grand knights capable of epic feats of strength, agility and mind, yet modern role-playing videogames give us challenges that even a baby can overcome. That is why "King's Field" clicks into place and you get to actually 'play' the part of the conquering knight – the game needs to be hard for you to feel like a hero. That being said, it never pulls your leg in cheap ways, it's all panned out consistently in the game-world, and the game designers were even kind enough to give you sparsely placed save points (shifting the game away from rogue territory). Despite the retro appeal and a limiting budget, the game still manages to make use of modern technology. The aesthetic thoughtfully applies lighting and physics effects to establish the oppressive and gloomy dark fantasy environment, beautifully complementing the dread you feel faced with the dangerous surroundings. In a nutshell, "King's Field IV" is precisely what it sounds like: a classic first person view dungeon crawler with a fresh coat of paint. Like the recent "Dark Spire", it's retro-gaming at its best, completely conscious of its appeal, inherent strengths and flaws, but with the added expressiveness that modern platforms' technology allows. It's tough as hell mind you, but as rewarding as only old games can be. Now, where can I get that "Demon Souls"?