King’s Field/Shadow Tower/Souls Series Franchise Retorospective

Posted: January 12, 2015 by ryanlecocq in Features

Although these appear to be three different series, they were actually developed by mostly the same team throughout and have at least as much in common as the many Final Fantasy games.  In general, I’m going to focus on the main series games, as most of the spinoffs broke away from the core gameplay elements.  The two exceptions are Eternal Ring and Evergrace, which actually started the careers of many of the people who later worked on the Souls games and changed the series as a result.

 

King’s Field

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The first KF game was really something when it released early in the life of the PSX.  Long before the Elder Scrolls series made its’ way to consoles, King’s Field was a revolutionary introduction to a first person RPG for many.  While the controls and gameplay seem horribly obtuse by modern standards, at the time it was novel enough to keep many of us playing through all 5 challenging levels.  Like Demon’s Souls, KF is broken into separate levels.  It was only released in Japan, requiring the rest of us to import it or play a fan translation many years later.

 

King’s Field 2 (King’s Field outside of Japan)

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After the first game’s popularity as an import title, From Software decided to release the second game in other territories as King’s Field (kind of like Final Fantasy IV/II and VI/III).  The second game started what became a series pattern of changing game design layouts each entry.  Where KF1 had separate levels like Demon’s Souls, KF2 had an interconnected world like Dark Souls.  The nearly seamless world brought the concept of open-world 3D RPG gameplay to consoles, years before Zelda: Ocarina of Time.  Much like the first game, King’s Field 2 took place mostly in dungeons and was mostly just bigger and better than the first.

 

King’s Field 3 (King’s Field 2 outside of Japan)

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King’s Field 3 introduced a fully open overworld that you would traverse between dungeons.  Much like the Elder Scrolls games (which were still years away from being ported to consoles), the player would roam the map in search of locations where missions take place.  While PC gamers who had already played Arena and Daggerfall may have been less impressed by the smaller scale of the console exclusive KF games, console gamers had never seen anything like it.  The size of the game was staggering in a pre-Morrowind world of console games and many gamers will actually remember it as the game that made them want to play Morrowind or Oblivion years later.  Most series elements remain the same, but you can start to see little hints that the developers were about to change things up.

 

Shadow Tower

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This is where the series timeline gets really interesting.  At this point, From Software starts developing side projects outside the KF series to test out new ideas that break well away from the series mold.  Shadow Tower was the first introduction to claiming souls from fallen enemies to use for character upgrades and purchases.  Shadow Tower also introduces the more dark, gothic style that would dominate later entries in the series.  Shadow Tower is kind of a mix of gameplay styles.  The entire game takes place in the tower, which is split into separate levels like the dungeon of KF1.  On the other hand, you can travel back and forth between areas, making the world feel somewhat interconnected.  One series element that had always existed, but was amped up in this entry, was the cryptic dialogue of NPCs.  Players who started with Demon’s or Dark Souls will recognize the roots of the plotting if they play Shadow Tower.  In many ways though, Shadow Tower was still held back by the plodding heritage of King’s Field.  The slow and clunky first person exploring was much the same as previous games.

 

Eternal Ring

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Eternal Ring is basically a King’s Field game, but a really unlucky one.  Kind of like how Devil May Cry was made out of a scrapped concept for Resident Evil 4, Eternal Ring is that to King’s Field IV, but to a much less awesome result.  Eternal Ring was a launch title for the PS2 that was slapped together from half-baked ideas that had been suggested for the next KF game.  The gameplay was based around a ring system, where the player would collect different rings that would grant spells and abilities.  Kind of like a clumsy combination of FF7’s Materia and the gear levelling of many strategy RPGs, the concept just wasn’t as well designed as those examples.  Probably why From scrapped the game as a KF title and released it as a stand-alone.  It is however relevant to the series, as it shows you where the series could have gone and fortunately didn’t.

 

Evergrace

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Evergrace is an interesting oddity, as it is probably the most mediocre game ever to lead to one of the greatest games of all time.  While many of us may remember Evergrace semi-fondly as the only option we had for an action RPG in the first year of the PS2, it also led to the Souls series quite directly.  Evergrace was kind of one of those back burner projects at From.  Its’ team quietly worked away on their low-budget game, while From’s A-list teams worked on the famous King’s Field and Armored Core series.  What Evergrace succeeded at, was creating an interesting third person gameplay style and whimsical world design that captivated those of us who put up with the rough edges.  The other half of that other-worldly feeling that permeates the Souls series originated here.  While it has a sequel, Forever Kingdom, it is irrelevant to the later games as most of the developers of the first game had moved to the team that would eventually create Demon’s Souls.

 

King’s Field IV

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KF4 unfortunately suffers from a similar fate to Dark Souls 2, where it’s the “play it safe” effort that was released while many of the developers were already working on the new direction of the series.  KF4 is in the eyes of many, the most bland entry in the series.  It had a generic medieval fantasy theme and didn’t really innovate in any ways that were good.  It was later ported worldwide, but had a similarly lackluster reception in every territory.  I’m a little embarrassed to say that it’s the only game on this list I haven’t finished.  Like many, I picked it up, played for an hour and couldn’t go on because it just plain sucks.

 

Shadow Tower Abyss

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This is another entry that never made it outside of Japan.  It’s really too bad, because Abyss is one of the best games in the series.  This is the game that is truly the bridge between the early games and the later games.  While it still retains the first person design of King’s Field, many of the elements of the Souls games are now present in some form.  One of the most notable of these additions is the way NPCs do things on their own that changes gameplay later on.  Players of the Souls game will recall fondly good old Lautrec, who was not ready to leave incarceration and rejoin society after all.  Events like this where a player action would cause NPCs to take off-screen actions that changed the game world started with this game.  Also, while the game takes place entirely in the Tower, as the first game, the tower is now an interconnected labyrinth of grottos and passages like the world of Dark Souls.  Like later games, the player opens up shortcuts and fast-travel options by exploring further.  Also like later games, Souls are the currency for everything you do, from level-ups to gear repair.

 

Other Spinoffs and Influences

There are a few other KF games, like game building tool Sword of Moonlight for PCs and the handheld spinoff entries.  These don’t really have any influence on the main series though, so I won’t bother going into detail.  There are also a few other From Software games, like Otogi and Lost Kingdom that contribute a few random elements like enemy designs and weapon names to the later Souls games, but that is the extent of their influence.  As with any popular series, you can see the influence of competitors to some extent.  While the Souls games have little in common with other ARPGs like Zelda, Fable and the Elder Scrolls series, certain elements like co-op gameplay and bosses with context sensitive weaknesses, tend to spread throughout the larger genre.

 

Demon’s Souls

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This is where things got kicked into high gear.  Either due to the power of newer consoles or a philosophy shift at From Software, Demon’s Souls plays at least twice as fast as previous games.  Careful, plodding maneuvering was replaced with hair-trigger dodges and precision counterattacks.  All of the elements of the above mentioned games came together into something a much wider audience wanted to play; a grown-up, hardcore third-person action RPG.  Demon’s Souls probably had more parts that gamers would curse for years than half the Mega Man games combined.  It was the hardest, most hardcore game since the original Ninja Gaidens and all of this added to its’ notoriety.  On top of that, it had a totally novel multiplayer component that, although flaky, was unlike anything gamers had every played.  Although many of the millions of copies sold were promptly traded into Gamestop in frustration, this is where the series hit it big.

 

Dark Souls

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Dark Souls was the first game in the series that had what would be considered a large development budget by Western standards.  This game played off the success of Demon’s Souls to deliver a finely polished and visually arresting introduction to hardcore gameplay for the general public.  The game went back to using an open world, compared to Demon’s Souls separate levels.  Overall the world just felt perfectly designed and interconnected.  The boss count was increased, the variety of items more than tripled.  Dark Souls really took From’s alternative approach to ARPGs right up to the level of games like Fallout and Zelda and as a result, it eclipsed the entries in those series released around the same time in the public mindshare.  Dark Souls was now a gaming household word, synonymous with games that kick your sissy ass.

 

Dark Souls 2

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Pretty much everything I need to say about DaS2 is in my review.  It’s not a bad game, but it’s basically like the Hollywood remake of a foreign film.  It tries to do everything more and better in every way, while trying to please as many people as possible and just feels forced as a result.  It’s hands down easier for starters.  Add to that there is a fairly easy to discover exploit that renders death trivial, pretty much breaking the series core mechanic.  Kind of like Zelda Twilight Princess, Dark Souls 2 also just tries to put too much of everything in one game.  There are at least twice as many bosses, more areas, many more items and equipment etc. etc.  It almost trivializes all of them when I am defeating bosses and acquiring gear so often that I find better ones before I even get to a safe place to examine the previous ones.  Dark Souls 2 is still more challenging than any Fable game and larger than any Zelda game, but it waters down too much of the core of what the series is.  The reason for this is probably that many of the developers had already moved on to start working on the next series redesign: Bloodborne.

 

Bloodborne

To be added in the near future.

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Comments
  1. […] Ring and Evergrace (i.e. the questionable Souls precursors, more info here on the excellent Bleeding Edge Gaming Blog, also here and […]

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